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At the intersection of partition and patriarchy: fluidity of womens’ identities observed through the filmic lens of Ritwik Ghatak

by Kusumita Rakshit and Ramray Bhat
8 Mar 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Article


The films of Ritwik Ghatak quintessentially belong to the canon of realist films on twentieth century post-independent India.[1] Faithful to this set, they present a searing critique of both the symptoms and illnesses that ailed the Indian class structure. What rendered Ghatak’s works distinct from other Indian realists, however is his tenacious efforts to chronicle the consequences of the Bengal partition, a monumental chapter in South Asian history, of which he was both a witness and a subject. His roots were in what became first East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh and he experienced the uprooting that the partition brought about on a very visceral level.[2] Ghatak was a political activist in the Marxist tradition, holding, at one time, memberships of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) and the Communist Party of India (CPI).[3] Therefore, his historical coverage emphasized social, political and economic angles. Ghatak was also a feminist in that he was acutely sensitive to the forces that influenced the lives, (in)dependence and happiness of women in positive and negative ways.

In this essay we have focused on how Ghatak’s films shed light on the unique behaviors and (inter)actions of women that resulted from the intersection between two oppressive agencies –the contemporaneous Hindu Bengali patriarchal code and the agencies that socioeconomically exploited the refugees that came to India from the newly formed East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh).[4] In the first section we will briefly describe how specific aspects of these two agencies distinguished them from their counterparts in western India. In the second section we will use two distinct examples from Ghatak’s films where he brings partition and patriarchy within the same framework, in order to argue that the intersection of, and not necessarily any one of the agencies affects the identities and lives of the lead women. In the third and concluding section we will highlight a related but independent aspect of Ghatak’s chronicling of the partition: that its effects and especially its intersection with patriarchy could be felt even in generations that followed the migrating ones: in other words, the intersection not just emerged, it was subsequently inherited.

Partition and Patriarchy: the two intersecting agencies

In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries –India in the middle and two non-contiguous bordering exclaves, East and West Pakistan. The formation of East Pakistan was the result of the fission of the large Bengal province.[5] The western half consisting mostly of cities and towns built around the Hooghly river became the West Bengal state with Calcutta (now Kolkata) as its capital. East Pakistan constituted the rural and urban areas in the lower Gangetic plain roughly from the convergence of Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers with Dhaka as its capital. The partition was on religious lines: Hindus constituted the majority in Indian Bengal and Muslims, the majority in Pakistani Bengal. It resulted in the biggest human displacement in recorded history.

The partition entailed the influx of mostly Hindus from Eastern Pakistan into West Bengal and other neighboring states. Unlike the West Indian partition where rampant riots forced people to quickly move and settle down, the displacement in Bengal partition was drawn out and painful. A second significant point of departure was the relationship between the state and the refugees: in western India, the state sought to socially and economically rehabilitate the refugees at a rapid pace. In contrast, the Indian state had neither allocated adequate economic resources, nor did it possess the political will, to take care of the steady stream of refugees pouring into West Bengal.[6] The consequences were disastrous. Inflowing people suffered disempowerment on several levels. There was an immediate loss of immovable assets, ruptures in economic and familial linkages, and subtle and violent othering by the receiving communities.

The pre-partition East Bengal was mostly a feudal economy with zamindars or land-owners being the asset-holders. The colonial rulers had chosen to co-opt the system of feudalism in order to reap maximum benefit.

It was not in the interests of the colonial rule to transform the Indian society. The process of changing the old society, its stratification and economic basis was slow and painful. The result was the superimposition of minimum modern capitalist relations on the old feudal land relations, which sustained the caste system.[7]

The land-owners provided financial support to both the colonial British establishment and the Indian National Congress, then representing the mainstream of the movement for Indian independence. The latter therefore protected and pampered the land-owner class. However, the unusual circumstances of the partition forced the migrating land-owners into penury overnight.

