A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Home and the World (Satyajit Ray, 1984)

Revolutions are mounted in the name of human betterment, but humanists -- those who try to act upon their belief in the potential of all human beings -- make lousy revolutionaries. That seems to be the message of Satyajit Ray's The Home and the World, an adaptation of a novel by Rabindranath Tagore that Ray had wanted to film almost his entire career. He finally overcame the obstacles to its filming in the last years of his life, but paid the price of two severe heart attacks while making it. He supervised its completion by his son, Sandip Ray. While it's rich in images and performances, the film does seem a little slow in telling its complex story. Satyajit Ray, who also wrote the screenplay, resorts occasionally to voiceovers, often a sign of uncertainty on the part of a filmmaker about whether his story is getting clearly told. The film begins with Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta), the wife of the wealthy Nikhilesh Choudhury (Victor Banerjee), being tutored in English style and manners by Miss Gilby (Jennifer Kendal). Specifically, Bimala is learning an English parlor song, "Long, Long Ago." But Nikhil, who is a nascent liberal reformer, wonders why Bimala should be learning a foreign song. He becomes determined to free her from the strictures imposed on Indian women: Among other things, she's confined to only part of their large house -- women are forbidden to enter the part where he entertains guests. So when his friend Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), a spokesman for Swadeshi, the revolutionary movement protesting British rule, comes to stay in that part of the house, Nikhil takes Bimala down the corridor that connects the two parts -- shocking Bimala's widowed sister-in-law (Gopa Aich), who lives a life of idle complaining about her lot -- and introduces her to Sandip. It's an electric moment. Suddenly, not only her home but also the world of politics is opened to Bimala. Eventually, Sandip and Nikhil will have to clash, not just over Bimala but also over Swadeshi's program to have the country boycott foreign goods and learn to rely only on India-produced merchandise. The year is 1907, when the British mandated a partition of Bengal into separate Hindu and Muslim regions, and the religious separation only adds fuel to the economic conflict. Nikhil is in favor of Swadeshi up to a point, but as a man who owns a largely Muslim-run market, he also knows that eliminating foreign goods will hurt the poor, who can't afford the higher-priced Indian items. Bimala becomes the film's focal point for the division between Sandip's fervor and Nikhil's idealism, with tragic results. The three central performances are superb, and the color cinematography of Soumendu Roy and production design by Ashoke Bose are handsome, but the merger of history and romantic fiction is uneasy, with occasionally sketchy results on both counts.