Nationalism Through the Lens of a Love Triangle

Ghare Baire was one of Bengali cinematic maestro Satyajit Ray’s last films and the last one to be adapted from the works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World. The film is set around the Indian ‘Swadeshi’ movement of 1905 (which arose as a response to the Partition of Bengal in the same year). It offers a complex insight into the relationship between the home and the world, the status of a liberated woman during that period and the various facets of nationalism. Bimala, our liberated woman, is an equal in her marriage and when encouraged to interact with Sandip, an activist friend of Nikhil, Bimala’s rich landowning husband, by Nikhil himself, she ends up forming an emotional bond with Sandip and commits adultery.

But the story does not deal with a love triangle only—it shows the fragility of marriage, patriotic ideals and society. The affair and opposing ideologies stir up conflicts both in the marriage and in the society around the characters. The happy marriage eventually breaks down and communal riots break out in the province. Tagore and Ray end the tale on a tragic note. Through the course of the film, Ray effectively portrays Tagore’s ideals through the institution of marriage, and shows how conflicting ideologies create dissent and discord in the marriage and in society.

Tagore once wrote, “Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.” It is this critical thought which he implements while writing the novel in 1916. What Ray deals with is a multi-faceted outlook on nationalism by the Nobel laureate. Is nationalism solely concerned with pride and love for one’s country? If that is true, then perhaps Sandip’s perspective justifies this ideal. However, as Tagore wrote, pride can transform into toxic vanity and hatred for others. This pride “breeds blindness at the end”. Ray also realises that Tagore upholds the importance of Western education and influence, especially in uplifting women and the marginalised sections of society. The movie presents both sides of the issue through Bimala. She abhors the Partition but has conflicting opinions about the radical Swadeshi and Boycott movements. She herself uses foreign goods, perfume and furniture. She admires Miss Gilby, her governess, and is shocked when she is assaulted by Amulya (a teenager who joins Sandip’s radical group). When she finally steals from her husband, Ray makes his audience infer that her ‘home’ is a part of this ‘world’, and no nationalistic ideals can be adhered to if one is unfaithful to one’s home and roots.

Nikhil, on the other hand, tries to balance both sides, believing nationalism is not radical and overtly extremist, but an idea upholding liberty and equality. He maintains nationalism cannot be practiced at the expense of marginalised communities. Tagore’s views are somehow mirrored through Nikhil’s character. The poet was quite anti-colonial himself but never supported militant nationalism and vigilantism. Sandip represents the latter, showing everything wrong with toxic nationalism. To quote Tagore, “I have no hesitation in saying that those who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity, who have the least feeling of enmity against aliens, and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age that is lying before us, and those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and intolerance of aliens will be eliminated.”

Another interesting aspect is the use of the institution of marriage. Marriage, unlike most other social structures, is sensitive and dynamic. Ray and Tagore centre their tale around a marriage which is advanced, compared to the contemporary matrimonial laws and customs. The very existence of a Western-educated, socialite wife who indulges in infidelity is bold, and the stakes are further raised when the criteria for the woman choosing the man becomes his views and not mere lust.

Nikhil practices what he believes in: equality and empowerment of women and the poor. Sandip, the marriage-breaker, is a hypocrite who, under the garb of his nationalistic view, is exploitative and flat-out selfish. Nikhil recognises that for any nation to prosper, the home must prosper. He lets his wife make the choice and happily accepts her when she realises her mistake and apologises for her delusional activities.

Critics have argued about the equality presented in the marriage. Some believe that Tagore keeps the setting real by showing that despite the intention to attain equality, the husband’s ideas and views have a pervasive and effective influence upon the wife’s thinking (in this case, his opinionated nationalism). The woman (Bimala) also gets influenced by another man’s opinions (Sandip), and not the other way round. The depiction that, during the period, most women were intellectually dependent on men is haunting yet real.

The film ultimately boils down to the relation between the ‘home’ and the ‘world’. The ‘home’ will prosper when there is absolute harmony among the members. The ‘world’ is, after all, a conglomeration of homes on a large scale. What is largely practiced across several homes magnifies to a world level. When Bimala realises that she is cheating on her ideals of nationalism by stealing from her own home, she breaks down and seeks reconciliation. Ray proves that nationalistic ideals have no significance if they are not followed at ‘home’ or at any personal level. Ray effectively depicts the reciprocal relationship between the home and the world. What happens in the former affects the latter.

The end of the extra-marital affair hurts Sandip’s ego and he instigates the riots in the province as an act of revenge on Bimala and also to coerce the Muslim workers to conform to his political ideologies. The ‘world’ also enters the affairs of the ‘home’. Tagore and Ray also show a juxtaposition by having two major themes as the backdrop of the story: liberty and freedom of women in the ‘home’ and freedom of the nation in the ‘world’. Both struggles to attain freedom are depicted in the film. Bimala goes beyond the boundaries of marriage in her quest to attain her ideals and struggles to restore her marriage and mental peace. The nation is struggling to achieve freedom via nationalistic movements that do not cater to or benefit all sections of society. Neither Tagore nor Ray deal with a definite conclusion by the end; there is no remark about the outcome of the struggles. It is the emotional and social struggle with which they are concerned, not the outcome. The film is not an argument for how gender equality in society can be successfully attained; nor does it show how the Swadeshi movement led to Indian independence. But it is an insightful account on what repercussions these struggles can lead to and how lives can be drastically affected. The discord in the marriage and society are the examples of such repercussions, and Tagore and Ray caution their audience to take heed to the darker side of such struggles.

Finally, the issues presented through the film adaptation are universal. Virtually every polity across the world has as its foundation some ideology of national self-assertion. Whenever there is an idea, there are conflicting perspectives on that idea. Varying opinions on a matter like nationalism can often lead to polarisation, which in extreme cases can even lead to violence and the disruption of peace and harmony. The representation of nationalistic leaders like Sandip is also significant. Sandip represents all those leaders who under their garb of selflessness, are unconcerned, conniving, exploitative hypocrites masquerading as philanthropists full of care and concern. Just like Sandip who used Bimala for his personal interests, several leaders treat their subjects as pawns and exploit them to their advantage. Thus Ray, through the adaptation of Tagore’s novel, proposes his audience to make a choice - a choice between violent, oppressive nationalism, and a balanced, compassionate and harmonious patriotism.


Sarbesh Chaudhury

I am a first year law student pursuing BBA-LL.B. from Jindal Global Law School (2019-2024), with a keen interest in law, corporate finance, films and fiction, Indian classical music and Indian mythology.

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