On my mother's request, we ventured out this evening to watch a Bengali film called Drishtikone, in the city of my birth, starring the evergreen and once rumoured tinseltown couple, Prosenjit and Rituparna.
Their last celluloid outing resulted in the hugely sexist film Prakton, where Rituparna played a successful corporate honcho who bumps into her ex, now happily settled and domesticated with a plump, loud, animated wife and wimpy kid. Once she meets him, she's suddenly reduced to a teary, pining, romantic heroine who travels back in time as the pair cast longing glances at each other in a Rajdhani train compartment.
Reconstructed as flashbacks, the couple go back to what could have been – to a past where they are seen disintegrating from an ‘in love’ pair to warring partners, where Prosenjit plays a crude misogynistic husband, negligent of his wife’s ambitions and emotions – forcing her to walk out.
In the end, when the garish and uncouth wife, realises that Rituparna is the jilted ex, in the last scene, she actually thanks her for giving her the greatest gift – her husband. The latter has now transformed into a docile, loving father who probably still secretly lusts after the hotter, more accomplished ex – but, naturally finds a wife who serves him and is a gharelu type, easier to stay married to, in a joint family and a quintessentially conservative setting.
Prakton became a runaway box-office hit, as middle class Bengalis – probably suffering the same loveless marriages – found a touch of fleeting romance in the once lead pair’s heaving sighs, teary eyes and sentimental Bengali music mouthed by a bunch of popular musicians who also starred in the film, playing co-passengers.
Pitting the ‘Glam Woman’ Against the ‘Bechari’
In Drishtikone, which is being marketed as a mature love story, Prosenjit is shown having an affair with Rituparna, a client, who comes to him to solve the case of her dead husband's car accident.
From the first scene, Rituparna, clad smartly in long kurtas and cropped cigar pants, with straightened hair, a heavily made up face and manicured fingers, is pitted against the 'bechari' Churni Ganguly, incidentally the director's wife, and an actor I personally had deep respect for.
Here she plays a frump – the stereotypical portrayal of the 'wife' that I have a deep distaste for in films. In crumpled, cotton saris with broad borders, with long, unkempt hair, loosely tied into a matronly bun, vermillion flowing over, her wrists adorned with the traditional red and white bangles (shanka pola, as they are called in my home state), she's a damp squib from the word go!
Having fallen in love with the dashing 50-plus hero Prosenjit in her youth – who, of course is super fit and can give any 20-something a run for his money, in tight-fitted shirts and gelled, stylish hair cuts – Churni is shown as having sacrificed her full fledged law career to raise two kids. She now whiles away her days putting eye drops into Prosenjit’s eyes (he was blind and now has one functioning eye.)
Rituparna seduces the hero with an uncomfortable smooch (there is no tongue), to which after initially being stiff and asking why she's doing this (because she wants you, dumbo!), Prosenjit relents, kissing her back – and since we will never see this couple make love on screen, we must go along and conclude that they are having a torrid fling.
That's cool, right? Because it's been established that the Indian wife is a glorified ayah, an unpaid nanny – stitching buttons on a man's shirt, smelling the perfume of another woman on his collar, howling in the bathroom instead, begging his junior to help stitch together details of her man's philandering.
When she does confront him – after discovering a phone message that spills the beans on a clandestine meal at a fancy cafe – Prosenjit accuses her of reacting like a ‘typical housewife’, snooping on his bank statements and probing his junior. Churni – before taking a pillow and storming out of the bedroom to sleep with the kids (why can’t she call a cab and slap a hefty adultery case on him and nail him legally) – agrees she’s just that; a ‘typical Indian housewife’.
Why Does a Single Woman Need an Excuse for Her Desire?
Cut to the next scene – one of female confrontation, designed as the Slut vs Sita face-off.
The sati savitri, pati vrata, Bharatiya boudi troops to the 'other woman/mistress', who (acting like a cool cat in her air-conditioned office) patronises her when she whimpers, “we met in law college and I used to be very good looking before my son was born” by calling her 'graceful.'
Then, Churni folds her hands and begs Rituparna to please please leave her man, and spare her family and his children, and, as the latter mouths stiffly, “I will try,” she howls some more. All the while, the physical distinction between them is strictly demarcated. That distinction is singularly, the most misogynistic explanation of a man cheating on a loyal woman who stood by him like a rock when he was blind, who looked after his practice and who sacrifices her career post marriage and motherhood.
If this is not humiliating and harmful enough, the director who always makes it a point to also star in his own films, possibly to save the producer some money, decides to end the film using a bizarre twist.
Where, till the previous scene, Rituparna was having a nervous breakdown saying what will happen to her after the case is solved and how will she survive and on what pretext will she meet Prosenjit now, now ends the affair with the most random explanation.
After she learns that her dead husband was smuggling human organs, she tells a weepy Prosenjit that she seduced him because his eye belonged to her late husband (!) and was exchanged via a corona transplant performed by none other than Netralaya (Netralaya should sue these guys!)
Next to me sat a married lady who was also simmering with rage throughout the movie, like me, and shifting uncomfortably in her seat.
“This is how they justify Rituparna's lust – a young, hot-blooded widow...why can't she just want to have sex with her lawyer? She's bloody single, he strays! He's spineless and possibly sexless....” she said, when our eyes met, as the credits roll over.
“Why show the wife this way – why can't the reverse happen? A frump of a husband, a glam wife falling for her lawyer and having the balls to leave a man she's not attracted to, physically and cerebrally and in control of her mind and body? Why always the imposition of the mundane and ordinary on the wife – as if to say, she deserves to be cheated on, and has no option but to stick on and digest a philandering husband?” I retorted.
There was a moment of silence.
The last scene was still playing out.
Prosenjit immolates a white shirt that Rituparna had given him to wear on their last night – before the melodramatic explosion and his promise that they would never meet and her apology that she was seeing her dead husband in his one eye (Netralaya, sue these guys, please!).
The wife looks on, batting her glycerin doused eyelashes, just minutes after she's reconciled with her 'family man' who asks her to serve him a cup of tea.
It's business as usual, in Indian marriages. In Indian movies. In our hypocritical society.
How Both Women Were Wronged
My problems with the movie?
Director Kaushik Ganguly, who couldn't have been more sexist. The multiplex-loving audience, who watched this vile mainstreaming and objectification of women into tiny, airless boxes. The objectification, executed by the heavy weight producers (there are broadly only two, SVF and Surinder Films, that has produced the film) who got what they wanted, flogging a hit, over-the-hill, pair by inserting a flawed, dumb, badly written love story into the worst, illogical legal drama I have ever seen.
The movie managed to wrong both the women characters – Rituparna and Churni, each in their own way, a victim.
One of desire.
The other, of duty.
And to think that on a weekend, Bengali bhadro audiences actually pay to watch this. Including us.
I don't think I have been more ashamed to be a Bengali. A woman. An artist belonging to this city.
Kaushik Ganguly, I pray you read this.
And to your wife, an actor and director par excellence, Churni Ganguly, Ma’am, I ask: Really?
(Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is the bestselling author of ‘Status Single’ and ‘Sita’s Curse’. She is also a columnist on sexuality and popular culture.)