It’s sort of funny to see this so quickly after Mahapurush because it represents Ray operating on the other end of the spectrum. Where as I found that film a bit too simplistic and silly, this one might be Ray’s most dense work and certainly one of his most beautiful. While it presents itself as a political film, it is also one that registers with Ray’s interest in social standing. Most interesting, he examines the conflict between activism and class. Unfortunately, his portrait is somewhat simplified, but the film itself is still ambitious. Ray himself might fall short of being fair and showing compassion towards everyone, but ultimately two sides develop from the polemic material.
Bimala marries Nikhil and is given what few women in India have: personal freedom. Nikhil is a modernist in every sense, educated in England with a group of revolutionary friends. He identifies as liberal and wants Bimala to have every opportunity to experience the world. He buys western clothes and piano lessons for her. He shares that his interest in having her see the outside world comes from the theory that she’ll never know if she loves him if she doesn’t see other men. At this time, we are introduced to Sandip, the leader of the Swadeshi movement, which centers its focus on exclusively buying and using national products. While this obviously clashes with Nikhil and Bimala’s Western-inspired lifestyle and later, it begins to threaten the couple’s love.
There’s many layers to appreciate here and the complex hidden away in Nikhil is a good place to start. While he openly presents himself as a leftist, his own words seem to betray his perceived ideology. One must admire his attempt to emancipate Bimala, but he explains that this is done for completely selfish reasons. He wants her to experience other men so they’ll know they are truly in love. Of course, this ends up foreshadowing Bimala’s relationship with Sandip. More importantly, it’s inherently problematic. He speaks as a progressive, but he explains this as being for a selfish reason. More importantly, he frees Bimala but only sees her only worth in her love or more cynically, her body.
It’s to Ray’s credit that Nikhil still feels like a real person and the not saint one might make him out to be for ideological identification nor the bad guy that could be read into his selfishness. The film does present a problem by their social status, they are obnoxiously upper class, perhaps the wealthiest family in any of Ray’s films (though I realize I made a similar proclamation in my review of Mahapurush) and although we ultimately sympathize with them, their financial position is important to the film’s politics. The Swadeshi movement is founded upon ending the use of foreign products in India, but the rub is that a majority of the poor’s income comes from selling these foreign products. This is something Sandip is confronted with when he asks merchants to burn their foreign goods, they reasonably protest that their life is difficult enough.
Nikhil, being a centrist, sides with the poor. He opposes Sandip (which creates an interesting personal dynamic between the two friends) and embraces the rallying cries of the poor, but it ends there. His extreme wealth puts him in a position to do more, but he doesn’t. The poor speak out against the Swadeshi because it would only make their suffering worse and Nikhil seems to lazily rest on this part of the argument to restrain himself from getting involved. If anything, his education, money, and apparent leftist ideology would suggest an interest in helping the poor, but he uses them as a point in opposing Sandip.
I must explain that the film itself is not entirely concerned with the Swadeshi movement, but it is one of the many currents flowing through the story’s arc. The main appeal here is the development of Bimala into the Western influenced woman Nikhil sees her to be. Interestingly, she tries to resist this. The film doesn’t make much of a point in addressing this dynamic but I find it interesting nonetheless: Nikhil wants to improve the position of women in India, but he seems to be imposing a very Western lifestyle on his wife in the process. His attitude is kind of a problem because he’s pressuring his wife into another life, albeit one that is probably more open.
Ray’s visual style here is worth a viewing alone. One could argue that it’s just the benefit of advancements in film stock as the deep focus cinematography here isn’t that different from that in a film like say, Mahapurush. I’d say this is sort of a simplification of what Ray has accomplished here. Certainly, his camera movements are nothing new, but his use of colors here is not something inherent. I usually associate a yellow-brown color palette as a side-effect or trend of digital filmmaking. It looks utterly gorgeous here, perhaps recalling at times the violent colors of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (which this film shares a chamber drama impulse with) while also anticipating the high saturated blues of an entire generation of East Asian cinema. Needless to say, it’s a little bit breathtaking.
One of the best attributes of Ray’s film is that the dynamics I’ve glossed over above are never given a definitive moment. The love triangle is never exactly handled like one, instead the focus is on Bimala, the developments happening within her as she’s being used as some sort of emotional tug-of-war. Perhaps I’m at fault for not discussing her enough, but her journey (to risk sounding corny) is the film’s biggest pull and it’s also the hardest to explain with words. It’s not that she or the rest of the film’s characters are hard to read, but the fact that their actions can suggest something else about them and of course, about India at the start of the 20th century. It is not a fault that Ray gives us no answers, but it is instead a strength that he can evoke concepts but still make the film feel “complete” even as it is open-ended.