Our second agency is the patriarchal system in which Hindu Bengali women subsisted, during the early twentieth century. The conditions of these women have been the subject of extensive radical feminist critique; we will confine ourselves to highlighting certain idiosyncratic features of their lives. It would be simplistic to suppose that the patriarchal attitudes, social customs and socio-religious orthodoxies that influenced women’s lives were monolithic agencies. Empirical studies especially relating to the employment of women in the jute mills surrounding Calcutta during that period, strongly question this assumption and show that the social factors themselves were varying functions of economic conditions.[8] When times were prosperous, the patriarchal order imposed orthodox social rules to prevent women from working, and their social roles centering the male family members were emphasized to qualify their identity. In economically desperate times, the same rules were relaxed in order for women to step out of their homes and become a means of production. Therefore, the social dynamics that assigned and influenced gender roles, especially pertaining to women, were in turn contingent upon economic and political events.

In the following section, we will showcase two examples wherein Ghatak captures how partition and patriarchy intersected to render fluid in unique ways, the gender roles and behaviors of his women protagonists. These emergent behaviors cannot be merely understood by a single oppressive agency.

The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

The protagonist of The Cloud Capped Star is Nita, a young woman who belongs to a Bengali Hindu family that has been driven from their home in present East Pakistan to the suburbs of Calcutta as a result of the partition. While Nita studies for her collegiate education and also tutors in her pastime, her elder brother is a struggling musician and both her younger siblings attend college even under severe economic strife. However a series of unfortunate accidents compel Nita to abandon her studies and join the work stream to feed her family. The aspirations and never-ending demands of Nita’s family members force her to start working double shifts.

Nita is in love with Sanat who is another destitute and idealistic refugee from East Pakistan. However, their relationship comes under pressure when Nita’s mother, sensing Sanat as a threat to their financial dependence on Nita, supports the latter’s young sister Gita to flirt with, and develop a parallel relationship with Sanat. Sanat, captivated by Gita’s attention, and exasperated by Nita’s choosing to place her family over conjugal desires, goes on to marry Gita. Overworked, and mentally and physically shattered, Nita’s health deteriorates. Soon she contracts tuberculosis and is abandoned by her family, which has moved on to better times. As she gasps for her last breath in a sanatorium, in one of Indian cinema’s most immortal moments, she still affirms her right and desire to live and struggle.

As in many of his films, Ghatak uses the partition in an elliptic fashion in The Cloud Capped Star: it does not enter the plot in an obvious manner but it can be felt in every cause and every effect and is integral to the film’s ‘psychological mise-en-scène. Nita’s family is shown to consider itself middle-class, a term which has independent social and economic meanings. The Bengali hindu middle class family as a unit is especially supposed to ‘perform’ by a certain set of behavioral rules and adhere to certain norms.[9] One such is an emphasis on higher education. A second is an aversion to blue-collar jobs. A third is a general predilection to prevent the women from taking up professional occupations.

The partition however compelled the freshly migrated East Bengali bourgeoisie to choose between subverting these rules and remaining hungry. The dynamics of Nita’s household allows us to delve intensely into how partition and patriarchy intersect: even though Nita is the sole wage earner, she is not the dominant member: in the power hierarchy of the family she is still subservient to others. The whims and fantasies of especially the male members of the family are continually met, whereas Nita’s are ignored. Each and every family member is well aware of the relationship between Sanat and Nita and its possible consequences – a marriage with Sanat is likely to take Nita away from her family resulting in the disintegration of their only means of survival.

It is therefore unsurprising that the director chooses via performatives in the conversations that take place during this period, to show how Nita’s sexual and conjugal desires are thwarted.[10] This is done so she remains a machine in the service of her family’s economic survival. All the conversations that take place between Nita and her mother, Gita, her younger brother, her father towards the end of the film and Sanat reduce the relationship dynamics between Nita and each of her family member to that between an individual and his or her source of sustenance. With the exception of bits and pieces of conversations between Nita and her empathetic unemployed elder brother and in the beginning, her father, Nita is unable to interact with her family or share her joys, pains and ambitions. It is thus not a coincidence that these conversations remind Nita, time and again how dependent the family is on her.

