I didn’t know what to expect from Ghare Baire. And, after seeing this 1984 film, I’m not sure what I got.
Ok here’s the plot in brief. We’re in 1907. Lord Curzon has just partitioned Bengal into Hindu-Muslim. There’s turmoil and dissent, and there’s a nationalist movement building up to oppose this partition.
Leading this movement is Sandeep (Soumitra Chatterjee), and the main instrument of his protest is to boycott (and burn) foreign goods. But that creates a communal divide because the sellers of these foreign goods are local Muslims, and the movement affects their livelihood. To make matters worse, the desi substitute products are simply not good enough or cheap enough.
The outcome is sad but predictable. There is a violent communal riot that ruins almost everyone’s life. Clearly there wasn’t enough tolerance even a century ago.
So that’s what’s happening outside (baire). What’s happening inside (ghare) is much more interesting. The best friend of the fiery and charismatic revolutionary is Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee), who is also the pragmatic and progressive zamindar.
He’s pragmatic because he foresees how Sandeep’s movement will play out. Nationalism is something desirable to him personally, but he knows that it will all end in ruin for his ‘electorate’ – the poor Muslim traders who make money by selling imported goods.
But it is Nikhilesh’s progressive streak that is in many ways the bedrock of the movie, and one that leads to bewilderment and shock. Nikhilesh’s wife is Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) who is attractive but not lovely. Nikhil married Bimala via a normal arranged marriage and the marriage has turned out very well. Bimala loves her swami, doesn’t know another man, and doesn’t even want to know another man.
But Nikhil wants to test the waters, and wants reassurance that Bimala would love him even if she knew other men. So he invites Sandeep to stay in his plush haveli and introduces him to Bimala. That looks like a mistake because Sandeep sweeps her off her feet. He’s handsome, charismatic, passionate about his movement, and even more about his women (and there were many, including some goris as Nikhil had informed his wife).
So when he bursts into song in Kishore Kumar’s voice (Satyajit babu was clearly remembering his Charulata), Bimala is swept away, falls in his arms and allows Sandeep to kiss her lip-to-lip. She also routinely opens the family tijori to hand over money to Sandeep for his nationalist movement (Sandeep uses most of it to fuel political violence, but keeps some for his expensive tastes such as imported cigarettes – which he permits himself without much guilt or inhibition).
Inevitably things end badly. When Nikhil sees a direct conflict between his zamindari and his friend, he asks Sandeep to get lost from his haveli. Bimala, by now, has seen through Sandeep’s feigned idealism, and doesn’t stop Sandeep from leaving. For Nikhil it is a triumph of sort because his woman returns to him even after surviving that amorous hurricane named Sandeep. They celebrate with their own lip-to-lip kiss which will sadly be their last.
Sandeep goes away to Rangpur (to continue his movement and perhaps find a new love), Nikhil rides out to protect his zamindari and returns dead and horizontal aloft four shoulders. Bimala’s bindi gets erased, her clothes turn white, her hair turns short and she’s doomed for a long widowhood.
While Soumitra is the rangbaaz, Victor holds his own. And Swatilekha excels in what was the performance of her life. In real life those lip-to-lip kisses caused her grief in the Bengal of the 1980s.
— In 2015, Swatilekha acted again with Soumitra, but without the old passion ghare or baire. Soumitra would however discover new passion in the sumptuous company of Radhika Apte in the brilliant short film Ahalya.
So why do I watch Satyajit Ray movies? Initially it was to pretend to be an antel, but now I love the tall man’s craft. I think it really began when I bought a season ticket for a Ray festival in Paris in 1982. I saw a dozen films in a fortnight and adda-d about them in Paris cafes speaking in French with a freedom that I no longer possess.
Indeed at one point in Agantuk Utpal Dutt actually explains the origins of the adda in what was an incredibly delicious performance. I can’t stop thinking about Utpal Dutt. His cheeks had sunk, the walk had a bit of an ageing gait, but the voice still had the old resonance and the majesty and his presence was unbelievably compelling.
The storyline is almost trivial. Anila (Mamata Shankar), happily married to Sudhindra Bose (Dipankar Dey) with a precocious son Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya), gets a letter from Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt) claiming to be her younger mamaji and asking to stay for a week.
The trouble is that this mamaji disappeared some 35 years ago and there’s an even probability that he might be an imposter.
So do you welcome him or throw him out? How do you decide that he’s the real mamaji?
The message is that you must trust your heart. This was very easy for the young boy who is mesmerized by the grand uncle explaining the magic of solar and lunar eclipses, but the elders struggle as they try to get logical and legal and play detectives seeking to unravel the truth.
Because of Ray’s poor health this 1991 film was mostly shot indoors or in some park outside. But the ageing maestro still obtained sterling performances. Utpal was peerless, and the boy was utterly charming. Mamata is no Madhabi but she conveys a reasonable range of emotions and, in the last scene, shakes her leg to show off her dancing pedigree.
Dipankar too is no Soumitra, but the role needed someone who could support Utpal’s towering presence, not challenge him. The comic actor Ranjan Rakshit (Robi Ghosh) does that reasonably well even while being overwhelmed by Manomohan’s persona, but the snobbish and argumentative lawyer Prithwish Sengupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee) loses badly as he tries to confront Manomohan … and ends up looking obnoxious. But that was probably the idea.
And who can forget that deaf lawyer? That’s the only time Sudhindra showed good conception; realizing that shouting louder isn’t getting the message through he succeeds by getting the old man to lip read.
I enjoyed the movie and had a lump in my throat when Anila finally calls Manomohan mama. Cinema is as much for the heart as for the mind.
–Read the excellent review in the New York Times here.