In Rituparno Ghosh’s 1997 film Dahan The Burning], based on novelist Suchitra Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name, Romita Chowdhury – a newly married middle-class young woman – spends hours standing in the balcony of her conjugal home looking down at the road below. In the first letter she writes, after her marriage, to her elder sister who lives in Canada (with which the film begins), she writes lovingly of her new home, her in-laws and especially this piece of open space from which she can watch, for hours, the city of her birth. As the film progresses, however, it is this limit space of the balcony – poised precariously between the inside and the outside, the public and the private, freedom and confinement – that becomes one of the points of contention in the domestic strife between Romita and her husband Palash.
The arranged marriage has ensured that the couple does not really know each other. The differences in class and culture between the two affinal (related by marriage) families are barely perceptible at first to Romita who finds the religious practices of her in-laws ‘interesting’ and rather endearingly archaic. The incident that shakes up the easy flow and quiet rhythm of her post-marital romance, takes place one evening when Palash and Romita go on a shopping trip to New Market and are caught without transport in an evening shower outside the metro station near their house. While Palash is across the road buying cigarettes a group of men starts harassing Romita and finally assault her. When Palash arrives on the scene, they beat him up severely and attempt to carry Romita away. The film’s narrative, at this point, spends a considerable amount of time in recording the reactions of the passers-by – in private cars and taxis – who respond severally with salacious curiosity, shock and finally a fearful reluctance about getting involved in what seems to them to be a violent and dangerous scuffle.
Only one woman, Srobona Sarkar, a young school teacher who is travelling back home in a shared auto rickshaw, decides to get off and help the young couple. The men are thrown off balance by the persistent Srobona, who refuses to let go off Romita’s body even as they attempt to drag her away on a motorbike. They finally escape, having given up the attempt at abduction, leaving the two wounded women and a severely hurt Palash behind. This event – which many characters in the film refer to as an ‘accident’ at different points of time – irrevocably ties together the lives of two women unknown to each other for the next few months to come. As the newspapers begin to report the incident as one of unprecedented bravery by a young woman Jhinuk (Srobona’s nickname) begins to be lauded by family, friends and office colleagues alike. Her students want to felicitate her, her extended family drops in to congratulate her, she is awarded trophies by several women’s organisations and even Romita’s father-in-law visits her with blessings and a box of sweets. However, for Romita things unfold differently. The pressure on her builds as issues of family prestige and the scandal of a housewife having been molested by several men begins the wear away the initial sympathy that her husband and in-laws feel about her plight. Even as Romita recovers from her trauma, Palash is assailed by questions at office about whether it was really molestation or rape proper, and whether his newly-wedded wife had had affairs with any or all of these boys before marriage. The only consistent support Romita receives is from her sister-in-law, who quietly continues to tend to her wounds and take care of her daily needs. Romita, too, begins to notice the state of absolute confinement and fear in which her sister-in-law lives, and the oppression inherent in what had seemed to her initially to be a nurturing family space starts becoming clearer to her. The first rush of celebratory support from Jhinuk’s family also begins to wear thin as the legal hassles in seeing the case through manifest themselves. One of the perpetrators is revealed to be the son of a wealthy and influential promoter, a close friend, as it happens, of Jhinuk’s boyfriend’s boss. Tunir, whom Jhinuk is slated to marry before long, urges her not to appear in court for the sake of their conjugal future – his transfer to a foreign posting seems to depend on Jhinuk’s capitulation. Both Romita and Jhinuk find, in their separate ways that the illusions on which their moral-ethical world had rested as well as the truth of their personal relationships have begun to slowly fall apart. They grope desperately for something to hold on to, some sense of empathy and solidarity in a world which has begun to seem increasingly alien to them. Romita writes ever longer letters to her sister, briefly contemplating divorce after Palash beats up and rapes her, while all the while taunting her about her metro-station lovers.
Romita stands sleepless all night in the balcony, ignoring Palash’s accusation that this is simply another attempt to draw sexual attention to herself. Romita’s access to any outside space has been taken away silently but firmly after the incident of molestation; she is disallowed from leaving the house for any reason but to see the doctor. This little space of the balcony, between the bedroom where she silently endures marital rape and the outside where she is seemingly in constant danger of assault, seems the only space where she might legitimately belong.
