(2003) Chokher Bali Reviews

Free-press-release Review

Great credit goes to Director Ghosh for a brilliant screenplay. The way he has established the characters Binodini (Aishwariya Rai) so gorgeous and plain, yet so unpredictable. The demure Ashalata (Raima Sen), her husband Mahendra (Prasenjit Chaterjee) and a host of other characters in the film. The movie has its own pace yet it is so “involving”.

Aishwariya Rai plays a widow, and is without make up in most of the movie. She has acted fantastically and sure would be a National Award contender. With this she leaves whatever competition she had very far behind. Not only does she look gorgeous, one can’t make out that Bengali is a foreign language for her.

Raima Sen plays the dominated underage wife to Prasenjit (Gajendra) has also acted well. She is demure and soft-spoken in most of the film, yet is very convincing in the parts where she needs to get aggressive.

The movie is shot very well; more so the entire movie has a “yellow tinge”. It’s been colour corrected in postproduction so as to give the 1902-1905 “look”. The Art direction of the film is fabulous, not overstated yet dramatic in look, in the right places. The background score deserves special mention. Very minimalist and at times just a solo voice singing in Bengali hence highlighting the mood of the scene.

Hindi Song Review

Director Rituparno Ghosh has come out with a film with difference. He has adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s Story that deals with human passions and their darkness.

Chokher Bali is a period film whose story is set in Bengal during the early part of the twentieth century. It was a time of upheaval and unrest in the Indian subcontinent. Bengal was facing a crisis: it was about to be bifurcated by the British rulers.

It was the same period when one of the India’s great poets Rabindranath Tagore was at his creative high. As a writer, he sensed the restlessness and changes of the society and reflected them in his writings. His Novels Chokher Bali, Nashtaneer and Gharey Bairey portrayed the emerging conflict within the family and society at large.

The period witnessed the beginning of liberal tones and the breakdown of age-old customs and values. Widow remarriage, female education and the Christian missionary influence had a liberating effect. Tagore had keenly observed the winds of changes and portrayed them in his writings with an analytical approach. Chokher Bali is one such output from the great poet.

Ghosh dares to translate Tagore’s writing into the celluloid language and he has done it with a lot of success. He skillfully intertwines interplay of the six basic human passions and of impassioned nationalist ideals in his screenplay.

It’s the story of a widow (Binodini). Mahendra (Prosenjit Chatterjee) refuses to marry the English-educated Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) and hence she has to marry someone else. Unfortunately she becomes a widow soon after the marriage.

Mahendra marries the uneducated Ashalata (Raima Sen) and starts a blissful marital life. After the initial physical urge finds its vent amidst immature, adolescent sentimentalism, the couple soon exhausts the fire in their relationship.

Mahendra, a victim of the Oedipus complex, is torn between his childhood craving for his mother Rajlakshmi (Lily Chakrabarty) and his natural youthful urge for his wife’s companionship.

The trouble worsens when widow Binodini comes to stay with them as Mahendra’s mother Rajlakshmi’s (Lily Chakrabarty) companion. Mahendra is attracted towards Bindolini and the family is caught in deep trouble.

Binodini is a complex character and her complexities are more inherent than the result of her plight as a lonely young widow. She is intelligent, moderately educated, and exceedingly beautiful. She is also a deadly attraction for all who come close to her.

Binodini enters into Mahendra’s household. She seems to be as imaginary and inconsistent as a wood nymph.

Aishwarya Rai exudes this nymph-like aura all through the film. The wide range of shades in Binodini’s character is beyond the reach of many actors. However, Aishwarya has successfully portrayed the plight of a lonely young widow, who is deprived of sexual pleasure and craving for love and security.

Raima Sen excels as Mahendra’s naive bride. She has achieved a balanced and sensitive portrayal of her character. Sen deftly expresses Ashalata’s low self-esteem, her pains and tribulations.

Prosenjit Chatterjee is credible as the ‘spoilt’ Mahendra driven by a passionate lust for life to an extent where he gets caught in his self-created web.

