The Home and the World


Review by
William H. Stoddard

based on Ghare-Baire (1916) by Rabindranath Tagore

Director: Satyajit Ray
Writers: Rabindranath Tagore (novel); Satyajit Ray (screenplay)

  • Soumitra Chatterjee — Sandip Mukherjee
  • Victor Banerjee — Nikhilesh Choudhury (Nikhil)
  • Swatilekha Chatterjee — Bimala Choudhury

National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC): 1984
Bengali; subtitles in English

140 minutes April 1986

A Country Torn

In The Home and the World, the Indian director Satyajit Ray has produced something extraordinary in a number of ways. In the first place, this is a film of great beauty and subtlety, which is profoundly moving. In the second place, the events it portrays are linked together by a consistent philosophical theme, and one which emerges from them in an utterly natural way, without didacticism. In the third place, this theme is a profoundly libertarian one — from a country whose politics are far from libertarian — and its implications are fully developed, to the point of a bitter critique of the very foundations of the Indian state and its socialist politics.

The setting of The Home and the World is the British Raj, in the province of Bengal in 1905, shortly after Lord Curzon's decision to partition it into an eastern division, predominantly Muslim (now known as Bangladesh), and a western division, predominantly Hindu (now the Indian state of West Bengal). In protest against this act, a movement known as Swadesha (roughly, "independence") has arisen, whose strategy is a boycott of British and other foreign goods. One of its leaders, the charismatic Sandip Mukherjee, comes to the estate of his school friend Nikhil Choudhury to agitate on its behalf; the events that follow, personal and political, are Ray's story.

This story is told primarily through the eye's of Nikhil's young wife, Bimala. Nikhil has been educated in the Western style, and wants Bimala to be more than a traditional Hindu woman — to learn English and Western ideas, to discuss politics, to come out of purdah and meet his male friends, especially Sandip. She consents to do so, rather reluctantly, but is quickly fascinated by Sandip and becomes an enthusiastic supporter of his political movement. More slowly, she realizes that she is personally attracted to him as well. The subtlety of Ray's portrayal of this attraction makes their first kiss almost shockingly intense, even for a Western audience accustomed to much more open sexuality in films.

Initially, Satyajit Ray gives the impression that Sandip and his movement are meant to be seen sympathetically. Only gradually does he undercut this impression. Sandip, it turns out, is a hypocrite, preaching abstinence from Western goods but unwilling to give up the foreign cigarettes he is accustomed to. And his movement, as Nikhil points out, is deeply flawed as a means to freedom, since it would require poor peasants to buy very costly Indian-made products and would drive small merchants out of business. Still worse, Sandip is quite ready to use covert violence when persuasion fails, inciting his followers to destroy the property of those who oppose him. He readily accepts Bimala's stealing Nikhil's money to aid him, even asking her for more than the movement needs so he can spend the excess on his own luxuries; despite his denunciation of "exploitation" he has few personal qualms about exploiting others. In his last speech, he describes himself as a follower of Ravana (a demon king in the Hindu epic the Ramayana) and not of Rama (the epic's hero, whose wife Sita is kidnapped by Ravana — a story echoed repeatedly in this film). Ray is implicitly saying that the movements from which Indian independence arouse — mass movements hostile to foreign trade and demanding sacrifices, largely from the poor, for the "social good" — have demoniacal and destructive elements. He explicitly shows that their consequences include mob violence between Hindus and Muslims, a far worse division than any imposed by the British.

Nikhil, the movie's true hero, is profoundly ambivalent toward the British. On one hand, he wants India to be free of their oppressive policies. On the other, he accepts such British principles as free trade, women's rights, and other aspects of liberalism — from which British policy in Indian often deviated sadly. In fact, his actions consistently reflect belief in individual freedom, from his refusal to prohibit the sale of foreign goods in the marketplace he owns to his refusal to interfere between Sandip and Bimala, as his sister-in-law demands. One of Ray's points is that Nikhil's endurance and rejection of compulsion offer a far better image of heroism than Sandip's charismatic energy and readiness to take by force what persuasion won't get him.

That a film such as The Home and the World was made in India, a country torn between bigoted traditions of racial, religious, caste, and sexual oppression, and an equally oppressive doctrinaire socialism imported from the West, is extraordinary. That it is also a moving work of art is not extraordinary in quite the same way; but works of this kind are always extraordinary. Bimala, Nikhil, and Sandip are vividly realized characters within a story that evokes both Western philosophy and Indian myth to convey its meaning. No libertarian should miss seeing this film.


© 1986 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Spring 1986
Libertarian Futurist Society

Sunil Singh's page for
Ghare-Baire (Home and the World)

Wendy McElroy's
Strategies from the Past: Boycott
Non-Political Persuasion in Society

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