In the slim canon of Indian Women-in-Prison films, Bimal Roy’s acclaimed Bandini (1963) stands out both for its technical artistry and thematic complexity. The penultimate entry in the Bengali filmmaker’s famously female-centric filmography, Bandini explores the psychological state of Kalyani (played by a stunning Nutan), a woman incarcerated for murder, and the events that lead her into committing the depraved crime. Roy intertwines the classic themes of women’s melodrama—sacrifice, hysteria, and romantic dilemmas—with the political concerns of pre-independent India, staging a sprawling film where jail is just one of the many spaces in which women’s desires and freedoms are strictly regulated. As Kalyani navigates patriarchal domesticity, prison, and heterosexual love, she exemplifies Oren Shai’s assertion about Women-in-Prison films: “Rather than being set free, the incarcerated woman passes from one form of oppression to another." Roy’s richly symbolic visual compositions and his inventive use of songs add further layers to the film, both undercutting and underlining his narrative in interesting ways.
DISEASE AND DESIRE
In The 'Desire to Desire', Mary Ann Doane’s writes that the American women’s films (or “weepies”) of the 1930s and 40s are structured around “the impossible position of women in relation to desire in a patriarchal society” (96). Female desire is coded as a dangerous and impermissible excess in these films, and is systematically denied through various narrative scenarios until the woman is restored to her proper place as the passive object of male desire. One such scenario is represented by the “medical discourse” film—a type of melodrama in which a woman’s desire manifests itself as disease and must be cured by the clinical/erotic gaze of a male doctor. Populated by ill, manic, and masochistic women, Bandini—although part of a cultural and cinematic tradition entirely distinct from Doane’s field of study—embodies this template perfectly.
The transgressiveness of Kalyani’s desire for Bikash (Ashok Kumar), the radical freedom fighter held under house-arrest in her village, is evident from the fact that her first meeting with him involves a literal (and physical) transgression: Tasked by a friend to pass on a note to Bikash from his Party, she lies to a police officer to make it past the barbed fence surrounding Bikash’s house and then slips the note through cracks in the wall. When she first sets eyes on him, her face is framed—tellingly—behind the jail-like bars of a window. Kalyani also speaks of secret trysts and transgressions in “Mera gora ang lai le,” the song she subsequently sings about her infatuation with Bikash: “Take away my fair complexion/make me dark-coloured/so I can blend into the night/and be with my lover.”
“The clinical eye is a most masculine eye” writes Doane (225). It represents two drives that patriarchal society assumes as male prerogatives: desire and knowledge. It is Kalyani’s appropriation of this gaze—both erotic and epistemological—that leads to her downfall in Bandini. Bikash arrives at her doorstep one night; sensing Kalyani’s coyness at receiving him at such a late hour, he turns to leave. But she stops him, noticing that he has a high fever, and insists that he wait inside until the rain subsides. She fans him as he sleeps, and eventually falls asleep herself. When they awaken, their arms intertwined, a group of villagers are gathered at the door, chastising them for their impropriety. Bikash attempts to resolve the issue by announcing his intentions to marry Kalyani and thus legitimize their affections. However, Bikash is forced to leave town suddenly for an emergency, and he never returns. Months later, unable to bear the public dishonor of being spurned, and the rumor-mongering of the villagers, Kalyani runs away in the middle of the night.
Hysteria, derived from the Greek word for uterus, is the “paradigmatic female disease;” it blurs the line between the mind and body, between character and corpus, and between subject and object (Doane 226). In the women’s film, hysteria has historically been the manifestation—and invalidation—of a desiring female subjectivity.
Having run away, Kalyani finds work as a nurse in a hospital, where she is assigned to a hysteric prone to irascible bouts of mania and rage. When Kalyani first meets the woman, Roy frames them together in a mirror, foreshadowing Kalyani’s eventual devolution into hysteria herself. A few days later, Kalyani receives the devastating news of her father’s sudden death. While still in a grief-stricken daze, she is summoned rudely by the hysteric and receives another crushing blow: the woman’s husband turns out to be Bikash, the unrequited object of Kalyani’s desire. Overcome with rage and jealousy, Kalyani kills the woman by poisoning her tea. When Bikash comes to inquire about his wife’s death, Kalyani confesses to the murder with manic screams, sobbing and tearing at her hair in the textbook image of a hysteric.
