Some 20 years ago, at an exhibition of still photographs taken by legendary director Bimal Roy in Mumbai, his wife, Manobina, had said: “Amar jonnye erom keu koreni (no one has ever done that for me).” There was no jealousy in her voice; it was just a statement of facts that most wives of our celebrated directors preferred to remain silent about.
One of the untold stories of our film industry revolves around why the talented wives of our legendary directors — including Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak — never explored full-time professional careers. All of them had published works, did plays, recorded albums or acted in movies before marriage. In most cases, the marriages had no dearth of love; it was just that these women loved being the support system. In between cooking for the entire unit, they happily turned into script doctors, production managers and even casting directors. So, did they allow their talent to be ignored by choice? Or, was it just social conditioning?
Gita Sen, the consummate actress who did Akaler Sandhane, Mahaprithivi, Khandhar, Calcutta 71, Ekdin Pratidin, Kharij and Chorus, gave up good offers from Goutam Ghose and Aparna Sen. On her demise, Shyam Benegal had said: “She wasn’t keen on making a career as a film actor. Rather, she wanted to make a career of that of a homemaker.”
In her book, Amader Katha, Satyajit Ray’s wife, Bijoya, had tried to underplay her work in movies. Describing it as a “shameful history” from her life, she wrote that her Bengali films like Seshrakha and Sandhya had flopped because none of them were good. When she shifted to Mumbai before her marriage to try for roles at Bombay Talkies, it was primarily to earn and support her family. After her Bollywood debut in Janata, she followed it up with Renuka. Director Nitin Bose had also cast her in a character role in Rajani.
With a background in acting, why was Bijoya never cast in any Ray film? According to her son, Sandip, “After marriage, she became a complete homemaker and didn’t have any such interest or need to pursue a career. I regret that she didn’t even seriously pursue a career in music. She had recorded albums and would always hum at home. Ma would even teach Rumadi (Ruma Guha Thakurata) and her daughter when they sang for Baba’s films. But she did not want the full-time professional career of a singer.”
When Bijoya died, Sharmila Tagore described her as an “institution by herself”. “An accomplished piano player, she was very good with music. She had also acted in movies but she gave it all up for Manik-da. She recognized Manik-da’s talent so early on that she voluntarily gave up her own career to help with his work,” Sharmila had said.
Interestingly, all these creative giants were not alien to working with women in cinema. Were efforts made to push Bijoya not to give up her own career? “People must have told her, but it didn’t work,” Sandip says. “Ma was perfectly happy at home and liked maintaining a low profile in the background. She was attached with Mother Teresa’s institution and was also busy there. Right from reading the script to the shooting, Baba depended on her a lot. He used to depend on her so much that had she got busy with other assignments, she wouldn’t have been able to devote this time and Baba would perhaps have felt lost.”
Before the demise of the Sens, their son, Kunal, had said, “My mother comes from a generation where the mind was indoctrinated that the wife’s main responsibility is to support her husband, and she probably felt that she was more needed to manage things at home and support my father.”
After Manobina passed away, her son, Joy, received a book — Chobi Tola: Bangalir Photography-Chorcha (Taking Pictures: The Practice of Photography by Bengalis) — where Manobina and her twin, Debalina, were listed as two of the earliest photographers. They were members of the UP Postal Portfolio Circle — a group created by the Photographic Society of India which enabled members to exchange photographs by post and exhibit in other cities as well. The first photograph under their names had come out in 1937 in the journal ‘Shochitro Bharat’. In 1940, their photographs were displayed at the Allahabad Salon. She wrote for ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’ and ‘Femina’. Her articles were illustrated with her own photographs. In 1951, the series ‘Twenty-five Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore’ included the work of one woman photographer. It was the one taken by Manobina of the poet in Puri.
Unfortunately, post-marriage, all her black-and-white works bathed in ambient light were seen as “album photography”. Recently, when one walked up the wooden stairs to the Harrington Street Arts Centre in Kolkata, it was a pleasant surprise. By no stretch of imagination were her works a result of a casual hobby. The exhibition seemed like a window to an unseen world of light and shade far removed from the Instagram and Pinterest feeds saturated with filters and effects. Manobina’s camera curated a world of black and white images populated by known faces like Nehru and unknown children bathed in natural and ambient light. Her handwritten notes alongside the photographs revealed an understanding of the lives of a bygone era. Sometimes she felt a sense of empathy for the loneliness of elderly Londoners seeking solace in chance exchange of pleasantries. On other occasions, her lens was focussing on the beauty in domesticity and everyday living.
