Dir. Rituparno Ghosh. India. 2003. 167mins.
This adaptation of the novel written by India's Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore in 1902 tries to expand the story of "four young people trapped in a tangle of sensuality" (in Tagore's words) into a larger parable on the state of women in general and widows in particular, inside Indian society, as well as the political unrest and nationalist feelings generated by Britain's division of Bengal into two. Beautifully shot in dark, reddish hues, mostly in interiors, lavishly designed and featuring stellar performances by Aishawarya Rai, star of festival favourite Devdas, and Raima Sen in the two title roles, it manages to overcome a muddled introduction that has trouble putting each of the characters in its right context and a strangely inconclusive ending which Tagore himself was unhappy with at the time. Chokher Bali offers an intelligent and sensitive picture that should do well. Unlike many shorter films, which fail to get on with their stories, there is never the feeling here that time is wasted for no purpose. And that is a pretty rare in films of any origin.
The story follows Binodini (Rai), a beautiful young woman, who, upon being rejected by two wealthy best friends for marriage, Mahendra (Chaterjee) and Behari (Raychaudhuri) marries someone else. When her husband dies after one year she remains a widow, becoming an outcast in respectable Indian society. She does not remarry and is not allowed any male company, has to keep a strict dietary regime without meat or fish, and, briefly, becomes a non-person whose only purpose in life remains to serve others to the best of her ability. It is something that Binodini, as handsome, vibrant, intelligent and striking as she is, has trouble accepting.
By a quirk of fate she is brought back into the home of Mahendra who is now married to Asha (Sen), a gloriously beautiful, but very young and completely innocent, spoiled, uneducated girl. As soon as they meet the two women strike an alliance that makes them practically inseparable, though each one dutifully respects the codes of her own social functions.
Ghosh, however, manages to insinuate almost imperceptibly through the patterns of a stiff, unbending society, which leaves little opening for digression, a troubled relationship between Binodini, Asha, her hedonist husband - an egotist who lives for pleasure and the advantages of his wealth and Behari, the best friend who is an idealist who believes in the life of plants and political involvement Gradually the roles within this quartet change, particularly that of the women, change, as Binodini's subdued character comes out to assert itself while Asha's spoiled innocence is crushed by evidence she had refused to see.
Combining several dramatic plotlines which develop on parallel lines, but keeping them all on a small fire and integrated into the family chronicle, Ghosh very much keeps in mind that it is sensuality rather than love which repeatedly plays the main role in relationships here. There is no doubt that Binodini is motivated first and foremost by her wish to end her crippling widow status, and that the men are ultimately much weaker and less resolute than she can be.
Rai's masterful control over her part, which runs from meek devotion to outright rebellion, is spot on, making for a deeply felt and moving performance. Sen's Asha is not far behind.
Ghosh keeps his characters indoors most of the time, especially before the third act, which takes place in the holy sites of Benares. Yet he still manages to bring into focus the political turbulence, the animosity towards the British and the structure of the hierarchy inside an Indian family, where a widowed mother can rule with an iron fist over her household, through a crafty combination of constant whining and veiled threats.
Prod co: Shree Venkatesh Films
Int'l sales: Venkatesh 2000
Prods: Shrikant Mohta, Mahendra Soni,
Scr: Rituparno Ghosh, based on Rabindranath Tagore novel
Cinematography: Abhik Mukherdjee
Ed: Arghyakamal Mitra
Prod des: Indranil Ghosh
Music: Debojyoti Mishra
Main cast: Aishawarya Rai, Raima Sen, Prosenjit Chaterjee, Tota Raychaudhuri, Lily Chakrabarti, Sonali Chakrabarti, Shuchita Raychaudhuri