Durga Puja (also called Durgotsava) is an annual Hindu festival in the Indian subcontinent, in particular, West Bengal, that reveres the goddess Durga.
The festival marks the battle of goddess Durga with the shape-shifting, deceptive and powerful buffalo demon Mahishasura, and her emerging victorious.
Hence, it epitomises the triumph of good over evil, but it is also in part a harvest festival that marks the goddess as the motherly power behind all of life and creation.
On the final day of the puja, known as ‘Mahadashami’, the clay idol of Durga Maa is immersed into water.
For several years, Bollywood and Indian television have depicted Durga Puja in an opulent way, depicting the colour, vibrancy and divinity of the festival.
Many of these portrayals cover a pivotal concept – and that is women empowerment.
Consequently, two interesting and differing representations of strong womanhood is showcased in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas and Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani.
Devdas Exhibits Two Formidable Female Protagonists
Devdas exhibits two very formidable female protagonists: Paro (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit).
Paro is a virtuous and self-respected young woman, who, despite being married to an affluent Thakur, never ceases to stand for what she believes in.
Chandramukhi, comparatively, is infamously known for being a courtesan, although she has a golden heart.
Despite being a seductress with low social-standing, Chandramukhi has a strong self-respect and does not allow any male to belittle her.
During an era, which was dominated by men, these two protagonists rebelled against it through their ideologies.
Through this film, Bhansali creates the unthinkable.
In a period where a Thakurain and prostitute would stand miles away from each other, we see them dancing to ‘Dola Re Dola’.
This song sequence does not solely encapsulate the spirit of Durga Puja, but it also celebrates womanhood.
Addressing Patriarchal Hypocrisy
After the song, Kalibabu (Milind Gunaji), Paro’s son-in-law, makes a public spectacle of how the two women are together.
He tries to humiliate Chandramukhi for revealing her true identity as a prostitute, but her response is powerful.
She blames the male upper-classmen, like Kalibabu, who frequently visit brothels.
Furthermore, she also highlights the possibility of how illegitimate children are also born there.
A line which sticks with us to this day is:
“In the soil at the courtesan’s doorstep is moulded the image of the goddess. The soil is not impotent.”
The scene exhibits the double-standard of men.
It conveys how men use prostitutes for their enjoyment and yet insult/criticise them at the same time.
But by Chandramukhi speaking out, she upholds her respect… Not only as a woman but also as a human being.
Kahaani – Female Lead Portrayed Almost like a Deity
If we look at the poster of Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, we see Vidya Balan standing in front of Durga Maa’s murti. This denotes her as a deity-like character in the film.
Like the goddess, it gives the impression that she too is a symbol of truth and ‘Shakti’ (power).
This representation is affirmed, especially during the final moments of the movie.
We see Vidya wearing a white sari with a red border and red blouse.
Plus, she has a red, round bindi on her forehead. These colours are traditionally worn during Durga Puja.
During the climax, we see her expressions change from a timid and vulnerable woman to an enraged vigilante.
Her untied hair, black fierce eyes and tall body language, mirrors the goddess, sans the trident.
Good Defeats Evil
In Kahaani, the Durga Puja festivities are part of the film’s narrative and are built-up to the final day.
Unlike Bhansali’s depiction in Devdas, this interpretation is authentic and shot through Guerrilla filmmaking style.
Throughout the movie, we see a ‘pregnant’ lady – Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) search for her husband in the bustling city of Kolkata.
Finally, in the film, it is revealed that Vidya’s husband is killed in a poison-gas attack.
This also causes her to immediately fall unconscious upon seeing her husband’s corpse and suffer a miscarriage.
When she comes face-to-face with the man responsible for her husband’s death (Indraneil Sengupta), Vidya disarms him using the prosthetic belly she used to fake her pregnancy and promptly stabs him in the neck with her hair stick.
Subsequently, she shoots him with his own gun and flees into the crowd before the police arrive.
Coinciding with this sequence, we see the immersion of Durga Maa’s idol into the water, symbolising how Vidya also returns back home.
If one film replies to the double-standards of patriarchy, the other exhibits the victory of good over evil.
Whilst there are different messages conveyed in Devdas and Kahaani through the backdrop of Durga Puja, both exude female empowerment.
Both movies are a testament to how sacred and pivotal the festival is… Not only in Hinduism, but life in general.