Free Press Journal

Satyajit Ray’s women in real & in reel


SATYAJIT RAY’s is the art that conceals art and the divide between the real and the reel are swept off by a realism that makes his films universal. On his 95th birth anniversary RUBINA P. BANERJEE celebrates the realism of Ray’s reel women.

The real

Suprabha, his mother

Although he was much loved in his family, Ray encountered death at a very early phase of his life with the untimely demise of his father Sukumar Ray. He lived with his mother Suprabha on the first floor of 100 Garpar Road and had to live the frugal life she could afford with her earnings. Suprabha was a strong and independent woman who, while devastated by her husband’s death was determined to earn and sustain themselves. To this end she worked in a school teaching widows.


His wife, his companion, was the other strong woman in his life. She writes, “We were practically brought up together since he was also my cousin. We were both avid lovers of western classical music. We were constant companions and went to see films together. We would see our favourite Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies and I would sing the songs gaily while Manik (as he was called) accompanied me by whistling.”

In 1948 Ray proposed to her and got married in Mumbai without his mother’s knowledge. Only a year later did his mother relent and give her consent. From then on Bijoya was his constant companion, aide, helper, friend all in one.

The Reel
Women with a distinct identity and an innate strength


Apu and Durga’s mother is perhaps the best example of this quality. The acute poverty and her husband’s meagre earnings make for an impoverished life but Sarbojaya somehow manages without asking for any favours from her rich neighbours. Only once do we see her yield to temptation when returning from the fields, she steals a gourd for the family dinner.

Only once do we see her broken- at the moment that her husband brings back a sari for Durga and Sarbojaya clutches it and wails for Durga is no more.
Apart from these moments Sarbojaya is a strict disciplinarian, stern but with a core of softness that she dare not reveal. Her words and actions are often harsh as are her circumstances, as seen when she throws out the old and ailing aunt Indir Thakrun or beats Durga mercilessly for her mischief.

An aspect that was autobiographical in the first two parts of the trilogy was the growing distance between mother and son. After his father’s death Apu and Sarbojaya come back to the village and there Apu conducts the duties of a priest while studying at the village school. His merit as a student wins him a scholarship to go to Calcutta to study and his mother is opposed to his leaving as her health is failing and she wants him to be a priest. They quarrel and she slaps him but in remorse allows him to go to Calcutta. This is perhaps a harking back to Ray’s own strained relations with his mother when she insisted he go to Shantiniketan and he was reluctant.


The pathetic old wizened widow Indir Thakrun is also a fine example of this strength and zest for living despite being shunned and not having a penny to her name. Old, bent and impoverished she is yet a delight to the little Durga and the little girl often manages to steal a little treat for this favourite aunt of hers. We see Indir Thakrun trying to be useful in the household, lulling the baby to sleep, rushing to Sarbajaya’s aid in lieu of the food and shelter she gets here, but she has her own self-esteem and when Sarbojaya asks her to find another place, she leaves and finally dies a desolate death. Ray’s own early experience of death and his mother’s early widowhood makes his portrayals of widows, one of dignity as in GHARE BAIRE where Bimala’s sister-in law is a widow and has been ever since she was married and was always in the white thaan of widowhood.


The little orphan who is the Maid Friday of the postmaster in a tiny village in Tagore’s ‘Teen Kanya’ is a picture of self-effacing dignity. Her tiny frame in a worn sari, her hair rushed into a rough bun, she is ready to follow every command. Drawing a heavy bucket of water from the village pond, sweeping, cooking as best as her small limbs will allow, she maintains a stoic silence, given away only by her expressive eyes which speak volumes.

When the post master asks her why her mother doesn’t wash her clothes she looks at him and says, ‘My mother is not there… she died when I was little’…The poignancy of the statement lies in the fact that she is still so little and our hearts warm to this brave little girl who is trying without tears to face her world of hardship at so young an age and her deep sense of dignity.

The quintessential beautiful bengali bride


The Ray marriage was one of happy companionship and this is reflected on screen in the blissful married life of Apu and Aparna. The little moments of togetherness while Aparna fans Apu as he eats and he follows suit when she sits to eat. Her inscribed command on his cigarette case followed by a warning look from her big eyes, not to consume more than two cigarettes per day. Aparna’s innate curiosity and eagerness to learn English and her triumphant declaration, ‘Wife mane jani’ or ‘I know what wife means’, these make not just for immortal cinematic moments but etch the picture of the perfect Bengali wife that Aparna was.

Sarbojaya embodied these qualities as well and supported her husband through his impoverishment, moving with him to Benares and looking after Apu after his father’s demise.