Review: Through The Lens Brightly by Shoma A Chatterji
"Through the Lens, Brightly" by Shoma A Chatterji explores the depiction of working women in films made by women over four decades in India. The book features nine films and discusses the evolution of women directors in Indian cinema, as well as the status of women in society. Chatterji analyzes each film and the careers of the directors and lead actors, highlighting the resilience and determination of the female characters. The book provides valuable insights into the representation of women in Indian cinema and is highly recommended for film enthusiasts.
Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work by veteran journalist and author Shoma A Chatterji is about the depiction of the working woman in films made by women over four decades. The nine films featured in the volume stretch from Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) to Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi (2018). The women in these films are teachers, spies, laddoo makers, domestic workers, professional mourners and sex workers and their stories unfold in different corners of India. Each of these individuals who belongs to different economic sections of society are caught up in situations not of their own making. But what all of them have in common is the will to negotiate the world on their own terms. They are not shy to take a leap of faith and they are not afraid to face the consequences.
Chatterji’s introduction and the first two chapters entitled The Evolution of Women Directors in Indian Cinema and Women at Work that precede nine chapters, each of which focuses on a single film, are a gold mine of information. They feature sections on Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director, Nargis’s mother Jaddanbai, Nutan and Tanuja’s mother Shobhna Samarth and others who do not usually find a place in textbooks on the history of Indian cinema.
The chapter on women at work touches on the three waves of feminism, on labour laws and on the status of tribal women and untouchables in India. “In all peasant movements that erupted in different parts of the country during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women played militant roles. It is surprising that their problems remained outside the concern of most reformers,” the author writes. She also mentions that the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1971) reported that the country’s education system was deepening the gender divide instead of promoting a “new value of equality”.
Having thus created a dense and elaborate backdrop, Chatterji turns her attention to the films themselves. Each chapter provides an analysis of the film that is its subject and also looks at the career of the director and, in some cases, of the lead actor too. Treating the director as a working women, the author attempts to understand how gender and the experience of fighting it out in a man’s world have shaped their vision.
Four of the women featured here, including the oldest, Aparna Sen, come from film families. Zoya Akhtar too comes from a family with solid literary and film credentials. Chatterji writes that her familiarity with the milieu of Hindi cinema meant that she could effortlessly create the characters of Sona Mishra, a small town girl with big ambitions and Nikki, daughter of an ambitious mother with a fading aura in her directorial debut, Luck By Chance.
Almost all these film makers are formally trained, have been exposed to world cinema, and are in tune with contemporary ways of thinking and living.
Although some of these films have sprung from their own life experiences, others have emerged from beyond their comfort zone and examine the lives of women outside their own ambit. In doing so, they have steered clear of cliches and fleshed out characters in the light of their observations of real life situations rather than from earlier film representations of similar characters. So, in Talaash, scriptwriters Rima Kagti and Zoya Akhtar create a ghost character who is out to avenge her own death. In the process, she plays a pivotal role in bringing together some estranged live characters. However, Chatterji is not happy: “It is a sad comment on the film that it does not give enough footage to Rosie, which would have strengthened the cause of the sex worker who is the least empowered among all working women across the world.”
She is also saddened by the ending of the otherwise lighthearted Nil Battey Sannata, where Appu pronounces, at her UPSC viva interview, that she is joining the civil services because she does not want to be a maid. This was her mother Chanda’s dream, not her own. But now that the dream is about to be fulfilled, the mother is sidelined.
Chatterji reckons that Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, inspired by the director’s own mother’s struggles with the language, was a “sterling debut”. But she can’t help wondering why Shashi, played excellently by Sridevi, does not express anger at being hurt or humiliated even once during the entire film. “Perhaps it’s an example of how deeply Indian women have internalized the feeling of being ‘less’ than those who humiliate them,” she says. In the end, Shashi asserts herself not by disrupting the family structure but by giving a speech in English at a family gathering.
Interestingly, a strident feminist agenda is not central to any of these films. In Luck by Chance, Sona came to the city to make it big. She has no qualms about giving sexual favours to a small time director in exchange for a meatier role. And when Vikram cheats on her to further his own career, she is initially hurt but nurtures no ill will against him. “Sona Mishra may have failed to realize her dreams, true. But at the same time, she accepts the kind of career that seems to have worked for her and learns to live with it,” Chatterji writes. It is this extraordinary resilience shown by ordinary women in their ordinary lives that make these films worthy of repeated viewings and in-depth analysis.
The author also finds and highlights recurrent patterns. Like the invisible thread that connects Miss Violet Stoneham (36 Chowringhee Lane), who gives away her lovingly baked cake to a street dog, and Shashi Godbole (English Vinglish), who painstakingly picks up crumbs of laddoo from the floor to reassemble her crumbling self esteem. The mother-daughter relationship in the lavishly produced Rudaali (1993) find resonance in the mother-daughter duo Chanda and Ashwini in the humorous low budget Nil Battey Sannata (2015) made many years later.
Sex starved Bauji, seductive Rosie, daring Sehmat, lonely Violet, enterprising Shashi, determined Chanda -- what all the central characters in these films share is an ability to live life on their own terms and stand tall without the help of the men in their lives.
Shoma A Chatterji, who is deeply immersed in film scholarship, makes some penetrating observations and frank critical comments in this volume and ably contextualizes films made by Indian women within the evolving scene of Indian cinema.
This well produced and immensely readable book is to be savoured.
Subha Das Mollick is a teacher of Media & Film Studies and an independent documentary filmmaker based in Kolkata