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Satyajit Ray's Ghare Baire and the unassuming Bengali cerebral hero it created

On Bengali veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee's first death anniversary, here's a lowdown on how Ghare Baire catapulted his status as a thinking man's favourite.

Shreya Paul
Nov 15, 2021
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In 1916, when Tagore wrote Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) he was known to have doubts regarding the ‘correct’ manner of protest. Tagore believed in the inconsistencies of ideologies and outlooks in the people of a nation, which was one of the main reasons he opposed the concept of a mono-cultural nation-state. Satyajit Ray’s 1984 adaptation successfully portrays one such inconsistency or duality in the two main characters of Nikhilesh Choudhury (played by Victor Banerjee) and Sandip (played by Soumitra Chatterjee). 

The film unfurls before its audiences, issues which the postcolonial Indians have to deal with even today. The confounding loss of an authentic identity after an influence of a two-hundred-year colonial regime; the grappling efforts made by common men and women to break out of the ‘traditional’ and embrace the ‘modern’ as opposed to the overnight demands of ‘Swadeshi’ which entailed a return to one’s roots, and most importantly, the judiciousness of what to emulate and what to reject— every aspect has an almost resounding echo till date.

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But Ghare Baire was, at its crux, a romantic drama – the story of Bimala (played by Swatilekha Sengupta) and her two paramours vying for her affection. While one had all the elements of a whirlwind romance with passionate ideologies on nation-building and independence, the other was calm and soothing in its steadfast rationale. The Choto Rani (younger queen) of the house Bimala, and Nikhil (her husband and the head of the household) share a genuine love for each other, an occurrence which was rare in the day (since the film was set in pre-Independence Bengal of 1905). In fact, his devoted fondness and obsession with her holistic development attracts jealousy from many, including Bimala’s widowed sister-in-law. Nikhil appears to be the prototypical progressive man who truly believed in the merit of earned love instead of merely possessing it by virtue of his gender.

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Ray, much like Tagore’s novel, sets up his premise through this loving couple. Bimala’s relationship, we’re shown, has all the elements of an ideal one. Nikhil, a believer in bestowing all possible opportunities to his beloved wife, adorns her with lavish gifts of imported luxury goods and frets over her training in British ways of life. Religiously tolerant, ‘modern’, ‘college educated’ and above all, a feminist, Nikhil does not consider himself superior to anyone by birthright. His primary focus is to get Bimala out of the purdah (veil) as he wants her to be a participant in all his activities even in the external world. The antarmahal, he feels, automatically restricts a woman’s growth. 

However, her first encounter with Sandip, renders Bimala speechless. Her desires seem to undergo an odd change; she wishes to be more beautiful, a need that never surfaced in Nikhil’s presence. But this desire, as she later claims, did not arise out of romantic inclinations, but had its roots in her fervour for the country. Her budding romanticism towards the nation (and by extension, towards Sandip) is amply validated by him when he unabashedly proclaims that Bimala’s innate light can guide him through the darkest of roads. In his addressal to Bimala, Sandip proclaims, “Today you have given me the message of my country. Such fire I have never beheld in any man. I shall be able to spread the fire of enthusiasm in my country by borrowing it from you. No, do not be ashamed. You are far above all modesty and diffidence. You are the Queen Bee of our hive and we the workers shall rally around you. You shall be our centre, our inspiration.” With such articulate validation, Bimala finds herself growing out of her old complacent hide to sport a more powerful and intense demeanour.

Sandip then, automatically catapults himself to the position of the second man, the one external element that threatens to break Nikhil’s peaceful abode of love. Ray juxtaposed Nikhil and Sandip’s visions inscribed within two kinds of masculinities as well as different conceptions of freedom. While Nikhil advocated rational humanism, Sandip proclaimed radical self-governance. And, within their respective national ideologies, grew their brand of romance towards Bimala.

Chatterjee’s unparalleled performance as the feisty Sandip had earned him praise across the board. Often considered a fluff actor, Chatterjee’s portrayal of the mercurial freedom fighter consolidated the actor’s position as someone well endowed with acting chops. Through Chatterjee, Ray built the figure of the then-modern Calcutta hero – someone who was obviously suave, and cerebral; contained, yet emotive.

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Even in Ghare Baire, Ray took it upon himself to ensure that Chatterjee’s Sandip was obviously villainous, only because that would entail yet another shade to the actor’s limited repertoire. Through Sandip’s brand of nationalism, Ray brought forth an illusion about the character’s personal religion that forced a tyrannical approach to his freedom struggle. This image of Sandip is further consolidated later in the film when Bimala starts realising her undoing under Sandip’s influence. She likens Sandip’s presence in her life to a possession by a demon. Sandip’s parasitic traits become too ubiquitous for her to ignore. To her, Nikhil’s silent submission to stasis seems way more soothing than Sandip’s deceptive patriotism. Bimala’s attitude towards Sandip becomes successively bipolar, with her getting repulsed by his attempts of approaching her, promptly followed by desperation to hear him praise her. In an almost Macbeth-like manner of narrative, the trio of Nikhil-Bimala-Sandip head towards their respective ends.

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Ray wanted to depict Tagore’s views on the ‘accurate’ form of revolution, which were deliberately anti-radical. Nikhil’s rejection of the Swadeshi doctrines was also affected by the fact that his own peasants would suffer economically had they ventured into manufacturing self-produced goods due to a considerable lack of capital. To him, the economic disintegration of his workers and peasants was not something he could consciously allow, even though it resulted in him becoming the proverbial anti-national.

Through Ghare Baire, Ray channelised Tagore, who was often heavily criticised for his brand of ‘idealism’ and still believed in the supremacy of humanity instead of categorising people based on their religious identities. Often plugged as ‘too impractical for reality’, the author seemed to not be ‘Indian enough’ to his Marxist and modernist contemporaries.


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