Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Looking Through the Kaleidoscope of a Master Filmmaker: The Archetypal Indian Woman’s Search for an ‘Essentialist Identity’ in a Patriarchal Society

1. "I cannot make films which are contrary to realism. I have never made such films, nor I would make in future. My cinema depicts true aspects of human life, with possible creative inputs from me, both as a writer and filmmaker." - Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia
2. “No, no….I do not need all that, I need just a shelter, work and food without being called a servant. I need nothing else.”--- Saru to Moti in Sandhyaraag
3. “I wanted to be a Sita. But a Sita could exist only when there is a Rama!”---Menoka in Agnisnan

The connoisseurs of serious Assamese films, who have fallen under the spell of Dr. Bhabendranath Saikia’s celluloid world, hardly fail to discern that an authentic microcosm of Indian woman as ‘the Other’, the marginalized entity, the victim of a patriarchal socio-cultural set-up flares up in his films .It seems he consciously strives to create a “new space” and shape a new “essentialist” identity for the traditional Indian woman who is inexorably caught up in the throes of an insensitive and callous patriarchal society which seeks to mythify her into certain ‘inessentialist’ archetypal images, and who is ironically unaware of her ‘inessentiality’. Indian women, he seems to assert, can mould a new destiny for themselves breaking the jinx of the archetypal image of the submissive, placid and pliant woman, only when they become aware of the need to know their true selves and understand their ‘essentiality’ in society.
Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia is a colossus among the contemporary Assamese writers and filmmakers. In the arena of modern Indian literature and films, he is one of the most powerful voices and one of the very few who have attempted to use literary and cinematic tool as a means for detached portrayal of social change and crucial socio-cultural issues without being a propagandist. His literary works and the films, most of which are based on his own literary works, have distinct artistic sensitivity and pulsation of life that are not quite common in the contemporary Assamese literature and Indian films. Here is a valiant and sensitive ‘modern man’ who has a flair for realism and who is, in spite of being a male himself, almost obsessed with the predicaments and dilemmas of Indian women and their often traumatic experiences and consequences in a traditionally defined socio-cultural and political set-up of male hegemony . He has a distinct predilection for the portrayal of the inner landscapes of his woman protagonists----their anguished cry of desolation and boredom, their neurotic loneliness in the midst of a crowd, their oceanic vacuity, their abysmal despair, their Hamletian vacillation in renouncing or accepting the catastrophic events of their lives as ‘Fate accomplice’, their frail and passive attempts to gain a voice and fulfilling identity and their rebellion against the forces that tend to stifle their spirit .Their struggles often culminate in some not-too-soothing ends. Most of his films do not have ‘to-live-happily ever-after’ kind of ends if not tragic and self-annihilating ones. In them, he portrays the socio-cultural transitions that India has undergone as he focuses on the incredible power of family and society and the relationships between the members of the family, paying close attention to women suppressed and moulded by conservative Indian society. Thus it is the woman, the ‘Other’ in postcolonial terms , the tainted , desolate, subdued entity in a callous society , the victim of a male-oriented hegemony that emerges as the cynosure in the thematic complexes of his major films. His probing into the sensibility and the inner workings of the minds of his woman characters provides a kind of microcosm of life where his major women characters can discern their infinite variety. And this alone establishes Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia as a veracious delineator of women. The present paper aims at bringing under microscope the slices of life that the female protagonists in his celluloid world live. The focus is on interpreting and analyzing how he portrays the predicaments and dilemmas, psychic tremours, painful ordeals, bruished feelings, frustrations and agonies, frail but relentless struggles of his major female characters in his films . The present paper intends to peep into the world of shattered dreams, thwarted hopes, tainted identity and morbid existences, and also the ‘flipper of hope’ that his women experience in life. Dr. Saikia’s films unveil before us the familiar world of Indian women----a world that relegates woman to a marginalized entity, a world marked by acute gender bias, a world which often turns out to be nothing less than a hell for the woman------a world where life continues, but living ends for her. It is a male world the callousness of which often shatters and thwarts the dreams and aspirations of Menoka, Kiran, Saru, Taru, Putoli, Laxmi and Jayanti, but it is where they are fated to fend for themselves or perish.

