Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire
Film presentation by Monali Chatterjee, Gyan Book Club, Pune, Nov 14, 2021
Moderator: Latika Padgaonkar. Review by Sreelata Bhatia
The Background: Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) was written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1916.
The novel is set in the period after 1905 when the English Governor General, Lord Curzon, partitioned Bengal into two: East Bengal which had a large Muslim population and West Bengal that had a dominant Hindu population. Reacting to this division, Bengalis launched the Swadeshi Movement — a protest calling for the boycott of imported British goods in the country. This led to another dilemma: British goods were mass produced and cheaper than the Indian products produced by cottage industries. As a result, the poor, who were mostly Muslim, were constrained to buy the cheaper British products thereby creating another divide between the Hindus and the Muslims.
The novel was Tagore’s reaction to the violence that swept Bengal in the wake of the Swadeshi movement.
The Story: The film revolves around the viewpoints of the main characters, namely:
Bimala Choudhury (played by Swatilekha Sengupta): the wife of Nikhilesh, a well-educated gentleman from an aristocratic Bengali family.
Nikhilesh Choudhury (Victor Banerjee): the landlord of a large estate in East Bengal called Sukhsayar that has tenants who are both Muslim and Hindu. Nikhil’s main concern is to promote peaceful coexistence among the people on his estate, which is why he refuses to ban British goods that would impact the livelihood of his tenants.
Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee): a college friend of Nikhilesh, a nationalist known for his anti-British views. He supports the Swadeshi movement and travels the country giving inflammatory speeches against British rule. He believes that one must whatever it takes to get freedom for India, even at the cost of human lives. He says that freedom fighters must be prepared to make sacrifices for one’s country.
The story is essentially a love story between all three protagonists, set against the turmoil unleashed by political forces. Both the novel and the film raise fundamental questions about nationalism, the Swadeshi movement, and the price of freedom, both for the country and the individual.
The story begins when Nikhil wants his wife Bimala to become an independent, modern woman. He hires Miss Gilby, an English schoolteacher, to give her lessons in English as well as introduce her to European culture and etiquette. Bimala agrees as she lives to please her husband, the only man she has ever known in the ten years of her childless marriage.
When Nikhil talks to her about the Swadeshi movement he is surprised at her interest and persuades her to meet his friend Sandip, who is a Swadeshi leader. Bimala is reluctant to flout tradition and walk out of the women’s quarters but eventually gives in to her husband’s wishes.
Sandip takes advantage of this meeting by becoming intimate with Bimala. Earlier he had been tapping Nikhil for funds for his campaigns. Now he manipulates Bimala’s emotions to the extent that she decides to sell her jewellery to meet Sandip’s demands for money.
Satyajit Ray, India’s pre-eminent filmmaker, wrote the script of Ghare Baire well before he made his first film, Apur Sansar, which made him a cinematic icon. In the 80s, Ray decided to make Ghare Baire and, despite ill health, he managed to complete it with the help of his son Sandip who directed the latter half of the film under Ray’s supervision.
Ray centered the plot on the narration of events by the main characters. This enabled him to give the audience an insight into the thoughts of his characters, their points of view and ultimately the fatal consequences of their actions.
Unlike the novel, Ray takes liberties with the narration that starts with Bimala’s story and ends with it. Some critics said that this cinematic back-and-forth narration helped to make the film more dramatic.
It is perhaps the only Ray film in which Soumitra Chatterjee is cast as an anti-hero. He is depicted as a shallow character who incites riots without taking responsibility for his actions. He enlists Amulya, a young student to join his cause that ends Amulya’s studies. Sandip is not above bribing Nikhil’s estate manager to do his underhand jobs while he watches from a distance.
He betrays Nikhil’s friendship by playing with Bimala’s emotions for his own ends. He pretends to be a nationalist, yet he cannot give up his luxury loving ways – he smokes imported cigarettes and travels first- class for his campaigns with money borrowed from Nikhil. And he leaves at the first sign of trouble on the estate. However, his only saving grace is that he returns Bimala’s gold coins and jewellery before he goes.
The film operates on many symbolic levels.
Ray brings out the contrast between the outside world (the political scenario) and its impact on the life of protagonists (the inner world) seen in the film’s interior shots. These scenes are meticulously detailed to reflect the historic period—from the grandeur of the house furnished in Victorian style with imported artefacts to the elegant costumes of the cast. The atmospheric lighting of the film illuminated by oil lamps and chandeliers is also very realistic.
