Recently, Matt Walsh's 2022 documentary What Is A Woman became one of the most successful documentaries of all time garnering more than 177 million views within a short period following a censorship debate on Twitter. Examining viewpoints on gender, sex reassignment surgery, and transgender adolescents and dissecting the definition of womanhood, the film is one the most crucial piece of art tying together a multitude of socio-cultural narratives on the gender binary, trans rights, pronouns, identity and femininity. Three decades ago, a queer Bengali filmmaker posed the same question about womanhood, juxtaposing the idea of a woman with her roles in an Indian society.
Rituparno Ghosh stands as one of Bengal's most prominent contemporary directors, renowned for his art house films that delve into the complexities of relationships and the intricate emotions surrounding everyday family life. Having received national and international acclaim, Rituparno's body of work asks the same question that Matt Walsh asks — "What is a woman?"
Separate the duties and interpersonal, imaginary and mythical associations of a mother, daughter, sister and wife, dream girl, and goddess and what do you have? Can she exist without them?
In Dahan (1997) which was based on Suchitra Bhattacharya's novel, Rituparno gives the gender wars a humanistic lens. Romita is attacked and molested in an open street by goons who also beat up her husband as the bystanders watch with no intention to help except for Jhinuk, a young schoolteacher. The director, instead of weaving another tired story of 'female solidarity' instead questions the very nature of the oppressive structures that treat women as second-class citizens. The film also dives into victim blaming and highlights how violence and shame are linked to the woman instead of the men who perpetrate it exposing out deep-rooted contempt for "the weaker sex".
Unishe April (1996) subverted the deification of motherhood at a time when motherhood was synonymous with womanhood. The film is about Aditi, a young woman who grew up in a boarding school after her father's death with no emotional connection with her mother whose priority was her career as a classical dancer. He presents the mother-daughter dynamic as a subject of psychological and sociological analysis, offering inspiration for feminist interpretations. Ghosh's narrative, which he conceived, scripted, and wrote, serves as a vehicle to diagnose the ideological divide between the mother and daughter. This was one of the first films to touch on the theory of motherhood that inquires about motherhood as institution, as experience, and as an identity or subjectivity and unpacked the rarely considered 'self-loss' and fractured/compressed identities of a womanas she enters motherhood.
Bariwali (2000) was for women what Ryan Gosling has become in the fetishized loneliness of our times. The story of Banalata marked by tragedy since her would-be husband passed away on the eve of their wedding due to a snake bite is haunted by this loss and a deep melancholic solitude. Translating to 'the landlady' Bariwali juxtaposes the static universe of Banalata with the impassioned world of Dipankar, an idealistic filmmaker who comes into her estate to shoot a film. The rise and fall of Banalata's affection towards the director who was only using her for the film is the diagram of a spectrum that is women's internal lives. Young girls are only versed in emotional needs because of their own obligations to meet them; whether it's the parents' or their partners' in the future. Rituparno, through this film, shows us the pervasive, internalized idea of a woman's happiness that can only exist if it's linked to a man.
Rituparno Ghosh's films didn't just poignantly portray the depth and complexity of women, it ripped apart the filters through which we see them. He crafted the women in his films as individual entities dealing with the different characters of an imagined woman by society merely as costumes. Through his cultural commentaries on oppression and hyper-idealization, the artist commendably managed to filter women's identities and experiences from the incoherent collective narratives taking us right into the epicentre of the female psyche.
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