Rituparno Ghosh should be applauded for his selection of theme and the cast. He has deftly handled the subject with a matured treatment. His fine story telling, keenness in the details and extensive research widens the scope of the film.

The film is a visual delight. National Award winner (Pataalghar) Aveek Mukhopadyay’s cinematography is excellent. The color of the film provides the film with the looks of 1902-1905. The art direction is fabulous. The background score deserves special mention. Very minimalist and at times, just a solo voice singing in Bengal, reflecting the mood of the scene.

Art director Bibi Roy, with his innate sense of aesthetics and history has done wonders. The director opted for more indoor scenes. It is not surprising to note that some sequences have Sathyajith Ray’s touch given the fact that Ghosh has a great obsession with Ray.

Ghosh has created many scenes with subtlety. The tea-making scene and the red jacket episode between Binodini and Ashalata are subtle hints at the artificial pretensions in the relationships that the women of the household share with each other. Binodini’s control over Ashalata and her love life have been finely portrayed.

Of course the film has its flaws too. The second half drags a bit and could easily have been cut by 20 minutes. Viewers may find some of the more minute details that are packed into the film quite confusing, and that could have been rectified as well.

Overall, Chokher Bali is a film that stands out from the lot with powerful performances, excellent script, amazing visual quality and an outstanding direction.

Popmatters Review

It often seems like India makes more movies than any other country. Though many are made at the low-cost, formulaic, “flash-and-bang” manner of the Bollywood style, once in a while a film comes out of India that deserves recognition from critics, aficionados, and audiences who appreciate graceful, deliberate storytelling. The visual beauty and scenarios of Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal, and 8 1/2, the masterpieces of 20th century European cinema, have counterparts in India in the films of Satyajit Ray, Rithik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, and Shyam Benegal. Rituparno Ghosh, a young director from Kolkata, is the creative successor to these great directors, and Chokher Bali, is a lyrical example of his craft and his obsession with one of India’s disgraceful injustices – its religious and cultural subordination of women.

Drawing inspiration from a novel by renowned late 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghosh sets the stage for a period film that examines the slow, insidious way in which a woman’s subjugation at the hands of wealthy acquaintances is transformed into a calculated plan of revenge, vindictiveness, and sexual gratification.

In 1890s British Calcutta, 18 year-old Binodini’s parents send her photograph (a painstaking and expensive procedure in those days, for a financially-strapped middle-class Indian family) to two potential bridegrooms, both wealthy and from prominent families, the sensual and indolent Mahendra (Prosenjit) and the bookish Behari (Tota Raychoudhouri). Both men, fancy themselves as modern, and dislike the idea of an arranged marriage. They reject the proposal without even looking at the photograph. Humiliated, Binodini’s parents marry her off to the first willing man, a landowner in the village who promptly dies of tuberculosis, leaving the unlucky young woman a widow.

For those familiar with Hindu rituals and customs, or with Deepa Mehta’s haunting film, Water (2006), Hindu widows lead a life of ascetic self-denial. They must wear white saris at all times, they cannot wear jewelry, they are not allowed meat or fish, and live out other such rituals to purify themselves through a lifetime of bereavement. To anyone not Indian, though, it seems as if they are being punished for outliving their husbands. This is the life Binodini is doomed to lead in her husband’s village home, until some family friends take pity and invite her to live with them in Kolkata as a glorified servant. However, as it happens, she stays with Mahendra’s family, the very same man who callously rejected her and led her to her disastrous marriage. Revenge is exacted, slowly and patiently.

Aishwariya Rai, India’s most well-known actress, plays Binodini, her first cerebral role. Through Ghosh’s direction, she gives a blessedly restrained performance that balances girlish submissiveness with coy sensuality. Underneath the doe-eyed charm, Binodini is simmering with rage and her gestures and casual conversations reveal bit-by-bit her plot to destroy the domestic tranquility of the complacently wealthy family families who rejected her.

