21 February 2016

Insiders, Outsiders: Ghare Baire

My Mumbai Mirror column today: 

Satyajit Ray's film adaptation of Tagore's 1916 novel brings to life the dangers of nationalism, then and now.

Over the last week, as the BJP government gave its most lawless supporters free rein to harangue and harass anyone who dare question their party line on 'nationalism', I have thought often of Tagore. If you think Tagore was a nature-loving, poetry-spouting sort, writing paeans to the ineffable spirit and teaching young people to think about history, literature and the arts in a tree-filled setting - well, yes, he was that. But unlike what the newly-emboldened tribe of JNU-bashers (Chetan, Chandan, et al) would have us believe, sensitivity sharpens the brain. 

Reading Tagore on nationalism is startling. He is uncannily clear-eyed about an ideology still bearing poisonous fruit, a hundred years after he critiqued it. 

In the 1916 essay 'Nationalism in India', he wrote: "I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organised power. This organisation incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient... thereby man's power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity." All those currently abusing and beating up people in the Nation's name are certainly experiencing moral exaltation--while they grow ever more dangerous to humanity. 

But this is a column about cinema, and it is a film that I am here to recommend. In 1984, Satyajit Ray adapted Tagore's novel Ghare Baire, also published in 1916, for the screen. The Home and the World is often relegated to Ray's minor works. Perhaps it is too much of a chamber piece for a political period drama, and perhaps the acting is occasionally stilted. But Ghare Baire is a film of rare political complexity, made rarer by its accessibility. 

Relationships between the three primary characters unfold against the backdrop of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. The serious Nikhil (played by Victor Banerjee) is the educated zamindar, a believer in companionate marriage, who urges his wife not just to get lessons from a memsahib, but to step out of purdah. Only if she is free to meet other men, says Nikhil, will her love for him pass the test. His wife Bimala (Swatilekha) is first reluctant to break out of her traditional role, and later overwhelmed by the choices such freedom offers. Finally, there is Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), Nikhil's college-mate and a charismatic orator who wants to use the zamindar's house as a base for nationalist mobilisation. 

It might have seemed a simplistic device - one character for, one against, and the third temporarily swayed - were the characters not so well-etched. With Sandip, Tagore is able to portray all the attractions of nationalism - and its horrific dangers. The first of these is that nationalism celebrates an immediacy of feeling over rational thought, 'natural' intuition over argument. Having been introduced to Bimala, Sandip asks her opinion of his rousing speech. "I haven't had much time to think about it," she says shyly. "But that's why I want to know what you *feel*," declares Sandip. "Leave the thinking to him!" 

Bimala concedes that hearing the assembled crowd chant Vande Mataram gave her goosebumps. "And so it should," says Sandip. "But do you know your husband doesn't believe in our mantra?" Nikhil's reply is perhaps the film's most memorable line of dialogue: "But I do not believe in any sort of intoxicant." 

Tagore is also scarily prescient about how turning the nation into an imagined figure called Bharat Mata allows people to do anything at all in the name of "worshipping her": "Ja korchhe shob-i ma-er jonno (Everything they're doing is for the mother)," says Nikhil drily. Young boys under the spell of Swadeshi hurl stones at a harmless old memsahib, rob innocents, even murder. When poor Muslim tradesmen refuse to heed the Swadeshi call because their economic survival depends on cheap British goods, Sandip's nationalism is quick to adopt both underhand and violent tactics, eventually leading to a communal riot. 

"Do the traders in the haat not belong to the nation?" asks Nikhil in anger when a group of angry young Hindu men try to coerce him into banning British goods in his zamindari area. "There are Muslims in this country, this is a historical fact." Tagore's 1916 essay had also pointed out the hypocrisy of claiming to forge a political unity called the nation while society remained so starkly divided: "The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland, where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes." 

Sandip's high-minded speeches pay lip service to Hindu-Muslim unity -- after all, Swadeshi arose in the wake of Lord Curzon's division of Bengal. Yet his politics, on the ground, involves the unashamed oppression of poor Muslims. The manipulation of the majoritarian mind, the cynical polarisation of people by demagogues -- the scenario enacted in Ghare Baire is chillingly familiar. It seems unbelievable that we have been living this narrative for at least a century -- and still cannot not see through the fog.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Feb 2016.

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