Bengali, Classic, Film, Review

Ghare Baire

In 1905, pursuing the colonial policy of Divide and Rule, Lord Curzon, the then-Viceroy of India, proposed the splitting up of Bengal into two separate administrative units. A large section of the middle-class intelligentsia opposed this policy in violent and non-violent ways ultimately leading to terrorist activity and the boycott of British goods. Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee), a leader of this political movement, comes to Sukhsayar, the estate of his friend Nikhilesh Choudhury (Victor Banerjee), to spread his gospel. Nikhilesh is a man of modern, liberal views. He is keen that his wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) should come out of the inner sanctum of the home. She reluctantly agrees to meet Sandip. Bimala is increasingly attracted by the charming charisma of the young political leader who is so different from her decent, subtle husband. The attraction is mutual and Sandip decides to stay on in Sukhsayar to spread the movement, conveniently impinging on the hospitality of Nikhilesh. Nikhilesh does not take to Curzon’s policy but he also does not believe in the counter movement that hinges a lot on the boycott of British goods because he feels that this will place the poor subjects of his land, Hindus and Muslims at a financial disadvantage. Nikhilesh realises his wife’s attraction towards his friend. But the wise man that he is, he does not urge Sandip to go away. He believes that Bimala should be allowed to see through Sandip’s facade herself and not by compulsion. By the time Bimala sees through the political pretensions of Sandip, it is too late as riots have broken out. Sandip flees before any danger can befall him while Nikhilesh rides off on his horse to face the hostile mob. The horse trots back home without its rider…

I have never believed in comparing a piece of literature with its interpretation and expression on celluloid. Even from a given literary source, no matter how important a niche it has carved for itself within the realm of literature, the filmmaker or director cannot accept it in its given form and has to adapt the material and has to adapt the material to suit the language of cinema. Cinema has a sense of appeal that is different and reaches out to a wider spectrum of people – those who have read the literary masterpiece and those who have not read it. For Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) there was also the problem of the time. When Tagore wrote the original novel, it was contemporary to the time with a background dating back to 1907, immediately following the Bengal Partition which provided the backdrop. Ray had to portray on screen, the same novel that is now a part of history – in terms of its chronology, politics and the society it represents.

Ray decided to stick to the period and the characters but within the framework provided by Tagore, made changes to give the classic a contemporary acceptability and also to put forth his argument that as a filmmaker and a thinking person, he could make his own aesthetic and creative contributions. The result is an unique cinematic experience that is a beautiful amalgam of Tagore’s genius and the genius of Ray who filmed the classic several decades after it was first published in serial form in Sabuj Patra, a Bengali magazine over ten months.

Ghare Baire depicts the revolution at both levels – socially, within the home, and politically, in the world outside. But as in real human situations, where the lines between the home and the world get inevitably blurred, in this film too, there is considerable overlapping between the two worlds, the one constantly influencing or being influenced by the other. Bimala, married to Nikhilesh, the landlord of Sukhsayar in North Bengal (now in Bangladesh), is the central character as she represents the ‘home’ and with the help and persuasion of her husband, steps into a ‘world’ she did not know of or about. Nikhilesh is quiet, responsible and very progressive who does not believe in keeping his wife confined within the inner segment of the spacious mansion that is his home. He does not share the ideology of patriotism that Sandip holds aloft like a slogan and a flag.

Sandip arrives at Sukhsayar to spread the chant of the swadeshi with Bankim Chandra’s Bande Mataram. Sandip is a leader (self-proclaimed?) of the Swadeshi movement. At the time of the film, he is busy travelling from village to village, from one small town to another, persuading, pressuring and compelling the local people to give up buying and using foreign goods. When poor market tradesmen refuse to get swayed by his powerful and verbose oratory, he takes the help of negative vested interests both diabolically and mercilessly, to sink their boats and burn their crops, pushing them to penury.

Nikhilesh does not believe in this kind of patriotism. His argument is that the poor cannot afford to quit selling foreign goods because these are cheap and sell well. The buyers also cannot be forced to stop buying British goods because the cheap foreign goods are also of better quality than the so-called Swadeshi goods. He cannot allow Sandip to impose this rule on his own subjects in Sukhsayar. But Sandip carries on knowing fully well that his friend does not approve of his actions that slowly threaten the peace of this small town. Sukhsayar no longer remains he exception it was. The three characters present an interesting juxtaposition in their different mindsets and ideologies. There is a touching scene where, in their dimly lit, ornately decorated bed chamber, Nikhilesh tells his wife that in the ten years of their marriage, she has never looked at another man when she expresses her love for him and her reluctance to come out to meet Sandip. In retrospect, this suggests the kind of relationship dictated by feudal norms in Bengal at the turn of the 20th century, highlighting at the same time, how some feudal men like Nikhilesh had the courage of their convictions to break these feudal rules, much to the consternation of the other members of the family represented here by his widowed sister-in-law he is close to.

