Readers Write In #352: Revisiting Ghare Baire (1984)

Posted on April 10, 2021


(by Sidharth Malhotra)

Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Victor Banerjee, and Swatilekha Chatterjee
Director: Satyajit Ray

The film is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel that came out in 1916 and carries the same name. Set in 1907’s colonialized India, Ghare Baire (English Title: The Home and the World) is a story that revolves around three major characters: Nikhilesh, Bimala and Sandip, and deals with themes of nationalism, the dangers of radicalism, and the emancipation of women. Nikhilesh is a wealthy landowner who has had the fortune to receive western education which explains his liberal views and dislike for the irrational customs of the society. Sandip, like Nikhilesh, dislikes irrational conventions, but that might be the only similarity between the two as Sandip is a radical who wants to propagate the Swadeshi movement across India at any cost and differs from Nikhilesh not only in his political views but also in his temperament. Bimala, the elegantly dressed, naive wife of Nikhilesh has not, like many women of that period, had the opportunity to choose her husband, she first saw Nikhilesh at their wedding. Nikhilesh wants her to break the convention of the Purdah system (which he believes came with the Muslims) and meet his revolutionary leader friend Sandip – if you have not met other men how would you know I am the right one – he reasons, but she is happy in her isolation and refuses his incessant requests. Not for too long though as after watching and listening to Sandip give a nationalist speech in front of a crowd she is moved and agrees to break the convention and step out of the door passage from which no woman of the household has the freedom to step out of. Eventually, she falls for Sandip and his nationalist ideas, the love is reciprocated as Sandip decides to stay in the town (so that he would be closer to Bimala) and tries to propagate the Swadeshi movement there which Nikhilesh disapproves of as he fears it might lead to persecution of poor Muslim traders. Nikhilesh’s fears turn to reality as riots between Hindus and Muslims occur in which he dies trying to intervene. Bimala is haunted by guilt and blames her husband Nikhilesh’s death on herself, it being the punishment for her sin of infidelity.

There is a stark contrast between Nikhilesh and Sandip. Sandeep is fuelled by his ideology, he is energetic and a great rhetorical speaker while Nikhilesh comes across as calm, serene, compassionate, and righteous. When Nikhilesh is inquired by his sister about the consequences of giving Bimala freedom as she had committed infidelity and due to her support Sandip had decided to stay in town and spread his political agenda there because of which tensions between Hindus and Muslims were now immerging. Nikhilesh expresses no regret saying that Bimala has done what she wanted on her own will and tyrannizing her will not change who she is. She is not a child who should be controlled, he says. On the other hand, Sandip is willing to use any means to get what he wants (traders to sell only Swadeshi goods) – when traders deny burning away the foreign clothes, he orders his subordinates to take them away forcefully and burn them, he also commands for the boat of a trader to be sunk.

ghare baire

Ghare Baire is characterized by a string of metaphors that are born out of the title of the film. The Home and the World: Swadeshi and the foreign goods, Bimala’s secluded place being her home and environment outside of that (where her husband wants her to be) being the world. Nikhilesh has embraced the latter more – he does not support the Swadeshi movement as he believes that it should not be a compulsion for poor traders to abandon and boycott inexpensive foreign goods for expensive Indian goods, Swadeshi movement for him is something that only the wealthy (like Sandip) can afford. He also does not believe in the Purdah system and wants her wife to explore the “World”.

The film opens and ends with the scene of Nikhilesh’s funeral with a narration of Bimala. She remarks that she has been freed from her impurities through her husband’s funeral pyre. The scene of Nikhilesh’s funeral is reminiscent of the multiple scenes throughout the film where foreign clothes had been burned, as previously mentioned, Nikhilesh seems to be the embodiment of the “World” and in contrast, Bimala is the embodiment of “Home” – she is happy in her seclusion and her remark of being freed from impurities through her husband’s funeral pyre hawks back to the nationalist idea of purifying India through the burning of foreign goods. The film is criticizing the Swadeshi movement as Bimala although “purified” by her husband’s funeral fire is now haunted and life-less. India might be purified by the Swadeshi movement, but it would be left traumatized is what the film seems to be conveying. Another way in which the personification strikes out is when we see Sandip flirtatiously communicating to Bimala that he wants to work close to her as bees do under their queen bee, and in a later scene, Nikhilesh is seen expressing his dislike for the nationalist notion of the nation being a goddess who is to be served. Is it right to think that women need to be served and kept “pure” and thus, be secluded from the world? – is the question that we are asked.

There is this idea that the gender of the author or the auteur significantly affects their work of art and hence, their work or art should be judged through that lens, but Ghare Baire is a great example against that idea. The great American critic Pauline Kael in her review wrote: “Toward the end, Bimala, who was wheedled into independence by her husband, becomes desperate to express that independence—recklessly, heedlessly. When it comes to truthfulness about women’s lives, this great Indian moviemaker Satyajit Ray shames the American and European directors of both sexes.”