Satyajit Ray’s ‘Ghare Baire’ is based on Tagore’s novel by the same name. The context of the film is the reactionary Swadeshi movement that came up against Lord Curzon’s proposition of partitioning Bengal in 1905-06. The film deals with the complexities of the Swadeshi movement, the intricacies of ‘modernity’ as was symbolically marked on women’s bodies, and a nuanced understanding of widowhood. I find four concurrent themes throughout the film which I will elaborate.
- Contradictions within the Swadeshi Movement
The Swadeshi movement involved large masses of people of Bengal, especially the youth, who enthusiastically rejected every kind of foreign made product, and embraced locally produced goods. The tactics used by the participants of the movement involved boycotting and burning of foreign goods. However, the interesting thing that the film depicts through the portrayal of one of the protagonists, Sandip, is how the Swadeshi Movement had contradictions and problematic areas of its own.
The level of resentment of the native population against the Britishers had reached its height when the proposition of Bengal partition came up. However, the brunt of this collective resentment sometimes had to be borne by innocent Britishers staying in India, who had no role in the larger political scenario of the country. For example, in the movie, one of the local youths throws a stone at Bimala’s music teacher, Miss Gilby, wounding her. This forced her to leave the country. Thus, from a broader vision of trying to empower local cottage industries, by boycotting foreign goods, the movement took certain narrow and violent turns.
The movie portrays Sandip as a character full of contradictions. Even though Sandip was delivering fiery speeches about Swadeshi – burning foreign goods, and using goods only made in India – within the four walls of his friend, Nikhilesh’s home, he failed to part with foreign brand of cigarettes. Moreover, as Amulya told Bimala at the end of the movie, part of the money collected for the campaigns went for Sandip’s own luxurious endeavours.
Sandip also represented leaders of the movement who were so carried away by their ideas that they often ignored the cause of the poor people (Muslims in this case). Foreign, factory-made products were far cheaper than locally produced goods, and the quality of the former, again, was better than the local produce. Therefore the poorer sections of the society could only afford foreign goods, which included daily necessities like sugar, salt, matchsticks, clothes etc.
Nikhilesh turned Sandip down by not granting him permission to carry out Swadeshi activities in his Zamindari, Sukhshayor, and not stopping foreign goods from entering the local market. Nikhil argued that the poor traders do not have the luxury of buying expensive local goods, and definitely cannot afford to burn the foreign goods that they require on a daily basis. So, Sandip took up violent strategies of forcefully burning the foreign goods that belonged to poor Muslim traders, and coerced them into joining, or at least support, the movement. However, this did led to further estrangement of the local Muslims from the Hindus, ultimately leading to a communal riot in Sukhshayor.
After Sandip’s speech at Nikhilesh’s place got over, Nikhilesh brought his wife Bimala out into the ‘bahir mahal’ (the public), so that her friend Sandip could meet his wife, a ‘modern’ woman who indulged in literary practices, music lessons etc. Considering the colonial time period of Bengal, where women were confined within the ‘andar mahal’, what Nikhilesh and Bimala did was revolutionary. However, once she stepped out of the ‘private’ sphere, and found herself physically and emotionally drawn towards Sandip, Bimala was addressed by Sandip as ‘Makkhirani’ (queen bee), who attracts a lot of male gaze and becomes the centre of male desires. Sandip seduces her, kisses her and gains her confidence in trying to coax Nikhil to let them carry out their Swadeshi activities within Nikhil’s territories. She becomes so entrenched in love that she even gives out her gold coins to fund the campaigns, which to her unawareness, included forcefully burning foreign goods and sinking the boats of poor Muslim traders so that they fail to bring foreign goods into the village by the river – the only means of transporting goods from the mainland.
- Emergence of the ‘modern’ woman
The onset of modernity in Bengal was considered to be a result of two major factors – the social reform movements, attempting at uplifting the status of women in India, who were till then subjugated by a feudal patriarchal social order, and western education, which was supposed to expose the new upper and middle class Indian elites to western ideals of nationalism, democracy, equality and so on. In the context of Bengal, the growing impact of western education had been most profound on the new middle and upper class elites. Since the woman’s body has always been the site of the operations of patriarchal order, as well as that of the challenges to it, the symbols of ‘modernity’ were also inscribed on the bodies of women in the society. Modernity in Bengal was marked by the changing ideas of ‘ideal’ womanhood. The social reform movements and western education both were influential in marking a change in women’s status in colonial Bengal.
With the rising rate of English education among the elite men of upper and new middle classes, ideas of marriage started changing. A new concept of companionate marriage came up where the wives also had to be educated (preferred if she learnt English as well), knew how to drape saree in the new, upcoming styles, learnt music, and thus served as ‘ideal’ companions for the husbands. Thus modernity was symbolically inscribed on women’s bodies. The same efforts to ‘modernize’ women can be seen in Nikhil’s attempts to make Bimala learn to read and write in English, and making her a ‘modern’ wife; she is made to learn English songs under the guidance of Miss Gilby. Bimala is also seen trying out new styles of draping a saree, suiting the prerequisites of an ‘ideal’ modern woman, who can battle the confines of the private sphere (Andar Mahal), as well as step out in the outside world – (the Bahir Mahal).
However, even when Bimala is shown to be transgressing the boundary that separated the Andar and the Bahir Mahal, she is expected to fulfil her duties of a ‘Pativrata Stree’. After staying in the confines of the Andar Mahal, Sandip was the first ever man she sees in ten years, apart from her husband.
She is looked down upon by the other women in the Andar Mahal, who were posed in stark contrast to the ‘modern’ Bimala. They were shown to be trapped in the private sphere doing the chores of the household; their dressing styles reflected ‘traditional’ patterns. Their anxious faces, once Bimala comes back after meeting Sandip, clearly show how scandalized they were of the fact that Bimala had transgressed her boundaries.
- Stereotyping of gender roles
One important aspect to highlight in the movie is how it portrays the character of Nikhilesh as an affectionate, progressive upper class zamindar, who believes in a companionate marriage pattern. However, he is not ignited with the ‘patriotic’ spree of Swadeshi, which he terms as an ‘addiction’. This is why Bimala says that he is too ‘cold’ – implying a lack of masculinity, as contrary to Sandip whose fiery speech impressed Bimala. Nikhilesh, on the contrary, does not seem very passionate; in bed they hold each other’s hands when Bimala tells him that he has never bestowed any compliment on her. Nikhilesh replies, ‘Do I really need to say that in words?’ Nikhil’s lack of ‘passion’, coldness, all implied that Bimala was not quite satisfied with his lack of ‘masculine’ traits. His characteristics were juxtaposed with his friend Sandip’s, who on the very first instance impressed Bimala with just his words, his passion for Swadeshi movement, and his ideology.
Another interesting stereotyping of gender norms is seen when Sandip implies that women lack men’s rationality when he highlights their ‘intuition’ which, he says, is of greater importance in making crucial decisions in, for example, the Swadeshi movement.
In the beginning of the movie, the widowed sister-in-law of Nikhilesh is shown to be a woman who remains within the confines of the Andar Mahal, draped in a white saree, as was the custom in those times. She is posed in a stark contrast to Bimala – the former Bimala narrates in the beginning that by looking at the widow of her late brother-in-law, she could sense that this woman’s life was devoid of a ‘happy marriage’. The widow is shown to be passing mocking comments at Bimala from the beginning of the movie. Initially, when Bimala takes music lessons in English from Miss Gilby, and hums those tunes in her leisure time, the widow exclaims that since Bimala is humming foreign tunes, wearing foreign clothes, she might just become a ‘memsahib’ one day, forgetting her folks. Later on, eyeing Bimala’s dressing table and all the foreign branded perfumes, she exclaims the ‘attar’ of the good old days is enough for her; these foreign products make her uncomfortable.
Her hostility towards Bimala starts increasing as soon as the latter crosses the threshold of the Andar Mahal. Now, one can understand the intricacy of her character from her lamentation that Bimala is unaware of her fortune, since her husband is so caring. When she was a young wife, she used to dress up each night, waiting for her husband to come to the Andar Mahal; but he never came. But when he was on his deathbed, suffering from high fever, he looked at her with a blank expression, asking who she was. He could not recognize the woman who he was married to. This was the extent of lack of personal contact between the husband and the wife. Her repressed female sexuality could hardly find gratification since her only companion that time was the young Nikhil. So, her concern for Nikhil, especially at the moment when Bimala’s interest shifts from him to Sandip, is also quite understandable.
Bimala is looked down upon as she tends to venture out into the public more and more often, to meet Sandip. The widow makes a sarcastic remark – ‘how can I resist the call of Krishna’s flute’. She cannot see a woman’s sexual desires getting fulfilled not only by her husband, but also from a man from the outside world, as this probably reminded her of her own ungratified sexual desires. The widow approaches Nikhil and tells him that, as a husband he had the ‘right’ to force Bimala to remain within the Andarmahal. When Nikhil declines to do so, saying Bimala is not a kid, and has a mind of her own, she goes to the extent of asking him to at least ask Sandip to leave the house.
Once the riot breaks out, Nikhil rushes out of the house to prevent it, only to get killed (as portrayed by Bimala’s transformation from a married woman marked by long hair, a gorgeous saree and ornaments, to a widow marked by a white saree and short hair); the widow calls Bimala a ‘demon’ who ‘sent’ her husband to death, denying Nikhil’s agency in trying to stop the riots, and blaming Bimala for all the misfortunes that befell him.
The complex interrelation between the characters, within the context of a political turmoil of Swadeshi and communal riots, is what Ray has tried to depict. The four parallel themes ultimately merge in an effort to reveal Tagore’s criticism of blind patriotic fervor that the nation was dealing with and, also, the repression of women under the garb of modernization, which was no less patriarchal than its antecedent, feudal counterpart.