Bimala falls in love with Sandip, the first man she has seen other than her husband in their childless marriage of ten years. Sandip pounces on this attraction first to brainwash her into the movement, and then, to extract money out of her to contribute to it. But he also falls in love with her in his own way. Ray has boldly inserted a kissing scene between Sandip and Bimala. Unlike Devi (1960), where the kissing scene between Doyamoyee and Umaprasad that has been shot in silhouette inside the mosquito net in Black-and-White, this kissing scene has been shot within bright lighting in full view of the camera. Yet, he has handled it with great finesse and delicacy. Sandip swoops down and gallantly gathers Bimala in his arms to plant a kiss. Ray makes a celebration of the kiss as perhaps, the only physical expression of the affair between the two. Sandip’s kiss is in keeping with his seemingly committed but actually flamboyant lifestyle and behaviour.

Sandip takes extreme steps to suppress the poor Muslim traders. This leads to the eruption of a large-scale communal conflict that ends with Bimala’s recognition of the essential goodness of her husband counterpointed by the opportunistic and pretentious ‘commitment’ of Sandip. Sandip escapes in a hurry before the angry masses can pounce on him and this opens her eyes further to his ‘commitment’ to the nation. Nikhilesh gallops away on his last ride to stall the bloodshed and the fire to succumb to the violence. Fire in this film is used as a destroyer of people. It also becomes a purifier of Bimala who is purged of her feelings of guilt of loving another man only after her husband has been cremated on the funeral pyre.

Ray has taken great care to highlight other aspects of contemporary life through small incidents and minor characters. The headmaster of Sandip and Nikhilesh’s school is a brilliant cameo by Manoj Mitra. Amulya, a brilliant student changes from being a blind follower of Sandip and his ideology to a boy who opens out Sandip’s true nature to Bimala and the sequence where he helps her get back her bag of gold coins is very well-conceived. Miss Gilby, Bimala’s Anglo-Indian music and piano teacher portrayed by Jennifer Kendall in her swansong is touched by her pain emerging from her forced ouster from India, a country she had grown to love.

The political satire – a Ray interpretation – is eloquent. Sandip’s fiery oratory urging people to boycott British-made goods is satirically juxtaposed against his running supply of Pompadour cigarettes. He travels first class because he says that leaders cannot afford to have their strength sapped through cheap travel. He hints at the inferior quality of ‘native’ products when he asks Bimala to add one spoonful of sugar to his tea if the sugar is foreign and two if the sugar is Indian. The righteous anger of the headmaster (Manoj Mitra) towards Sandip for corrupting for his brilliant students with his swadeshi chant, the ruthlessness of the middleman, the Nayeb who helps Sandip to drown the ferry boats and to burn the crops for a price, the disillusionment of Amulya (Indrapramit Roy) with his leader Sandip but not with the order, swadeshi, are aptly demonstrated by Ray with his signature of subtlety, understatement and power.

Small editorial flourishes by Dulal Dutta are brilliant. For example, in one shot, the camera tilts to close up on the smoke rising from Sandip’s cigarette stub left behind in the ashtray. Bimala looks at it as if entranced – a dialogue-free, melodrama-free shot depicting Bimala’s reaction to having come to know a different but very attractive man. The next day, Bimala is seated on the sofa. Sandip comes and stands right behind her. Bimala’s face registers a range of expressions – diffidence, fear, confusion and expectation of something about to happen – nothing happens. The scene showing Nikhilesh and Bimala in bed veiled by the mosquito net ends with the camera closing in on the joined hands of the two, emphasizing the shared intimacy of the husband and wife. The film opens with medium shots of Nikhilesh’s funeral pyre aflame that merges into merging into the horizon to blend with the fire rising from the Visalakshi temple set ablaze by the furious Muslims, blurring the lines that separate the rioters and the victims. The voice-over is Bimala’s as she becomes the narrator of the story with visuals of her face overlapping the voice-over. The last scene comes back to the opening but with a jerk, we discover Bimala is in widow’s weeds.