Incidentally, Manobina’s ideal was the Armenian-Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh. Known as one of the great portrait photographers of the 20th century, Karsh was famous for his distinctive practice to light the subject’s hands separately. Most viewers agree that because of the use of lighting, Manobina’s photography was far ahead of her times.
According to film scholar Ratnottama Sengupta, “Bimal Roy and Manobina Roy were both living in their times, not ours. Their social conditioning prepared him to be active in the world out there; her, to care for home, the children, the guests, the kitchen, the staff.” She insists that the director had recognised the artist in Manobina’s shots. “But he had the responsibility of earning, not only for his own family but also so many others who were dependent on Bimal Roy Productions. Naturally, he did not have the time to focus on her art or promote her professionally. She was like the other wheel of the chariot that was their life: she looked after/managed — even acquired — his property and solved his tax problems, too, which was not common in the patriarchal society,” Sengupta says.
“My father,” says Joy, “was not an unkind man, but he was very self-absorbed in his craft. It is not that he deliberately ignored Ma’s talent. She had to make do with very little. Baba spent all his money on his films. It was a big help that the lab which did his film work developed and printed all of Ma’s pictures.”
Did these creative giants have the social conditioning to recede a little, look after the family while their partners went ahead professionally? “Perhaps, it didn’t even occur to my father,” Roy said, adding, “My grandmother was a strict lady. Apparently, she told Ma that she did not wish to hear even a word of complaint against her from her in-laws. Ma got married with that instruction and conditioned herself accordingly.”
Manobina had once narrated an incident about how, on their first meeting, Devika Rani had said: “Now I know why Bimal is such a successful man”. Other than making films, Bimal could leave everything to her,” Joy says, adding, “She had a nurturing quality that many people started calling her ma. She was the mother figure for the extended family.” While playing the role of a matriarch to perfection, Manobina perhaps chose to bury any ambitions of being a professional. Rather, she was all grace and dignity. Disappointment, if any, was supressed. It was a conscious choice to be a happy person and stay positive.
The rare exceptions were actress Arundhati Devi and Kajal Gupta. “Arundhati was a huge star even before she first married Prabhat Mukherjee and then, Tapan Sinha,” says archivist Sounak Chacraverti. “Giving up her professional career to be a support system for her spouse was never her calling. Her directorial debut, Chhuti, was post-marriage; it won a National Award.” Arundhati continued directing movies after that and even scored music.
Looking back, Sonali Basu, the daughter of actress Kajal Gupta and Dinen Gupta, says her mother had only done two movies — Ajantrik and Antariksha — before marriage. “My father used to support her passion for acting. Not just in his films like Basanta Bilap, Natun Pata, Devi Chaudhurani, Pratham Pratishruty and Marjina Abdulla, Ma has worked with many directors, including Mrinal Sen’s Antareen, Tapan Sinha Jotugriha and Arabinda Mukhopadhyay’s Agniswar,” Basu says.
The story of Surama’s life was a little different. A member of the Communist Party when she was in Assam, she had also served a prison term before she married Ritwik. Theatre had brought them close and Ritwik had also taught her theatre. He, however, never cast her in any of his movies. The latter years of their marriage were fraught with severe financial challenges. In order to raise her children, she shifted to Sainthia as a school teacher. Much after Ghatak’s demise, she published her works — Ritwik and Padma Theke Titash.
According to film scholar Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, many creative geniuses of 19th century Bengal suffered from something he terms the ‘Charulata Syndrome’. “Here, an English-educated Bhupati brings out a newspaper and can afford not to know that his wife writes. Remember the scene where a surprised Bhupati asks: ‘Tumi likhteo paro, Charu?’ There is a patronising tone. Bhupati is happy to be an intellectual guide, without really wanting to be the wind beneath the wings of the partner,” Mukhopadhyay says. “Internally, I would say most Indian men have the patronising ‘Bhupati streak’ in them.”
Source: Times of India