Sexuality and desire within the rhetoric of “sati”

I would now like to shift the focus to Sheetal’s relationship with her husband and her role as a dutiful wife. Apart from replying to her husband with monosyllabic dutiful addresses like “Ji Swami”[13] [open endnotes in new window] (“Yes my Lord”), Sheetal remains withdrawn and forlorn. The time she has to herself when not attending to her sick husband is spent mostly in reading a book whose self-reflexive title is Daaera. The only person she befriends and talks to is her neighbor, Gomti, who is also introduced to us through a song she sings (Deep ke sang jalunmain, aag mein jaise jale baati).[14]

Gomti’s song seems at first a background song also metaphorically vocalizing Sheetal’s her pain and suffering—till the camera focuses towards the very end on Gomti singing.

The camera focuses on Gomti singing. Sheetal and Gomti.

The song impels Sheetal to go toward Gomti, who tells Sheetal that this is her grandmother’s house where she has been sent as a punishment for falling in love. The friendship between the neighbors develops into deep bonding as Gomti becomes a witness to Sheetal’s deep suffering. The film uses this second story to presents a strong critique of patriarchal social norms that disregard women’s desires—Gomti punished because she had experienced love but could not marry according to her choice; and Sheetal experiencing a marriage within which love would always elude her.

The other person Sheetal talks to is a kind doctor who comes to treat her husband. The husband dramatically implores the doctor to save his life. He says he doesn’t want to die without having his health restored for at least one full day so that he can match up to his wife’s youth. At this point, the doctor learns for the first time that the young girl is not the old man’s daughter but actually his wife. The old man also talks of his helpless condition and informs the doctor of his ritual of consuming a potency medicine, sankhiya,[15] “devoured by a passion to live.”

The doctor pays a visit. Sheetal’s husband imploring the doctor to help save his life.
Please restore my health for one day. The doctor realizing that the young woman is the wife of the ailing old man.

The effort of speaking these words results in his coughing, making the wick of the close by earthen lamp flicker. Sheetal immediately prevents this by shielding the light with her saree pallu[16] in a gesture of wifely devotion and service. Head slightly bowed, eyes downcast, a stoic resignation surrounds this image which symbolizes her suffering and her silent resolve to fulfill her dharma (dutiful conduct according to the scriptures and social conventions). This gesture sets up a melodramatic tableau as Peter Brooks defines it:

“a resolution of meanings… where the characters’ attitudes and gestures, compositionally arranged and frozen for a moment, give, like an illustrative painting, a visual summary of the emotional situation.”[17]

Sheetal is trying to prevent the light of the lamp, (in this context, connoting her husband’s life) from going out by her acts of service and passive obedience.

When the doctor leaves, Sheetal is asked by her husband to undo her plait and let her loosened hair fall on his face. He then erotically caresses her hair as they cover his face, addressing her as “meri sati.” Through this symbolic lovemaking, the important issue of physical intimacy and sexuality is addressed. The husband tells his wife that when he is under the loving shadow of her soft, silky hair he is able to defy death even if for a short while.

Husband addressing her as “meri sati”. Covering his face with her hair.

This sequence also brings into focus patriarchal control over the woman’s body, sexuality and desire, as we see the enactment of a symbolic sati by the wife. In spirit, the wife is shown to be ending her life along with her husband. Jyoti Atwal, a historian refers to this situation as the practice of a “living sati.”[18] The doctor, in fact, is quick to understand this. He sees that Sheetal is deliberately sleeping in the open and keeping close to her husband as he coughs, not maintaining any  precautionary distance. He asks her why she is bent on ending her life in this manner and attempts to help her by sending her restorative medicines which she secretly throws away, consumed by a death wish.

It is this life of a woman’s patient suffering and her renunciation via a “living sati” that Daaera focuses on. Conforming to a conservative paradigm about gender roles, Sheetal performs her wifely duties according to the religious path of “dharma.” It is not for nothing that the towering spire of the Temple is framing her terrace abode.

In an important conversation with the doctor she likens her husband to the sun and herself to the earth, saying that the earth cannot be saved without the sun.[19] In this way, she forsees the state of future widowhood as her husband is at the brink of dying with consumption. She is so scared of a life as a widow that she prefers death instead.[20] However the kind doctor reassures her that her husband’s will to live is so strong, she needn’t worry and should try to heal herself.

When Sheetal’s husband addresses her as “sati,” he is also reinforcing the meaning of sati as a wife who is chaste and devoted to her marital duty. He spells out Sheetal’s victimhood to the doctor who is treating him, that the young woman is kamsin (young and innocent), abala (weak and dependent) and is his mazloom dharampatni (wronged and dutiful).[21]

Although much has been written on sati as the burning of the widow upon the husband’s death, less has been understood about how this practice impacted all of marriage and how both society and individuals understood their place in it. Thus, Jyoti Atwal, notes in the introduction to her book titled Real and Imagined Widows: Gender Relations in Colonial North India that in India, “academically there remains a historical blank, since the discourse on widows’ sexuality and cultural representations remains a neglected theme.”[22] Furthermore, Anand A. Yang in his essay, “Whose Sati? Widow Burning in Early-Nineteenth Century India,” makes a point about the invisibility of satis…no one knew them as human beings and as persons. Information on widow immolation or sati is largely in the form of Colonial government records and statistics. Yang refers to Gayatri C. Spivak’s argument in her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow-Sacrifice” that as one goes through the records of the East India Company, in the early 19th Century, “one never encounters the testimony of the women’s voice consciousness.”[23] And Yang has described the failings of this scholarship:

“In part, the particular emphases in the literature on sati reflect the predominant orientation of South Asian studies towards conventional political history rather than the ‘new’ social history… Another perspective, largely absent in the literature, is the focus of the human face of sati: neither the identities of those who committed sati, nor their reasons for seeking ‘virtue in death’ has received much attention.”[24]

It is in the fictional world of short stories and novels that one encounters the subjectivities of the suffering widow. One of the reasons why Daaera, is such an important film is that it contributes in providing a human face to the suffering wife/widow thereby attempting to remove the blur and anonymity associated with lack of personal accounts of the lives of “dutiful” women. The film focuses on the injustice of a mis-matched marriage and is the story of several women who are forced into marrying older men, probably widowers, old enough to be their fathers. The young girls are socialized into believing strongly in their “dharma” or sense of duty towards their “swami”[25] and have to passively obey their husbands who act like their masters instead of companions. The film makes a strong appeal for companionate marriages and couple formation based on individual choice, desires and romantic love.

