Thwarted female ambition is a storyline that often ends in despair. Readers of Amar Katha (My Story), the memoir penned by 19th century Bengali actress Binodini Dasi, are struck by her seething words of betrayal and exploitation. The trailblazing thespian had tasted the thrills of public acclaim, despite her birth in a red-light district. Then, in 1886, she ended her career prematurely at age 23 and stewed over her perceived mistreatment for the next five decades.

“Nothing is lost for a man even if a hundred mistakes are made, but a woman is doomed if her step but falters one bit,” wrote an embittered Binodini, as translated by scholar Rimli Bhattacharya.

By publishing her memoir, however, Binodini managed to set the stage for her own curtain calls. Folk theater and TV serials in West Bengal have continuously recycled their own versions of the Binodini saga. These jatra performances, vinyl records, cassette tapes, and more recent YouTube video clips helped perpetuate her existence long after her death in 1941. The vivid scenes made her a local household name, yet the productions also sparked criticism for distorting her legacy.  Outside of West Bengal, few Indians would recognise her name.

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(Above: Binodini Dasi, 1863-1941. Photo courtesy Kamal Saha. Bangla Natyakosh Parisad, Kolkata.) 

Now the big screen has come calling.  Movie directors Pradeep Sarkar and Ram Kamal Mukherjee both recently announced their intentions to tell her story on the big screen, possibly propelling Binodini out of her regional cubbyhole and into pan-Indian consciousness by the end of next year.

Neither director, however, chooses to see Binodini as purely a tragic heroine. Despair should not be the only takeaway. Instead, both Sarkar and Mukerjee insist that they wish to highlight Binodini’s importance as an avid pioneer in the theatre world, a woman who parlayed her natural intelligence and impressive energy to succeed in altering India’s theater history.

As one of the first Indian actresses to play female characters (previously essayed by male actors), Binodini developed techniques of radical empathy to inhabit a wide variety of roles. She devised innovations in costume and make-up, earning kudos as a trendsetter. She denounced efforts to withhold her pay when she fell ill. She pushed back against various men who sought to curtail her professional freedom. And she pushed herself to spend long hours reading and writing, thus overcoming a lack of formal education.  For all these reasons, Binodini should be celebrated as a rebel ahead of her time, these directors argue.

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(Above left: Binodini in 'Bibaha Bibhrat'. Above right: In male attire for 'Sarat-Sarajini'. Photos courtesy Kamal Saha. Bangla Natyakosh Parisad, Kolkata.)

“It was her tenacity in those days, to stand up against the whole world,” says Sarkar in a phone interview. In describing Binodini’s appeal as a subject, Sarkar explains that he is perpetually drawn to women-centered scripts. (His 2005 breakout film, Parineeta, propelled actress Vidya Balan to greater heights in Bollywood.) In September, rumours surfaced in the press that Deepika Padukone discussed the role of Binodini with the director. Sarkar clarifies that no final casting decisions have been made.

As for Mukherjee, he believes that Binodini “did a lot to set her own benchmark, and create a new standard for the next generations”. While highlighting her artistic contributions, the director is also intent on portraying Binodini’s pain.  “Why would you make a film if it was a very hunky-dory Disney story?” says the director of the 2019 Bollywood movie Season’s Greetings.

Language and money will divide the two directors. Sarkar plans to shoot his version in Hindi, in a big-budget production. Mukherjee has opted to stick with Bengali, even though films in that language tend to have more limited prospects at the box office.  “If I use a different language, the sweetness and soul would be missing,” Mukherjee explains. Like many other directors, his big hope is to catch the eye of Amazon or Netflix and rely on this platfom to whisk his subtitled drama to national and international audiences. Both Sarkar and Mukherjee claim that they don’t mind putting out simultaneous versions of Binodini’s life.  “You can think about Gandhi and have 10,000 different films,” Sarkar says.

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(Above: Teaser poster for the upcoming Binodini movie by Ram Kamal Mukherjee. Photo courtesy Ram Kamal Mukherjee)

Strangely, though, it seems that neither director has considered how the Binodini story might resonate among viewers in India and abroad during this disruptive era of #MeToo revelations of sexual abuse, and increasingly vociferous demands for equal pay. In the entertainment industry, especially, the push to topple alleged rapists and serial harassers has a parallel trend of more women who are stepping up to run Hollywood production companies and develop content that reflects real women’s experiences.

Binodini had similar ambitions. She wanted to form her own theater collective, one that would fairly compensate thespians no matter what their gender. And she famously yearned for a theater to be named after her, as promised by various men in her life. Back in the 1880s, however, her supposed mentor, Girish Ghosh, squashed her opportunity to get hold of 50 percent of the shares of the Star Theater in Calcutta.  Ghosh thought there was no need to clutter her pretty little head with such transactions.