Few will deny Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s films, barring 'Sarothi' and 'Kalsandhya', are a cerebral and serious critique of the psyche and predicament of the archetypal Indian woman in a predominantly male-oriented society although he juxtaposes certain other crucial , socially relevant and cerebral themes with it in his films. Almost all of his women teeter on the edges of an 'inessentialist identity' which they are forced to embrace by the traditional male hegemony of the society. Paradoxically enough, though a male himself, Dr. Saikia, with an extraordinary insight into the female psyche, explores both the inner and outer worlds of his women. His attitude is one of compassion and understanding. His woman protagonist is neither a Saint Joan nor a Nora. But true to her real life , she always struggles in her reel life to reconcile to her fate, sometimes suffering meekly, at other times compromising with her debilitating circumstances, and at yet other times rebelling against the system . Consequently there flares up a series of woman protagonists in his films who at once catch our attention and make us introspect.

Lying at the core of Dr. B.N. Saikia’s debut film “Sandhyarag” is the menace of acute poverty that stagnates and threatens the very existence of rural masses in India. Though the film dwells on poverty in general in rural India , Dr. Saikia is apt to unveil before us how the woman folk suffers still more from uncertainty and terror of poverty in a male dominated society which not only restricts the free movement of women but also marginalizes their options. Putoli, her two daughters, Saru and Taru are three women trapped in the vortex of acute poverty and its resultant uncertainty and hopelessness. In their very childhood, Putoli had to send Saru and Taru to the nearby town to serve as maids. The problem of survival was thus solved amicably for a while. Both the sisters adapted well to their working environments and things went on smoothly for some years. Saru’s character is portrayed focusing on her essence and her psyche. We can discover instantly how the woman in her is constantly reeling under economic insecurity and its resultant uncertainty about life and future in general. Her mother and younger sister are no exception. And her sense of uncertainty and fear is well justified . Reluctant to bear the burden of two grown up girls ,the siblings are sent back home by their respective masters as they come of age. Here the gander disparity is more than evident. If Saru and Taru were boys, they would gain more in strength and acceptability with the process of growing up. But alas, they are girls! And girls experience the contrary in the male-dominated society in which they operate. They once more become hapless, wretched and insecure dogged by abject poverty and joblessness. The situation turns out to be still more deplorable for them as being in town, they could not learn any competence for works available in villages. When Saru was with Nandan Das’s family, she got close to Moti, the chauffeur of the family. Moti himself is a frail, pathetic figure who has been ruthlessly deserted by his wife for being impotent. Moti happens to visit Saru’s home on a fateful day as he has to bring his master to Saru’s village for a public meeting. After a long time , Saru and Taru get an opportunity to work as they are entrusted with the responsibility of cooking the feast for the guests coming from town. The guests are entertained well ,but Moti who was waiting in the car fo hi master is ignored. At night , hungry to death, Moti approaches Saru’s family, his old acquaintances for some food. But to his surprise, Saru sobs and breaks down in front of him---“Nothing to offer you. Not even a crumb of rice. You have gone without food only today, but we since yesterday. Please take me away………” Greatly baffled and almost shocked Moti reminds her of his worthlessness as a male, of the grim reality that his own wife deserted him for being impotent. But to a woman inexorably trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and uncertainty, food security matters most; she is forced to sacrifice her all other desires----“No, no….I do not need all that, I need just a shelter, work and food without being called a servant. I need nothing else.” To astonish Moti still more, Taru and Putoli pray to him to take them as well with him. They are ready to do anything under the sun for Moti and Saru . Thus paradoxically, three sane and sensible women prostrate before a frail, insulted, humiliated male member of their society for their survival.

