Women by The River: A Beloved Portrait by Renoir

By Aliyah Banerjee

At times, Renoir holds up a mirror so close to my face that I cannot not look at myself, at Harriet, Melanie, and Valerie on screen. Young girls coming of age- so much spoken about the matter in film, literature, and life. And yet, words get lost in the silent river that flows. That tells the story of those who love, laugh, and live by it.

I watched Renoir’s The River on a sunny March afternoon exactly a year ago. I have given myself the luxury of a year to ruminate on this work, to relive it through the excerpts stuck to my heart without watching it again. Is it Suprova Mukerjee and Patricia Walters standing with their heads together, an older Bengali nanny and a younger English girl foreign to the land, bound only by their girlish fascination with young love, that has stayed in my mind? Is it the two little girls deep in their afternoon nap on the verandah, not a care in the world, while birth and death, love and loss, surround them?

Renoir’s work revolves around the lives of the myriad women in the film, and how their lives are intertwined, from the smallest of ways to the most significant. The men of the story, while central to the plot, are often secondary characters, perpetually outside the bubble that the women have formed for themselves. The three girls, Melanie (Radha Burnier), Harriet (Patricia Walters), and Valerie (Adrienne Corri), so different in their upbringing and mannerisms, are united in their seemingly silly quest to prove their love to the wounded soldier Captain John, who comes to live amongst them. But growing up by the river brings maturity to the girls, whereupon they realise the true colours of life and come to content terms with it. Perhaps Valerie says it best near the end, when she has apparently sealed her match with the Captain through a kiss, but then begins to cry. The young girl’s tears are no longer shed for the sake of love, though. “I’m crying because it is going,” she says. “This being together in the garden. All of us happy, and you with us here.” 

My heart grew suddenly warm upon hearing this dialogue, my emotions mirrored by the warmth of the sunlight in the beautiful technicolor landscape on screen. As girls, is it eventually the journey of girlhood that is more precious than any destination of love or happiness we may ever attain? One of the most poignant ending scenes, as the three girls stand together against the backdrop of the Ganga river, certainly says so. A new birth has just taken place, and the wistfulness of all three women for their nearly-gone childhood is apparent on their faces.

Mother and daughter. Their presence and their absence. Melanie, whose mother has long passed away, keeps her mother’s memories alive by choosing to don a sari, which is reminiscent of accepting her half-Indian ancestry. Harriet, who sits and ponders growing up with her mother. The three girls stand together at the end while another baby is born inside the room. Nan, who is like a second mother to the children, shown poignantly by Renoir through a frame of her sitting with all of them in the summer house.

The motherly, sisterly, or friendly camaraderie between the women in the film is rather a unique sight. Women and girls of different ages come together, calling to each other, smiling at each other, crying to each other, or supporting each other. Make no mistake, in showing this camaraderie, Renoir cleverly preserves the undertones of the sociopolitical differences that define all the women in this time period- the English children play with no other worries in mind than girlish fantasies, Melanie grows up relatively freer than the other Indian women because of her shared ancestry, but is still markedly more reserved than Harriet and Valerie. Nan has more responsibilities on her shoulders, it is evident, despite her carefree manner with the children, than the upper-class English mother of the children herself. But despite these differences, the closeness between the older women and younger girls, between the brown and the white girls, is rather touching to watch.

The use of colour in this film, ah! The three girls in spring, on the day of Holi, running under the gulmohar tree in all its vermilion glory. As they race to the house, hearing the news of the new birth in the season of new birth itself, around them the town also plays Holi, mostly in the hues of pink and red. Valerie and Melanie wear red as they follow the captain into the field of banana plants, their red a bright contrast against the tender green of the banana leaves. Harriet, in her story of the wedding, describes Melanie in bright red as the bride. Red, the colour of fire, of passion, of girls becoming women, both biologically and emotionally. Harriet is the only girl of the three to not wear red during the entire film, showing how she is the youngest, still a child who keeps her secret diary as a treasure. In contrast, Melanie frequently wears red. While she may be close in age to Harriet and Valerie, in her emotional maturity she is far ahead, already having learnt the ways of being a reserved, elegantly-spoken woman, perhaps worthy of wearing red in Renoir’s eyes. On the evening of Diwali the villagers worship Ma Kali, who also wears a red garland, and the local women carrying the plates of puja also don close tones. In a way, Renoir uses red to separate the local from the foreign. Everything that belongs to the land is shown periodically in red- the deities, the flowers, the colours of festivals, and the Indian people. The English are usually in blues and whites. The day of Holi, even the gateman of the English house shoos the local boys away who come with their hands full of red and pink colour. 

And what of the river itself? It is the river Ganga, herself frequently personified as a goddess, a woman. The river, at first glance, is silent, seemingly indifferent to the life that goes on on its banks. Society often holds the same expectations of women. The girls in the film are expected by their families to remain within their bubbles, ignoring the realities of local life that surround them. But just like the characters in the film interact with the river on a daily basis, so do the girls with the world around them. They love, they mourn their losses, and they adventure out of their comforts. And just like each of them returns to the river after every sorrow or every happiness, the film also returns to rely on its women from time to time. Their strong, unwavering, and, for lack of a better word, omnipresent, presence in the film is why Renoir’s film begins and ends with the river.

Also by the same author: Musings, Ghungroos, and Kathak on Screen

Aliyah Banerjee is a writer and a dancer originally from New Delhi, who now manifests her love for the written word in the form of poetry and journalism, while maintaining her musical relationship with Kathak dance.

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