There’s a marvelous scene where Mahendra’s pretty young wife Ashalata (Raima Sen), naively takes the poor widow on as her confidante and lets her try on her wedding jewelry, heavy gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and all. Binodini didn’t even have such fine ornaments at her own wedding, and her ecstasy at wearing these jewels can’t be contained: she dances and sings in front of the mirror, like a knowing courtesan, while Mahendra and Behari watch, rapt with lust, from behind the bedroom door. Whether Binodini realizes the men are there, or is unaware, is left a bit ambiguous. But the ensuing manipulation, seduction, and quiet devastation affords grim satisfaction for Binodini, who is forbidden to remarry, bear children, and lead a life of normalcy.

The evocative title of the story alludes to the discomfort caused by something sudden and seemingly simple, like getting a grain of sand stuck in your eye, which once caught, can be excruciatingly painful, and even blinding. So is the grain of sand, Binodini, who wreaks havoc on the domestic bliss of Mahendra’s family, or is Binodini a blameless young woman whose opportunities for happiness were denied to her by the vagaries of fate and society? Like well-made films that center on complicated, compelling characters, Chokher Bali simply presents the story and allows the audience to decide what to make of it all. Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what’s best in Indian art house cinema, must see this movie, taking it in as you would finely crafted short story.

Allindiansite Review

‘Chokher Bali’, a Rs 2.5-crore film based on a Tagore novel, is perhaps Rituparno’s most ambitious project till date. So ambitious, in fact, that he roped in none other than Aisharwya Rai to play Binodini, the female protagonist in the film. Debojyoti Misra has lived up to his reputation as one of the finest music directors in the film industry at present. Chokher Bali provides a glimpse into Bengali society and takes up issues like widow remarriage and sati. The film has already been screened at the Locarno Film Festival and has Aishwarya Rai as its biggest draw.

The Tagore novel revolves around four characters. The male protagonists, Mahendra (Prosenjit) and Behari (Tota Roy Choudhury), are both studying for a medical degree in Calcutta at a time when the shadow of partition (“Bangabhanga”) looms large over Bengal. Although mostly shot indoors, the film is also a feast for the eyes. Aveek Mukherjee’s cinematography is beautiful.

The women in the film include Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) a beautiful, intelligent widow who is not afraid of rebelling and Ashalata (Raima Sen), a young, naïve girl with no intellectual credentials to boast off. Binodini is proposed as a match for Mahendra, but he rejects her. Behari gets engaged to Ashalata, but Mahendra ends up marrying her. Binodini, who has in the meantime got married and widowed, arrives at the latter’s house to become a companion to Mahendra’s mother, Rajlakshmi (Lily Chakrabarti). She meets Mahendra, Behari and Ashalata there. Binodini strikes up a rapport with Ashalata and begins to realise the lifestyle she has lost thanks to Mahendra’s rejection. Her refusal to accept a widow’s existence and everything that goes with it forms the pivot of the story. Finally, Mahendra gives in to Binodini, and a shell-shocked Ashalata leaves for Benares.

Rai is fantastic in the film. She has done everything required of her, switching over effortlessly from meek submission to outright rebellion. And in doing so, she has busted the myth that beauty and brains don’t go together. Tota Roy Choudhury and Lily Chakrabarti don’t disappoint either.

Variety Review

Aishwarya Rai stars in ‘Chokher Bali: A Passion Play,’ scripted by director Rituparno Ghosh from the novel by noted Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore.

A Shree Venkatesh Films production. (International sales: Venkatesh 2000, Calcutta.) Produced by Shrikant Mohta, Mahendra Soni. Directed, written by Rituparno Ghosh, from the novel by Rabindranath Tagore.

An attractive young widow in early-20th century Bengal stirs passions both literal and metaphorical in “Chokher Bali,” a slow-burning, dialogue-driven but still highly cinematic drama lit by a radiant performance from Hindi megastar Aishwarya Rai (“Devdas”). Running just short of three hours, pic is a quantum leap for Bengali helmer Rituparno Ghosh, here revisiting his favorite theme of upper- and middle-class domestic dramas centered on women. Good-looking result, shot in ochrish colors and handsomely kitted out, should snag festival dates with its semi-arty approach, and even some niche theatrical business with careful handling and Rai’s growing name appeal.