‘Anirban’ is Dr Saikia’s second feature film in which he dwells on a pretty cerebral and dainty facet of a common woman’s psyche. Though the film touchingly treats the mundane weal and woes of life that at times culminates in tragic consequences , Dr. Saikia’s probing into the psyche of his major woman character Bhagyawati instantly catches our attention. Sadness is all pervasive in the film and Rajani and Bhagyawati embody that pitiless, heart-rending sadness. Rajani and Bhagyawati were a childless couple for a long time. Not that Bhagyawati did not conceive . But under tragic circumstances, she lost her child three times either before birth or just after birth. Her tragedy adversely impinged on her body and mind . Her husband, though a sober and sedate person himself, had to take a lot of pain to attend on her, soothe her and bring her back to normal health. But then a girl child , Nisha ,was born and she survived. Nisha became the apple of her parents’ eyes. Nisha’s birth added new hue and colour to her life.With the advent of Nisha, Bhagyawati blossomed into an affectionate, caring, doting, responsible, and vigilant mother. When Nisha seemed to have an amorous affair of some sort with Dewakar, she was worried to death and acted promptly to curb that with her husband . But Bhagyawati’s bliss proved short-lived as Nisha suddenly died prematurely. The sudden demise of Nisha toppled Bhagyawati’s world again. But to our surprise, her desire to be a mother, probably a hidden , universal, and instinctive desire in every conventional woman, does not cease to exist. In spite of the tragic end of her only child, she does not wither as a mother this time . She now starts showering her motherly love and care on Diwakar, Nisha’s beloved. Bhagyawati along with her husband took part wholeheartedly in Diwakar’s marriage . To Bhagyawati, he is nothing short of her own son. Again, she showers the affection and care of a grandmother on Diwakar’s son . Every moment Bhagyawati’s motherly presence is tangible in the film. Bhagyawati , with all her selfless love, care, concern and sacrifices for her child and later for Diwakar , epitomizes the eternal mother figure. It is what distinguishes her in the conventional male-oriented society.

Menoka is the central character in Dr. B. N. Saikia’s much talked about film ‘ Agnisnan’ (Ordeal) partly based on his literary ‘tour de force’ ‘ Antareep’. The film is a gripping , cerebral tale of a woman’s ‘inessentialist identity’ and her daredevil attitude to assert her own independent will in a traditional society controlled and propelled by male hegemony. Menoka is a successful housewife who leaves no stone unturned to fit into the role her family and her society expect her to play. And she succeeds spectacularly in that archetypal role. She manages her household well, rears her children, waits on her husband and keeps him satisfied and happy. But even then her husband, an influential and rich person in the village, suddenly brings in a young girl, marries her and starts making love to her all before the eyes of Menoka totally ignoring her presence. Mohikanta does all that without showing any signs of compunction and caring for what his faithful wife would feel about it. He does all that as if he were privileged to do such an act. In a social set up where all the social customs, norms and traditions are framed to suit the male folk, Mohikanta’s act is looked upon as a natural occurrence. But Menoka feels insulted, humiliated and marginalized. She is muddled to death why Mohikanta got fed up with her, how he could do such a nefarious act without an iota of compunction. After all she did everything possible to appease him and keep him in good stead! And he too, seemed satisfied. Is it merely for sexual gratification? He finds her world shattered, her essence , her pride as a conventionally successful woman badly tainted. She can never justify Mohikanta’s act, and resolves to set things right in her own way. If Mohikanta is independent to assert his will, so is she. She would avenge herself upon callous and unconscientious Mohikanta and the social system that nurtures people like him by asserting her independence. She is also entitled to doing what Mohikanta is as both of them are members of the same society. But Menoka knows very well how hostile the value system of the patriarchal society is to woman emancipation and equality. After going through a series of acute mental conflict, she decides to pay Mohikanta his own coins. For the purpose, she chooses Madan, not-too-respectable a man in the village, in fact, a thief, but respectful and compassionate to her. She establishes a rapport with Madan , goes physical with him , and gets pregnant . When Mohikanta comes to know it and flings at her character, irked Menoka cries out ---“I wanted to be a Sita. But a Sita could exist only when there is a Rama!” Thus Menoka, a faithful conformist to the archetypal image of the woman in a traditionally patriarchal society, breaks free from its atrocious bondage to register a protest against a value system that favours only the man folk.