Jyoti Atwal looks at an important film in India’s cinematic history, Mehboob Khan’s iconic film Mother India (1957), which has the struggling widow (actually the wife of an absent husband who has abandoned his family) as the protagonist. Atwal argues that the mother/widow’s “image captures the independent India struggling to achieve economic reforms and transform feudal social relations.”[26] Atwal ties together the political and melodramatic theme as she analyzes the woman’s role as a sacrificing mother who struggles to bring up her sons amidst dire poverty and later can sacrifice one of them to safeguard the moral universe that has been threatened by him. In contrast, Daaera does not focus on the woman as a mother or even as a householder involved in domestic chores. The woman is a suffering wife who has no hope or will to live and her only duty is to obey her husband’s wishes.

Melodrama and the foregrounding of desire

Sheetal leads a life of stoic devotion silently enduring her destiny, but it is the power of melodrama that foregrounds the pain and suffering hidden behind that persona. As Ira Bhaskar rightly points out, “The ideology of feminine devotion is undermined, however, by Meena Kumari’s tragic performance.”[27] Her performance “works metaphorically to destabilize her assumed role, and indicates an internal turmoil that she cannot express or even fully acknowledge.”[28] All her desires are symbolically transferred onto the beautiful flowering tree under which she always rests, and which she addresses as “ meri sakhi” (“my friend”). Bhaskar writes,

“Thus the mise-en-scene, soaked with desire, figures forth a ‘hysterical text’ while its unrepresentable and unspeakable material has been siphoned off into the mise-en scene.”[29]

Bhaskar further elaborates how in the Indian context, melodrama does not usher in a process of “resacralization” that melodrama theorist Peter Brooks writes about in The Melodramatic Imagination. In fact “deployment of the Vaishnav Bhakti idiom evokes the continuum of the sacred in the everyday.”[30] The devotional song with which the film starts and which also recurs as a kind of refrain throughout the film points to Radha’s love for Krishna and conveys the erotic charge between Sheetal and Sharan. However both of them are trapped within “disciplinary regimes”[31] that deny fulfillment of these desires.

At one point in the film, it is reported that Sheetal’s husband, who had gone to a meeting regarding his monthly pension, has died in a train accident. In terms of audience expectation, this news raises expectations that Sheetal might remarry if Sharan’s mother, herself a widow, could be convinced to agree. Professor Kedarnath, a family member, (played by Nana Palsikar), undertakes this difficult task. The framing of his dialogue with the mother is carefully constructed—the mother is shown to be working on the charkha, averting a frontal gaze,[32] while Prof. Kedarnath is facing her, lecturing to her on the sanctity of widow remarriage, convincing her of accepting Sheetal as her daughter-in-law. Professor Kedarnath quotes from the Shastric text, Parasharsmriti,[33] enumerating the conditions under which widow remarriage can be allowed. Ultimately the mother is convinced, and she visits Sheetal. What could have resulted in a happy ending, however, is thwarted by the miraculous return of Sheetal’s husband, again belying spectatorial expectation.

In the concluding sequence of the film, Sheetal lights a stove on her terrace to heat some water for her husband.[34] Steam arises from the water boiling, her metaphoric response to the neighbor Sharan getting married. Next, she retires for the night, lying down on her (death) bed while the terrace across is brimming with celebrations, lighting, song and dance. As viewers, we share Sheetal’s perspective in this tragedy via the camera’s gaze, since we, like her, can only listen to and view the song and dance performed as part of the wedding celebrations from a distance. Viewers usually expect to gain privileged access into a song and dance sequence even if it is denied to a particular character; but in this instance, the camera does not grant us this access. A dancing girl is performing on the other terrace but is barely visible; we can only watch from afar as we are visually and aurally positioned with Sheetal.

Once again, in deep focus diegetic space, we notice Meena Kumari’s foregrounded face tilted towards Sharan’s lit house with a palpable, insurmountable distance between the two. When Sharan comes back home with his bride, it is to the strains of the song  “Dola utaaren kahar…”. The lyrics speak about the bride coming to her new home in a palanquin and the bearers are asked to lower it so that the young bride can dismount. Sheetal, for the first time in the film, responds with a smile on her lips and a sneer in her eyes— the closest she has ever come to speak of her own unfulfilled desires and the self-knowledge that they shall never be fulfilled. Daaera has been about this journey from a barely discernable Sheetal to the extreme close up of her—she most comes to life as life is ebbing out of her.

Sheetal lying on her death bed. The smile.
Spectators positioned with Sheetal’s extreme close up, while the terrace across is brimming with celebrations, lighting, song and dance. The film ends with the visual and the shrill sound of the alarm clock.

Through the mis-e-scene, the songs, expressions and camera angles, the film Daaera highlights the indirect yet charged exposition of love in the symbolic realm. Along with this, it also lends voice and subjectivity to the “sati”, something that remains absent and impossible to capture in official administrative records.