It is a doctor’s gaze that finally recuperates Kalyani and leads to her release from prison, both literal and mental. When we first meet Kalyani, she is wracked by masochistic guilt and volunteers to nurse a tuberculosis patient at risk to her own health—atoning, in a sense for her previous two attempts at tending to the sick, both of which end in disaster because of her desirous and hysteric impulses.
Right from the beginning, Kalyani’s relationship with the doctor is carefully regulated within the active/passive binary of onscreen heterosexual desire; in fact, as Doane writes, “the doctor exercises an automatic power and mastery in the [doctor-patient] relation, which is only a hyperbolization of the socially acceptable ‘norm’ of the heterosexual alliance” (226). Unlike her interactions with Bikash, Kalyani is never seen looking at the doctor through the bars of the window; instead, she is framed in profile, her gaze averted from him.
Although Kalyani is not his patient per se, the doctor, desiring her, concerns himself with both her physical and mental health. He sends her special meals to prepare her body to withstand exposure to tuberculosis; when she resists his advances, reminding him of her sins, he says that he is determined to “save her” in spite of her past. “Don’t ruin your future in penance for your past,” he advises her. Elsewhere, he tells her that he believes even C-class convicts like her to be deserving of respect. He interprets and psychoanalyzes her, becoming a “site of a knowledge which… controls [her] female subjectivity” (Doane 210). His clinical mode of wooing her by “reading” her is literalized in the scene that marks their first erotic exchange: When he insists on checking her pulse, the camera closes in on Kalyani’s face, which winces with both excitement and guilt in response to his touch.
The doctor’s insistence on forgiving and marrying Kalyani leads to her recounting her life’s story to the prison Inspector (i.e., as in the case of psychoanalysis, an “inducement to narrate” is used as a means of extricating her from jail, as well as her own self-imposed debasement) (Doane 217). Pitying the tragedy of her life, the Inspector appeals for her early release and sends her off to unite with the doctor, who becomes, through his medical/erotic gaze, both romantic partner and moral guardian. The Inspector’s parting words to Kalyani are, however, cautionary: “You are now rid of me, but you’ll be a prisoner of the household for the rest of your life.”
LIBERATING THE MOTHER/LAND
Set in 1934, fifteen years before India achieved independence from the British Raj, the events of Bandini take place against the backdrop of the Indian independence struggle, imbuing the film’s themes of imprisonment and freedom with a double valance. Specifically, the film offers a glimpse into the complex ways in which questions of women’s liberation were negotiated within the emerging discourse of nationalism and sovereignty.
The particular political context of Bandini is made clear in the first act of the film, which devotes a long song-sequence to the execution of a freedom fighter. As he is led through the prison towards the noose, he sings “Don’t cry, mother / You have many sons.” He addresses not just his own biological mother, who weeps at the gates of the prison, but also the nation, which by then was—and continues to be—envisioned in maternal terms as “Mother India” (Bharat Mata). The sequence alternates between the freedom fighter and his mother right up to the hanging, at which point it cuts to the latter, allowing her agonized face to signify the death of her son. It’s a great metaphor for the way in which women are often privileged as symbols, but not necessarily as active participants in the national discourse.
This double standard is driven home forcefully later in the film, when Kalyani asks Bikash if he, like her father, believes that women are good for the kitchen and nothing else. Bikash replies that he used to, until three years ago, a police inspector’s wife discreetly helped him escape from prison in the middle of the night. The “mother’s love” shown to him by that woman made him realize, he says, that “women don’t need to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with men, because they can just as easily help them from within their homes.” Bikash thus imagines women’s freedom and equality in a very limited sense, as necessary only to the extent that it is advantageous to the men leading the larger anti-colonial struggle. This is in line with the attitudes held by even the more progressive leaders during the Indian independence movement. As Sadhna Arya writes in Women, Gender, Equality, and the State, Gandhi’s influential “idealisation the image of women as the embodiment of sacrifice… helped to strengthen the prevailing oppressive stereotype of women as selfless companions and contributors to a social cause defined by men” (20).