Kiran is the other important woman character in ‘Agnisnan’. A meek, mild, shadowlike character, Kiran is reminiscent of a typical conformist woman in a male-dominated society. She is as it were born to be the victim of the male hegemony. She has not much of a choice about what happens to her. She has to be the so-called second wife , almost a concubine of an influential male member of the society. But she has learnt to adapt to the values and expectations of her society and can easily cope with it without much effort. She naturally lacks any sense of self-respect and rebellious spirit. She has never thought about her own desires and her own essence, her ‘essentialist identity’ and tries to give meaning to her life by conforming to what her society determines for her. She has no problem embracing the subverting status of ‘Other’.

Dr. B.N.Saikia’s “Kolahal”(The Turmoil) is another emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating film that draws its blood from its central woman protagonist Kiran, a lower class, poor housewife and a mother , and a conventional woman. Kiran is a typical average woman whose world is shaped and moulded by what dominates the world of such a woman in the conventional patriarchal society----a husband, a house and her children. She is happy in her own way with her husband and her son , Moti, in spite of a pretty humble life. There she lives in a substandard ,feebly-built hut in a slum-like ambience with her husband and son constantly fighting poverty and uncertainty. But then her husband suddenly disappears with the promise that he would be back soon. The same old story is repeated ---the story of an innocent, faithful , credulous ,humble wife duped and dumped by a cunning ,shrewd casanova . Credulous Kiran waits for her husband’s return, and all but Kiran know that he is not going to return . Consequently Kiran faces all that a lonely, young and attractive woman does in a male-dominated society. Quite a few tries to woo and seduce her . Some tease and harass her. A few even proposes to live in with her. But she goes undaunted, unfazed never succumbing to such pressures and temptations. She takes recourse to Moti, her adolescent son, as a psychological shelter. To cope with the escalating economic crunch, she starts working in a rice godown. There too,she faces the same exploitative, harassing environment. All of a sudden ,Moti is killed in an accident. She totally breaks down. The handyman who was responsible for Moti’s killing tries to get close to Kiran. Though a compassionate, good-natured and trustworthy fellow, the guilt conscience and pity of the male-chauvinist in him provoke him to do something to save the hapless woman from her fathomless despair. Kiran at first connives at his advances, but gradually she can see his difference from other males she has encountered in her life. Her faith is restored gradually. She decides to take a chance, not out of any amorous feelings or biological needs, but out of an innate desire to mother forth another Moti and to regain a sense of security. Kiran, though an ordinary woman to the core, speaks of the dignity, integrity, motherly instincts, security consciousness and conformist attitude of a woman in a traditionally patriarchal socio-cultural set up . She is not bold and powerful enough to undo the archetypal image of a woman. But she is prudent enough to reconcile to her destiny amicably . She is adaptative enough to ensure that she survives there with some dignity, recognition and security by being a mother, a housewife, and a homemaker again. Even in the teeth of boundless darkness and despair, she does not lose sight of the reality of a woman in a patriarchal society and decides to take on it her own way. Kiran’s is the instinctive strategy of a woman to fit into the archetypal image approved of by such a society .

