Shet Patharer Thala was directed by Prabhat Roy and it marked a milestone in Bengali cinema of the time because it walked the tightrope between commercial success and critical acclaim very successfully. It won the National Award for the Best Regional (Bengali) film and two awards from the Bengal Film Journalists Association (1993) for Aparna Sen as Best Actress and Indrani Sen for Best Playback Singer (Female).
Prabhat Roy is known for his choice of powerful stories with a social agenda, for his ear for music and for his courage in either introducing new actors or for presenting mainstream actors in a different way that brings out hidden facets of their histrionic talent. In Lathi, we saw a Victor Banerjee we had never seen before. Sedin Chaitramas was adapted from a story by Subodh Ghosh that gave Indrani Dutta a fresh lease of life. Sanjib Dasgupta got his meatiest role - the character Amol Palekar played in Chit Chor.
In Shet Patharer Thala (The Marble Dinner Plate), writer Bani Bosu explores the prejudices society holds on to in case of the Hindu widow even in circumstances that appear modern and contemporary. The young widow gives up wearing the traditional white a widow is expected to wear not because she wants to but because her little son wants her to who does not understand fully the implications of his father’s death or of his mother’s widowhood.
Shet Patharer Thala is peopled by many characters but the story zeroes back to Bandana because the story is about Bandana’s journey from being a young bride married into an apparently affluent and traditional Bengali family to middle age when, at the end of the journey, she chooses to live alone with children who are orphaned like she was as a little child. Sympathy for the weak, the sick and the deprived is a universal human trait. Bandana is weak and deprived. Above everything, she is betrayed in life. Her parents passed away when she was little. This pain was undercut by her maternal uncle’s deep affection for her.
When she got married, she found the ‘family’ she was looking for, albeit in her subconscious. Her husband was loving, adorable and a very good family man. His sudden death is another betrayal by destiny. The third betrayal is when her in-laws she had felt were so loving, reveal the ugly side of their character and choose to humiliate and oppress her at every turn, depriving her of the financial inheritance that is basically hers by right. Her loving maternal uncle dies and destiny betrays her once again leaving her to tend to her life all by herself. Many years later, an old and doddering uncle-in-law informs her that her repentant father-in-law has gifted the family home to Bandana. It is too late. She has no use for the house she left many years ago. Her final moment of betrayal comes when her son turns against her.
Prabhat Roy remains loyal to the original novel by Bani Bosu and takes minor liberties by introducing music and songs on the one hand and a bit of romance on the other. Running like an undercurrent within this journey of betrayals is an exploration of how widowhood can change the entire matrix of a woman’s life that neither education, nor a working status, nor the security of a permanent shelter can help in any way to bring it back to where it began. In fact, widowhood is so much internalized by Bandana herself that she finds it extremely difficult to shed the white she is supposed to wear and stops wearing it because the doctor advises her to so that her little son can come out of his trauma. It is neither rebellious, nor voluntary nor spontaneous.
The visual transformation of Bandana from happy wifehood to lonely widowhood is shown through the metaphor of the big red dot of vermillion on the centre of her forehead. We first get a peep from behind her sari drawn over her forehead as a bride till her full face comes in view. We then see it smudged on her forehead, her face registering more shock than grief, the smudging of the bindi suggesting the slow change in her social status. Then, her forehead is completely shorn of the bindi and her sari has turned into pristine white when she emerges as a full-fledged widow. When she returns to light, printed cotton saris later on, her bindi is now a tiny black dot on her forehead, a small token of what she feels will appease her little son.
Roy tried to portray her as a martyr but the characterization does not carry the argument to a melodramatic closure. Bandana’s subservience to the orders of her in-laws was in accordance to her social conditioning to the ideology that a married woman is not supposed to question why. But she comes out of that subservience when she comes away with her uncle to live with him. Because in the social world the film depicts, no married woman, widowed or otherwise, can walk out of the marital home unless driven out of it. This is a powerful statement of rebellion, somewhat undercut by the moral, financial and social support of her loving uncle.
Bandana is not the sobbing, weepy, sentimental fool. The film however, whitewashes her with the widest brush of white paint. When she finds that the artist has filled his walls with portraits of her he has painted, her face registers more fear than pleasure. In normal circumstances, any woman would be flattered with this kind of homage to her beauty by an eligible young man. This too, is part of the socialization of Bandana. The metamorphosis in her growing son’s sketches and paintings point out how his mind is reacting to his mother’s increasing friendship with a man who is not his father. This is a product of his socialization – that his mother has no right to any relationship other than that she shared with his father. Bandana accepts Abhiroop’s rejection of Sudipto as his art teacher, as his mother’s friend and even as a kind family friend. That is why, though the audience can actually feel that she enjoys the company and the emotional support Sudipto gives her and also visits him at his bachelor den spontaneously one fine day, she turns away from the relationship getting deeper more as a strategy of escaping from herself rather than as escaping from Sudipto.
The whitewashing of Bandana’s character by Prabhat Roy may be overdramatic and exaggerated. But it is done with the right balance between restraint and melodrama. Shet Patharer Thala is not a tear-jerker but is also not all real life placed on film. It tries to evoke all sympathy for Bandana and juxtaposes her against all the ‘bad’ people she has around her. The question is – does Bandana really need the sympathy of the audience? The film says differently. She is quite strong and can carry on without audience sympathy. Sudipto is nice but too soft and timid to assert himself and demand marriage. He is weaker than the woman he loves. He moves away when she asks him to. Why? What stops him from demanding that they get married? What stops him from being more assertive than simply walking out of her life on her say-so? Shet Patharer Thala presents a different portrayal of the working woman in post-Colonial Bengali cinema that has no feminist slogan to raise. Yet, it raises several important questions on the status and position of a young, modern, educated and beautiful widow in contemporary Bengali society.