Ghawre Baire Aaj: Aparna Sen's latest film often gets tied down by its own socio-political scaffolding
In Ghawre Baire Aaj, Aparna Sen gives a contemporary update to the classic love triangle of Tagore’s novel
Fifteen minutes into Aparna Sen’s latest, Ghawre Bairey Aaj (which had its world premiere at Delhi’s Jagran Film Festival last week), there’s a fascinating sociological moment. It's classic Sen, if you remember how the personal and the political converge in works like Paroma and Mr and Mrs Iyer. Nikhilesh (Anirban Bhattacharya), the Anglophile, upper-caste Bengali editor of a publication called India Online, is telling his childhood friend Sandeep Jha (‘Sandy’; played by Jisshu) about his marriage to the much younger Brinda (Tuhina Das). Brinda, born Bimla, a tribal Dalit girl, grew up in Nikhilesh’s parents’ house — her grandmother was Nikhilesh’s nanny. Her name was apparently changed to the more Sanskritic ‘Brinda’ by Nikhilesh’s mother who wanted her to gain the benefits of an obviously upper-caste name. At this point, Sandeep corners his old friend with a chuckle, saying “So you Brahminised the girl”. It’s a joke between best friends, but you could cut the tension with a knife.
Unfortunately, this is one of only a handful of moments within Ghawre Bairey Aaj when the screenplay rises to the challenge — namely, crafting the kind of intense, wholly contemporary political allegory Sen was clearly shooting for here. Much of the rest of the movie is tied down by its own socio-political scaffolding, leaving little breathing space for its three main characters, the classic love triangle of Tagore’s novel (the movie has very little in common with Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film Ghare Baire, aiming instead to re-contextualise the novel, known as The Home and the World in English). The original story was a relatively straightforward morality narrative, the story of Bimla, the straight-laced housewife who has an affair with Sandeep the pasionate, ‘swadeshi first’ revolutionary — but eventually realises it is her soft-spoken Bengali nobleman husband, Nikhilesh, who truly loves her and who in fact wants her to have a life outside of the confines of their home (a controversial stand in Tagore’s time).
Sen has shifted this triangle to contemporary times, in a somewhat messy convergence of Hindu nationalism, the assault against free and fair journalism in India, and even a dash of anti-Naxalite programming. Nikhilesh, as previously mentioned, is the Publishing Editor of India Online, a publication committed to social justice. Sandeep, who used to be a student activist for the Left and later a Naxalite, is now a Hindutva-spouting historian, a demagogue. The two find themselves on opposite sides of a red-button issue — a piece of disputed land in Bastar. Nikhilesh and his band of activists are drumming up support and financial backing for a hospital to be built there, to shore up the region’s abysmal healthcare. Sandeep and the right-wing party he is beholden to want a temple to be built. This conflict drives much of the plot in Ghawre Baire Aaj.
Here’s the thing — while all of this can be considered world-building, it leaves little time and space for the dynamics of the actual love triangle. We are never really told what makes Brinda sleep with Sandeep, apart from one hastily put together scene where Sandeep is pontificating on Hindutva matters in Nikhilesh’s lush garden (Sandeep, of course, is crashing at his old pal Nikhilesh’s house while in Delhi, as per the original Ghare Baire). Brinda looks at Sandeep arguing vigorously, and thinks (not aloud, though), “Why doesn’t Nikhilesh speak forcefully like this, ever?” In theory, this moment could have been a decent allegory for the way more and more young people around the world are being seduced by the “passionate” arguments of xenophobes, racists and misogynists.
In practice, however, the scene falls flat because it’s too trite, too convenient and spoon fed to us as the tipping point for Brinda’s attraction — I’m sorry, that’s way, way too thin a justification for a young, beautiful woman sleeping with a 40-something, not particularly attractive stranger she met literally two days ago. And while we’re talking about Sandeep, why oh why does Sen insist on Nikhilesh repeatedly telling us how Sandeep is “devilishly handsome”? While I accept that in theory, some people might think this an appropriate description for Jisshu, I just didn’t see it that way. People are attracted to other people for thousands of reasons, but if you’re insisting that physical attraction is the main reason here, well, justify that!
Jisshu’s, which is to say, Sandeep’s Bihariness is another problem— it might seem strange to complain about Jisshu’s terrible Bihari accent in a month which gave us the monstrosity called Super 30, but it really is terrible. Also, the Bihariness and the politics means that there are dozens of Hindi posters/banners/slogans used prominently as props throughout the film. Every single one of those posters, it seems, uses wrong Hindi spellings — I counted 6 wrong ones, and I am positive there are many more. Moreover, in the second half, we find out that ‘India Online’ is actually…. a print newspaper. Or is it a website with a small print output as well? We never find out. These inconsistencies are eyesores, to say the least, and it’s a terrible look for a director of Sen’s stature and experience.
Among the actors, the one-film old Das does her best with an underwritten role, and Bhattacharya does his best with an overwritten one (it’s not enough that the Bengali babu is a bit of an upper-caste snob, he had to be a pipe-smoking Anglophile as well; not very subtle). Which leaves us with Jisshu, who penguin-walks his way through a role he is ill-suited for — the dashing, unscrupulous seducer.
This is a film over-stuffed with Big Ideas and dangerously short on the romantic frisson that made the original story so powerful. By the time Ghawre Baire Aaj free-falls towards its utterly predictable final act, we are left wondering whether Sen wouldn’t have been better off planning this as a mini-series, which would have given her the bandwidth to develop the political allegories she clearly feels so powerfully about.
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After I saw Dahan (1997), I knew that irrespective of where my career took me, I would always write about films.
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