Seen Sujoy Ghosh's Ahalya? Here are myths of sex and infidelity that inspired the film

Deepanjana Pal

Jul 23, 2015 18:25:59 IST

There isn't really much suspense in Sujoy Ghosh's Ahalya. Not that this matters. Ghosh's short film is competent and has a certain eerie charm. Even if you guess the end, you’ll give it the 14 minutes it asks of you because the old Kolkata home looks beautiful, legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee is in it and Ghosh has succeeded in setting his story in a world that looks normal but feels weird.

As the title of the short film suggests, Ahalya is a contemporary take on a Hindu legend about infidelity. Many of us are familiar with Ahalya’s story, thanks to Ramanand Sagar's teleserial Ramayana and perhaps some Amar Chitra Katha comics. Ghosh’s retelling appears to be a “bold”, modern version – an Ahalya who doesn’t melodramatically weep because she’s had sex with a man other than her husband, an Ahalya with a touch of evil in her. At first glance, Ghosh’s Ahalya seems to be unadulterated contemporary, but spend a little time with the myths, and you’ll realise that the ancient storytellers may still be cleverer and more sophisticated than our contemporary auteurs.

There are at least five different versions of Ahalya, Gautam and Indra's sex triangle floating around the treasure trove of stories that is Hindu mythology. The most widely-known version is from Ramayana, but all of them have the same barebones. Ahalya is the beautiful, young wife of the old sage Gautam. Indra sees her and becomes lust-addled. When Gautam leaves his home, Indra appears, disguised as Gautam, and makes love to Ahalya. Ahalya realises she's been deceived when the real Gautam returns home and the fake Gautam is still in her bed.

Furious at being cuckolded, Gautam curses Indra (who has, for some inexplicable reason, turned into a cat) and Ahalya. Indra (by now, de-felined) becomes sahasrabhagavat — or one with 1,000 vulvas. This curse is eventually turned into something arguably more useful for the leader of the devas: the vulvas turn into eyes, allowing him to somewhat literally keen an eye on everything. Or at least 1,000 things. (And just like that, in an astoundingly prescient transition that is richly prophetic, Indra goes from sex-obsessed to potentially creepy voyeur.)

Seen Sujoy Ghoshs Ahalya? Here are myths of sex and infidelity that inspired the film

Radhika Apte in Sujoy Ghosh's Ahalya.

Ahalya points out to Gautam that she had been deceived and that she couldn't have seen through Indra's disguise. While Gautam accepts this, the fact that Ahalya had sex with a man other than her husband makes her impure and so she too is cursed – to be a stone for 60,000 years, in the Ramayana version. In another, she's reduced to a skeletal hag. One of the earliest retellings says that Ahalya was turned into a dried-up river.

Although the Ramayana is what has kept Ahalya’s story in circulation, if you equate authenticity with age, the version involving Rama isn’t the ‘original’. Ahalya, Gautam and Indra’s affair appears in older texts, like Brahmapurana, which gives us some backstory, including details of how Gautam and Ahalya were married.

In Brahmapurana, we find out that Ahalya was Gautam’s student for years. Indra and the other gods wanted to marry Ahalya when she came of marriageable age, but Gautam won her hand, thanks to his punning abilities. (No, seriously.)

Brahma, Ahalya’s creator and father figure, decreed that the one who could go around the earth fastest would marry Ahalya. All the gods raced off to perform this feat. Gautam went to the divine cow Surabhi, who was pregnant, and walked in a circle around her. Because there’s a word for pregnant in Sanskrit whose alternate meaning is “earth”. Just to play it safe, Gautam also made his way around a Shiva lingam. Then he showed up and asked Brahma for Ahalya's hand in marriage.

Brahma, ever appreciative of geekiness, decided Gautam’s version of circumambulation was acceptable and so, by the time Indra and the other devas returned, Gautam and Ahalya were man and wife. Indra was furious, but could do nothing about it since Brahma had given Gautam the go-ahead.

Later, when rumours reach Indra of how Ahalya is in a state of marital bliss with Gautam, he decides to go down to earth and see for himself. And the story follows the familiar path of lust, disguise and curses. Indra’s punishment is the same across versions, but in Brahmapurana, Ahalya is cursed to become a dried river and there's no mention of Rama. Gautam decrees that Ahalya will regain her human body once her cursed form is able to join the river that washes sin away, the Gautami. So it happened, we’re told.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided that the Ahalya story was a good one to slip into the Ramayana (and the Mahabharata). What is it about this thoroughly domestic story that made the ancient bards think it belonged in epics about heroes, kingship, war and colonisation?

The most obvious connection is between Sita in the Ramayana and Ahalya. Aside from being flawlessly beautiful, they share an unusual connection through their names. Sita — furrow in Sanskrit — is named so because she was found at the tip of a plough. Ahalya's name contains the Sanskrit word for plough. Both women live in the forest after marriage. Sita has a short stint in Ayodhya's palaces before heading out with her husband Rama for his vanavas (exile). Ahalya lived with Gautam in Brahmagiri, a pastoral idyll that is believed to be in today's Western Ghats. Both these women's beauty drew the attention of a king — Indra, in Ahalya's case; in Sita's, Ravana.

