A Perfect Picture of This Social System – Who’s Responsible?
by Subimal Misra, Translated from Bengali by V Ramaswamy


Subimal Misra was greatly influenced by the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and sought to employ film language in his writing, a first in Bengali writing. The terms social realism and social criticism may be used to summarise his writing. He is said to write 'with venom instead of ink’ for his merciless treatment and exposé of the mores of the Bengali middle-class. Labouring women form an important part of the class of underdogs in society about whom he writes with empathy as well as anger. In one of his most remembered early stories, Haran Majhi’s Widow’s Corpse Or The Golden Gandhi Statue, the principal female character says, ‘Even being born a dog would have been better than this – oh, how hateful a woman’s life is …’. In two other phantasmagoric early tales, the extreme violence inflicted upon women’s bodies by men is graphically described. In his later writings, he refers to the routine occurrence of rape, and mass rape – especially of Dalit women – as a means of vengeance against a community. Interestingly, he also vividly portrays the actual role middle-class women play in perpetuating the exploitative and morally bankrupt social system and the associated mentalities. Misra’s stories have also touched on the taboo subjects of female sexuality and incest.


[A real incident in Sonagachi]

… the bloke’s simply one of a kind
shoved a mango tree behind.


The film we shall discuss now, Who’s Responsible? is about those people in the world who always give, but never receive anything. The film has as its central focus a girl named Roma who is a victim of this social system, compelled to be trapped in the flesh trade in the forbidden neighbourhood. In that sense, this film holds up a mirror to society. Eventually, at the end of the film, Roma asks who is responsible for her plight: is it she, or society? It is this question that the director answers in this film, using powerful language.


The film, which has been scripted by the director himself, devotes considerable attention to the subject of Sonagachi. That the fallen women are human, that they whore in order to feed themselves, and that society compels them to do so – the story is about this burning problem. In order to realise his vision for the film, the director frequented the brothels in Sonagachi, night and day, for three years. After this he was convinced that if he shot right there, instead of using a studio, an exact reproduction of reality would emerge. He presents the characters of the madams, pimps, middlemen and babu clients in front of the camera with great skill. He had observed the lives of the prostitutes from very close – ‘I’ve even seen them washing their clothes at noon under the standpipe, wearing petticoats’. No one else has ever observed this subject so closely.


Our knowledge of Sonagachi is not so scanty. Long ago, in the wake of Sarat babu, Sonagachi created itself, and it did so overnight. Before making the film, the director went there with the entire film unit, including the hero and heroine, to find real life stories. Where else but in Sonagachi could Sonagachi’s lives be found!


The film’s heroine is Roma. In her former life, she was Sita, a chaste girl, loved by her parents and siblings. All that is shown in flashback every now and then. By dint of her circumstances, Sita from the tea gardens becomes Roma Bai of Sonagachi. In fact she even enjoys a few years of marital happiness. Her husband was an airline pilot. He dies suddenly in an accident. He kisses Roma goodbye as he is leaving, and never returns. Alas, the terrible mockery of fate! There is a song at this point, a sad song, to be sung in a very sombre tone. Even the animals and birds of the forest weep at Sita’s sorrow.


Driven by penury, the pilot’s wife becomes a whore and finds shelter in Sonagachi. Her child is her life, he is all she knows. In order to raise him, she does not baulk even at selling her body every night. When the child grows up he becomes a doctor. Of course, when he understands his mother’s real situation, he initially refuses to admit his mother’s identity. But if the story had consisted only of this it would have been pedestrian. This is where the story takes a dramatic turn. The merit of the director-cum-author-cum-scriptwriter lies in the fact that he has projected modern consciousness onto the story.


An elder brother of Sita’s wanders around Sonagachi, searching for Sita at every door. The brother will eventually find his sister. Sita, aka Roma, will cry out, ‘Dada!’ and embrace her brother. Hot tears will roll down her cheeks. But when the brother wants to take his sister back home, no one at home accepts her. How can they shelter a woman at home who had become a whore? At this juncture the son incarnates into a messenger from the gods. He is a doctor by now, a world-famous doctor. The writer had even made him a Nobel Prize winner in medicine. At first the son had misunderstood his mother, but now he returns for atonement. Towards the end of the film comes his forceful question. Having travelled the whole world, his eyes have been opened. He asks who was responsible for his mother becoming a prostitute. Who pulled and dragged her down into this hellhole? No one is able to give a suitable reply to his question. The son proves that his mother is innocent. It is society that is to blame for everything. Mother, son and uncle have a tearful reunion. Peace returns to the world.


