For the past few years, after having resettled in New Delhi from Calcutta (yes, I’m one of those Bengalis who would any day prefer ‘Calcutta’ over ‘Kolkata’ – pardon my colonial hangover), I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the ‘Babu culture’ of 19th century Bengal. Naturally, when I came across the 1956 film Saheb Bibi Golam, I was immediately taken to it for its fantastic portrayal of the contradictions of the Babu culture. Directed by Kartik Chatterjee and based on the novel by Bimal Mitra of the same name, this film is considered to be one of the best ever made in Bengal.
The ‘Babus’ were the feudal lords or zamindars, who lived in their enormous palatial mansions, dipped in leisurely sloth and extravagance, with their multitudes of servants, dozens of horses, and pretty much an excess of everything. This particular film captures the last few days of one such family before it falls to the debts incurred by the British Raj.
Of course, apart from the luxuries enjoyed by the male ‘Babus’, these households were nothing but sites of exploitation for, well, everyone else. Whether we speak of the domestic helpers working in these houses, or the malnourished farmers who were compelled to pay their dues to the landlords, the Babu culture was characteristic of typical feudal exploitation.
But what this film depicts beautifully is the oppression faced by the women, or the ‘Bibis’ of these households. Starring Uttam Kumar as Bhutnath and Sumitra Devi as Pateshwari or Bouthan, the film follows the experiences of Bhutnath, a poor but educated villager, who comes to the city to look for employment and finds shelter in the Choudhury mansion. While he begins to work in the ‘Mohinoor Sindoor’ factory, which manufactures vermillion for married women, he soon acquaints himself with the youngest daughter-in-law in the Choudhury household, whom he refers to as ‘Bouthan’.
What use is wealth when you don’t have financial autonomy?
Bouthan asks Bhutnath to get her some Mohinoor Sindoor, as it is known for strengthening marital relations. Most of the Babus, including her husband, were known to keep mistresses. While their evenings included heavy drinking and smoking in the presence of a courtesan’s performance, they spent their nights with their mistresses, and would not return home before dawn (usually unconscious, after having passed out from drinking too much), only to wake up at noon. In their free time, they would indulge in pigeon races with other Babus (where the pigeons would be imported from abroad), or take part in some other ridiculously expensive activity. As said in the film itself, this was the ‘custom’ of the Babus. A life of infuriating privilege and ignorance.
Of course, the wives of these Babus were expected to be content with the fact that they were fortunate enough to be married into such affluent households. They were forbidden from leaving the house. While the elder two daughter-in-laws seemed to have accepted this, Bouthan tries everything possible to win over her husband. She pleads to her husband to stay the night but he refuses because none of the men in the household were known to have spent the nights at home (“Ei barir kon purush raat bhor ekhane katiyeche?”)
The tragedy in the life of Bouthan is that she came from a poor background, and was only married to a Babu because of her beauty. Thus, she was expected to be grateful to her husband for the upgrade in her lifestyle and have no demands. She was nothing more than an accessory to be owned, an impassive woman, expected to devote her life to the service of her husband. Yet, the irony is, “Sheba korar shujog e pelam na shameer (she didn’t even get the chance to ‘serve’ him)”, as he would prefer the company of his mistress, the daughter of the household’s domestic help.
Bouthan tells Chhoto Korta (her husband) that she would do whatever it takes to have him stay back – sing, dance and perform for him all night. He seems dissatisfied, and asks her if she would drink alcohol with him. While she is utterly shocked at this proposal, she gives in, but to no avail. He soon finds his way back to his mistress, while she turns into an alcoholic who drinks away her sorrow.
The wives of these Babus were expected to be content with the fact that they were fortunate enough to be married into such affluent households.
It’s heart-breaking to see her desperation and the lengths she would go to please her husband. It’s astounding the way these women were conditioned, they wouldn’t even feel anger at their husband’s infidelity, just remorse for not being a ‘good enough’ wife. Back then, women were brought up only to be ‘good wives’, and allowed to have no other ambition. Honestly, while things have certainly changed today, a woman’s success is often considered to be incomplete unless she is married. It’s the same old story – promiscuity be the privilege of men, and chastity, that of women.
This film is iconic for its portrayal of the fact that even though the Bibis were extremely wealthy, it made no difference to them. What use is wealth when you don’t have financial autonomy? Forget about financial, you don’t have any kind of autonomy. These women were nothing more than dolls to be possessed and shown off. One character in the film claims that the women in the Choudhury household look like angels, and truth be told, that is all they have until their respective husbands get bored with them and chuck them away for someone new.
These are helpless women who are blamed for their inability to ‘control’ or ‘keep’ their husbands so much so that they are found to be indulging in all sorts of superstitions, rituals and medications to keep their husbands at home. Their superstitions should not be taken as stupidity, but a testimonial to their wretched lives. They were made to feel so worthless about themselves that ultimately, they had to resort to external sources to woo their husbands. Theirs wasn’t a life of dignity or self-respect. As Bouthan says to Bhutnath, “Ei barir bou-der kopal khub mondo (The daughters-in-law of this household have very poor fate).”
Saheb Bibi Golam is a reminder of the kind of difficulties our female ancestors faced, and while things have certainly changed, gender discrimination has found new ways to manifest itself. Unlike those women, who had no education or exposure to the outer world, we have the privilege of at least knowing the injustices we face and articulating them, and we owe it to them to keep the feminist struggle going and strive for a better future.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Tribune India