In Basu Chatterjee's films, from Rajnigandha to Swami, female characters were written with agency and choice

Basu Chatterjee one of the most significant architects of slice-of-life cinema, passed away on Thursday morning in Mumbai.

Ragini Daliya June 07, 2020 09:02:38 IST
In Basu Chatterjee's films, from Rajnigandha to Swami, female characters were written with agency and choice

Basu Chatterjee, one of the most significant architects of slice-of-life cinema, passed away on Thursday morning in Mumbai. Some of his popular films like Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Khatta Meetha (1978) and Baton Baton Mein (1979) were all about the skein of relationships within families, detailing inner turmoils, and retelling often seemingly complicated stories with simplicity.

Chatterjee’s cinema was born out of his ability to admire the extraordinary in ordinary. His ‘heroes’, far away from the Angry Young Man persona, did not beat up baddies but regularly struggled with public transport woes, wily bosses and tricky colleagues and how-to-say-I-love-you to your paramours. However, while the men of his films were living the real world, making all ups and downs look interesting, the women too had agency. They were opinionated, romantically liberated, dreamers, worriers and empowered – all brought to vivid, wondrous life by Chatterjee.

His films often dealt with intelligent women negotiating personal relationship conundrums, like in Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1975) and Priyatama (1977).

In Basu Chatterjees films from Rajnigandha to Swami female characters were written with agency and choice

Vidya Sinha in Rajnigandha

Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha, the 1974 movie based on Manu Bhandari’s short story ‘Yehi Sach Hai’, created a world in which the Indian woman occupied centre stage as an independent and thinking individual. The film saw late Vidya Sinha as a perfect archetype of an educated, modern, working woman who was not shy of flaunting her degree or exercising her agency when it came to choosing her suitor.

Following a job search to Mumbai, Deepa (Sinha) finds herself torn between her current romantic relationship – a happy but occasionally monotonous one – and the idealistic memory of an ex-boyfriend Naveen (Dinesh Thakur), with whom her path crosses again.

Torn between her past and present, Deepa’s inner state of mind beautifully come alive in the song Kai Baar Yun’ encapsulating with the lyrics "Kai baar yun hi dekha hai / Yeh jo mann ki seema-rekha hai / Mann todne lagta hai / Anjanee pyaas ke peeche / Anjanee aas ke peeche / Mann daudne lagta hai..."  (“It often happens / that the mind breaks its own boundaries / and starts thirsting after the unknown…”) in the scene where Deepa and Naveen are travelling through Bombay in a cab together.

He is polite and distanced, but she stealthily glances his way, clearly wondering about what her life would have been like if they had stayed together. Chatterjee’s sympathetic female gaze emulated her choices, temptations, and desires perfectly as she struggled to choose between two men who reflected passion and stability.

In Chhoti Si Baat, Sinha’s Prabha is once again torn between the affections of two men; however, here she has come of age and is confident. Chatterjee spins together the story of a tongue-tied lover — Arun (Amol Palekar), timid, underconfident fellow— and a playful girl —Prabha, happy to tease him, lead him on and play coy in same measure!

In Basu Chatterjees films from Rajnigandha to Swami female characters were written with agency and choice

Prabha in her chiffon floral sarees, hoop earrings and loose curls had an indecipherable charming quality embodying the girl-next-door image. She enjoys the unprecedented attention, and also doesn’t shy away from talking about it to her girl friend, recounting the details of her and Arun’s bus journey, his attempts to woo her and his skittish behavior.

Despite its imperfect idea of consent, questionable seduction techniques and problematic ‘ways to woo women’, Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat flaunts a gossamer-thin plot with relevant ideas of courtship.

Chatterjee’s playful, humorous streak continued with Amrita Singh-starrer Chameli Ki Shaadi. Set in a small town, the film raises the ugly face of classism and casteism, and the way it is done is quite remarkable, stinging while and yet making us laugh. Chameli (Singh), an overgrown schoolgirl in pigtails who’s failed in the eighth grade four times, was no wallflower. She was feisty, loud, and unapologetic, and had no qualms about taking leads in a relationship, even if society wishes otherwise.

Furthermore, in Baton Baton Mein, Tina Munim’s headstrong Nancy always remained puzzled when it came to the matters of heart. Heartbroken following a break up, Nancy steadfastly resists all proposals bought by her mother Rosie Perreira (Pearl Padamsee). However, her life takes a romantic turn when she meets Tony Braganza (Palekar) on the 9:10 ki Churchgate local. Despite her reservations, the two begin a courtship with ‘Suniye Kahiye Baton Baton Mein Pyar Ho Jayega’ setting an amorous background until the ever-nagging, ever-interfering family intervenes. Frustated and stubborn to make amends, Nancy decides to break up with Tony and move on. However, Chatterjee’s world of storytelling brims with exuberance, and with a little bit of ‘Suniye Kahiye’, Nancy too gets her happy ending.

In Basu Chatterjees films from Rajnigandha to Swami female characters were written with agency and choice

Amol Palekar and Tina Munim in a still from Baton Baton Mein | Twitter

In 1980s, Chatterjee veered towards the more serious, socially conscious films Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Kamla Ki Maut, Swami, among others. An adaptation of author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s eponymous book, Swami tells the story of Saudamini (Shabana Azmi) or Mini, as she is called, who is a young, well-read, rebellious woman. Influenced greatly by her uncle (Uttpal Dutt), she learns to value literature and logic over the rituals and traditions favoured by her widowed mother.

Unfortunate circumstances lead Mini to be married against her will to Ghanshyam (Girish Karnad), a widowed tradesman, who is the sole breadwinner of an ungrateful family. Mini, who grew up reading Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy novels, finds at a roadblock when she is forced to live in a society that does not support any of the ideas she consumes so avidly. She is constantly torn between following her ideals and sticking to traditions.

Chatterjee’s film validates Mini’s emotions so beautifully, be it her angst, desires, willpower or defiance. She rebels, falters with anxieties, has her secret highs, and all this while comes across both flawed and human.

In Basu Chatterjees films from Rajnigandha to Swami female characters were written with agency and choice

Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad in a still from Swami | Twitter

Though Chatterjee’s films necessarily might not crisscross the threads of feminism, their stories are remarkably set in an inclusive universe, where female leads are allowed to breathe and live as they deem fit. In his world, women actively participated in familial decisions, pursued a career, and unabashedly expressed their needs and wants.

Chatterjee’s films are like nostalgia wrapped for rainy days, silently echoing on how the real world for women should have been.

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