Though the acting honours ought to be shared by all the three characters, it is Victor Banerjee who runs away with the major slice of the credit. His performance as Nikhilesh is excellent in its understatement. He registers the hurt, the disappointment, the pain and the anguish Nikhilesh goes through a minor twitch of an eyebrow, or a look that stays on longer than it normally does. Swatilekha carries a bit of a hangover of her theatrical background and appears a bit stiff at times and camera conscious too. Soumitra Chatterjee is brilliant in an against-the-grain performanceas Sandip, a negative character who evokes more pity than hate towards the end.

There are minor discrepancies in detailing. Bimala wears a Narayanpeth sari which belongs to Andhra Pradesh unless Nikhilesh has specially ordered it for her. His widowed sister-in-law has neatly plucked eyebrows and her diction is a bit too sophisticated and contemporary than it ought to have been.

Soumendu Roy’s cinematography effectively uses and composes his lighting with imagination and without losing sight of the aesthetics and the period. The musical score by Ray, including the use of the wonderful patriotic number, Bidhir Bandhon, sung by Kishore Kumar and lip-synced by Sandip is unforgettable, like the film.

Bengali, Drama, Color

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  1. Great article! Your writing has opened my eyes to so many intricate elements of this Ray classic that I have unfortunately overlooked during the times I saw it, notably in terms of Ray’s fine eye for detail (paragraph 8), the editorial flourishes by Dulal Dutta (paragraph 10) and the beautiful subtleties of Victor Banerjee’s histrionic prowess (paragraph 11). That being said, I am nevertheless particularly impressed with the second last paragraph, the one on the minor discrepancies. I do recall the widowed sister-in-law coming off as rather glamorous for a widow in my view. Having seen the film twice albeit years ago, I was more importantly under the impression that the saris worn by Swatilekhaji in this film were Bengali handlooms (I am quite sure that the one visible in the Youtube link pasted above is a Dhakai Jamdani piece, by the way), but now that you have posited that her character Bimala was also clad in Narayanpet handlooms from the south, I suddenly feel like watching Ghare Baire again just for a glimpse of that! Call me eccentric, but my passion for handlooms tends to manifest itself in strange ways at times! Kudos once again for such a well-written, in-depth piece.

    Best wishes from Malaysia

    1. Thank you very much Gabriel for your very positive and inspiring comments on my piece. This review was written a long time ago, when the film was first screened in Mumbai and I sent it as-was to the editor of an afternoon paper because the editor liked it very much of course, without having seen the film. But the critics in Calcutta did not pan the film positively.

      You must wait for my upcoming book WOMAN AT THE WINDOW – TAGORE THROUGH THE EYES OF SATYAJIT RAY published by Harper Collins-India expected to release later this year though I do not know the specific time and date yet. It is an analysis and exploration of the material universe Ray charted in his films based on Tagore’s stories and thereby, tried to transcend the limitations of word through the audiovisual medium and language of cinema. If you send me your personal email ID, I will inform you when it releases unless you choose to see it online on one of the book sites. It is an in-depth study of the relationship between character and object that sometimes cannot be established in literature the way it can through cinema. Thank you again.

      1. thanks for replying Shoma-ji…pardon me for sounding rather excessively starstruck here, but I am simply overjoyed to hear from you! I am so thrilled to hear of your upcoming book and am so honoured to be informed about it by you in person. Ray is indeed one of the most insightful and sensitive filmmakers I have ever come across, and in my humble view, nowhere else does this postulation hold truer than in his onscreen examination of female characters. That being said, words alone are insufficient to describe my anticipation for the release of your book. As a literature student with a passion for cinema, I am sure that reading your book sometime in the near future will be one of the most memorable and enriching experiences for me.
        Over the years, I have learned so much about discovering, watching and appreciating Indian art cinema by reading (and re-reading) your posts here on Upperstall, my personal favourites being your essay on the women of Ray’s films as well as your reviews for the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory and, more importantly, Bengali art films, classics and new releases alike. I always look forward to reading your posts on Upperstall because your writing has a way of teaching me how to identify and subsequently understand, in intricate detail, what makes a good film, and what does not. Please keep up the good work and may all go smooth sailing in the release of your upcoming book! Have a great weekend ahead and, as they say in Bengali, bhalo theko…

        best wishes from Malaysia

        1. Thanks Gabriel for your wonderful compliments because it is not often that people compliment me so profusely.

          I will inform you when the book is about to be launched.


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