Moreover, even as the independence movement brought women out into the public sphere, it often involved a re-entrenchment—rather than reformation—of their domesticity. In Women in the Indian National Movement (2006), Suruchi Thapar-Bjokert describes how the public domain was “domesticated” during the freedom struggle, so that middle-class women could enter it “without disassociating themselves from domestic ideology” (46). Women were encouraged to fulfill household duties and secure permissions from their guardians before joining protests; moreover, their participation in the struggle was tied to “familial symbols, household dynamics, and nationalist symbolism,” as exemplified by Bikash’s anecdote. In his flashback, the woman’s liminal positioning—right at the threshold of her house, neither outside nor inside—is reflective of this idea of women being unable to fully leave the private or home-sphere even as they entered the public sphere. We also encounter these themes and framings earlier in the film, when Kalyani is tasked by her friend to pass on a note to Bikash from his Party. To convince the security guard to let her in past the barbed fence surrounding Bikash’s house-arrest, she invokes domestic duties (pretending to need special flowers from within the compound for a home ritual) and her relation to her father, the town’s well-beloved postmaster.
I AM A PRISONER OF MY LOVER
By the end of Bandini, Kalyani—having paid dearly for her desire for Bikash—has been redeemed by the doctor and given an opportunity to reintegrate into society as his wife. However, as she is escorted to Deven’s town by the jail warden, a surprising turn of events (somewhat) undermines the film’s patriarchal discourses, allowing Kalyani the agency that is systematically denied to her in the preceding course of the narrative.
While waiting for her steamer at the local ship harbour, Kalyani realizes that the ailing man behind her—separated, of course, by a barrier—is Bikash. She crosses over to his side to come to his aid, giving him water and medicine in a shot reminiscent of the earlier incident that led to Kalyani’s eventual downfall. Soon after, Bikash’s companion narrates the man’s tragedy to Kalyani, revealing that Bikash had been forced by his Party to marry the mentally ill daughter of an important government official as a means of spying on the administration. “[Bikash] sacrificed his own love for the love of his nation,” says the friend. In an ironic reversal of the gendered roles imposed on men and women during the freedom struggle, Bikash is trapped into an undesirable domestic arrangement for the sake of the country’s liberation.
Her sympathy for Bikash renewed by this revelation, Kalyani is torn between the original—and transgressive—object of her desire and the more “proper” and socially acceptable partner represented by Deven, while the song “Oh Re Maajhi” underlines her dilemma: “Oh boatsman/my lover is on the other side/take me across to him.” When she hears Bikash’s ferry departing, she suddenly makes her decision and starts running towards him. Her warden tries to stop her, saying “Our path is the other way.” Kalyani, no longer content with being a prisoner of destiny, responds: “This is my path.”
However, the film is careful to situate Kalyani’s agency of choice within the strict bounds and limited freedoms of heterosexual love. As she defiantly runs across ship’s plank and falls at Bikash’s feet, the film’s title song plays melancholically in the background: “I am the prisoner (bandini) of my lover/I am the companion of my beloved.”
- Arya, Sadhna. Women, gender equality and the state. Deep & Deep Publications, 2000.
- Doane, Mary Ann. The desire to desire: The woman's film of the 1940s. Georgetown University Press, 1987.
- Thapar-Bjorkert, Suruchi. Women in the Indian National Movement. New Delhi, Sage, 2006.
- Shai, Oren. "The Women in Prison Film: From Reform to Revolution, 1922–1974." Bright Lights FilmJournal 79 (2013).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Devika Girish is a freelance film critic. She writes for Film Comment, Village Voice, Reverse Shot, Vague Visages, and MUBI’s Notebook, among others. She grew up in India, studied film and critical theory at Brown University, and will soon start a Master’s in Specialized Arts Journalism at the University of Southern California.