bringing things together, tearing them apart
by Douglas Messerli
Satayajit Ray (screenplay, based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore), Satayajit Ray (director) Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) / 1984
Bimala Mukherjee (Swatilekha Sengupta), a beautiful and intelligent woman, raised in the traditional Hindu customs, which includes the cloistering of women, might be said to be the perfect wife. Her husband, Nikhail (Victor Banerjee), moreover, is a liberal, wealthy landowner, who hires both Muslims and Hindus, and, for a while, years earlier, in reaction to the late 19th century the British Lord Curzon’s partition of Muslin and Hindu states, has even attempted to support the policies of Swadeshi, the production of Indian-only goods that would break the British control over Indian economics. Through his own factories he has discovered that the Indian productions cost much more than the British and our inferior. So, in his own small community, he now refuses to demand Swadeshi practices, despite his close friendship with the radical leader of that movement, his school-friend Sandlip (Soumitra Chatterjee).
The open-minded Nikhai also encourages his wife to learn how to play the piano and to sing English music, as well as to wear Western dress. Pushed by his friend Sandlip, about to visit his palace, he encourages his wife to break purdah (the cloistering) and to meet the attractive Sandlip. In part, he is proud of his wife’s beauty and talents and wants to display them to the world, and he also knows that, since he is the only man she has ever met in their arranged marriage, he can never be sure of their love until she gets to know another man.
Although she has been isolated, Bimala is not unknowing, and, when queried by Nikhail, she reveals that she knows a great deal about the political issues going on around her, and that, despite living in a household where nearly everything is foreign-made, that she is fairly sympathetic with the cause—although she has no knowledge of her husband’s earlier involvement with Swadeshi.
The viewer is hardly surprised, accordingly, when, after hearing an impassioned an straightforward speech by Sandlip, that when she later meets him, she is taken by his attracted to him and his political bravery. In relationship with Sandlip’s savvy interchanges and total commitment to his cause, the gentle Nikhail seems to Bimala as timid; and despite her love for Nikhail, the impassioned outbursts—both political and sexual—she is seemingly compelled to accept the advances of the man, who at the same moment, we are gradually beginning to perceive as a self-congratulating dissimulator, who often cannot see the larger picture, and, as much as the British, helps breaks apart the working relationships between Hindus and Muslims.
If these scenes, inevitable as events as they are, seem, at times, to slow Ray’s film down in order to catch up the slower pace of the effects of Sandlip’s political arguments, set against the sun-dappled rooms of the Murkherjee house, into which Sandlip has determined to move so that we can write his manifestos and political songs while surrounded by what he calls his “Queen Bee.”
Not only has Bimala now become totally committed to Sandlip’s cause, but even against warnings by Nikhail’s loving sister-in-law (Gopa Aich), becomes sexually involved with charlatan, a man who even his loving young soldier—whom himself has given up his own education to follow Sandlip—mocks for always having to travel “first” class. From her own husband’s safe, Bimala steals the equivalent of 5,000 rupees in gold coins, and is ready to leave with him when the time comes.
But when Sandlip’s actions have begun to result in attacks by Muslims on Hindu temples, the patient and wise Nikhail can no longer stand by, and orders his former friend out his house, Bimal, suddenly discovering through the discussions between him and others, just how destructive Sandlip’s version of Swahedish has been, and perceiving her husband’s logic for not having joined with him. If the intense scenes portraying her sense of betrayal and guilt move into the territory of melodrama, instead of the far more witty interplays of personalities, the moving, silent-picture like, representations of Bimala’s sorrow as she admits to her husband her actions and her continued love for him, save Ray’s film from bathos. As in all cases Nikhail embraces her with complete forgiveness, as well as his own sense of guilt for having somewhat unintentionally (an unfairly) tested her love.
If Sandlip cannot be honest, his young soldier is incredibly so, stealing 2,500 rupees to pay for Sandlip’s escape, while returning Nikhail’s gold coins and Bimala’s jewelry, which she has given him to sell in order to repay her debt to her husband. Sandlip, himself, returns to restore the stolen loot, perhaps the only good deed we have seen him accomplish. But even as he prepares to move on to another city, the sounds of the revolution can be heard. We know that no matter how much Bimala, Nikhail’s sister-in-law, and his former school teacher plead with him, he will refuse to stay away from trying to reverse the separatist actions of his fellow countrymen. The people who love him most have no choice but to sit out the night until his body, in formal procession, is returned home the next morning.
In fact, there is no separation in Ghare Baire between the Home and the World, both having helped to destroy the man who had worked so hard to keep together, to bring the world gently into the daily lives of those around him, and to bring the best of home life onto the world stage. And, in that sense, everyone in this film is guilty in what will late result in the larger destruction of the Indian Continent, the results of which the entire world are suffering in the partitions of India and Pakistan still today.
Los Angeles, May 1, 2014