In the film, in between Sonagachi’s daily rituals, one would see in flashback, scenes of Sita and her pilot husband’s blissful conjugal life. Amid mountains and snowy peaks, rivers and streams, they would sing a duet and dance. It would be quite an exciting song, in the style of a Hindi film. A couple of intimate scenes, one or two pinching bedroom scenes would also be included – of course, only as much as Bengali cinema permits. After all, every class of viewer has to be satisfied. Watching pornographic videos has become very popular nowadays. That too has to be taken into consideration or the cinematic arts would suffer. But when scenes from their conjugal life appear in flashback, the heroine’s acting, for obvious reasons, is different. This is something that could easily be done by many actors. But the difference between the bedroom scenes in Sonagachi and those of normal conjugal life – at least the difference that we have been taught to believe exists – is brilliantly portrayed by the heroine under the director’s instructions. The refined section of the audience does not have to be told that one is the routine kind of bodily surrender while the other is the key to worldly pleasure – divine union. Canned applause (naturally, in parenthesis).


On his visit to the prostitutes’ quarter, the director had entered a woman’s room. This was not a common alley whore but someone quite respected in the prostitutes’ community, she was something of an aristocrat. The room looked different from the others too. Although small, it was a lot like a salon of the olden days, with thin mattresses laid out on the floor and cushions strewn about. The whore was also a singer. Afternoon turned to evening – what in Bengali is poetically called the ‘bride-seeing light’. The director empathised with the plight of the prostitutes. Taking a deep breath, he thought about how no one came to this neighbourhood to see a bride. Instead, here, society’s sacrificial girls prepared to show themselves at this time of the day, the time to lay out the merchandise. The darker it became, the more the fountains of frolic erupted. Reptilian desires emerged from the darkness within men. The director felt quite pleased to have thought of the phrase ‘reptilian desires’ – what a fantastic phrase, really apt. Now it was time to lay out the sacred offerings to that desire. As evening descended, two uniform-clad schoolboys entered the room. The landlady-cum-madam explained: They go to school. Many of the girls here have children. But will you lot be able to bring all that into the story? Here, fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boys show customers the way and bring them to their mothers’ rooms. It’s perfectly normal. Very commonplace. Part of the daily routine. Can your film handle all this? Chewing her paan, the madam continued: You know what they say: Don’t eat shit only ’coz it’s too smelly and don’t eat iron only ’coz it’s too hard! Despite her age, she had painted her lips. Yes, she was quite a character. Hearing what she said, the director clicked his tongue. Oh god, all this doesn’t work in a film! The audience will burn it! Is this an art film or what? The audience wants problems but they don’t want complexity. A problem, play around a little with it, and then a sweet solution – that’s it, only so far. No more. Changing the subject, he now threw a question of his own to the madam: Tell me, when a mehfil assembles here, when there’s song and dance in the room – where do these boys and girls go? Jutting out her head by way of retort, the madam replied: Where else? All of us have maidservants. The children study in the evening. The tutor comes. After that, for as long as the session continues, they stay on the verandah. Or they go up to the terrace. Alarmed, the director asked: What if people stay till one or two in the morning? Unperturbed, the madam replied: People stay all night too. If there’s no other option, the boy lies down under the cot. Of course, the customer doesn’t know. The business goes on above. A fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy – doesn’t he know his mother is a whore? Where will he go? Everyone has just one room – we have to make do somehow. She took a bite of another paan and asked the director for a 555. Turning the cigarette in her hand and examining it, she said, I know this cigarette. The big babu’s cigarette. Lighting it and letting out a mouthful of smoke, she said: Lay out the money and then I’ll tell you all about the women here. Fifteen-year-old boys who use foul words and abuse their mothers, call her ‘cunt’s sister’, and the mother too retorts in foul language and says, ‘Why should you be left out, I’m taking my clothes off, come and have a poke, you working cunt’s son,’ – you haven’t seen such scenes, haven’t heard that language. You haven’t heard someone say, I went out, became a whore, destroyed my own family, and now this fucker who lives off me talks to me threateningly! Of course, we don’t dance like whores behind the veil of respectability like you decent folk … To show all this in the film! As he sat perspiring under the fan, the director thought: That’s the limit! They will skin me alive! In the wake of Saratchandra, a very sweet Sonagachi had been created in the Bengali market – bel flowers, tittering laughter, tears, Parvati, Devdas … The madam continued absent-mindedly: Here, those who can do so send their children away, put them in boarding school. They live in Darjeeling and grow up there. Of course, most of them rot and die in this hellhole. But no matter how many vile abuses we mouth to the babus’ faces, as far as character goes, we’re far better than decent folk. It’s the decent women who snatch away our food. Don’t they say, there’s shit bubbling on his bum, but the bugger professes austerities glum!