Ravana initially tries to seduce Sita by appearing before her in his natural form. One version of the Ahalya story says Indra did the same. He praised Ahalya’s beauty in eloquent poetry, trying to woo her with words. But Sita and Ahalya reject these kings who attempt to impress them with their might, and swear fidelity to their un-royal husbands. Indra and Ravan both respond with deception. They give up their youth and virility, and disguise themselves as old men. Indra takes on Gautam's form while Ravana pretends to be an old beggar. Both of them appeal to the women's morality. Ahalya is being a good wife because as far as she’s concerned, she’s having sex with (and initiated by) her husband. Sita crosses the lakshmanrekha to give alms to the needy.

Later, despite Gautam saying she's impure, Ahalya's virtue is not besmirched. She proves her innocence. Sita faces similar charges of impurity and she too clears her name and reputation. They also survive years in wilderness because of their husbands' lack of trust. Sita is abandoned in the forest while Ahalya is all alone in her cursed shape (neither a rock nor a dried-up river have much by way of company). Effectively, they're silenced and kept away from society where they could, perhaps, be seen or heard.

To think someone noticed the parallels between the stories of these two women and inserted Ahalya’s story the Ramayana is a fascinating idea and one that becomes all the more intriguing when you realise that there was clearly an effort made to ensure Ahalya’s story wasn’t edited out of the epic. To ensure it would remain in Ramayana, a thoroughly tenuous link was forged between Ahalya and Ram. Her punishment changes as does her redemption, in which the young prince Rama is cast as her saviour. And so Ahalya stands in the Ramayana, unforgotten. We don’t know who inserted her into either the Ramayana or the Mahabharat, and neither can we authoritatively claim the reason behind that decision.

What we can do, however, is wonder and interpret. Because wound into an epic that reeks of testosterone, aggression and masculine strength is the story of a woman who is wronged by the man who marries her and used by another man who claims to be in love with her. Perhaps it’s a word of warning that in the games of masculine posturing, the victim and the pawn is the woman. This was true in the golden age with Ahalya, when Indra’s wounded ego demanded he have the last hurrah in his competition against Gautam. It happens again, 60,000 years later, when Sita is ostensibly the reason that Rama goes to war against Ravana. Yet when the war is over, he rejects her as impure even though she’s been faithful to him. It’s almost as though the narrator is suggesting – albeit with great subtlety – that some things don’t change with time.

Ostensibly, Ahalya’s story is a rap on the knuckles of any woman who strays, and of course it is. But at the same time, it also points out all the ways in which women were (and continue to be) restrained and straitjacketed. Even though he is her teacher and knows of her intellectual prowess, all Gautam – and those hearing the tale – can see in Ahalya is her beautiful body and how that beauty is bound to drive a man insane with lust. Intriguingly, Ahalya’s story is never told without mentioning the curse that Indra suffers as punishment. She is at fault, but we’re not to forget that Indra is to blame. And from the fact that his curse quickly turns into an advantage while Ahalya must wade through time to restore herself, we’re to note that the stigma doesn’t stick to men.

As devices go, Ahalya’s story is complex, intricate and full of possibilities – for both conservatism and subversion. It’s not often that we find stories that are so spectacularly slippery.

This is why Ghosh’s interpretation of Ahalya is disappointing if you know the myth. His take on Gautama is more interesting since the Maharishi is turned into someone who almost preys on youthful masculinity. Ahalya, on the other hand, is at best her husband’s sidekick. She’s someone who willingly reduces herself to a sex object and that too, seemingly at her husband’s direction. Perhaps the men that Goutam Sadhu sends up to his wife are feeding her sexual appetite.

Perhaps she’s the mastermind – though there’s nothing in the film to suggest this. Goutam Sadhu definitely appears to be the alpha in their relationship – but even in that scenario, Ahalya is reduced to a body. It’s evident from the way Ghosh’s Ahalya dresses and moves that she’s titillating the men (and the viewers), but subtly. The brush of skin seems accidental, but isn’t. The clothes seem casual, but are studiously seductive. Ghosh seems to suggest it isn’t Indra’s fault if he’s turned on by this Ahalya. She’s goading him, with every look and every gesture. How can any man resist that much bare skin, that figure, the invitation in her eyes, is the unspoken question in the short film.

Not just that, by trapping Indra in one of Goutam Sadhu’s dolls at the end, Ghosh ensures that all our sympathy is for this poor man who, thanks to eyeballing a scantily-clad woman who was flirting with him, has suffered a horrible fate. Ahalya is the sexual predator in disguise.

Watching Ghosh’s Ahalya, you can’t help but wonder if the story he tells in 14 minutes would have survived if it didn’t have the rich tapestry of the myth as its background. Stripped of all the issues and complexity that is contained by the myth and its ancient retellings, Ahalya stands as a decent but unremarkable story. It’s difficult to imagine it surviving and allowing for the kind of interpretation and reinventions that the Ahalya myth has engendered.

Then again, perhaps the old myth nestled in the Brahmapurana would have suffered the same kind of obscurity had some bards not had the genius idea of weaving it into an epic that was being told and retold. And here’s the truly heartening part – for all the rigid sexism and conservatism of Hinduism’s guardians and followers over the ages, Ahalya was embraced, accepted and remembered with respect. So much so that aeons later, in the 21st century, here we are, remembering her story.

Updated Date: Jul 23, 2015 18:29:04 IST