Nita’s family and Sanat develop a more potent insidious method to subjugate Nita: desexualization. There is an attempt to deny her sexual rights and aspirations by questioning her gender role and performance. Sanat during one of his visits to Nita’s house asks her, “What has happened to your looks?” As an overworked and ‘dull’ Nita leaves the room for her tuition classes, her sister Gita who stands as her counterpoint enters: a beautiful flirtatious virile individual who is free from commitments of any kind and is clearly interested in him. In the company of Gita, Sanat is oblivious of everybody else, even Nita, to whom he has professed love, and is courting. Nita realizes that she stands no match as a sexed body in comparison to her sister.

Nita’s mother cleverly creates the space for her sister to interact with Sanat. When Gita is all set for her wedding with Sanat, her mother tells Nita that Gita wants to wear the former’s jewelry. The dialogue between Nita and her mother reveals several important features. First, the mother astutely employs her performatives in a manner such that Nita feels obliged to voluntarily part with her ornamental possessions, out of a sense of duty and sacrifice. Secondly, the mother, in the process, also attempts to absolve herself of any wrongdoing in the whole matter. Ghatak here also uses the ornaments as a symbol of Nita’s social womanhood. Her parting with her jewelry and especially its gifting to Gita symbolizes the desexualization of Nita- after all, it is only a widow who is bereft of her jewelry, as part of a more complex ritual of desexualization in a Hindu patriarchal society.

In conclusion, the machinations of Nita’s family members and her lover Sanat are successful in the transformation of Nita from a heterosexual woman in the beginning of the film into a desexualized individual before tuberculosis starts consuming her. On a structural level however, it is the intersection between partition and patriarchy that is responsible for Nita’s destruction. Partition, and its resultant destitution ensures that Nita is thrown into a situation wherein ruthless predation for economic survival is the only rule that overrides all other hierarchical norms and conventions within a rigid patriarchal structure. On the other hand, patriarchy ensures that even though Nita is the sole bread-earner of the family, her will and voice are not the loudest, as would invariably have happened if she were male.

The Golden Line (also known as The Golden Thread) (1965)

The second film that we choose is Ghatak’s epic The Golden Line. The protagonist of this film is Sita. Born an orphan, she is brought up by her brother Ishwar, who is elder to her by several years and who develops a paternal attitude to her. Her brother adopts a young boy, Abhiram who like them is a victim of partition. Sita and Abhiram grow up and fall in love with each other. Upon discovering that Abhiram belongs to an inferior caste, Ishwar disapproves of the match. Sita elopes with Abhiram and they start living in deep poverty. As Abhiram is killed in an accident, Sita takes to prostitution to support herself and her little child, Binu. Meanwhile her estranged brother Ishwar in a tragicomical episode of revelling in his misfortunes, turns up drunk at the doorstep of the brothel. Confronted by the reality of her brother having turned a client, Sita kills herself violently.

Does patriarchy and partition have any role to play in Sita’s death? Ghatak narrates the story of The Golden Line within the framework of a tragedy. The reverberations of impending catastrophes can be felt much before they occur and recurring leitmotifs signify their homecoming. Ghatak opens his film with scenes of violence and anarchy that are the immediate fallouts of the Bengal partition. Whereas the riotous mobs spare none, the consequences are much worse for women. Not only are they victims of the violent upheaval caused by partition, they are also subjugated by the very same patriarchal rules that are prevalent in times of peace. In fact, Ghatak cleverly reveals that forms of discrimination can actually get strengthened in the face of such sociopolitical upheavals. Regional parochialism can occur miles away from where they originated and perpetuated, caste-apprehensions, and – consciousness governs ups and downs of fortunes and familial order far away from where they were rendered relevant. Abhiram loses his mother to marauders only because her fellow refugees turn her away on grounds of her differing caste.

Some among the displaced feel this is an opportunity for a new beginning – the colony Ishwar and Haraprasad come to occupy is called Nabajiban colony, born from the proverbial ashes of a bourgeois landowner’s wealth. However as the film progresses, mindsets get more and more conservative. This is a direct effect of the wealth Ishwar starts accumulating. His liberalism and idealism, honed in the fire of partition, are now abandoned. He is blind to his sister’s affections for Abhiram; the latter’s inferior caste will get in the way of Ishwar’s social ascent. Abhiram’s low caste is after all, resented by Ishwar’s employer who is socially orthodox and acutely caste-conscious.  So he uses mental and physical violence to try and forcibly get Sita married. Patriarchy thus becomes a weapon he willfully yields for his own benefit against his very near and dear ones. Thus Ghatak shows how for some, the response to the economic miseries of partition was to embrace an ideology of capitalism that uses social conservatism and patriarchy as weapons in order to safeguard one’s assets.