Suddenly the madam grabbed the sleeve of the director’s shirt and pulled him towards her: Have you done a girl anytime? A whore? The gentleman was dumbfounded. Not knowing what to say in front of so many people, he began to perspire. He had not been prepared for this sudden assault. The madam swayed her hips mockingly and burst out laughing: Oh, how well we know the male race! The pussycat says I won’t eat fish, I won’t touch bones, I’m going to Kashi! Why do you keep looking slyly at that fair-skinned girl, do you want to go to her room? Her rate is a bit steep. We don’t have any caste … but the babu is like the insect that appears around Diwali. As soon as his business is done, he drives us away. After that, changing her tone somewhat, she said: Our real vulnerability lies elsewhere. Wherever we might be, the yearning for home and family remains, every woman wants to be a mother. As she spoke, a strange transformation came over her appearance.


In the film Who’s Responsible?, the elder brother, Jatin Kumar, has a major role. He goes to Sonagachi in search of his lost sister. If you ask, why Sonagachi, you’re likely to be disappointed. You have to assume that people go only to Sonagachi to search for lost sisters. A small boy doing his school homework in a corner asks Jatin babu: Who are you looking for? A change comes over Jatin babu’s face. The audience can see infinite love gradually suffusing his face. He tries to get familiar with the boy – what’s your name, which school do you go to, which class are you in. As soon as he asks about his family, from the other side the local hoodlum, played by Samit Bhanja, says: Stop! Don’t ask. I know what you’ll ask after this. About his father, isn’t it? Here in Sonagachi, women become mothers, they give birth to babies. You’ll find everything here, but you won’t find any fathers here. If you look too hard you’ll end up getting fucked, it’ll be a case of lantern in hand and bamboo up the butt.


The director created some special moments in this film, ones that were sure to earn him the audience’s applause. They just wouldn’t be able to control their tears. One babu, unable to bear the suffering of the prostitutes, leaves behind a hundred-rupee note. The girl does not know. When she discovers the money, she angrily throws the note in his face and says: You have a lot of money, don’t you? Take your money back! None of your coquetry, please. We’ve seen a lot of such money. Bhadralok! Don’t we know bhadralok! The wives of my husband’s brothers and friends are my own, while that slut, my husband’s sister, is a foe. When the slut of a mother-in-law pops it, I’ll be independent and go! With just a few words, the director clearly portrays their nobility of character. What Saratchandra, with all his fanfare, could not achieve, this director had done, and with such ease. When you think about it, you cannot help but be amazed. Oh, the audience would certainly love it.


Besides employing dialogue, the director has also used some significant symbols in the film. Every prostitute has a babu, and in this film the babu was Ranjan. He enjoys Roma. If she wasn’t ready in time, he whipped her. He lashed her with a conch-fish whip. Whether or not such things happened now, they had to be retained in the film. It was a film about prostitutes, so however old-worldly it was for a whore to be lashed with a conch-fish whip, the film simply couldn’t run if it wasn’t there. There were fights as well. In the prostitutes’ quarter, the elder brother fights using his bare fists, flattens all the toughies and hoodlums with karate blows and returns unscathed. And when he goes back home with his lost sister, once again a symbol appears. The familiar world becomes alien, and the alien world familiar. Inside a car on a rainy day, the car’s windshield becomes unclear, the wiper moves and the familiar streets are visible once again, the familiar houses; once again there’s a stream of falling rain – the symbol.


There are some prevalent notions about the prostitutes’ quarters, like the beat of the tabla, the melody of the harmonium, the cry of the bel-flower seller, just as Sarat babu and company had proclaimed. But there were some flats in Sonagachi that were completely different. Many people may have heard about Nandarani’s flat. A small room, lots of appliances in it – a fridge, a tv, even a video cassette player. For sure, Hindi songs played on the tape deck, but foreign music played too. There were several different drinks in the fridge. A long verandah stood adjacent to the room. The rent for such a flat was about two thousand. After paying for everything from the pimp’s commission to all his expenses, the babu could still afford to spend two thousand rupees on rent.


