Sunday, May 23, 2021

Cannes 1984: Muslims and Hindus in Colour

Last film review before the award ceremony from the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. For the anecdote, the French title of the film (La maison et le monde) was one of the inspirations behind the title of the four volumes of Daney's writings posthumously published by P.O.L (La maison cinéma et le monde). Another was a text Daney wrote about Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again ("Nick Ray et la maison des images").
Muslims and Hindus in Colour

Satyajit Ray has always wanted to adapt Tagore’s Ghare Baire (The Home and the World). This is now done. An entirely political film which also has the most beautiful kiss of the 1984 Cannes Festival.

It’s a fleeting and sparse group of journalists that saw Satyajit Ray’s latest film, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), yesterday. The ailing auteur wasn’t at the festival, but at home in Calcutta. His son, who helped finish the film, was there, but it wasn’t the same thing. This year’s festival has been scarcely Asian (and not at all African). There was Brocka and Ray, meaning this strange and rarified “noise” of an intimate aquarium, with the hustle and bustle of Asian crowds in the background that is only but a murmur by the time it reaches the Croisette. 

Ghare Baire is first a book that Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1915. The environment, the habits and the customs described in the book are “Ray-esque” by definition, meaning Bengali. The action takes place somewhere on the delta of the Ganges River, where Hindus and Muslims live on poor terms despite the presence of a common enemy: the British. The film is entirely political. It expounds on – with a clarity close to abstraction, akin to The Chess Players – a political situation that unfolds on three levels: the objective, the subjective and, one that exists only to link the two, the story. It’s a simple film. Never a fussy filmmaker, Ray increasingly gets straight to the “most urgent” thing and, once it is isolated (like a beautiful tumour), circles it, not scene after scene, but facet by facet. 

So it’s 1905, and Lord Curzon has this old idea: divide and conquer. India, already quite disparate (more than any other country), is divided between Hindus and Muslims. But Indian nationalists, very active at the time, act as if this division didn’t or wouldn’t cut through them. Bengal’s bourgeois intelligentsia is largely nationalist, steeped in English culture and invaded by English products. The yarn for saris is woven in Manchester, and the only decent cigarettes are British. Indian products, on the other hand, are of poor quality and expensive (Indian soap is not worthy of Ponge). That’s for the objective level. 

Now for the subjective one. Ghare Baire involves three characters: Sandip, Nikhil, his friend from the university, and Bimala, Nikhil’s wife. This trio has nothing of the boulevard theatre about them, even though the situations are conducive to it. Desire, money and politics are not linked but tied. Sandip is a rising nationalist mass leader. He opposes the British with an intoxicating and populist idea of a “motherland” that brings him popularity. Confronted with Curzon’s policies, he is among those that urge (and try to impose) a boycott of British products. There are bonfires of British clothes in the villages, fanatic students leave their studies to join the Cause. Sandip lives on the land belonging to his friend Nikhil. A womaniser, he’d like to get to know Bimala. 

Nikhil is a different man altogether. Radical, but like a moralist. A weak politician, manipulable friend and absent husband, Nikhil is the man who lives according to his ideas, and if he decides one day that his wife (who doesn’t demand anything) must emancipate herself and lead her own life, he accepts the risk that Bimala, released from her lethargy, follows the first song of the siren passing by, moving away from him. That is what happens: Sandip, with his speeches, his apparent energy of a bohemian agitator, his flirting charm, seduces Bimala who embraces his ideas. Sandip desires Bimala, but he especially needs her support to neutralise (if not convince) Nikhil over this boycott that he is opposing: the boycott, he says, will hurt only small merchants at the Sukayar market, who are poor Muslims. A political cause, he also says, cannot be just if it is pursued to the detriment of the poor. 

The situation turns serious as it matures. Through corruption, Sandip manages to prevent British goods from reaching the market. But to fund his bribes and his lifestyle (he likes “class”), he needs money, and he asks for some from Bimala who, in the meantime, has given in to him. When she brings him the money in gold coins in two red velvet purses, there is an extraordinary moment where Sandip, noticing the gold, can no longer hold himself back and begins to moan with greed. In a nanosecond, Bimala understands what Sandip really is (demagogue, ambitious, dishonest), but it’s already too late. In Nikhil’s estate, an uprising has begun. Sandip flees discreetly. Bimala goes back to her husband. After the most beautiful kiss seen in Cannes in 1984, Nikhil goes to face the riots and doesn’t come back. 

I’ve narrated the story because it’s beautiful, but also because the film follows it step by step. Each scene is like a “demonstration”, elegant and implacable, allowing the audience great latitude in understanding the motivation of each character. Bimala’s illusions and Sandip’s lies are obvious from the start, but one must wait (that’s the essence of Ray’s art) for the moment when, eyes finally opened, they will see each other for who they really are, not without some courage. 

Nikhil’s character is more enigmatic, I believe, for one good reason: of the three characters, he is the one closest to the auteur. 

There are many sophisticated, listless but lucid aristocrats in Ray’s films. This man of Anglo-Indian culture has never thought of himself as a flag bearer for India. Political activism scares him and demagogy makes his skin crawl. For the people, he has this distant respect typical of a lord with more a burden of the soul than a mission to accomplish. This is why, once the film is over (yes, it’s a bit long at 2 hours and 13 minutes), we want to retrospectively choose the character through which it touched us the most. Nikhil is the one who, at the risk of being overshadowed, misunderstood or killed, has the attitude of a man who does what he says, that of a saint. And when it comes to politics, saints are a problem. Perhaps with ulterior motives (but not without risk), he pushes his wife into the arms of his friend because it is at that price that she will come back to him (the time of a kiss – and what a kiss!); with the taste for a democracy yet to be invented, he accepts being the loser of this story; out of cowardice, he doesn’t say no to that which says no to him. 

And the film? It’s perhaps not Ray’s greatest. A little long, predictable, straitjacketed, filmed like a TV drama, without those moments where time rushes by and where Ray is the greatest. Everything happens on such a level of abstraction that it is this abstraction which sometimes overwhelms the audience and sometimes distances it from the film. That said, to pretend that it isn’t a beautiful (nocturnal and muted) film, with incredible colours, would attest to an incurable lack of taste.

First published in Libération on 23 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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