In the real world there is the invasion of the country by the British and on the other side there is Sandip’s invasion in Nikhil’s home that ruins the marital bliss of the Choudhurys. So much so that for the first time Bimala criticises her husband for not joining the Swadeshi cause.
Tagore’s novel takes a bold stand by criticising the nationalists who incite violence, as well as people of both religions participating in communal riots. We see a boat carrying English goods being torched. As the boat belonged to a Muslim trader, this action turns the Muslims against the Hindus.
Nikhil’s character represents Tagore’s own views. Tagore was one of first prominent Bengalis to take part in the Swadeshi movement. In fact, Tagore’s family started many local Indian businesses making soaps, shoes, cloth, etc. to counter British imports. In the movie Nikhil is also one of the first Indian entrepreneurs.
Tagore left the Swadeshi movement when he disagreed with its extremist views. Nikhil, too, does not join the Swadeshi movement because he does not agree with Sandip’s extreme political views. As a landlord his main concern is to foster harmony among his tenants. He believes, like Tagore, that there can’t be a successful struggle against the British if Indians are divided among themselves.
Like Tagore, Nikhil is an enlightened aristocrat. He is not a slave to tradition and does not believe in confining women to the ‘Antarmahal’. Nikhil wants his wife to step outside the home so she can form her own ideas and opinions. He urges her to meet his friend Sandip so she can understand the Swadeshi movement. He also believes that by meeting another man, she will have a point of comparison with which she can judge her relationship with her husband.
The film is also a commentary on gender politics.
Monali mentioned that many of Tagore’s films focused on women controlled by male patriarchy. But Ghare Baire was a departure from Tagore’s earlier themes as it deals with the emancipation of women at the beginning of the 20th century. Nikhil is a liberal husband who wants to bring his wife out of ‘purdah’. Ray brings out the dichotomy in Indian society through the character of Bimala who gets an English education so she can become modern, and yet she is seen deferring to her husband’s wishes at home like a traditional Hindu wife.
It has been said that the long shot of Bimala walking with her husband from the women’s quarters (her home) to the outer drawing room (Nikhil’s world) is one of the cinematic highlights of the film. It is symbolic of the break that both husband and wife are making from tradition. Bimala was initially hesitant to enter the outside world but once she does, she gains the confidence to meet Sandip alone. She gradually becomes infatuated with Sandip but at the end of the film realizes the high cost that she has paid for her freedom and infidelity.
Commenting on a question about the relationship between Bimala and the Baro Rani (her widowed sister-in-law), Monali agreed that Baro Rani was jealous of the freedom that Bimala enjoyed thanks to her liberal husband. She criticises Bimala and warns her that meeting Sandip could put her marriage in jeopardy.
The Baro Rani is very close to Nikhil who has been her companion ever since she entered the house as a young bride. This reflects Tagore’s close personal relationship with his own sister-in-law who was his muse.
In the group discussion, Latika Padgaonkar, the moderator, and some participants felt that technically the film was slow and tedious with very little action. Even the characters appear to be static.
Monali said that Ray condensed the story around the three main characters choosing to limit the action to the inner conflicts within his characters. The slow camera movement reflects the leisurely lifestyle of that age. Perhaps that is why the film appears to be static.
The general opinion of the Book Club was that Soumitra Chatterjee and Victor Banerjee gave a very nuanced performance but Swatilekha Sengupta’s portrayal of Bimala was stiff and non-emotive. She seemed to be miscast in this film and the film itself lacked the master touch of Ray’s other films like Charulata that is also about a love triangle.
In conclusion, Monali said that Ghare Baire resonates with us even today because of its contemporary relevance. Tagore’s novel criticized nationalists who advocated revolution without taking responsibility for their actions. In the film, both Hindus and Muslims are criticized for rioting. Today we hear the same hate speeches used by politicians to divide communities. And the way in which the ruling powers use patriotic jingoism to persuade the masses to follow their lead.
Tagore’s novel is open ended. He does not say whether Nikhil dies in the riots. However, Ray departs from the novel by showing Bimala as a widow. Nikhil wants to protect his Muslim traders and yet, ironically, he is killed in the ensuing riots. The film comes full circle with Bimala repenting her infidelity that resulted in tragedy. She says, “What is impure in me has been burnt to ashes.” She pays a heavy price for her emancipation only to revert to her secluded life, now as a widow.