It often seems like India makes more movies than any other country. Though many are made at the low-cost, formulaic, “flash-and-bang” manner of the Bollywood style, once in a while a film comes out of India that deserves recognition from critics, aficionados, and audiences who appreciate graceful, deliberate storytelling. The visual beauty and scenarios of Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal, and 8 1/2, the masterpieces of 20th century European cinema, have counterparts in India in the films of Satyajit Ray, Rithik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, and Shyam Benegal. Rituparno Ghosh, a young director from Kolkata, is the creative successor to these great directors, and Chokher Bali, is a lyrical example of his craft and his obsession with one of India’s disgraceful injustices - its religious and cultural subordination of women.
Drawing inspiration from a novel by renowned late 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghosh sets the stage for a period film that examines the slow, insidious way in which a woman’s subjugation at the hands of wealthy acquaintances is transformed into a calculated plan of revenge, vindictiveness, and sexual gratification.
For those familiar with Hindu rituals and customs, or with Deepa Mehta’s haunting film, Water (2006), Hindu widows lead a life of ascetic self-denial. They must wear white saris at all times, they cannot wear jewelry, they are not allowed meat or fish, and live out other such rituals to purify themselves through a lifetime of bereavement. To anyone not Indian, though, it seems as if they are being punished for outliving their husbands. This is the life Binodini is doomed to lead in her husband’s village home, until some family friends take pity and invite her to live with them in Kolkata as a glorified servant. However, as it happens, she stays with Mahendra’s family, the very same man who callously rejected her and led her to her disastrous marriage. Revenge is exacted, slowly and patiently.
Aishwariya Rai, India’s most well-known actress, plays Binodini, her first cerebral role. Through Ghosh’s direction, she gives a blessedly restrained performance that balances girlish submissiveness with coy sensuality. Underneath the doe-eyed charm, Binodini is simmering with rage and her gestures and casual conversations reveal bit-by-bit her plot to destroy the domestic tranquility of the complacently wealthy family families who rejected her.
There’s a marvelous scene where Mahendra’s pretty young wife Ashalata (Raima Sen), naively takes the poor widow on as her confidante and lets her try on her wedding jewelry, heavy gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and all. Binodini didn’t even have such fine ornaments at her own wedding, and her ecstasy at wearing these jewels can’t be contained: she dances and sings in front of the mirror, like a knowing courtesan, while Mahendra and Behari watch, rapt with lust, from behind the bedroom door. Whether Binodini realizes the men are there, or is unaware, is left a bit ambiguous. But the ensuing manipulation, seduction, and quiet devastation affords grim satisfaction for Binodini, who is forbidden to remarry, bear children, and lead a life of normalcy.
The evocative title of the story alludes to the discomfort caused by something sudden and seemingly simple, like getting a grain of sand stuck in your eye, which once caught, can be excruciatingly painful, and even blinding. So is the grain of sand, Binodini, who wreaks havoc on the domestic bliss of Mahendra’s family, or is Binodini a blameless young woman whose opportunities for happiness were denied to her by the vagaries of fate and society? Like well-made films that center on complicated, compelling characters, Chokher Bali simply presents the story and allows the audience to decide what to make of it all. Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what’s best in Indian art house cinema, must see this movie, taking it in as you would finely crafted short story.