No wonder Binodini’s eyes seem to project such sadness. The melancholy emanates from a squat memorial bust, erected across the street from Ghosh’s towering statue in north Kolkata. A theatre bearing his name remains a popular hotspot, in homage to his multiple talents as an actor, playwright and director. Never mind Ghosh’s acknowledged weaknesses — alcohol and promiscuity. Today, memories of various male stalwarts reign supreme over a multitude of local cultural endeavours.

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(Above: Binodini's memorial bust in Kolkata. Photo courtesy Margot Cohen)

Binodini’s failed bid for more artistic and financial control had everything to do with her miserable origins. Both her mother and grandmother were prostitutes, eking out a living in dismal quarters on the northern banks of the Hooghly river. The family was so poor that Binodini’s younger brother was married off at age five, so that a few gold ornaments provided as dowry could be sold for food. When the boy died, Binodini watched her mother suffer a mental breakdown.

Malnourished and ill-clad, the little girl found her own joy in learning music from a singer lodged with the family.  Then, at age 11, she was apprenticed to the theatre and began earning a few rupees of her own. Her trembling debut in a bit part as Draupadi’s handmaiden quickly led to more prominent roles. She stepped out of squalor to play mythical heroines, elegant noblewomen and wretched wives, flowering into the most celebrated Bengali actress of her day.  (She describes this parade of characters in a second memoir titled My Life as an Actress, using a tone that is decidedly breezier than her writing in My Story.) In one production, she displayed her versatility by managing to embody seven different characters.  During a career that lasted a scant 12 years and spanned some 80 roles, she rehearsed intensely, summoning various moods to convey each character as authentically as she could.

Her otherworldly, cross-dressing turn as the saint Chaitanya received rapturous reviews and a personal blessing from the sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.  In most of the folk versions of Binodini’s life, this was cherrypicked as the climax of the show. That won’t be the case in the Bollywood rendering.

While Binodini acknowledges Ghosh’s contribution to her art in her memoir, she resists the notion she was merely a tabula rasa for his genius. “She wasn’t a lump of clay,”observes Mukherjee.

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(Above: Girish Chandra Ghosh's towering statue in North Kolkata. Photo courtesy Margot Cohen)

Binodini wasn’t the only woman from the red-light districts to be elevated to the stage. During this period, women from the upper reaches of “respectable” society were effectively barred from stepping before the footlights, leaving the field wide open for women deemed to be low-class. The commercial prospects of the theatre hinged on their participation. Men wanted to buy tickets to watch women on stage. And wealthy men wanted these actresses as mistresses. The protection racket was a well-accepted social fact – even though some prostitutes hoped the theater would bring them some degree of social redemption.

In her memoir, Binodini probes the turbulent emotions surrounding these transactional relationships. As her career was taking off, she became attached to a handsome young patron who claimed undying love with made-for-Bollywood drama. That didn’t stop him from slipping off to his ancestral village and marrying another more suitable girl on the sly. Stung by these events, Binodini cut him loose, only to witness his jealous return, wielding a sword that he swung wildly and sunk into the cover of a harmonium.

Meanwhile, Binodini and her friends at the theater were also shaken by turbulence at the box office.  Ghosh found a solution. Another rich patron, this time a Marwadi businessman named Gurmukh Rai, offered to build a new theater and keep it afloat financially, on the condition that Binodini become his mistress. Initially, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea. But the lobbying was unremitting.

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(Above: A plaque in Binodini's honour. It says: "Her life was an illustrious example of sacrifice for an ideal.")

In his novel First Light, the late Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay conveys the pressure on Binodini by conjuring a scene with fellow actor Amritalal Basu.  “Amritalal took Binodini’s hands in his and said with tears in his eyes, ‘Will you think only of yourself, Binod? Won’t you think of us? Our future?’”

That sounds like emotional blackmail. But it wasn’t just a matter of caving in.  Actually, Binodini was already longing for something less ephemeral than those bursts of applause.  A stable theater company, with a solid building of its own, could provide the emotional and professional nourishment she always wanted. “If the theater was set up because of me, we would spend the rest of our lives as members of one family,” she mused in Amar Katha.

So she took the deal, eyes wide open. “She bartered her body for a theater,” concludes a 2007 book, The Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcutta.

Binodini calculated such servitude as a temporary trade-off for a secure thespian home. She eagerly supervised the construction of the theater, and even toted loads on her head. Amidst trysts, Gurmukh Rai promised that the grand structure with marble columns would be dubbed the “B” theater, after Binodini.

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(Above: Still from a 2016 version of a play directed by Sayandeb Bhattacharya, in a production by a Bengali language troupe called Smarannik. It was performed in Bengaluru. Photo courtesy Sayandeb Bhattacharya)

It all proved to be empty talk. After the theater was completeted, Gurmukh and Ghosh named it the Star Theater instead. They reasoned that the city’s gentry would never turn up at a theater named after a “fallen” woman. So much for social redemption. Binodini writes: “The news hurt me so much that I had to sit down and could not speak for two whole minutes. Finally, I controlled myself and said, ‘Good.’