The effect of this on Sita is more mental than physical. Ishwar is not just alien, he transforms into the archetype of patriarchal evil for her. Sita courageously subverts the performative mould, Ishwar tries to put her in. Not only does she disapprove of her brother’s domination, she defies him when she says, “Dadabhai tumi onyay korcho” (Brother you are committing a grave injustice). She elopes with Abhiram on the day of her wedding and makes sure she throws the wedding crown into the waters of Subarnarekha. At a later stage, after Binu is born and their family is poverty stricken, Abhiram suggests that they could get by if she were to ask a prosperous Ishwar for some money. Sita asserts that she would kill herself before doing so, almost foretelling her demise.

Ghatak uses the final confrontation of Sita, as a prostitute and Ishwar, as a client to make a deep political point. Ghatak’s operatic portrayal of the climax begins with Haraprasad paying a final visit to Ishwar. The two of them then set off on a romp through the dens of debauchery in Central Calcutta where wine flows freely and strains of music from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita appropriately express the hedonism. Sita’s suicide is not just a knee-jerk reaction to an abominably incestuous moment. It is the signifier of the inevitability of patriarchal subjugation: Sita realizes that she can never come out of the controls of her society’s males. Ghatak stamps home this subtext in perhaps the most important conversation in the end, where Ishwar says, “I am not the only guilty fellow. We all are. For it is not only my sister who has suffered this misfortune. Don’t you have sisters?”

There is another political message that is embedded in this depiction. The refugees, who came from East Pakistan community were the victims of othering and economic hardship. The most vulnerable among them were ruthlessly exploited by the receiving community. However, over time, even many among them have embraced capitalism as a means to climb the socioeconomic ladder and rid themselves of the indignity of poverty. In this process they are now full participants in the cycle of exploitation, the victims of which remain the migrants of the long-drawn partition. This exploitative relationship comprises refugees as both the exploiters and exploited, and is therefore incestuous. Sita and Ishwar are not just tied to each other by blood but by a common history. The confrontation of Sita and Ishwar stands as a metaphor for the incestuous exploitation of the refugees by those who are fraternally related to them by their shared experiences.

In conclusion: the inheritance of tragedy

In the last two sections, we dealt with the intersection of patriarchy with the Bengal partition and its effect on identities and roles of women. We conclude our essay by highlighting the continuing relevance of this analysis through a brief discussion of two interlinked extra-Marxian influences on Ghatak’s auteurship.

The first influence, which impinged on the formal structure of Ghatak’s films involved the copious deployment of themes pertaining to mythology, folklore and tradition, sometimes in parallel with, and at other times in counterpoint to, the main plot, the latter always nested within contemporary times. Ghatak’s films therefore involved rich multilayered narratives, with the mythical and historical motifs intertwined in subtle ways with reality. One of the conspicuous evidences of this praxis is seen in the names of Ghatak’s pivotal characters in Subarnarekha. Like the heroine of Ramayana, Subarnarekha’s Sita is initially under the charge of a paternal Ishwar (in Ramayana, Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi, the daughter of Shiva or Ishwara) and then marries Abhiram. Subarnarekha and Ramayana both end tragically with the suicide of their heroines. In an interview, Ghatak similarly alluded to a film he wanted to make on Bishnupriya, a woman gang raped and murdered by political hoodlums in late 1970s, interweaving it with the misery of another woman by the same name, who was the long suffering wife of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a fifteenth century Bengali saint. Similarly the narrative of Komal Gandhar, another film on Bengal partition by Ghatak, works on many levels, with the love story between Anusuya and her lover abroad being framed on the mythology of Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam. What were Ghatak’s motivations behind the invocation of mythological and folklore elements? Ghatak was no traditionalist: given Ghatak’s Marxist worldview, we can only surmise that these imposed mythical motifs integrated into an idiosyncratic ‘evolutionary’ conception of societal superstructure.