Jhinuk, too, finding herself increasingly alienated in her own household as well as from her lover, seeks solace in another limit space – the old age home where her aging grandmother lives, it seems, by her own choice, having wished to distance herself from the quotidian pettiness of middle-class life. This grandmother first angers Jhinuk by pointing out that her actions cannot be deemed as exceptional or heroic simply because the world around her seems to be full of people without the strength to do the right thing, appears more and more as the ethical backbone of the narrative. What had seemed initially to Jhinuk to be a space of alienation and loneliness -the old age home where people seem to be waiting miserably to die – appears now to her to be the only space where she can breathe free and speak her mind. As the film progresses, the distribution of safe and unsafe spaces between the private and the public grows steadily more confusing – the middle-class home no longer is a space of belonging, but rather a network of power relationships where hierarchies manifest themselves as emotional manipulations as well as direct physical/sexual violence. Romita’s denial of the truth in the final scene at the court – the only other time except the day of the molestation that the two protagonists meet (but do not talk) – contains within it many layers of silencing. Her in-laws forbid her to identify the accused, but swimming in the background of her almost-silent testimony is another case of violence that never gets registered and that which, in fact, cannot be registered within the law of the land – her brutal rape within the space of her own bedroom by her husband Palash.
Both women, at the end of the film, seem to find a modicum of freedom by being on the road, being between spaces – travelling from one impossible shelter to another which also perhaps does not exist. Romita does not break up her marriage legally but decides instead to travel to her sister in Canada. Her future is indefinite – perhaps she will find a job, perhaps take up a course, perhaps she will stay, perhaps come back. She is no longer so concerned, she writes, about whether her marriage formally remains or is ended, but asserts nonetheless her desire to be freed of her confinement. In a sense, she denies a possible legal solution to her problem, perhaps having realised the limitations of legality to give freedom and dignity to a woman in a world where she continues to remain half a human being – infantilised, powerless, silenced by the very relationships that she holds dearest. Jhinuk too, struggles with herself but finally agrees to marry Tunir in spite of her utter disillusionment, her loss of respect and trust. The film seems to argue that love survives the death of these emotions, and because there is nowhere else to go, perhaps to stay is as good as any other solution. Romita’s voice reads from her letter, as Jhinuk walks out alone from the old age home: ‘We are all inevitably alone. Then why disturb these relationships as they are? Let them be. Perhaps it is enough not to depend on them any longer.’ The film tragically, but perhaps realistically for the limitations of a respectable middle class world, draws back from imagining a possibility of an absolute freedom – a possible space outside the all-encompassing stranglehold of hetero-patriarchy. Indeed, one may ask, where does Nora actually go when she leaves the ‘doll’s house’?
The balcony, the lonely road between households, the suspended animation of the old age home is all that is allowed to women in this world in lieu of freedom.
The film ends with journeys. An already jaded Jhinuk hands over a draft of her wedding card to her grandmother, before insisting on going home alone (without Tunir) because she says, she does not want to lose the habit of travelling on her own. Romita stands on the threshold of a journey abroad to perhaps make a new life, or perhaps return to the old having learnt to better compromise. But it is in these transitional spaces and times that these women seem to find a semblance of autonomy.
However, in my reading the master stroke in a film (with many limitations, it may be argued – in that, like most of Ghosh’s films it is unable to imagine a space of either freedom or violence outside the world of middle-class aspirations and moralities) is the continual gesturing towards an impossible collective that the narrative finds itself engaged in. Throughout the film the two women (as well as Trina, the fiancée of one of the molesters) keep attempting to telephone each other and never manage to reach each other. Family members pick up the phone; Romita disconnects in nervousness; Romita’s father-in-law refuses to let Jhinuk speak to her; Jhinuk misses Trina’s call because she is taken ill. The women continue fighting their individual battles in any number of solitary units within their families while seeking intermittently (and desperately) to make some sense of their personal tragedies through a (political?) collective that never becomes possible. Yet we find juxtaposed scenes of Jhinuk and Romita nursing the wounds in their mouth separately yet in a strangely orchestrated rhythm; can these wounds be truly shared? The film does not tell us.
The real tragedy that the film manages to lay out for us is the tragedy of this impossible collective, the tantalizing possibilities, the empathy and solidarity of the subversive ‘lesbian continuum’ that the feminist poet Adrienne Rich had spoken about many decades ago. What is the possibility that Dahan as a film stops short of imagining? That, indeed, would be a radically feminist question, that might take a narrative from critique to revolution.
 Adrienne Rich writes of the ‘lesbian continuum’: “As the term ‘lesbian’ has been held to limiting, clinical associations in its patriarchal definition, female friendship and comradeship have been set apart from the erotic, thus limiting the erotic itself. But as we deepen and broaden the range of what we define as lesbian existence, as we delineate a lesbian continuum, we begin to discover the erotic in female terms: as that which is unconfined to any single part of the body or solely to the body itself, as an energy not only diffuse but, as Audre Lorde has described it, omnipresent in ‘the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic,’ and in the sharing of work; as the empowering joy which ‘makes us less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Signs, Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality. (Summer, 1980), pp. 631-660. [Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0097-9740%28198022%295%3A4%3C631%3ACHALE%3E2.0.CO%3B2-2]
Cover Image: Dahan DVD