“Chokher Bali”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Chokher Bali” (“Speck in the Eye”, 1901) is a novel by Rabindranath Tagore that was adapted by Anurag Basu for his Indian television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015 – Episodes 1, 2, and 3).  This story revolves around four characters and their evolving amorous relationships, which are complicated by the machinations of arranged marriage:
  • Binodini (played by Radhika Apte) is an educated young woman who becomes the object of the affections of the other two men in this story.
     
  • Mahendra (Bhanu Uday) is a young man studying to be a doctor.
     
  • Ashalata (Tara-Alisha Berry) is a beautiful, but uneducated, young woman who marries Mahendra.
     
  • Bihari (Sumeet Vyas) is another young man studying to be a doctor and is Mahendra’s close friend.  Since he and Mahendra have been very close since boyhood, they consider themselves to be “brothers”. 
The story is told nonlinearly, beginning when Binodini and Bihari accidentally meet six years after the tale’s main events, which are then recounted in various flashbacks.  The major narrative events of this earlier period can be pieced together from this as follows:
  1. Binodini is offered in marriage by her mother to Mahendra, who declines the opportunity of even meeting the girl because he feels he is not ready to marry.  She is then offered to Bihari, who also declines because he was the second choice.
     
  2. Binodini is then married to another man (not seen in this story) who dies in the first year of their marriage, leaving Binodini as a young widow.  Widows in traditional Indian culture were expected always to wear white saris, signifying their perpetual state of mourning, and were essentially sidelined from participating in social society.
     
  3. Ashalata is later offered in marriage to Bihari, but when Mahendra chances a glimpse of the beautiful girl, he changes his mind about marriage and importunes on his friend to let him marry her instead.  Bihari accepts his friend’s request, and Mahendra and Ashalata are married.  The newly married couple then fall passionately in love with each other and spend all of their time in the conjugal bedroom.
     
  4. Binodini happens to encounter Mahendra’s mother, who is also a widow, and the young widow is invited to come live with her and her son.  When Binodini arrives, she sees the man who spurned her and vengefully sets herself the task of luring Mahendra away from Ashalata.
     
  5. Binodini seduces Mahendra, and they commence an affair under the nose of the innocent Ashalata.  The more introverted Bihari is also around, and he also falls in love with Binodini, but from a distance.
     
  6. But when Binodini finally does decide that Bihari is the one she really likes, he has already moved away and is out of touch.
Within the context of this matrix of events, Basu tells this tale in the form of a sequence of passionate excerpts from an existing, presumably known but only dimly articulated, narrative.  There is no real character development or progressive psychological motivation expressed in this story telling.  Instead it reels from one passionate, moody situation to another, without the narrative development needed for motivation.  Tagore’s novel, which I haven’t read, presumably has this more in-depth character development that I am looking for, as well more subtle allusions to the cultural prejudices concerning widowhood that pervaded in Indian society. Since these are missing from the episodes under discussion, it would probably be helpful to be already familiar with the main story sequence before watching these episodes.

In addition to the obscurity of the narrative progression, there are also some other weaknesses in this presentation.  There are some confusing shifts of context between the “final” meeting between Binodini and Bihari and the six-years-earlier events recounted in flashback.  This is because Binodini is always wearing a white sari in both contexts, so cuts back to the six-years-later context are often unsignaled.  Director Basu tried to solve this problem by showing Bihari sporting a beard and wearing glasses in the six-years-later context (he is clean-shaven and not bespectacled in the earlier segments).  But this doesn’t always work, because the focus of attention is usually on Binodini.  There are also a number of scenes littered with shaky hand-held camera shots and jump-cuts that can be disrupting to the viewer.  In addition, the acting performance of Bhanu Uday as Mahendra, though emphatic, is weak and artificial.

But there are some compensating virtues to Basu’s presentation, too.  As mentioned, there are a number of emotive, atmospheric sequences conveying passion, longing, and melancholy that are very affecting. These are conveyed by breathtakingly artistic visual compositions with carefully shaded chiaroscuro and character orchestration.  And they are all complemented by the stirring music of series composer Anurag Saikia.  In addition, the moving performance of Radhika Apte as Binodini in many of these scenes is particularly effective.  Her expressive features suggesting suppressed passions are what will linger in your memory.  They remind us that love is a many splendored thing and often the driving force behind our most earnest aspirations.

2 comments:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Nice review... you ought to check out Chokher Bali by Rituparno Ghosh also.

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks, Murtaza; yes, it would be good to see that 2003 film of the story.