Inhabiting the World with a Commitment to Justice


Review 2: Karuna Banerjee’s An Actress in Her Time

Everyone remembers Sarbajaya – the mother of Durga and Apu, the wife of Harihar – a central character in Satyajit Ray’s historic film Pather Panchali. However, few know anything more about Karuna Banerjee, the actor who became Sarbajaya for the screen, gaining international recognition overnight with her pitch-perfect performance of the role of a rural housewife in a poverty-stricken home in Bengal. Her understated acting with nuanced gestures and glances portrayed a psychologically complex, strong female protagonist in a manner that brought her love from audiences and critical acclaim from experts. And though she went on to do six more films, with directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, there was little about her in the media. I too was ignorant of her presence beyond the role of Sarabajaya, till I came upon her collection of writings in this book An Actress in Her Time – a collaborative publication brought out by Thema and Celluloid Chapter in 1999. My friend, Sudeshna Banerjee, gifted me its second edition about a year ago, and more recently looking to read more about women writing about their own experiences in the arts, I bumped into it again on my bookshelf and decided to read it.

I have often wondered about the roles artists play in our lives, apart from the work they do in their chosen areas of artistic practice. I have also been always curious about how women see the world around them. So reading what artists write, especially women artists – about their work, life, politics and society at large interests me. In the first set of writings in this book Karuna discusses her entry into films responding hesitantly to an invitation from Satyajit Ray who was her husband’s friend, experiences as an actor in the theatre, and doubts and conflicts as an actor in films. Her detailed analysis of the way in which Satyajit Ray worked with his team directing Pather Panchali, and her life experiences with other actors and the crew during its making, gives us documentation of an extraordinary moment in Indian cinema when filmmaking was a collective and participatory practice giving ample room for spontaneous as well as thought-through improvisations by all creative partners. There is a beautiful description of the making of a very poignant scene post a storm when Harihar comes home to his wrecked house and Sarbajaya breaks down in front of him with the news of their daughter’s death. Karuna explains how not just the Director, but the entire crew created the atmosphere that enabled her to embody the havoc of the situation and perform the emotion. While these writings are of archival importance in understanding the history of Indian filmmaking, they also help unravel some of the complex relationships between the director, actors and other technical crew. It is also illuminating to get a front seat view of an actor’s immersed experience in an art practice that is often considered a ‘director’s medium’; which she is also continuously critiquing.

Karuna’s understanding of the larger purpose and vision and impact of cinema that is socially committed becomes more apparent in the next set of her articles with her insightful musings on how cinema changed between the 1960s and 1980s. Whether the themes of the films she is discussing are war, or communal tension, the struggles of workers, or the complexities of urban living, Karuna comes across as a keen observer, rigorous thinker and lucid writer. She compares Indian and international cinema not just from the point of view of what they achieved with their vision and craft, but also from the grounded perspectives of their specific contexts and locations in history which places constraints on them as much enables opportunities. Her empathy clearly, in all her writings, stands on the side of social justice, and she questions the intent, purpose, outcome and impact of art forms such as cinema from the point of view of what they can do for enhancing the lives of people. She often does not mince words about her own incapacities or those of others, which makes her articles refreshingly honest.

The book also contains her articles on theatre, Doordarshan programmes, and travel. I found her piece on travel to the Soviet Union quite fascinating. Her remarks are full of wistful longing for a world that she sees as more equitable and just not merely in principle but also in practice. I find her comment, “Some kind of uniformity in the pattern of multi-storeyed buildings may seem monotonous, but there were no patches of slums by the side of the palatial building belonging to affluent owners,” telling of that desire. She gives detailed descriptions of the May Day celebrations, the Red Square, and the National Museum at Leningrad. At the museum, there is a beautiful moment where she explains how without knowing Russian at all she is able to understand through gestures and smiles the kindness of the elderly women who sat looking after the exhibits. It impresses her that Russians do not find elderly women useless in society and has given them work that has dignity. In all her engagements she observes keenly what she terms as a fresh and spirited outlook towards human society and its possibilities. She comes across in this piece as a dreamer of better worlds, devoid of cynicism – so refreshing to read at a time when most values of our lives seem to be under question. In 2022, where after three decades of neoliberal capitalism eroding our lives to shreds scholars and artists across the world are relooking at erstwhile socialist models of life – albeit with their limitations and constraints – in a new light, this article of Karuna becomes ever so much more important. 

The one complaint I have about the pieces chosen for this book is that none of them enables us to see Karuna’s personal life – her challenges as a woman in the world she lived in. Somewhere there is a door that is closed beyond which the reader is not allowed entry. We do not know who her friends are, what she liked doing in her idle time, what her relationship with her husband was, the kind of chores she had to do at home, or what kind of a mother she made. This can sometimes make the reading a bit frustrating since one really wants to know more about this compelling woman but one cannot see beyond a point. I wondered why it was not enough for me to be satisfied with her articles- without knowing her personal or emotional life. Would I be asking the same question if it was a man, I reflected. Perhaps would not. The lives of women are so much more complicated than those of men in the manners in which our piecemeal stories around the personal, professional, private and public are intertwined – testing boundaries, pushing for negotiations. So as a woman when I read the thoughts of another, I quite naturally seek more.

The editors have placed a prologue and an epilogue in the book, which I found to be most revealing of the character of Karuna Banerjee. These made this book special for me. After a short and meticulous introduction by Samik Bandyopadhyay, the book begins with a creative piece written by Karuna titled A Dirge and A Song which is an imagined conversation between a mango tree and some birds about the violence humans inflict on each other, specifically lamenting the burning to death of a Muslim family. The epilogue consists of a satirical piece Karuna had written about the agitations around the Mandal Commission that the Times of India refused to publish. This piece mocked the selfish, ruthless and violent upper castes who are not willing to give an inch to address the centuries-old discriminatory caste system in the country. In both these pieces, Karuna is observed as an artist who inhabits this world with a commitment to justice. In both these pieces, she finds creative and artistic ways to state her position. The same expectations that she demands of art practices like cinema and theatre – to have deep roots in progressive politics and ideological underpinnings while striving for artistic excellence – she also places upon her work.

It is important that women like Karuna Banerjee wrote about their work, their thoughts and their reflections on the world and time they lived in. Other than revealing a certain history of an art form through the life of one practising and shaping it, it allows us to understand how women engaged with the larger world around them much of which is only available to us through the writings of men. Recently, I have read two autobiographies – Dolly Thakore’s Regrets, None and Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot on the Ground, which were fascinating accounts of their unique, challenging, and provocative journeys. But what they also did is enabled us to use the prisms of their lives to enter into that time and space that they inhabited. And it certainly looked boldly different from what was handed to us by men. So I do hope that women in the arts and elsewhere continue to write – about their lives, their thoughts, their laments and their dreams.

Arundhati Ghosh is a cultural practitioner and lives in Bangalore. She is a poet in Bangla and can be sometimes convinced to write in English.