Widowhood revisited in a television drama

Shada Megher Mon

During recent Durga Puja celebrations, RTV drama special titled Shada Megher Mon (A silver lining in the cloud), revisited the widowhood of a young woman in the context of Bangladesh since independence. Though some of the key components of the television are changing, it is still perceived as a social medium. Television always plays a social function as viewing of a drama is often followed by debates and discussions within the dimensions of everyday family life. This single episode drama is an excellent rendition of how society clutches onto the ancient concepts when it comes to widowhood and remarriage. As the storyline develops it powerfully touches the very sensitive points of widowhood. Much of the misery inflicted on a widow through the centuries is rooted in this drama. It basically represents how society still holds onto the bizarre orthodoxy when it comes to widowhood and remarriage. The roles of women have changed dramatically in middle class families, yet the portrayal of a young and educated widow in a traditional Hindu family raises a lot of important questions in regards to her status as a widow. When faced with the sudden death of her spouse, we see how the main character Shuvra, the widow is pitted against her dead husband’s family. There is a whole range of challenges this beautiful young widow faces every day. These include her right to decide for herself, her real standing in society, and her ability to perform aptly in an office environment, and most importantly how to embrace widowhood as a natural occurrence. The hardest part is how she has to embrace her widowhood as her ill-fate alone. This particular drama empirically investigates the gradual social developments that had occurred in a traditional Hindu family.

Scriptwriter Faria Hossain addresses how the idea of change came to be in embracing modifications to the rigid rules that society places on a widow. The story powerfully touches the very sensitive points of widowhood. The acceptance of remarriage of an educated young widow is the focal point of this drama. Beloved TV drama director Chayanika Chowdhury did a superb job in bringing the story alive. With her unique and outstanding direction she places her characters in the context of contemporary settings. Award winning actress Nusrat Imrose Tisha plays the part of Shuvra.

The drama reiterates how a wedding day signifies the culmination of a woman’s hopes and dreams, a beginning of a new chapter in her life. For a Hindu woman, adding a red bindi and dark red sindoor, and the tying of mangalsutra around her neck during the wedding ceremony gives her the significant status of a married woman. Similarly, the death of a husband can take away all the symbols of a married woman.

Shuvra became a widow in less than three years of her marriage.

The story opens five years after she became a widow. In the opening scene, she is getting ready for work. She looks in the mirror at her reflection in a pastel colored cotton sari lacking her marital trademark sindoor and big red tip on her forehead. She notices her silver vermilion container still sitting on her dressing table. She picks it up and stares at it silently. The storyline develops with the exploration of prejudices reserved for the widows, no matter how young or educated she is. Society still holds on to the centuries-old belief that a widow must deprive herself from all worldly pleasures and happiness by accepting all the social norms, especially the idea of a remarriage as an abomination.

In protecting Shuvra, her late husband’s family members go out of their way to protect her feelings, nonetheless end up adding to her misery anyway. She notices everything but chooses to internalize her feelings. The flashback of Shuvra’s short married life brings alive a young bride very much in love with a gentle and caring husband. Her husband adores her to no end, and asks her as a modern woman why she chooses to wear sindoor. Shuvra answers that the retention of the sindoor is considered auspicious for the wellbeing of the husband. She also does it out of love. She wears tip as it signifies luck for the Hindu women. So, she used to embellish herself with these mandatory adornments.

The transformation and striking contrast of Shuvra in a pristine white cotton sari talking to the photo of her dead husband is hard to watch. Within five years into her widowhood, she seems to have turned into a somber and lonesome figure. Often she talks to the photo about her inner conflicts, anguish and about the life she has been subjected to as a widow. Her husband’s words and memories from the time they were together come back to haunt her as she looks at her reflection in the mirror. After she has a miscarriage, her husband comforts her by comparing her strength and goddess-like aura with Durga, a symbol of strength.

As a director, Chayanika Chy has a fantastic ability to adapt and update the changing mindset of urban population in welcoming change. It is the job of the director in deciding how much reality she/he can bring on screen. An important point that needs to be noted in Shuvra’s case — as a working woman, she is exempt from the strict dress code of donning white, a color reserved for widows. She dresses in pastel colored cotton saris to work. Shuvra’s everyday attire does not represent modern clothing for women. Her blouses are colored but plain and less attractive for a thirty something woman. She wears a small black tip, thin metal balas, a small nose ring, small pearl earrings, and no makeup, of course.

The story shows the juxtapositions of two women living in the same house through brilliant performances by Tisha and Millie Bashar. They respectively play the roles of a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. The paradox between the lifestyle of the two women is quite astonishing. Bound by tradition as a widow, Shuvra is devoid of life’s simple pleasures. The breakfast and dinner table consist of two types of food. Three times a day, Shuvra has to eat a diet of coarse white rice, few pieces of vegetables, and soggy salad. Her parents-in-law eat nutritious non-vegetarian food sitting at the same table. The mother-in-law is caught between traditions and feeling guilty about having her husband around, and her son’s absence in Shuvra’s life. The vermilion on her hair parting, a big red dot on her forehead, mangalsutra around her neck, colorful expensive saris, decked out in traditional gold jewelry and other subtle hints is an everyday reminder to Shuvra about her status as a widow.