After Menoka, Jayanti in ‘Abartan’ (On the Run) is perhaps Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s second female protagonist who shows the rare gusts to exorcise herself of the ghost of the patriarchal society’s value system that tends to reduce a woman to an insignificant archetypal image. Interestingly, as a sympathetic, understanding and bold male joins hands with Menoka in her mission, Parimol Dutta, another bold, compassionate person stands by Jayanti to enable her to overcome her predicament. Jayanti is the central female character in Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s film, ‘Abartan’ ( On the Run). When she makes her first appearance in the film in the very first sequence, she is already a crowd- puller, a household name as an actress performing for a reputed Mobile Theatre Troupe. She is smart, glamourous, popular and scandalous as well. Though in her mid thirties, she still looks pretty young, energetic, and attractive. But she is already tired, exhausted, fed up and worn out at heart after thirteen long years in theatre. Jayanti took to a professional acting career not by choice but by compulsion. Finding no other way to fend for herself with some dignity and in an attempt to get away from the sneering gazes of gossip-mongers , she took to that career almost as the last resort. And she could do well as she had always showed great acting prowess during her school and college days and grabbed a number of awards in that field as an amateur. Her beauty , smartness and agreeability added to her popularity. In the very early days of her youth, she dared to break away from the typical mould of the lower middle class woman .Unlike such a woman, she was rather a nonconformist of some sort. Much to the astonishment and dismay of many around her, she took part actively in students’ agitation, political activities , mixed up freely with her male counterparts, participated in drama competitions and various other socio-cultural activities without inhibitions-----things which were more than enough to put her good name as a conventional girl at stake. She thus trod the territory forbidden for a ‘good’, respectable woman and had its retribution. She became butt of rumours and scandals---- a fact that wiped out her marital prospects . She did not do anything that her male friends did not do. But while she lost her good name and thereby virtually everything, they being males lost nothing. Rather most of them manipulated the system to serve their own interests and established themselves . Exploited, used, humiliated, Jayanti was left alone with a stained image. After having lost her good name and finding no other viable and respectable ‘modus vivendi’ to fall back on, she took up an acting career in commercial mobile theatres. She easily clicked as an actress by virtue of her talent and beauty. Along with it continued her carefree attitude to life. Already a scandalous figure, she capitalized on her glamour and fan-following and started indulging in extramarital affairs without inhibitions . She was always under scanner for her carefree life style, her bold attitude to promiscuities and her utter nonchalance to the societal norms of decency and respectability . But Jayanti did not bow down . She led her personal life her way but never shrank from her familial duties. Her family lived on her and Jayanti , though aware of their selfishness , never deserted them. It is at this juncture Jayanti comes across Porimal Dutta, a frank, good-natured and attractive Govt. officer who, in spite of knowing Jayanti’s past and present, falls for this outspoken and bold woman smitten by her daredevil attitude, her honesty, her beauty and her magnetism. He proposes to marry her. Jayanti is shocked at first. In a society which has already branded her as a woman of dubious morals, she can not imagine a respectable person like him proposing to marry a woman of her sort. She is in the habit of dealing with men dying to go to bed with her, but a perfectly sane man falling in love with her and proposing to marry her is nothing short of a miracle to her. Porimal, who has already led a very dissipated and promiscuous life and is now fed up and exhausted with all that and wants stability and peace , finds a perfect match in her----matured, sober, frank, bold , and worn out, experienced and prudent like himself. But to Jayanti, it is a really arduous task to say ‘yes’ to Porimal and tear away from her present world as two formidable challenges confront her---- she has already shunned the world of Porimal for ever after much effort and to regain the mental preparedness to re-enter it scares and baffles her beyond measure , and secondly, she is bound to the theatre group for several years by a legal agreement to work with it. Finally Jayanti decides to recreate her own world and turn over a new leaf with new promises of respect and dignity . She joins hands with Porimal to tide over the hurdles and sustain her world. Jayanti is an emblem of the ‘new woman’ who has the gusts not only to withstand the jolt of the traditional patriarchal society but also to take it in her stride and even nurture her own world, if given a chance in the face of such odds.
Laxmi, a young and attractive girl emerges as the cynosure in Dr. Saikia’s last Assamese feature film ‘Itihas’( The Exploration). An innocent, innocuous and hardworking girl, Laxmi faces all the seamy aspects of life in her apparently uneventful life for no fault of hers. For her family, the most formidable challenge is that of survival . After being almost abandoned by her elder brother ,she has to take upon herself the burden of supporting her family and go through fire and water to do that in a fair way. To sustain herself and her family, she starts doing domestic works in a few households in her neighbourhood. A lonely, young ,attractive, and frail woman, she faces all those hazardous and harassing experiences that such a woman faces in a conventional male society. Gradually she gets accustomed to her ambience and her reputation gets stained although she remains integrated and morally scrupulous at heart. Her despair culminates in total gloom when even Madhu, her beloved and the only source of solace in her otherwise dreary and lacklustre life, also dumps her . Life still continues but living ends for her. To protect herself from anti-social forces, she finally has to take shelter in the old well in her neighbourhood that she has been using for years. Laxmi’s death entails the administration to explore the well for the last time and what is unveiled is the sign of the decayed, dirty, and seamy sides of the so-called civilized society. Though it remains rather implicit, the callous, insensitive society to the innocent woman manifests itself. Laxmi’s story is the story of that innocent, average , wretched woman who falls victim to the norms of a society hostile to woman empowerment----a society that tends to stifle and marginalize the woman and make her life miserable.

