Aparna Sen’s characters are known for their resistance to norms and convention, to patriarchal morality. Goynar Baksho (2013) is one such film, where she tells the story of three generations of women — Rashmoni (Pishima), Somlata and Chaitali — within a male dominated society. She employs elements of magic realism and comedy to manoeuvre around their acts of resistance and negotiations. The three women characters of the film are a product of the 1990s conception of the “modern Indian woman” even though the film’s timeline culminates in the 70s. The women are assertive in different ways, they challenge the castigation of sexual liberation within patriarchy, and they progress alongside economic freedom, which then goes on to necessitate political freedom. Three objects, in particular, work as departure points to mark this resistance/negotiation, and emphasise the volatile nature of norms and customs of our society.
Pre-independent India: The Box, The Widow
Uncertainty about the prohibition of widow remarriage in India has its roots in the colonial times. Although unlike the missionary activist movements against self-immolation, this reform was chiefly initiated by Indians, especially the Bengali reformist groups. The year 1856 saw a repealing of the prohibition against widow remarriages; however, even after the law was enacted, violence and social ostracism against widows and their second husbands was customary. The orthodox customs conveniently stored the virtuousness of the sacred texts within the woman’s body, deterring every possible form of autonomy encouraged by legal reforms.
In the face of opposition from most Hindu opinion-makers (the likes of Arya Samaj) and the fear of losing authority in the wake of the revolt of 1857, the colonial government abrogated the widow remarriage law in the early 1860s. Nevertheless, it was reinstated in 1872 within the new marriage regulations, permitting inter-caste, consensual and adult monogamous marriages among partners, inclusive of widows. Yet, as usual, legal inclusivity did not necessitate social inclusivity. This cultural and political history can be mapped through the character of Pishima and the incidents marking her life, which begin more or less from the late nineteenth century. Her witty rebuttals from the beginning of the film bring to light the dietary and other restrictions imposed on widows. In retaliation, when she becomes a ghost, she prompts and confuses Somlata into putting salt in the mutton dish thrice while declaring that she will not be eating the dish as she has retained her “Bidhabā” (widow) status even as a ghost.
Moreover, the film initiates female desire through the figure of the widow, for the woman is presented with a certain kind of autonomy in the absence of a husband. The film visualises this through Rashmoni’s attraction toward Ramkhilaon: she flirts, her gaze is unwavering and she is shown to be comfortable with her sexuality. However, in the flogging and subsequent murder of Ramkhilaon, we painfully recognise that defiance entails tragedy. And when Pishima (as a ghost) solicits a vivid description of Somlata’s sexual relationship, we also realise the deep sexual discontentment faced by child widows.
Normative codes were further safeguarded by rendering the widow financially vulnerable and it is here that Goynar Baksho differs. The eponymous jewellery box is emblematic of security and Rashmoni is not only aware of its value but utilises it to retain her position in the household. The list of gold ornaments is preserved even after her demise. And the box comes to the rescue more than once, it helps in establishing and expanding Somlata’s saree-business.
Independent India: The Rose, The Married
The jewellery box is an important motif in Goynar Baksho. The jewellery, for Pishima, is wealth. And as Sen says in one of her interviews, for Somlata, it becomes capital. Somlata’s timid and stammering demeanour coupled with an entrepreneurial temperament on one hand makes her the ideal candidate for safekeeping the jewellery box, and on the other provides her with the necessary apparatus to capitalise on her intellect. In passing the jewellery box to Somlata, Pishima provides her with the economic independence unavailable to her by virtue of her class. On her part, Somlata does not only acknowledge this help by naming the shop after Pishima but also spearheads the desire to be economically self-sufficient, hitherto denied to Pishima and the former generation of women and widows.
Even though ambiguous, Somlata’s relationship with the poet/lover Rafique is one of yearning and transgression. When Pishima implores her to transcend the binaries of sin and virtue, it functions only as a temporary permission which is bound to wither away. Therefore, the Barthian rose outside Somlata’s door momentarily finds a space inside her bedroom, and with it we can anticipate her encounter with Rafique that soon follows. The stormy night is cinematically apt. However, she feels guilty after her husband returns from his travels and throws the rose out of the window. But as audiences, we are aware of her feelings toward him. This is confirmed by the narrative, years later, when her daughter presents her with the letters written by Rafique. As Sen remarks in an interview with Maria Grazia Falà, “Somlata, for her part, functions very much within the patriarchal system, but negotiates a space for herself all the same by being gentle and understated, rather than aggressive.”
Post-Independent India: The Cigarette, The Unmarried
That Pishima was literate is demonstrated by her ability to assess the accounts of the shop: in fact, she informs us that she learnt maths while listening to the pundit who taught her brothers; the second generation woman, Somlata, was not only able to read and write but employ it as a source of income; and Chaitali takes the narrative forward so university space becomes a natural setting for the unfolding of the story. Any form of political will as such was at the disposal of neither Rashmoni nor Somlata but the political context of the Bangladeshi Liberation War in the telling of Chaitali’s story acts as a juncture to complete the triangle of personal desire, economic independence and political will, fundamental to the conception of a human being, woman.
In the doubling of Benu (Ramkhilaon’s grandson) and Ramkhilaon and that of Chaitali (Rashmoni’s granddaughter) and her Pishi-thakuma, there is an attempt to grant the freedom to Rashmoni the she could never access in her lifetime. The scene which establishes their bond and doppelgänger-ness is when they smoke on the terrace, discussing Rashmoni’s past and Chaitali’s future. It is a reflection of how the restrictions imposed on women have changed over time yet are not completely undone. While the act of a woman smoking and indulging in romantic relations before marriage acknowledges that the position of women in society has evolved over a century, it also indicates there is much more to fight over.
When Chaitali gives away the jewellery for a cause (to help the impoverished freedom fighters of the war), it necessitates her engaging with and occupying a political position. Cinematically, it is contingent to a shift in the genre.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.