Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Musings on Satyajit Ray's TEEN KANYA (Bengali; 1961)

I saw Teen Kanya ("Three Women") last night at Lincoln Center, as a sort of delayed coda to "First Light", the Center's superb Satyajit Ray festival last month. This was my first encounter with the film, which is usually available in the West under the title "Two Daughters", and minus one-third of the film, so the fact that the Center was screening the complete 173-minute version was a rare treat.

The film itself -- really three short films centered on a male and a female character in each instance, with no plot or character-link to each other -- is not one of my favorite Ray films, but it perhaps marks a transition in Ray's work, from the seamless naturalism of the Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) to the more enigmatic pleasures of the likes of Nayak (1966). Indeed, the film itself seems to reflect a certain mysterious transitional quality, as its first and third segments, unquestionably naturalistic, are linked by a genre film, a morality play that turns into a ghost story, yet the moral of which seems to be absurd and even farcical in Ray's own eyes.

The first segment focuses on the relationship between a village postmaster, newly arrived from Calcutta, and his relationship with the servant girl who works for him. His interest in her well-being, ranging from personal hygiene to education, begins to make a meaningful difference in her life, until a bout with malaria convinces the postmaster that village-life is not for him. He decides to leave his post, and while one appreciates why he has done so, one cannot help but note that the decision to leave the village and the girl (who has, according to the postmaster's own letter to his mother, been "like a sister" to him), came a little too easily for the postmaster. The third segment features Ray-favorite Soumitra Chatterjee as a law-graduate returning to his village for a two-month vacation, during which time he is irked, intrigued, and disordered enough by the village tomboy that he decides to marry her -- against the wishes of both, his mother, and (as it turns out) the bride herself. The marriage doesn't begin well, with the bride running off on the wedding night (Ray includes a stunning nocturnal swing sequence, symbolizing both the young bride's carefree attitude, as well as the sobering reality that, like the swing, she is no longer free, and must come back down), and thereafter "set free" by her husband, who tells her that he will return to the village when she wants him to. Months later, perhaps more mature (that is to say, scarred by the difference a mere marriage ceremony seems to have made), more conventional and conformist, the girl once known as "Puglee" (the "mad one") demurely indicates that she does.

The intermediate segment is narrated by an amateur writer seeking to explain how the mansion where he lurks came to be haunted, and involves a childless couple who has inherited a large fortune; the wife is clearly scarred by her childlessness, and seems to fill the void with an extreme covetousness as far as jewelry is concerned, going so far as to suspect her own husband of plotting to take them away (her greed might have deeper roots, and there is a sense that she might have ditched an earlier lover on the grounds of his poverty). The wife's obsession deepens, leading to madness and death, but also to a hunger for ornaments that transcends death. The writer has no doubt this story has a moral: the husband has brought all this upon himself by his "softness" and "meekness" toward his wife, by his inability to realize that women like a little brutality in matters of love. That this isn't Ray's view is clear: the writer is in for a nasty surprise himself, and cuts a rather undignified by segment's end.

Personally, I liked the third segment the most, although the relatively upbeat nature of the ending, its seeming endorsement of the tomboy's transformation into a suitably domesticated sort, was troubling. I would have liked to see Ray dwell a bit more on the perverse comedy of Soumitra Chatterjee's character wanting to change the very things about Puglee that attracted him to her in the first place -- though perhaps Chatterjee's attraction is about possession, Puglee's independence simply signifying that the prize is a valuable one.

Teen Kanya is definitely a mysterious film -- that is to say, while none of the segments was especially mysterious, the enframing structure of having all three in a single film, is the enigmatic part of it. Taken together, what do the three women -- important to remember the Bengali title is "Three Women", and not two or three "daughters" -- represent? Abandonment; the madness of desire (a coveting that stands in for other absences, such as (in the film's second segment), children or emotional security); and subjugation? Perhaps; and if so, a dark vision indeed, although -- and this is characteristic of Ray -- the experience of watching this film is never grim.


GF said...

Excellent piece, Qalandar. It's worth noting that Lincoln Center's screening of the film actually played "Monihara" (the ghost tale) as the third segment instead of the second. This is not how Ray intended it, certainly, but if one were hard-pressed to find a kind of "linearity" between the three works, it's interesting that we begin with childhood, and end with death.

I personally found "Postmaster" to be the best of the three. Was thoroughly moved and I am a fan of Anil Chatterjee, who is one of those regular Ray faces one easily warms up to.

Satyam said...

Illuminating stuff here Qalandar. My favorite story here is the Postmaster. I think this is as fine an example of Ray’s naturalism as any and the ending is a little heart-breaking. I do agree that the ghost story being the transitional one makes the film a bit of a puzzle. This story is otherwise fairly standard for the genre though Ray is good enough as a technician and one wishes he had tried his hand at a full length feature film in this mode. The third story, Samapti, is also consistently engaging though not one I like too much. But this along with Postmaster has Ray at his most humorous in many ways (excluding a Goopy Kyne Bagha). On the latter I also love the ‘madman’ here. One of Ray’s more unforgettable minor characters. I am personally inclined to think that the combination of these three stories is a bit uneasy in this omnibus film. But I do confess to being intrigued.

Ebrahim Kabir said...

One of the masters and great of Indian Cinema though this is not one of my favorite Ray films.