“The Home and the World” - Satyajit Ray (1984)

Satyajit Ray’s, The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984) has the distinctive quality, reminiscent of his earlier The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977), of combining Ray’s traditional concerns about individual human hopes and aspirations with concerns about larger political issues that affect society as a whole. The story is based on the famous novel of the same name published in 1916 by the great Bengali intellectual and artist, Rabindranath Tagore.  It is inspired by Tagore’s own experiences in connection with his involvement in the radical Swadeshi political movement in India during the early part of the 20th century.

Ray had a longstanding connection with Tagore and with this story, in particular.  Tagore had been a friend of Ray’s father, and Satyajit attended a university in 1940 that was founded by Tagore.  In the early 1940s, the youthful Ray prepared his first full film script that was an adaptation of Tagore’s novel, The Home and the World. Although he at first had a film producer interested in funding a production of his script, Ray ran into subsequent disagreements, and the whole project was cancelled in 1946.  But Ray never abandoned his plans to someday make a film of Tagore’s story.  Nevertheless, Tagore and his other stories continued to be of interest to Ray once his film-directing career got under way.  His Teen Kanya (literally “Three Daughters” but released in English as Two Daughters, 1961) was based on short stories by Tagore.  He also produced and narrated a documentary film, Rabindranath Tagore about the author in that same year.  Then Ray’s celebrated Charulata (1964) was based on a novella by Tagore.  Finally, twenty years after Charulata, Ray once more took up the subject of his long-delayed The Home and the World, although this time with a new, more sophisticated scenario that benefitted from his accumulated experience and artistic development.

Set in the year 1907, the story of The Home and the World takes place in the manor and associated town of a Bengali maharaja, and it revolves around the extended visit made by the maharaja's old friennd who had his own political agenda. Since the story primarily concerns a contest of ideas, much of the film consists of conversations involving one or more of the three principal characters:
  • Nikhilesh (“Nikhil”) Choudhury (played by Victor Banerjee) is the maharaja.
  • Sandip Mukherjee (played by Soumitra Chatterjee, a Satyajit Ray favorite) is Nikhil’s friend from university days who has come to promote his political movement.
  • Bimala Choudhury (Swatilekha Sengupta) is Nikhil’s wife, who finds herself inspired by Sandip’s rhetoric.
Two other minor characters of interest are
  • “Sister-in-law” (the widow of Nikhil’s deceased brother and played by Gopa Aich) had to keep her hair cut short, wear a plain white sari, shun adornments, and could not leave the house.  She shows the low status of widows in Indian domestic life of that period and also represents a foreboding portent. 
  • Miss Gilby, the English and piano teacher, was played by Jennifer Kendal, in her last role before her untimely death.  In the real world Ms. Kendal spent most of her life in India and was the spouse of Indian film star Shashi Kapoor.  Her career as a performer in a traveling theater group in India was an inspiration for the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965).
1.  Introduction
Bimala begins by describing her life as a proper Hindu wife of a maharaja. Ever since her marriage ten years earlier, she has been confined, like her widowed sister-in-law, to the inner chambers of the palace.  Her husband, Nikhil, though, is a refined and liberal-minded aristocrat who wants to break away from some of these traditions and have his wife become a modern educated woman.  So he has her tutored by an English woman, Miss Gilby. He also tells his wife that he wants to introduce her to some of his male friends, such as Sandip Mukherjee, a classmate from his university days who is now a leader of the Swadeshi political movement and has come to their town of Sukhsayar to deliver a speech.

By way of background it is useful to know that the Swadeshi movement sought grassroots support for Indian independence from British rule, which was claimed to be systematically extracting wealth from the country and leaving India in poverty.  Popular anger with British rule had increased as a result of two recent and devastating famines in India, one in 1896-1897 and one in 1899-1900, each of which caused many millions of deaths [1,2,3].  The British were accused of insensitivity to Indian suffering and of following questionable quasi-laissez-faire economic policies that made them indifferent to offering welfare relief.  Indeed, the Viceroy of India at the time of The Home and the World’s action, George Curzon, had been in office during that 1899-1900 famine and had been quoted as remarking, 
"any government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralized the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime." [4,5]
In 1905 Curzon had further inflamed Indians by announcing the partition of Bengal into two parts which created a separation based largely on religious affiliation, with West Bengal comprising mostly Hindus and East Bengal comprising mostly Muslims.  This was just another example of the detested British divide-and-rule policy that many Indians blamed for all their misfortunes.

The Swadeshi movement’s primary policies were directed at rousing popular nationalism and achieving independence by boycotting all British-made (in fact all foreign-made) goods.  They held large rallies at which locals were urged toss all foreign-made goods into public bonfires.  Of course for such a boycott to be effective it had to be universally applied, and so the Swadeshi engaged in both persuasive and coercive acts in an effort to enforce full participation [6].

