Feisty film portrays negative effects of belligerent nationalism

Feisty film portrays negative effects of belligerent nationalism

‘Ghawre Bairey Aaj’ pulls no punches
Anjan Basu, New Delhi, January 5, 2020

Jisshu Sengupta as Sandip Jha and Tuhina Das as Brinda in a scene from the film (Picture from filmcompanion.in)

Aparna Sen dedicates Ghawre Bairey Aaj (The Home and the World, Today) to the memory of Gauri Lankesh. Much like Lankesh, who was killed at her home in Bangalore in September 2017, Nikhilesh, Sen’s protagonist, is gunned down at his doorstep as he returns home from work one night.

Two whole years after the Lankesh murder, her assassins are yet to be brought to justice. For now, only the minor operatives of the murder plot seem to have been nabbed, while the big fish are not merely all at large, they remain in the shadows.

No hem and haw

Sen’s film, however, refuses to hem and haw about who Nikhilesh’s killers are. 

Ghawre Bairey Aaj not only foregrounds the political ecosystem that Nikhilesh found himself up against, it also points unflinchingly to the political formation that liquidated Nikhilesh.

It is one of the movie’s great strengths that it manages to make this unequivocal statement with complete artistic integrity.

The filmmaker’s point of departure is the well-known Rabindranath Tagore novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), upon which Satyajit Ray based his eponymous film of 1986.

Like the Tagore story, Ghawre Bairey Aaj pivots on the Nikhilesh-Sandip-Bimala (Brinda in the film) triangle playing out against the backdrop of militant nationalism.

Love and passion, infidelity and selflessness, idealism and a cynical self-absorption – all these themes animate the film, but the leitmotif is the inevitable irreconcilability of aggressive nationalism with essential humaneness.  

The film moves inexorably towards the denouement where Bimala/Brinda’s world falls apart and Nikhilesh succumbs to the assassin’s bullet, even as the fire-eating Hindutva radical Sandip, the blood of his childhood friend upon his hands, inches closer to the high point of his political career.

Tagore had situated his novel in the early 1900s, when a self-consciously combative variant of nationalism was beginning to push back against more nuanced and accommodative representations of patriotism in India’s independence movement.

Aparna Sen (Picture Courtesy: Rashbehari Das in The Telegraph India)

The milieu is today’s India

The milieu of Sen’s film is the here and now in India. The worldview of a pugnacious ‘Indianness’ is set off here against the idea of an inclusive, liberal and tolerant society.

Like Tagore before her, Sen makes no secret of where her own sympathies lie in this battle of ideas. Unlike Tagore, however, she draws her characters in starker black and white. 

Ghawre Bairey Aaj posits the view that belligerent nationalism is an unmixed evil, incapable of basic humanity, indeed even of common decency.

This starkness of the canvas is a crucial departure from the structure of the Tagore story, and the movie makes it plain that this difference is not fortuitous.

Sen does not daub Sandip with black through carelessness; she means him to look unappealing, even distasteful.

The weltanschauung Sandip represents is not just boring, it is obnoxious, and Sen does not want to risk the possibility of any alternate readings of her screenplay.

True Indianness

Sandip and his followers endlessly obsess about ‘true’ Indianness, reject not just the markers of modernity but also its very essence, and feel threatened by the mild-mannered, decent-to-a-fault Nikhilesh precisely because his work embraces modernity and the rational temper as a matter of course. And when Sandip  momentarily hesitates to ask himself if Nikhilesh is to be killed outright or instead roughed up as a warning, his party’s influential functionaries tell Sandip quite plainly to back off and not meddle in the affair, or else the party might reconsider its decision to nominate Sandip to the Rajya Sabha.

The ‘party’ remains unnamed, of course, but it is difficult to see how any film-maker in India today could have been any more plainspoken than this.

Modernity vs liberal spirit

Around Ghawre Bairey Aaj’s main narrative of the unrelenting antagonism between modernity and the liberal spirit on the one hand and prejudice and sectarian jingoism on the other, Sen crafts subplots which throw the main theme into sharper relief.

For example, the episode from Nikhilesh and Sandip’s student days where a female friend was molested on a trip to Sandip’s village in Bihar.

The way Sandip’s grandfather, the family patriarch, reacts to the incident shows how he can never bring himself to treat a woman as a man’s equal.

This theme ties into Sandip’s dyed-in-the-wool conservatism on all societal issues, his cultivated urbane manner notwithstanding.

Thus, when Brinda, pregnant with Sandip’s child, suggests that she and Sandip move out of Nikhilesh’s home and live together as man and wife, Sandip is scandalised: how can he, at the threshold of a promising career in public life, possibly live with a Dalit woman?

Much of India’s current public discourse around intolerance, casteism and tradition versus progress finds clear and sharp echoes in the film.  

The lynching in a train of a Muslim boy prompts a young Hindutva enthusiast – a friend of the victim – to rethink the ideology he has wedded himself to. The victim’s name, tellingly, is Junaid, while his Hindu friend, Amulya, is modelled on a young man of the same name in the Tagore novel who is disenchanted with Sandip’s amorality and unscrupulousness in most matters.

Straightforward narration

The film uses a pretty straightforward narrative structure and handles it well overall. (The sepia flashbacks look a little laboured, though.) A more low-key final sequence would, however, have been more apposite. The editing is crisp, except for snatches where the camera lingers a little too long on an episode, like in the steamy lovemaking scene between Sandip and Brinda on a stormy night.

In the same sequence, the film cuts far too often to the creepy night in a Bastar jungle (where Nikhilesh is driving to where he will stay the night) and back to the lovers, with a loud, somewhat maudlin music track playing in the background.

Indeed, one often found the film’s music a distraction. It is too ear-filling, and seems to have been scored keeping a very different kind of movie in mind.

But these are minor issues in a film that raises some of the most important questions confronting us in India today, and does so with conviction and courage, refusing to beat about respectable, ‘neutral’ bushes, and yet making a valid artistic statement.

The intriguing question

And that is what brings us to a somewhat intriguing question: how did Ghawre Bairey Aaj, being the kind of film it is, manage to escape the censor’s loving attention?

That it makes a very nearly incendiary statement about our polity today is clear from even the English subtitles (which are adequate overall).

One doesn’t know if the censors cut out any significant portions of the movie, but the incision marks do not show in the finished product. Did the censors, then, have a change of heart? One hopes they had. The only other possible explanation is far from charitable.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, translator and commentator based out of Bangalore. As Day is Breaking is his book of translations from the work of the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. The above article, which appeared in ‘The Wire,’ (thewire.in) Web Edition on January 4, 2020, has been reproduced here under a Special Agreement.


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