Film Review: ARDHANGINI: WHY SHOULD THE WOMAN ALWAYS BE BLAMED FOR A CHILDLESS MARRIAGE?
Indian film scholar and author Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji critically writes on the film, “Ardhangini” and says that this film takes a very unusual look at marriages and at man-woman relationships
The word “Ardhangini” in most Indian languages, roughly stands for “the other half” in a marriage and the feminine gender attaches it to the wife. But Kaushik Ganguly-written and directed Ardhangini produced by Surinder Films has a very significant message that attacks patriarchy from an unusual angle and does it very powerfully.
Kaushik Ganguly is one of the top directors in Bengali cinema today. He takes on quite different agendas in most films but as a critic, I find him inconsistent in terms of making qualitatively good films every time. Ardhangini, however, is different. It upholds Ganguly’s reputation as one of the best directors and some more. He does it with the help of a wonderful cast of performers who have already established their credibility as actors of experience and excellence, both. Even the relatively new actors come across with performances that belie their lack of years spent in the industry.
Suman (Koushik Sen) and Shubhra (Churni Ganguly) have been married for 17 years but do not have children. Suman is a professor while his wife is a school teacher. They live in a sprawling mansion within a joint family. But they just cannot get along so when the film opens, Shubhra is about to pack bag and baggage and leave her marital home. Her relationship with her mother-in-law (Lily Chakraborty) and the others is good but she walks out of the family home and they settle for a divorce. The barrenness of the marriage, for which Suman keeps blaming Shubhra, is the main reason for the divorce. Shubhra knows that Suman is sterile and can never father a child biologically. But the constant blaming showered on her by him breaks her and they decide to end the relationship mutually.
This film takes a very unusual look at marriages and at man-woman relationships where Suman marries again. His new wife, Meghna Mustafi (Jaya Ahsan), a noted singer of Bangladesh and Shubhra meet through force of circumstance and get to know each other not just as the two wives of the same man but as two women spaced in terms of age and interest coming together when the younger woman faces a severe financial problem. Shubhra, controlled, dignified and alone, is forced to help Meghna when Suman suffers a major heart attack and goes into coma. Meghna has no idea about where and how he invested his money needed for the expensive heart surgery so she is forced to seek help from Shubhra who managed Suman’s finances when they were together.
The person helping them every step of the way is Suman’s youngest brother, Sukanth Chatterjee (Ambarish Bhattacharjee) who lives away from the joint family and truly loves his ex-sister-in-law. Sukanth is caught between these two women and is helpless in solving their often hot disputes. His character projects the image of a reasonable and helpful male friend who holds his elder brother responsible for the break with his first wife Shubhra.
The relationship between the two women grows over time, but it has its strong ups and downs through quarrels and counter-blamings. Suman’s second marriage to Meghna was never accepted by his family as Meghna is Muslim and also a widow so Suman is forced to seek shelter in a different place. Suman met Meghna after she lost her husband following a musical recital. They discover that she is pregnant and Suman marries her soon after.
Meghna insists that she is not, repeat not, a home-breaker as Suman and Shubhra were divorced before she met Suman. Seeing her in a precarious condition in a new country – Meghna belongs to Bangladesh and has never been to India, Shubhra softens towards the younger woman but keeps bearing some bitterness inside her. The funds are arranged but something is amiss. Meghna is pregnant. Whose child is she carrying anyway? Shubhra decides to find out. Does she? For the answer, you need to watch the film.
We live in a society that is patriarchal. So men either cannot or refuse to accept that they cannot father children naturally when they find they are sterile. In fact, we keep reading reports of the husband refusing to undergo fertility tests when there are no children. Why? An admission of the truth he feels, will snip away into his masculinity which is impossible for him to face privately and of course in public.
The family, also patriarchal, backs him in his secrecy and merrily puts the blame on the wife. The wife who knows she is fertile, the knowledge having come from umpteen tests, is conditioned by the same patriarchy not to come out with the truth because she knows it will hamper her husband’s image and also, perhaps the marriage. So, she silently accepts a flaw she does not have, never mind everyone poking barbs at her for being barren! Though Suman’s mother, older brother and his wife are aware of Suman’s sterility and Shubhra tells them, none of them comment on this flaw in the son of the family.
The entire issue of sterility within an apparently elite family with both husband and wife educated and working is not rare. No one wants to discuss this even in social media if they know that the sterility is in the husband, not the wife. Why? This is the strong message that comes across quite powerfully right across the film Ardhangini.
Leaving the story with twists and turns aside, the reason for Ardhangini shaping into a very powerful statement against patriarchy is underscored by the brilliant performances of the two actors – Churni Ganguly who plays Suman’s former wife and Jaya Ahsan who plays the much younger new wife. Churni these days hardly appears in films but when she does, she manages to put the screen on fire with an aura of her own. Jaya Ahsan matches her scene to scene, frame to frame, not only with her expression of being lost in a new country in a critical situation where the husband is in coma and she is pregnant with no money, but also expresses all this through a rainbow-hued range of expressions in terms of her shakiness when she meets Shubhra, her talking right back when Shubhra insults her, making the entire situation when the two are sharing a scene come alive with magical chemistry. The other wonderful performance comes from Ambarish Bhattacharjee, a bachelor caught between two women both married to his brother who helps but really has no clue what to do.
The music is soft and low-key, even romantic, never intruding into the proceedings while the cinematography often freezes on the troubled face of Shubhra and then, smoothly panning to catch the very angry face of Meghna who is ready to burst. The camera shifts quite smoothly across the heritage mansion of the Mukherjees to the shopping mall to the grandly decorated interiors of Shubhra’s home to the hospital corridors right into the cabin of the comatose Suman with tubes sticking out of him. The editing is slick and does not jar or bring jerks. It is truly a pity that an actor like Kaushik Sen has very little to do in terms of dramatics and he is so fixed in negative characters these days that viewers immediately know that he is “the bad one.”
I have tried my best to avoid spoilers as the film has several and giving them away would spoil the enjoyment. But Ardhangini, I am happy to say, is likely to raise more questions among the audience than provide enjoyment. And this is a fact.