One girl had come down from the third floor to see the film shoot. She was fair-skinned, tall and pretty, like a classical figurine. On hearing the story before the shooting began, the girl asked: Who’s doing the elder brother’s role in this film? The director asked: Who do you think would be good? The girl replied: One person could have done it, Uttam-da, but he’s dead. The director asked: Can you think of anyone else? The girl mentioned the names of two middle-aged actors. The director asked: What if I did it? The girl pursed her lip, as if to say it wouldn’t work. She watched the shooting for a long time. The karate scene, too. Later, after the shooting was over, the director asked the girl: How did you like it? The girl touched his feet in obeisance and said: Please don’t use the formal ‘you’ with me. You are an elder brother.


After the shooting was over and the director was in a more relaxed frame of mind, he asked the madam: Can you please tell me how you people entered this profession? The madam pursed her lips. Certainly not the way you lot show it in films. Oh dear husband’s brother, is she her husband’s brother’s – ? Why doesn’t your sister sleep with that husband of hers? Is there any ill-heath in your film? Do they have to take injections? Bad diseases are commonplace in a whorehouse. All the girls have to take penicillin. Once in a while every girl has trouble peeing. There’s pus. The gift of decent folk like you. You call it VD or something like that. We don’t talk of such things outside. If we did, the customers wouldn’t come. Where deprivation is most acute, middlemen hover. The first vulture is this middleman. He entices you with the promise of employment in Calcutta. And then he deposits us here. A band of foxes and vultures descend to tear and devour the body. A feast session. Chew-suck-lick-drink. And thus begins the nose-ring ceremony, for entry into the oldest profession in the world. There is deprivation of every kind. Apart from the deprivation of food and clothing, there are other kinds of deprivation too. For instance, suddenly one finds the man of one’s heart. There is an exchange of hearts. Unable to wait, they go and get married in Kalighat. And then he brings her to a house. After a few days he leaves, saying, I’ll just be back – never to return. He takes whatever jewellery or money there was, all of it, everything. So now you die, you become a whore. Of course there’s no shortage of people who drop into the profession. Do you know what ‘putting the nose-ring’ means? Come here sometimes. Gradually you’ll get to know. At first it’s very difficult. Whatever one earns is taken away by the madam. Of course, one is provided with food and so on. If you are clever and intelligent, you find the right time and opportunity and snare some babu and grab all his money. After that, either you trip him, or else the babu himself becomes bankrupt while feeding his debauchery. Sometimes one has to say, don’t try to act too smart, or I’ll tell the wife and then you’ll be fucked. One does feel a bit bad, but it’s the sons of these decent folk who brought us to the street in the name of marriage. I don’t give a damn. At least one gets a room of one’s own with the money. So many babus have come and gone. The sky’s full of many kites. Cut them all, bo-katta! Make the string sharp – we learnt this at the very beginning in this profession. Feel sad for the babus? Rubbish! Wash and wipe yourself and wring the towel and hang it out to dry. Don’t talk to me about morals! In shame I’m in the brothel and eat to still my stomach’s woe, it’s because I have shame that I choose to wear clothes and go.


Scratching his head, the director said: My heroine came to this quarter driven by poverty. She is a victim of our social system. She can do no wrong. That she filches a babu’s money – such a so-called reality does not work in this country. It’s Saratchandra’s country, moshai! The audience won’t tolerate such things. She became a prostitute because of poverty – that’s our eternal theme, a burning problem, created by Sarat babu with his own hands. Without that, how can the public accept the film? I’ve concocted a fine punch by adding a progressive outlook to it. Absolutely twenty-first century. The son does not hate his whore mother. He accepts her! Takes her home. Society recognises her. Completely modern thinking! The latest! It’s bound to be a hit! So you just lap it up and I’ll rake it in!



Subimal Misra, born in 1943, is an anti-establishment and experimental writer in Bengali and lives in Kolkata. His work has appeared in small, limited-circulation literary magazines (or little magazines) from the late sixties. Over thirty volumes of his stories, novellas, novels, plays and essays have been published. The Golden Gandhi Statue from America, a volume of his early stories in English translation, was published by HarperCollins India in 2010.


V Ramaswamy lives in Kolkata. He has translated The Golden Gandhi Statue from America by Subimal Misra, the first of a series of Misra’s short fiction in English translation. Wild Animals Prohibited, the second collection, is forthcoming in 2015.