Although Dr. Saikia refuses to show allegiance to any contemporary postcolonial feminist critical theory, he seems to be well acquainted with the ‘inessentiality’ of the woman in the traditional patriarchal Indian society. For, his literary pieces as well as his films are palpably infested with women who again and again confront their marginalized identity as ‘Other’ and its traumatic and tantalizing effects. Quite tangibly, one of the central concerns of Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia in most of his films is the need for and the importance of the emancipation of the woman. The world of women as depicted in his fiction and films is mostly a regressive, chaotic, demeaning and depressing one which constantly thwarts the liberating process of women and offers them little to relish. Majority of his woman characters strive to squeeze some meaning out of their dismal existence their own ways in an attempt to make their living meaningful and bearable and add some value to their existence. Many of them – Laxmi, Saru, Taru, Kiran( Agnisnan) ---succumb or are made to succumb to the pressures. Only a few like Menoka, Jayanti, Kiran(Kolahal), and Bhagyawati stand out ,take heart to rebel and can withstand the onslaught of a powerful patriarchal socio-cultural system to a certain extent. They perhaps epitomize the ‘New Woman’ in a new wave of metamorphosis. Dr. Saikia seems to assert that the archetypal Indian woman can mould a new destiny for herself only when she becomes aware of the need to know her true self and understand her ‘essentiality’ in society---a conviction instantly reminiscent of the contemporary postcolonial feminist stance.

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2. Rajyadhyaksha, Ashish and Wellemen, Paul: Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, OUP, New Delhi, 1999
3. Rangooonwalla, Firoze: Indian Cinema, Clarion Books, New Delhi, 1983
4. Vasudevan, Ravi (ed): Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, OUP, New Delhi,2000
5. Deka, P.K.(ed) : Bhabendra Nath Saikiar Chalachitra(As), NRB Publications, Guwahati, 2004
6. Borpujari, Manoj and Kolita, Garima (ed):Perspectives on Assamese Cinema, Guwahati Cine Club, 2008
7. Cooke, Joanne and Morgan,Robin (ed.) :The New Women: A Motive Anthology on Women’s Libers, Fawcatt Book, 1970
9. Ashcroft, Bill: The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post Colonial Literature, London: Routledge,1989.
10. De Beauvoir, Simone: The Second Sex ( trans & edited H.M. Parshley), New York: Vintage Books,1974.


1. Abartan ( On the Run), 1993 ( VCDs)
2. Kolahal ( The Turmoil) 1988 (VCDs)
3. Itihas ( Exploration) 1995 (VCDs)
4. Agnisnan ( Ordeal) 1985 (NFAI)
5. Sarothi ( The Shelter) 1991 ( Guwahati Cine Club)
6. Anirban (The Vigil) ,1981 (LOK SABHA, DD)
7. Sandhyaraag ( The Cry of Twilight) 1977 ( NFAI)

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