With these underlying issues in the backgrounds of his listeners’ minds, Sandip delivered his fiery speech in support of Swadeshi policies, while Bimala looked on with rapt attention from a shaded balcony window.

2.  Two Political Perspectives
After Sandip’s speech, Bimala is allowed to break all convention by coming outside of the inner palace chamber area (to which she had been confined for the past ten years) to have a face-to-visit with Sandip in an outer chamber.  There she has a chance to hear Sandip and Nikhil discuss politics, and indeed this section of the film is devoted to hearing their distinct political perspectives.   

Sandip’s approach is highly emotional, and he sings a Swadeshi rallying song almost in Bollywood style.  In the song, he utters the Swadeshi rallying cry, “Vande Mataran!” (in English, “Hail to the Mother(land)!”, and throughout the rest of the film Sandip and his followers repeat this mantra.  Bimala is moved by Sandip’s enthusiasm, but she notices that he is smoking foreign-produced cigarettes and asks him whether he has the will power to give them up for his cause.  Sandip smiles and says that if she joins his movement, he will give up smoking.

Nikhil, though, is less enthusiastic about the Swadeshi movement.  Though he supports his friend and Indian independence, he thinks that the Swadeshi movement is just slogans and propaganda.  After the meeting, he confides to Bimala that “the less one knows Sandip, the better one likes him.” 

Nikhil believes that boycotting foreign goods only harms the poor people and accomplishes nothing of substance.  And at another meeting the next day, he tells Sandip, “I believe that coercing the poor can only harm our country.”  Later he tells Bimala that what the Swadeshi people really care about is not the people, but an abstract ideal for the country – the country as Mother Goddess.  It’s all: “Worship our mother, work for our mother, pray to our mother.”

But Sandip means to employ more than just propaganda, particularly at Sukhsayar, where the maharaja, Nikhil, refuses to prohibit foreign goods in the local market, since he believes that such a move would only impoverish the Muslim traders there. So Sandip’s sends out gangs of Swadeshi supporters to forcibly confiscate foreign clothing from people and toss them onto their raging bonfires. He also has a meeting with Mr. Kulada, the cynical manager of Nikhil’s estate, who tells him that the best way to suppress foreign products in Sukhsayar is to sink the traders’ boats that bring in the goods.  So Sandip bribes Kulada to do just that. 

Thus in this section of the film we see that Sandip believes that any means can be taken in support of his noble ends – the ends justify the means.  If people don’t follow his way, then they must be forced.  Nikhil, on the other hand, is highly principled and believes in individual autonomy and human rights.  But that, according to Sandip, will just leave India with the status quo.  In this context it is worth recalling some words of Isaiah Berlin:
If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any. [7]

3.  Bimala and Sandip
Bimala is moved by Sandip’s energy and passion and becomes his willing follower. Of course, she is still confined to the palace, but she now has private meetings in the outer chamber with Sandip almost every day. And she seems unmindful that Sandip continues to smoke his cigarettes despite his promise. She tells Sandip that Nikhil is too placid and that she will work for him despite her husband’s opposition to the Swadeshi movement.  She even offers to supply him with money by stealing gold coins from the family safe. 

Nikhil and his sister-in-law gradually perceive what is happening.  He notices that Bimala freshens her forehead bindi with vermillion whenever she is about to see Sandip.  Bimala is becoming seduced by the charismatic Sandip, and the growing attachment of Bimala and Sandip is the focus of this section of the film. Sandip is equally attracted, sincerely it seems, to Bimala, and he begins calling her his “Queen Bee”.  He says he wants to stay for awhile in Sukhsayer so that he can be near her. 

Eventually, Bimala does steal a considerable quantity of gold coins from the palace safe and gives them to Sandip.  At another private meeting Sandip sings to her two more songs – the first one is political, but the second song is a sweet love song. When he mentions that he might have to leave the area soon, she cries, and they then embrace and exchange a passionate kiss.  (Showing kisses in Indian films was extremely rare, and this was the first kiss shown in a Satyajit Ray film).

Meanwhile Nikhil tries to take measures to curb the growing Swadeshi-influenced violence in the countryside.  But his calls for reason and nonviolence fall on deaf ears.

4.  Bimala’s Return
Bimala is now in love with Sandip, but she begins to realize that, despite his idealistic demeanor, he is ultimately selfish and willing to compromise basic moral standards that Nikhil would always uphold.   So she takes leave of Sandip.

With violence spinning out of control, Nikhil arranges for his family (he, Bimala, and his sister-in-law) to travel to Calcutta the next day. To Bimala’s alarm, however, he feels that it is his duty to go out that evening before they leave and try to quell the violence in his township. Reconciled and full of newfound admiration for her principled husband, Bimala welcomes his passionate embrace. She pleads with him not to go outside the palace that night on such a noble but doom-laden mission.  But her pleadings are in vain, and she knows what will be his and her fate.
Setting aside the dishonesty of Sandip, the two political perspectives presented in The Home and the Wold, that of Sandip and Nikhil, both have their logical justifications to them and are given a fair hearing.  One gets the impression that Tagore’s writing of the novel was his way of working through these confounding issues. But Ray added his own touches, too.  Like Tagore, who excelled as a composer, writer, poet, and painter, Ray was also a polymath – he directed the film, wrote the script (from Tagore’s novel), supervised the editing, and composed the music.  Unfortunately, during the post-production of the film, Ray suffered a heart attack that curtailed his activities in his remaining years.

