Those familiar with the directorial work of Aparna Sen and who feel that Ghawre Baire Aaj is her first political film couldn’t be more wrong in their thinking. Her films have always been political in some way or another. In 36, Chowringhee Lane (1981), we saw the politics of marginalization of a minority. Parma (1984) explored how the politics of patriarchy can punish a woman with its own feudal rules and cast her out of the mainstream. Mr. & Mrs. Iyer (2002) was more forthright about the significance of secularism where we encounter open attacks by goons from the Hindu Right on an old Muslim couple. She goes one better in Ghawre Baire Aaj, her contemporary interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore’s classic novel, Ghare Baire.
Ghare Baire (1915) is perhaps the best known of Tagore’s novels outside Bengal, and received a lot of attention in Europe, particularly following the publication of its English translation. The controversial nature of the subject, with Tagore taking the opportunity to launch his fiercest attack against the ideology of Nationalism (in contrast to its rising popularity both in India and the West), was also a reason for the attention, mostly in the form of reprobation and scorn from readers both in and outside Bengal. Satyajit Ray presented his celluloid interpretation of Ghare Baire in 1984 remaining more or less loyal to the original novel. And now, Aparna Sen presents her own interpretation of the same novel and added the suffix “aaj” which means much more than its immediate meaning – “today.” Her interpretation brings to the fore, the contemporary conflict between the factions of Nationalism versus Secularism and how this conflict has spread across to impact on families and relationships deeply.
In the film, Dr Nikhilesh Choudhury (Anirban Bhattacharya) is an Oxford-educated heir to an affluent Bengali aristocratic family. He is now a dedicated journalist who is secular and progressive. Sandip Jha (Jisshu Sengupta) is his boyhood friend who lives and teaches in Patna. When Sandip comes to Delhi for a series of lectures at the Bharat Seva Mission, he comes to stay at Nikhilesh’s spacious mansion. He is surprised to discover that Nikhilesh is married to Brinda (Tuhina Das), much younger than Nikhilesh whose name has been changed from Bimla to Brinda. She, a Dalit, found shelter in Nikhilesh’s home as an orphan as her grandmother worked as an ayah in this family. She was educated in a girls’ hostel, then came to Calcutta to study in a girls’ college and, accordingly, is completely “Bhraminised” by Nikhilesh and his family according to Sandip. This is true of many educated, liberal and affluent Indian urban families today. Brinda who has hardly met a man other than her husband, finds Sandip attractive enough to get involved in a torrid affair while Nikhilesh is away at Bastar following an investigative story debating the building of a temple in this area of severe poverty against the building of a hospital which the Rightist Hindu-inclined groups do not want and of which, Sandip is a committed member.
Ghare Baire is a story of conflict. This conflict has remained the same and perhaps has escalated since Tagore wrote it and Ray filmed it. Only the manifestations have changed. This inspired Sen to imagine what face this conflict would wear if we place the chief characters in today’s India in 2019 following the fiercest attack against committed Left-inclined secularists and rationalists like Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dhabolkar, Govind Palsare and NM Kalburgi in the recent past by Hindu rightists in cold blood. Sen avoids explaining which government is at the centre so the audience is left to draw its own conclusions. The two parallel story plots cut back and forth between each other from Nikhilesh and his sojourns into remote areas of the country with his inclination towards equality and secularism and his city home till Brinda finds that she is pregnant and is not sure who the father is. The “baire” or the outside world and the “ghawre” or the inside world constantly are in conflict within their respective worlds and also with each other as the major characters involved are the same.
Jisshu Sengupta as Sandip and Anirban Bhattacharya as Nikhilesh are both convincing in their characterizations. Both present themselves as thinking individuals with a strong sense of haute couture that define their personalities and even their ideologies. However, at times, Sandip’s wig sticks out like an ugly scar. Sandip often speaks in shuddh Hindi while Nikhilesh dots his lines with a lot of British-accented English. The weakest link is Tuhina who is too conscious of the camera and stiff though she has an exotic screen presence that should take her far with some experience and maturity. Sreenanda Shankar as Sameera is sparkling while Ritabrato Mukherjee as Amulya is very good though the conversion in his ideology is too pat and incredibly quick.
Soumik Halder’s roving camera becomes a political instrument as Nikhilesh goes to the interiors of Bastar with Shweta Devi (Sohag Sen) and the camera switches over to Black & White, halting at a pregnant young woman who is so undernourished that she can’t even talk and sits with her back to the wall. Similar scenes are shot in B & W which gives the film a texture of a documentary while the image of Shweta Devi is a reminder to Mahashweta Devi who worked for the Dalits and Adivasis through her life just as Binay Sen who Nikhilesh has come to interview is actually Binayak Sen. The camera often cuts back to Delhi and the screen turns to colour closing in on the intimacy between Sandip and Brinda – making love in bed, in the shower, going shopping, visiting temples and old architectural wonders. We also watch Brinda being slowly inculcated into the values of the Hindu Right, an ideology he is an active member of, though he was once an ardent activist in his student years in Delhi. The juxtaposition of colour against the slightly grainy B & W in the past scenes and also in the present following Nikhilesh highlights the contrast between the haves and the have-nots in the way Brinda’s dresses in exotic saris and chunnis defines the striking contrast with that heavily pregnant Bastar woman waiting to die in childbirth out of starvation.
The sound design is natural and seamless in keeping with the sudden twists and turns the narrative takes. However, this critic feels that the flashback into Sandip’s village mansion with his grandfather wearing a terrible wig could have been done without and the film would have been smoother. Neel Dutt’s music underscores the varied manifestations of the story and its layers ranging from the theme song belted out beautifully by Rashid Khan composed in Ramdasi Malhar, which blends into the inner and outer conflicts. Then, there are the loud strains of the Internationale at the candle march grieving the death of Amulya’s Muslim friend by the Hindu rightists, and last but never the least, the Vidyapati composition in Braja Bhasha that resonates so vibrantly on the screen.
All in all, Sen has thrown all caution to the winds by making a razor sharp and incisive attack aimed at those who have killed committed and active secular Left-wing activists through parallels drawn with the assassination of Gauri Lankesh, only changing the names of some of the cameo characters. In that sense it is an extremely brave and relevant film in today’s times.
Bengali, Drama, Color, Black and White