In addition to the above surmise, we propose that Ghatak’s understanding and interpretation of Carl Jung’s research was crucial to his syntheses of partition tales and fictional-historical-mythological themes. Particularly, Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious was crucial to his thesis on the evolution of the uprootedness.[11] The allusions to Indian mythology, history and oral traditions were Ghatak’s acknowledgment of the collective unconscious of the Indian people. We wish to emphasize that this proposition diverges sharply from some other analyses of Ghatak’s mythological allusions, which attribute the ownership of the unconscious to the fictional characters themselves, rather than their creator, i.e., Ghatak himself.[12] Whatever the ideological underpinnings that gave rise to Ghatak’s weltanschauung, the latter served to explain how the peculiarly long-drawn aspect of the Bengal partition served to ingrain it deeply within the mind of the immigrants. That it transcended the ‘personal unconscious’ and became a part of the ‘collective unconscious’ is revealed by the search for a ‘home’ by Binu, the son of Sita in Subarnarekha. Binu is born a generation after the partition and is therefore personally not a witness of its horror. However, Ishwar’s and then Sita’s restlessness, homelessness and uprootedness are all inherited by Binu. Through this, Ghatak attempts to show that while the physical effects of the partition were gut-wrenching– they got genetically assimilated within the entire generation that survived it, and was further passed on to those that followed. Ishwar’s friend, and fellow partition survivor, Haraprasad echoes the filmmaker’s angst in saying, “Whether you protest or run away, it makes no difference. Its all blank. We are bodyless, ethereal. We have been wiped out.” The intersection between two subjugating agencies can perpetuate long after their physical occurrence. This brings into relevance the analysis of intersection, which leaves deep scars on a society, affording it only a severely drawn out process of healing.


We would like to thank the organizers of the ACS Women’s/Gender Studies Conference held at Furman University, Greenville, SC, US in 2014 for allowing one of us to present a concise version of this paper. We would additionally like to thank an anonymous referee for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


1. Rajadhyaksha, A. & Willemen, P. Encyclopaedia of Indian cinema. New rev. edn,  (British Film Institute; Oxford University Press, 1999). [↑]

2. Roy, A. G. & Bhatia, N. Partitioned lives : narratives of home, displacement, and resettlement.  (Dorling Kindersley (India), 2008). [↑]

3. Ghatak, R. & Ritwik Memorial Trust (India). On the cultural “front” : a thesis. 3rd edn,  (Ritwik Memorial Trust; Distributor, IPD Alternatives, 2006). [↑]

4. McCall, L. Complex inequality : gender, class, and race in the new economy.  (Routledge, 2001). [↑]

5. Chatterji, J. The spoils of partition : Bengal and India, 1947-1967.  (Cambridge University Press, 2007). [↑]

6. Fraser, B. & Sengupta, S. Bengal partition stories : an unclosed chapter.  (Anthem Press, 2006). [↑]

7. Ranadive, B. T. Caste, class, and property relation.  (National Book Agency, 1982). [↑]

8. Sen, S. Women and labour in late colonial India : the Bengal jute industry.  (Cambridge University Press, 1999). [↑]

9. Goffman, E. The presentation of self in everyday life.  (Doubleday, 1959). [↑]

10. Butler, J. Gender trouble : feminism and the subversion of identity.  (Routledge, 1990). [↑]

11. Jung, C. G. & Hull, R. F. C. The archetypes and the collective unconscious. 2nd edn,  (Princeton University Press, 1968). [↑]

12. O’Donnell, E. “Woman and “homeland” in Ritwik Ghatak’s films:Constructing post-independence Bengali cultural identity (Jump Cut: A review of contemporary media, 2004). [↑]

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Kusumita Rakshit studies visual arts at New York Institute of Photography and formerly at Berkeley Art Studio, UC Berkeley. She has taught visual media at Biju Pattanaik Film and Television Institute, India.
All posts by: Kusumita Rakshit | Email

Ramray Bhat is a Susan G. Komen postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He holds degrees in biology, medicine and music.
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