Feminism is a very misused and misunderstood term. It is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. However, there are many different kinds of feminism. Feminists disagree about what sexism consists in, and what exactly ought to be done about it; they disagree about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless, motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena.
All such things that influenced the movement through generations of feminists, forms the core of much of Aparna Sen’s work. The questions of sex, sexuality and gender were to be recognized and given their due place in every social phenomenon. Differences are to be celebrated — this is her unique brand of feminism that tends to take on the colors of ‘humanism’. She is one who, to my belief, does not want to see the gender bias as an isolated event.
In Aparna Sen’s cinema, we see the many facets of humanist-feminist waves reflected. In 36 Chowringhee Lane, she portrayed with deep humanist empathy the saga of an old, Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Violet Stoneham, in Calcutta who struggles to survive the social estrangement from the Bengali ethos and refuses to go away to Australia.
On the other hand, in a powerful statement against those societies which aggressively regulate sexual behavior with high levels of hidden agendas, finding the self through a celebration of female sexuality was the major theme in Paroma. In Sati, we encounter the protagonist, Uma, a mute orphan girl who has a horoscope that predicts her husband’s untimely death. In short, she can't be married off. In order to overcome the stigma of an unmarried girl in the family, she is married to a tree. Uma is mistreated by all and sundry. She is seduced by the village schoolteacher and becomes pregnant, leading to greater humiliation.
Throughout it all, the tree becomes her companion and a bond develops between the two mute creatures. Ultimately, it is the tree that gives Uma dignity in her death. This championing of a ‘mute’ cause would definitely qualify to a lay person like me at least as a feminist stand. Then again, equality as a human being and faith in love becomes the cornerstone of a film like Yuganta, a post-modernist exploration of man-woman relationships within marriage in contemporary India.
Is feminism an appeal to women to understand their own cause? Do women understand women? Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin opens with such a question, although implied. The story can’t be simpler. Paramita, an ambitious, sensitive young girl from South Calcutta, comes to a North Calcutta business family, after marriage. People who know Calcutta, its culture, its history through partition, can easily understand what happens next. Incompatibility everywhere — value systems, relations, even her husband’s approach in bed — all lead to a final disaster. From the beginning of the story (told in flashback), we know this is a doomed marriage, and we expect either of the two possible outcomes — a break-up, or a complete submission. In mainstream commercial cinema the former would have been the militant stand taken by a so called “strong” female protagonist. But , here we know striking a balance between the former and the latter is inevitable, because the director is Aparna Sen, who always takes a feminist stand but through the lens of humanism.
In an interview to the TOI, Sen once said, “I have a lot of sympathy for feminist causes because I see them as a part of human rights. Out of all my films Paroma is the most feminist. It was a human problem to me and Paroma just happened to be a woman. It could have been a man also…”
In this light, one very noteworthy thing in her films is the portrayal of male characters. Along with the above mentioned female characters, her films have portrayed very strong and significant male characters. Rahul Bose’s character in The Japanese Wife, which in her own words is “..purely a love story. It does not have any message, nor does it contain a political agenda. Love, I believe, is the only way out of this moral and social decay the world is going through.”
Then again there are other male characters such as that of Rajesh Sharma in Paromitar Ekdin or more recently Koushik Sen’s inIti Mrinalini that are memorable male characters. The point that I want to be noted here is that it is not necessary to portray the other sex in a lesser light or depth in order to espouse the woman’s identity. As always, her humanism always takes the front seat in her stories.
This aspect of Sen’s humanist feminism comes out most brilliantly in Mr. And Mrs. Iyer, the story of unexpected love found by Meenakshi, a warm, intelligent, educated woman whose individuality is overridden by the social norms that surround her Tamil Brahmin existence and to which she is unquestioningly accustomed when she meets, under conditions of strife and riot , Raja, the urbanely sensitive Bengali Muslim man beneath a nonchalant exterior. These two characters are representatives of the youth of modern India, both being educated and from urban backgrounds but differing in their understanding of how religion and human beings are connected. The paradigm shifts essentially for the woman, as does her ‘bindi’ from her forehead, once she comes to terms with her own sexuality that cannot naturally be restricted by the boundaries of marriage and with the fact that humanism has a higher appeal to her than age-old beliefs centered on agenda-driven notions of communalism propagated by the self-interests of certain sectors of society.
In 15 Park Avenue, we see male chauvinism at its worst- rape by hooligans, abandonment by a lover who lacks the gumption to deal with a partner who might not be the image of perfection that he had at first thought her to be. But even here Sen manages to be non-judgmental, objectively portraying the ‘shortcomings’ of one man, not condemning all men.
“I’ve been hailed, for some reason, as a feminist messiah, which I’m really not,” Sen said in response to the global praise she has received for addressing women’s issues in her films. We know what she means when we look closely at her work that has more layers than meets the eye at first contact.