Ray’s casting of Soumitra Chatterjee in the role of Sandip was a good choice, because Chatterjee’s unquenchable innocence and sincerity help make the Sandip character more sympathetic and interesting.  Conveniently, Chatterjee had a talent for poetic recitations – he made a career as a recitator outside the cinema world – and he puts this on display at various times in the film when he woos Bimala.  However, the most compelling and crucial performance in the film is that of Victor Banerjee in the role of Nikhil.  He conveys the feelings of a troubled, sensitive man who is trying to find the best path for all concerned without forcing his own preferences.

The overall look to the film is lush, with bright saturated colors decorating the interiors, where most of the action takes place. Accentuating the psychological complexity of the presentation was Ray’s apparent love of mirror shots –  there are numerous compositions featuring characters looking away and addressing each other via their mirror reflections.  And in the apparent interests of showing realistic settings, the interiors are often shown with the dim artificial illumination that was typical of evening habitation during that early period.  Unfortunately, surviving prints of the film do not have the luminance range to show the subtleties of some of these low-illumination shots, and the dimly lit nuances are sometimes lost in the shade.

There are a number of underlying themes present in The Home and the World, including the place of women in a changing Indian society and the pace at which modernism will enter and change traditional Indian culture.  However, to get to the most essential theme of the film, one should perhaps compare it to Ray’s Charulata, made twenty years earlier and with which The Home and the World shares a number of close and interesting commonalities:
  • Both films were based on stories by Tagore.  Charulata was based on Tagore’s novella, Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) published in 1901.
  • Both stories were based on Tagore’s personal experiences.
  • Both involve a married woman who is childless after some ten years of marriage to a rather bookish husband. 
  • In both stories, the woman’s rather humdrum existence is opened up when one of her husband’s associates comes for a visit and recites poetry to her.
  • In both films, the visitor is played by Soumitra Chatterjee.
  • In both films the married woman is amorously attracted to the visitor, which disturbs her watchful, but passive, husband.  But in the end she remains faithful to her husband.

Despite these similarities, though, the philosophical differences between the two films are profound.  In Charulata, the woman is faced with a choice between two different schemes for fulfilment: moral propriety or the blissful aesthetic union of romantic love. In The Home and the World, on the other hand, Bimala's dilemma encompasses issues at the level of political and social meaning.  And that is what makes this film somewhat deeper on the philosophical level (though perhaps less satisfying on the aesthetic level).  The Home and the World considers three levels of interactive involvement:
  1. Close personal relations with other individuals
  2. Social relations with acquaintances from a larger circle
  3. Relations on the community or state level
Nikhil’s relationship landscape is consistent and authentic on all three levels.  He would treat a citizen of his community with the same respect and in the same way  that he would treat an intimate friend.  And he would give them the autonomy to make their free decisions as to how to behave.  Inherently, he believes that if everyone were to follow his model, then we would have an ideal, fair-minded society.  There would be an “invisible hand” that would guide us all towards an aggregated optimal fulfilment.

Sandip, on the other hand, dismisses Nikhil’s idealistic belief that everything will work out on the macro-level, as long as things are good on the micro-level.  He has no such faith in a bottom-up beneficial influence that will lead to the common good.   But that means that his own approach does will not have consistency across the three above-listed strata.  On the state level, he sees one way of doing things, which can involve ruthless coercion if required.  On the other hand, on the personal level, he can be genuinely sincere and kind.  But ultimately his overall relationship landscape model more or less forces him to be a liar. Yet he presumably believes that his own compromised way is best for the common good, because it directly addresses the larger social context and seeks remedies on that level.

Which brings us back to the title of Tagore’s novel and of the film.  Is it possible to have a fully consistent approach for both home (the micro-level) and the world (the maco-level)? This is the tension that Tagore was wrestling with, and it is the important kernel issue that Ray managed to convey and explore in this film.  Tagore’s’ answer was in the direction of Nikhil’s humanistic way.

  1. “Indian famine of 1896–97", Wikipedia, 2014.
  2.  “Indian famine of 1899–1900", Wikipedia, 2014.
  3. “Famine in India”, Wikipedia, 2014.
  4. “George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston”, Wikipedia, 2014.
  5. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1-85984-739-0, pg 158.
  6. The Swadeshi policy of promoting Indian economic independence by boycotting foreign-made goods and buying only locally-produced products was later taken up by Mohandas Gandhi.
  7. Isaiah Berlin, “A Message to the 21st Century”, The New York Review of Books, October 23, 2014.

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