She couldn’t completely stifle her shock at that betrayal. The pain was compounded when an ailing Gurmukh offered to transfer shares in the theater to Binodini, an idea jettisoned by Ghosh. It took many more years for Binodini to speak her truth. That theme won’t seem alien in the #MeToo era.

It’s not exactly clear why Binodini left the stage after 1886. Her anger over a string of deceptions was possibly heightened by jealousy of younger actresses. Some diva behavior may have gotten out of hand. Perhaps she suffered a spiritual crisis after playing Chaitanya, as Bhattacharya speculates. What’s clear is that she never fulfilled her aspirations of lasting emotional and professional security. She stayed with Gurmukh as unacknowleged co-wife and gave birth to a daughter, named Shakuntala, only to watch her little girl die at age 12.  Wrenched by her patron’s subsequent death, Binodini retreated to the shadows.

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(Above: Still from a 2016 version of a play directed by Sayandeb Bhattacharya, in a production by a Bengali language troupe called Smarannik. It was performed in Bengaluru. Photo courtesy Sayandeb Bhattacharya)

In her later years, she still visited the theatre district to watch plays and exercise her imagination. She adopted another daughter, finding an outlet for her affections. And she never completely turned against Ghosh. He was the one who suggested that she turn her “unruly heart” to writing.  All of her rage, confusion and pride are co-mingled in her prose. The memoir seesaws between fevered accounts of her theatrical exploits and dark condemnations of herself as a “fallen woman,” internalising social stigma.

By bearing witness, regardless of the consequences, Binodini found a way to raise her voice against social exploitation. Despite fears that educated readers would ridicule her prose, she took pains to get published. Rebuffed as easily dispensable, she would not be snuffed out completely.  Alternatively, if Binodini had remained silent, there certainly would have been no jatra, no TV serials, and no Bollywood productions dedicated to her memory. “Binodini wrote to mark her protest,” says Shibashis Bandyopadhyay, the Kolkata-based researcher for Sarkar’s script.

“I felt such pain when I finished [Amar Katha],” says veteran actress and director Usha Ganguly. “It tells the whole history of the women’s position in the theater.” In response, Ganguly opted to name a small experimental theater in Calcutta after both Binodini and the late Keya Chakraborty, a Bengali actress known in the 1960s and 70s for her commitment to plays about social justice.

Binodini’s own self-doubts make the memoir even more poignant. “She was all the time struggling for her identity: who am I, and why can’t I be accepted?” notes Amal Allana, the former chairperson of the National School of Drama. After reading a translation of Amar Katha, Allana was moved to write and direct a play that relies on five actresses to portray Binodini at different phases of her life. It’s a device that allows for exploration of multiple selves, with the spotlight on the contradiction between her transcendant stage roles and her real-life struggle as a woman denigrated by the upper classes. “This really tore her apart,” Allana adds.

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(Above image: From 'Nati Binodini'. Written and directed by Amal Allana. A TTA production, New Delhi, 2006. Photo courtesy Tyagarajan)

The play, titled Nati Binodini, has been staged in major Indian cities and made it all the way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in 2011. Allana’s version points to “the underlying violence and abuse the actress suffered in a colonial and male-dominated society,”writes Bishnupriya Dutt, a professor of theatre studies, in an essay included in the 2007 volume Staging International Feminisms.  “The benefactor baboos…are now revealed as possessive, ruthless and sexually exploitative. The lifestyle of the colonial middle classes is exposed as lascivious, decadent, greedy and self-indulgent.”

Unfortunately, neither of the Bollywood directors is familiar with Allana’s work.  Both men were born in Kolkata, and their introduction to Binodini came through flashbacks to jatra performances. These mostly hew to a sinner-to-saint narrative, beginning with Binodini’s red-light childhood and building toward the blessing from Ramakrishna. Dutt skewers this interpretation as another form of patriarchal discourse, both “moralistic and didactic”.

Sarkar says that he rejects this approach. “If I just stick with sinner-to-saint, I won’t do justice to the story,”he observes.

Opinions range widely on how to deliver poetic justice to Binodini, aside from offering a couple of movies on a platter. Some admirers would like to see to see new theaters constructed in India and named after her. Others suggest that Delhi-based publishing house Zubaan reissue Binodini’s memoir (formerly published under the Kali for Women imprint) together with Bhattacharya’s insightful essays.  Perhaps the text could even be translated into multiple languages, including French and German. Other ideas include making Amar Katha required reading in the theatre curriculum, or creating a National Binodini Award for upcoming actresses.

More broadly, one form of homage could lie in a radical act of empathy.  It might just be possible to read the words on the page, or hear them in a movie theater, and connect with Binodini’s cauldron of desires. For a woman or man, artist or not, the message sneaks in just below the skin: Binodini, c’est moi.

Margot Cohen is a writer from New York.

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