Between 1981 and 1982 Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification. Tapan Sinha, the noted Bengali film maker, was one of the board members at that time. As part of their job, the team was forced to watch a number of semi-pornographic Malayalam films which flooded the Indian market before the advent of Internet and the associated sleaze.
Unmistakably these films had explicit actions of gender violence resulting into sexual scenes. Disgusted with the cheap sensationalism that they aimed to achieve, Sinha decided to make a film on rape himself. Given the sweet softness of Sinha’s oeuvre of almost three decades, this was indeed a bold move. Amongst his friends who were apprehensive was director Hrishikesh Mukherjee and this made Sinha determined to make Adalat O Ekti Meye in 1982.
The film dealt with a young school teacher Urmila who was raped by four college students on the sea beach of Gopalpur. Incidents of rapes being reported in the newspapers was less frequent at that time. Apart from Sinha none of the leading contemporary filmmakers whose cinematic eye observed the socio-political drifts and shifts took up rape as a subject of their cinema. Most of them including Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and also Ritwik Ghatak responded to the social and political upheaval of Calcutta during the peak of Naxalite movement between the late 60s and the mid 70s.
Hence it may be safely concluded that rape was probably not as much a burning social issue of the late 70s and early 80s as it has unfortunately become now. Earlier, in Sinha’s Haate Bazare there were hints and references of rape of the lower caste by the upper caste but those were primarily used to establish the character profiles of the central characters.
In Adalat O Ekti Meye it was the first time that a Bengali film focused solely on a rape incident and its aftermath, not as a distantly remote subplot but as the prime narrative from which the middleclass wished to but found it difficult to escape. The importance of the film is enhanced further as it depicted the rape of an educated, middle-class woman – the same class in which the director and his audience belonged to.
In the film, on the insistence of an honest police officer a criminal case was presented before the judiciary system and a grinding court procedure ensued. To Sinha’s credit he didn’t make out a commercial potboiler with an unrealistic woman empowerment theme where the monochromatic characters were enviously sure of their thoughts and strengths.
Rather, he treaded cautiously and empathetically where we find the father reluctant to move the court at first since he believed – “after a while when all the press and the social sympathy will fade my daughter will still have to survive”. On the course of the journey the father’s resolve was strengthened as he witnessed how his tormented daughter was putting herself together in bits and pieces. In one moving scene we find him putting a flashcard on the table of his office which read “My raped daughter is fighting on well”, just to relieve himself of the pain of answering questions of his over-enthusiastic colleagues.
The slimy, self-centred nature of the middle-class was exposed at its darkest form. In the court-room we find Urmila being “raped” a second time — not physically but with double-edged questions that bared and vitiated her no less than the crime committed in actual. Sinha’s camera, in a non-didactic way put forward the farcical side of the Indian judiciary when misused and how the great Indian middle-class relished the plight of others.
The film however ended with a ray of hope – the convicts were provided prison terms in the lower court and Urmila got back her teaching job eventually after being handed with a temporary suspension. In an article on the politics of his cinema Sinha once commented, “I strongly believe the hopelessness and sorrow that engulfs us today is transient, just a passing phase of life. I don’t believe that it will remain forever, in other words, I am a die-hard optimist. My characters as a result talk about rejuvenation of life even within their present sadness and failures. They don’t crumble and lose, they don’t forget the values of life and they never give up hope.” The ending of Adalat o Ekti Meye justified this belief in Sinha as a human being.
Shortly after Adalat o Ekti Meye Tapan Sinha made two films —Atanka (1986) and Antardhan (1992) which both depicted atrocities on women at different scales. In Atanka a retired school teacher who witnessed a political murder on a rainy night had to pay his price as the perpetrators of crime disfigured his daughter’s face by pouring acid. In Antardhan, a young girl fell prey to a love-trap and got entangled in flesh trade.
Needless to say, in all these three films the negative depiction of the safety and security of women of West Bengal in the 80s and 90s didn’t go well with a section of the ruling political party at that time – CPI(M). The state of lawlessness that loomed large over West Bengal as portrayed by Sinha in these films ironically became a reality in 1990 with the infamous Bantala rape case.
In 1994, Sinha directed Wheel Chair, arguably one of his better films. The triumph of the human mind and the indomitable spirit of the individual who fights the ills of the society is a theme which recurred in Sinha’s films with impunity. In Wheel Chair, Mitra was a wheelchair bound neurologist who ran a medical home for differently enabled neurological patients. The focus of the film was on the doctor who transcended his physical constraints and fought for dignity of his patients.
The film opened with an attempted rape and molestation of Susmita, a young and vibrant stenographer who stayed back late at her office to complete her pending work. Susmita fell down the stairs and was reduced to a neurologically distressed victim and brought to Mitra’s medical home for treatment.
In both Adalat O Ekti Meye and Wheel Chair there is rape of the Bengali, middle-class, independent woman at the core. In both these films the women fight back to regain the dignity that was compromised. While Urmila regained her job and acceptance of her pupils, her legal battle for justice would possibly continue as the convicts would potentially move the higher courts.
Irrespective of that the first hurdle was crossed and in this journey she found a friend in the aged police officer who followed her like a shadow and provided her with the necessary mental strength to ride the tides of inconvenience and depression. In Wheel Chair, Susmita didn’t go for a legal battle at all.
The physical trauma was too much to overcome. In the end, she became romantically involved with Nantu, the physiotherapist who worked with Mitra. The image of the wheelchair bound Susmita acted as a symbol – of hope and mobility and not that of a handicap.
Whereas Adalat O Ekti Meye dealt with the humongous ignominy associated with rape throughout the entire reel time and the battle being won when the criminals were punished, Wheel Chairtook the judiciary process completely out of picture. Was it that after 12 years, in the latter film the director had lost his belief in the Indian judiciary?
He probably felt that by witnessing Mitra’s herculean efforts, the purity and innocence of the inmates of the mental home and Nantu’s love and respect for her, Susmita’s inner strength would be rekindled.
She would rise on her own like the Phoenix since not only in her own journey but also through the journeys of numerous women like Urmila as well, Susmita must have understood that the strongest person was the one who had always fought alone.