A puja gift of a white jamdani sari from Shuvra’s late husband’s kakima is a blunt reminder of her widowhood. A stark contrast was her mother-in-law’s gift, a bright colored sari, in showing how tradition still plays an important role in deciding who wears what. It was a painful thing to watch when Shuvra was left behind from attending a wedding because of stigma against a widow. A widow’s presence at a joyous wedding is considered “inauspicious.”

Chayanika Chy made sure that Shuvra’s character does not portray a self-pitying widow. She doesn’t confront her in-laws about why a widow should not question the rules of Hindu traditions. However, her indirect statements like how she always wanted a white jamdani sari for puja speak volumes in projecting her opinion. Shuvra understands why a ritual like fasting on ekadashi has to be maintained as religion blatantly demands it of her. Without being rebellious, she accepts her fate as her destiny. Even in an office full of male colleagues, somehow her widow status is visible. There are times when it seemed that she is simply filling the role of a widow with the expected norms laid out by society.

Things start to change slowly with the arrival of Aditto, an office colleague. Look wise, he is a replica of Shuvra’s late husband, but quite opposite in mannerism, brash and outspoken. From initial dislike, a spark eventually follows which leaves Shuvra very confused. Aditto tells her about his own mother’s widowhood. In a strict household of deep rooted tradition, his grandmother allowed his mother to eat non-vegetarian food. He pleads with her to try to break away from tradition. Shuvra reacts by saying that his mother had a son to raise and she has no one to care for. This is also a blunt reminder of a patriarchal society’s double standards when it comes to a male child. Aditto keeps on encouraging Shuvra to get out of this condemned life of widowhood and loneliness by giving life another chance. He tries to convince her that there is no reason why she should stay bound by societal rules that were changed into laws where remarriage is concerned.

But the very idea of widow marriage seems like sacrilege to Shuvra’s mother-in-law. After the initial misgivings, she comes around. On the last day of Durga Puja, she sees a sign that change is due for Shuvra. We see Shuvra in a bridal outfit and her new husband putting sindoor on the parting of her hair as Durga’s image reflects on one side of her face. The reflection is symbolic as Durga is an embodiment of divine force, and represents positive feminine energy and power.

Bangla tv drama has come a long way since the eighties. If we look at the history of women’s role, we see that in the 1970s to 1980s things stayed pretty much the same — women playing the stereotypical roles in a traditional society. In the last three decades, the position of women in our society started to change and women undertook more domineering roles in their television performances. By then, informed women’s participation and transformation had already begun. The script writers realized that the women are no longer going to accept the typical role of playing a suffering woman. So the television industry had to accommodate these changes by creating roles that resonated with the feminist idea, while writing a script to portray women in their new roles. Women no longer were afraid to stand up to men and society, and show their individuality and assertiveness. This was obviously facilitated by the readiness on the part of the society to welcome such a change for women playing defiant roles in dramas, the films, as well as in real life.

The television dramas that were made since the 1990s started to demonstrate that Bangladeshi urban women finally caught up with the women’s liberation movement in the west. They discovered that they had a choice in living the kind of life they wanted to live. They started to ask themselves what it really means to be a woman. Cinema and television dramas brought those images into life, and showed women in their new roles of empowerment.

A lot of the dramas directed by Chayanika Chy show how the idea of “self” changed in the last three decades. The change came in an evolutionary form in portraying women and their clichéd roles. At this particular moment in time cinema, telefilm and single episode drama is the mirror of society. Through these we observe a land of paradox, diversity and journeys of different women. In every culture, television drama’s role as an art form is subjective. Its major goal is to show social change and particularly how the role of women has changed over the years. The emerging new women who are taking on the new roles are embodying that in order to change to take place in society, any form of art, especially television dramas have to create a climate of change, acceptance, and sensitivity. Television is most definitely a powerful medium to bring forth that change. On television, the remarkable women actresses portray eclectic and dominant roles that are contradictory and wonderful. Shuvra’s character in Shada Megher Mon ultimately celebrates the idea of a modern woman who breaks free from the tight grips of orthodoxy. She shows that a widow’s sexual vulnerability is an entrenched fact of life and the rest of her life should not be spent proving to others that she is only married to Lord Krishna. “Krishna’s appeal to the widows is said to lie partly in his boyhood waywardness, and partly, in his adult incarnation, as the ideal lover.” Shuvra broke the taboo on second marriage and chose to live a happy life and indicated that a widow’s only solution should not be to pray to God.

Postscript: Parts of this article is taken from a previously published long form article in New Age titled “Widowhood, remarriage, and women’s role in television drama.” I have significantly edited a lot of the paragraphs to put it in the context of the day, and to make an accurate analysis of the 2019 TV drama.

Zeenat Khan writes fiction, nonfiction and newspaper columns. Her pieces have appeared in scores of magazines both online and in the print editions. A recent nonfiction work was published in the Kitaab International. She lives in Maryland, USA.



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