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The Home and the World (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on January 26, 2014

Nikhilesh Choudhury (Victor Banerjee) is a wealthy landowner.  His wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) lives a confined existence, spending her time with Nikhil’s widowed sister-in-law (Gopa Aich) and being trained in European manners by the memsahib Miss Gilby (Jennifer Kendal).  And then comes the arrival of Nikhil’s friend Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee).  Sandip is a leader of the swadeshi uprising, a nationalist movement that arose in the wake of the Bengal Partition.  Although Nikhil does not agree with Sandip’s politics, he encourages Bimala to spend time with him, broaden her horizons and make up her own mind.  She adopts the principles of swadeshi and quickly develops an affection for the charismatic leader, but in the meantime Sandip is using questionable methods to further his cause.

This is really two movies… it’s even suggested by the title.  “The Home” is the romantic triangle of Nikhil, Bimala and Sandip.  As in Charulata — another Satyajit Ray film based on a Rabindranath Tagore story — the husband practically shoves his wife into the arms of another man (in both cases, the handsome Soumitra Chatterjee).  In this instance, however, Nikhil is much more aware of the danger.  He knows Sandip’s reputation as a ladykiller, he knows that his sheltered wife is vulnerable to attention from another man.  Although it clearly hurts him, he seems resolved to it, as if he views it as part of her maturation into a more well-rounded woman.  He touchingly places his faith in the bonds of their marriage.

In my first review, I commented that the romantic parts of the film were not too successful.  It now occurs to me that this is probably by design.  Bimala’s love is not necessarily specific to Sandip, and one wonders if she would fall for any man who praised her intuition and showed appreciation for her.  Crossing the passageway from the inner chambers of the house to the outer chambers is presented as a transformative journey to a new level of freedom, and this is her first meaningful interaction with a male besides her husband in 10 years.  And on the other side, Sandip’s affection for Bimala feels even less sincere.  He may have convinced himself that he has romantic feelings, but it seems more a passion of convenience… Sandip needs things from the household, and if he can’t influence Nikhil directly, he can attain his goals through Bimala.

Which leads to the other side of the film: “The World” and the political sphere.  The Partition is a subject that runs throughout the films of Ritwik Ghatak, but rarely does Ray address it so overtly.  And it’s a fascinating, complex and ultimately cynical take on the swadeshi movement.  Sandip gives fiery speeches about unifying Hindus and Muslims, but as Nikhil rightfully points out, his actions belie his words.  It’s easy for the wealthier Hindus to shun foreign goods, opting instead for more expensive (and lower quality) Indian products.  But most of the dealers are impoverished Muslims.  They can’t afford to simply throw out their foreign stock, as patriotic as that may be.  Sandip tries to impose his ideals on everyone, ignoring the practical implications, unconcerned with how his methods will drive an even greater wedge between the two peoples.  Even his trusted acolyte Amulya (a small but wonderful performance by Indrapramit Roy, his only screen role) sees through his hypocrisy.

And the two worlds collide in Bimala.  That passageway opens up exciting new ideas about both romance and politics… and then crushes them.  There is safety in the confines of the depths of the house, there in the sheltered world of the more tradition-minded sister-in-law.  Knowledge is danger, but knowledge is vital to growth of both the individual and the nation.  Unpleasant realities must be dealt with, and the consequences may be painful.  But if you don’t go down that passageway, you may be dragged down it anyway.

There are (at least) three unusual things in the film for Ray.  One is the presence — and use — of guns.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another Ray film that includes firearms, though I imagine they show up once or twice in his detective Feluda movies.  Maybe in Abhijaan?  Possibly, but the point is that violence, especially gun violence, is quite rare in Ray’s films… but vitally important here.  There’s also the uncharacteristic use of voiceover.  And from three different voices (Nikhil, Bimala and Sandip) no less.  It’s hard to say what to make of this… was Ray losing his touch, unable to say either cinematically or with facial expressions what he wanted to say?  Or did he simply want to include those passages from Tagore’s story?  Having not read any Tagore myself, I’m not sure.  And lastly, the movie has three passionate smooches in them.  Indian films are rather chaste in general, and even in Ray’s films affection is usually limited to loving embraces.

I had previously thought that this was the only worthwhile film in Criterion’s “Late Ray” set.  Although I have a greater appreciation for the other two, this is still the finest of them.  It is the most artful and poetic, with stunning use of colored lighting and symbols abound.  A little slow at times, but generally quite compelling, and the performances are grand.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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