By Rohini Banerjee:
If last year’s slew of critically-acclaimed and award-winning Indian indies is any proof, our regional cinema is finally evolving, maturing, and delivering us with a dose of realism which mainstream Bollywood fails to do. In the Bengali film industry, this genre of new-wave cinema had been triggered by the work of Rituparno Ghosh, who, perhaps, was the pioneer of contemporary feminist Bangla cinema, but in the last couple of years, it has truly found a niche with audiences. Last year’s ‘Rajkahini‘ gave us a female-driven Bengali film like no other, and this year too, conversations about gender and sexuality are a common thread across multiple Bengali films — prominent among which is last week’s release, ‘Praktan’.
‘Praktan’ — which literally translates to ‘former’— directed by Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy, and boasting of an ensemble cast which includes greats like Soumitro Chatterjee to Prosenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta (who play the protagonists), might not aim to be a commentary on patriarchy, but it sure ends up being one. The film starts off with Sudipa (played by Rituparna Sengupta) who on a train journey, meets the well-meaning but slightly boisterous Molly (played by Aparajita Auddy) and her daughter, and realises that Molly is actually the second wife of her ex-husband Ujaan (played by Prosenjit Chatterjee). That’s when, in a series of flashbacks, we are transported to ten years ago, and Ujaan and Sudipa’s ‘former’ relationship plays out on screen.
It is this relationship which exposes the crux of the gender politics. Fiercely intelligent Sudipa, a conservation architect, meets the young, handsome and idealistic Ujaan, a tour guide, during one of his ‘heritage walks’ around the city, and the sparks of attraction and romance fly between them. Soon, they get married, and Sudipa leaves her lucrative job in Mumbai to settle with Ujaan (who lives with his family) in Calcutta, and while all is peachy at first, things soon start falling apart. Sudipa earns more than Ujaan, is more successful than Ujaan, and that bruises his male ego like anything. He constantly puts her down, misbehaves with her, tries to make it look like her work isn’t important, and in one horrific scene, even accuses her of sleeping with her boss in order to get a promotion. Sudipa is strong-willed and opinionated, and that doesn’t bode well with his conservative, patriarchal family. She is body-policed, made to conform to ridiculous norms, and in one of the most shocking, brutal scenes, admits to Ujaan that during her difficult and complicated pregnancy (which ultimately leads to a miscarriage), his family had made her travel to various relatives’ houses to carry out Bijoya rituals, while she was in excruciating physical pain and couldn’t even stand still. “You and your family speak so much of liberal writers like Marx, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay, and Dostoevsky, but in reality, you live in a web of regressive beliefs,” she says, echoing the truth of so many middle-class Bengali households.
This is a common occurrence in middle-class Bengali families. We love our subversive, Marxist and even Feminist literature, but in practice, we continue to perpetuate harmful patriarchal beliefs and continue to drown out the voices of those who dare defy the status quo. And Sudipa falls prey to the very same thing. Because she dares to question, to dream big, to be more capable and more successful than her male partner, she is rewarded by oppression and misogyny.
“When we’re in bed making love, do you ever ask me whether I want to come first? No. Because you’re the man, and you always assume you’re going to be first,” says Sudipa, during an argument with Ujaan (where he’s berating her for deciding to travel to Mumbai on her own, without letting him book her tickets). It seems like such a throwaway line — a barb amidst multiple barbs during a heated fight between two spouses — but it poignantly sums up the questions of male privilege and sexual inequality which often crops up, both subtly and not-so-subtly, in the film. Ujaan seems to be almost ’emasculated’ by how both Sudipa’s intellectual and financial capabilities exceed his own. And in there, are quite a few occasions when he tries to “silence her with a kiss” — a common trope in pop culture where men try to establish that they ‘know better’, and a woman’s voice is not important.
However, it’s the constant emotional abuse and manipulation which Ujaan inflicts on Sudipa, which is the film’s strongest commentary on how patriarchy functions. There is no doubt that Ujaan and Sudipa’s relationship is emotionally abusive because not only does he constantly treat her like shit, but also tries to make her think that his misbehaviour and disrespect is justified and that it’s him who’s the victim here. That is classic patriarchal conditioning and male privilege, right there. When Sudipa tries to buy them tickets for a holiday, he accuses her of “showing off her money”, and tries to make her feel guilty for it by acting ‘hurt’. When Sudipa gets angry at him for constantly being away for tours, and not putting enough time and effort into their relationship, he again tries to make her feel guilty by trying to establish “but my work is important too!” This is a disturbing pattern that emerges in many emotionally abusive relationships, where the man tries to paint himself the victim and tries to emotionally manipulate the woman, when he still clearly has the upper hand in the situation.
I would give Sudipa’s character a lot of credit, though, because she ultimately does get out of this toxic relationship, which in real life, many women in similar situations aren’t able to. Her character is wonderfully complex because not only do you see the resignation in her when she finally does leave, and her determination to move on, you also see a vulnerability, because she did genuinely have feelings for Ujaan and it’s not easy to walk away when you’re so emotionally invested.
While Praktan does brilliantly reflect on the important issues mentioned above, it is by no means perfect, and the end actually makes me feel a little ambivalent about the film. Towards the end, certain events lead to Ujaan and Sudipa meeting again, after 10 years of being apart. Now, we see Ujaan a totally changed man, thoroughly domesticated and invested in his relationship with his second wife (Molly) and his daughter, finally having a stable business, and, most surprisingly, finally respectful of the women in his life. While some might argue that this turnaround ‘redeems’ him, I find myself extremely wary of it.
The reason he cites for this sea-change, is Molly but that’s not where my problem lies. The problem lies in the fact that Molly is exactly the version of the ‘perfect wife Ujaan wanted from the start— someone who conforms to patriarchal family structures, who is an obedient housewife pandering to the demands of every family member (no matter how ridiculous) and sacrificing her own career and ambitions for him. The fact that it’s Molly, this perfectly patriarchally conditioned person who ‘reforms’ him, makes me think that maybe, Ujaan hasn’t changed at all. In fact, there is a poignant scene, soon after Ujaan talks about the joys of fatherhood, when Sudipa asks him—“If Putul (his daughter) was our daughter instead, would you have changed for me?”, Ujaan is stumped. “I don’t know”, he replies.
This is my most important takeaway from the film — that, in a way, a chauvinistic man’s reformation ultimately still depends upon a woman giving in, and ‘sacrificing’. Despite there being a lingering sense of nostalgia about Ujaan and Sudipa’s relationship, the film seems to tell us that their relationship could have never worked, because Sudipa was always too much of a feminist to conform to his and his family’s ridiculous expectations and sacrifice her lifestyle for him. That does make me feel better in a way, because I remember thinking to myself that Ujaan never deserved her, and feeling so relieved that she did cut herself off from him. But then I think about Molly, and wonder whether she really is happy in her domestic, conformist relationship with Ujaan or whether she is simply conditioned to believe that she is.
Watch this film to understand how insidiously patriarchy works — in suppressing the women who try to speak out against it and in conditioning and co-opting the women who might not be as bold and outspoken.
Here is the trailer in case you have not seen it yet: