Dir: RituparnoGhosh. India. 2005. 118mins.
Returning to thelate 19th century, Rituparno Ghosh spins another sumptuous, yet intimate familystory with Antarmahal: Views From The Inner Chamber, playing once morein the same register he successfully used two years ago for fellow Locarnocompetitor Chokher Bali.
Less enticing andnot as rich as his previous effort - in part due to the lesser source material- Ghosh once again grapples with old traditions, religious taboos and, aboveall else, the previous condition of women in Indian society, where they wereregarded as beautiful, decorative objects at the mercy of their husbands andmasters.
Again the featureplays inside the dark chambers of a rich Bengali family, with female characterspredominant, moving at the slow, ceremonious pace of life at the time.
Similarly,production design and camerawork enhance the musty, scented, voluptuousatmosphere, lavishing attention on every detail of make-up and costume andpainstakingly exploring the customs and social structures within thetraditional Indian household.
But Views FromThe Inner Chamber fails to equal Chokher Bali when it comes to thescope of the plot, which here stretches credibility to a dangerous point. Thereis a also a lack of depth among the male characters, from the insensitivehusband to the libidinous priests.
The film shouldenjoy some play among Indian audiences at home and abroad, who will recogniselead performers such as Jackie Shroff and Rupa Ganguly. But, unlike with ChokherBali, there is no one of Ayshawarya Rai's calibre to give the picture thesignificant push it needs into broader non-specialised markets.
Bhubaneswar(Shroff), a vain, rich and despotic local landowner, desperately wants twothings: a male son and a title of the British Empire. To beget an heir, he hastaken a very young second wife, Jasomati (Ali Khan), after 12 years of sterilemarriage to Mahamaya (Ganguly).
Every night helaboriously mounts his new spouse in scenes that are unusually explicit byIndian standards (though not by others), in loveless but insistent attempts toget her pregnant. Behind the door his first wife rails at his efforts and takesopium to appease her frustration and jealousy.
For the Britishtitle, he follows the advice of one of his counsellors and decides to put theface of Queen Victoria on the statue of the Goddess Durga. A young sculptorfrom the countryside is brought in for the purpose, and instructed to paint theface of the British monarch on the naked body of the 10-armed goddess fightinga demon.
The film's best andmost arresting feature is its encounter between the two women, rivals for thehusband's favours and yet accomplices when faced with his tyrannical, unscrupulousand boorish tantrums.
The older one,Mahamaya, comes from a rich family and is secure in her position, while theyounger one, Jasomati, worries that unless she produces a son she will bechased away. Mahamaya still nurses a kind of perverted affection for the manwho has turned his back on her; Jasomati suffers his nightly sexual assaultsobediently, since she has no other choice, or at least so it seems.
Though socialdecorum is preserved throughout and traditional etiquettes are never seen to bebroken until the surprise ending, the film carries a strong sense of risk andsensuality.
It reaches an almostshocking pitch at one point when the first wife performs a kind of virtualstriptease to distract a priest mumbling holy verses next to his copulatingmaster as part of fertility rite.
And it is suggestedagain in the scenes when the young sculptor (Bachchan) lovingly shapes the mostintimate curves of the straw-and-mud Durga, passionately caressing them as ifthey were flesh and blood.
Abhik Mukherjee'scamerawork tenderly paints intimate images of the semi-dark rooms, paying fulltribute to the visual richness of Indian adornments in dress, make-up orinterior decoration. It is perhaps most successful in how it captures thebeauty of its female subjects, praised in the film's first words, spoken invoice-over by a British artist commissioned to paint the household's master.
Rupa Ganguly, as thejilted wife who towards the end is willing to sacrifice everything, includingher dignity and modesty for her husband's whims, steals most of her scenes,although Soha Ali Khan offers no mean competition. Their presence carriesGhosh's picture throughout - certainly enough to keep genre aficionadoscontent.
Soha Ali Khan