Composed of three stories based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short fiction that span a range of ages, each shot in a different narrative genre – a social realist drama, a ghost story, and a romantic comedy – Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) is a lucid panorama on the lives of society’s referential daughters and their relegated place in a deeply class-conscious and patriarchal culture. The first story, Postmaster, is equally a commentary on the cycle of poverty and social invisibility that relegate girls to subservient roles, and an indictment of the armchair liberalism that helps perpetuate these inequitable and disenfranchising institutions. Set in a rural outpost that is still plagued by malaria, the segment chronicles newly hired postmaster and urban transplant, Nandal’s (Anil Chatterjee) struggle to adjust to provincial life, endeavoring to cultivate a sense of culture in the remote village by continuing his poetry studies and teaching an orphaned servant girl, Ratan (Chandana Banerjee) to read and write, until a crisis causes him to re-evaluate his circumstances. In capturing Nandal’s superficial attempts at assimilation (in one scene, he humors a group of local musicians by finally attending a performance after sidestepping an earlier invitation) and charity towards the villagers, Ray explores the notion of enlightened goodwill as an assertion of superiority that reinforces social division.
Similar to Postmaster, the social imprinting of economics also provides the framework for the second story, Monihara, a gothic tale within a tale told by a village schoolmaster (Govinda Chakravarti) on the events that led to the haunting of a seemingly idyllic mansion across the river. Having inherited a country estate, successful businessman Phanibhushan (Kali Bannerjee) returns to his ancestral village with his attractive, commoner wife, Manimalika (Kanika Majumdar), where she is invariably visited by a desperate relative eager to exploit marginal family ties to curry favor from her husband. Manimalika’s reluctant encounter with her long abandoned past provides a glimpse into her relationship with her husband as well. Childless and insecure over his wife’s affection, Phanibhusan is quick to indulge her whims, lavishing her with jewelry from his many business trips over the years. It is a token affirmation that soon consumes Manimalika, a dislocated sense of adoration and loyalty that is strained when her husband is compelled to take an extended trip to stave off financial ruin, and she is faced with the possibility of losing her newfound privilege. In its critical examination of transaction as a surrogate for human connection, Monihara represents an intriguing corollary to the status of women in Postmaster. By presenting a paradigm in which social mobility is more fluid (albeit through marriage) and the balance of power is shifted, Ray illustrates the insidious – and intrinsically artificial – nature of class stratification, where the fear of erasure itself becomes a crippling, self-fulfilling prophesy.
As in Postmaster and Monihara, the final installment of Teen Kanya, entitled Samapti, also begins with a journey from the city to the province as a metaphor for reframing cultural norms from an outsider’s perspective – and specifically, a modern point of view observing outmoded traditions – in this case, a recent university graduate, Amulya (Soumitra Chatterjee) who has returned home to visit his widowed mother, Jogmaya (Sita Mukherjee). From the comical opening image of Amulya falling into the mud while disembarking from a boat (after stubbornly refusing assistance from the locals) as a spirited Mrinmoyee (Aparna Sen) amusedly looks on, Ray implicitly links the two characters in their strangerness – one, a transplanted native who is no longer accustomed to the village’s quaint ways; the other, a poor, displaced young woman who is too old to lead the life of a carefree child, but has also cultivated few skills to cope in a world of adults. Rejecting his mother’s notions of a suitable wife – one who invariably comes from an upstanding, middle class family and is equally adept around the kitchen as she is with embroidery hoops – Amulya instead has set his sights on the wild and unpredictable Mrinmoyee, a decision that brings the family much consternation when she decides to climb out of the window on their wedding night. In contrast to the dysfunctional relationships inherent in the previous stories, Samapti confronts the social paradigms that contribute to the inequality and polarization. Juxtaposed against a young couple’s search for love and validation, the friction represents the difficult, but necessary process of cultural revolution in its painstaking negotiation of accepted roles and asserted individuality.
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