Film is based on a 1902 novel, known as “Binodini” in English, by famed Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), whose works were also filmed by the late Satyajit Ray (“Charulata,” “Two Daughters,” “The Home and the World”). Written just before the first partition of Bengal by the Brits in 1905, and long before the final one in 1947, Tagore’s story focuses on four young people in a large Calcutta household.

With the benefit of hindsight, Ghosh has stirred in a smidgen of political background (notably, the growing resistance to British rule), and explicitly makes the young widow’s social situation reflect that of the country as a whole. Opening reel packs in a lot of backstory that needs to be further simplified in the English subtitles (or with an explanatory caption) for non-Bengali viewers. In 1902, the hand of Binodini (Rai), a smart country girl, is offered long-distance to two Calcutta medical students, pleasure-loving Mahendra (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and scholarly, more ascetic Behari (Tota Raychaudhuri), who have been close friends since childhood. When she’s turned down by both, Binodini marries a local man, who dies within a year.

Behari, meanwhile, has gotten engaged to the naive but good-hearted Ashalata (Raima Sen), but it’s Mahendra who ends up marrying her. Some time later, Binodini arrives at Mahendra’s home in Calcutta to be a companion to his ornery, bossy mother, Rajlakshmi (Lily Chakrabarti). It’s then that Binodini first meets Mahendra and Behari — the latter a frequent visitor to the sprawling manse — as well as Ashalata.

Without a clear understanding of this backstory, it’s difficult in the early stages to know exactly what’s going on. And with very few exteriors until the final act, even the geography of the picture is fuzzy: A simple caption, for instance, would underline the fact that Behari actually lives in a house of his own.

Pic proper gets underway as Binodini pals up with Ashalata, a double-edged friendship that sets the basis for the rest of the drama. The well-educated Binodini, who even speaks English, can now see the comfortable life she was robbed of when Mahendra rejected her; but she can experience it only as a young widow, trapped in domestic chores, a sexless existence (remarriage is a no-no) and forced rejection of growing Western values.

In contrast, the ingenuous Ashalata welcomes a young female friend: To underline their closeness they adopt a pet name for each other, “Chokher Bali” (Sand in the Eye).

The magic of Rai’s perf lies in her underplaying of Binodini’s ambition to divide and conquer the household, while always playing the dutiful widow. In other hands, and with less subtle helming, the role could have devolved into pure, vampish melodrama; in Rai’s graceful playing in the early stages, the viewer is never quite sure whether she’s a very clever gold-digger or a genuinely devout and charitable young woman.

As Binodini gently introduces tiny changes to the household, she arouses the interest of the libertine Mahendra. Shocked at their affair and feeling betrayed by Binodini, Ashalata leaves Calcutta for the holy city of Benares, on the Ganges.

In a powerful scene at the two-hour mark, Binodini then makes her move on Behari, proposing marriage. The effects of Behari’s answer throw all the main characters into turmoil.

Through the three hours, Ghosh keeps the melodrama well battened down in the slightly stylized performances, allowing Debojyoti Misra’s score to bloom in the latter stages. Greater use of exteriors, beautifully composed by d.p. Abhik Mukherjee, also open up the picture in the last hour. Only at the final fence does the pic stumble, with an epilogue that unnecessarily joins the dots between Binodini’s situation and Bengal’s colonial history: Till then, the political turmoil outside the household has been referred to only in fleeting refs.

Though Rai dominates the film with her delicately sensual presence and physical grace, she’s surrounded by some well-cast players. Chakrabarti is splendid as the grumpy old materfamilias , Sen touching as the simple-hearted Ashalata, and Chatterjee believable as the weak, Westernized Mahendra. The friendship between the two men is less convincing, with Raychaudhuri more of a cutout as the politicized Behari.

Production design and costuming are aces, and not allowed to overwhelm the picture, thanks to the muted, ochrish lensing. Detailed soundtrack of external street noise also prevents the household scenes from becoming too claustrophobic.

“Chokher Bali” is a picture that goes the distance and repays patience, so long as early problems of clarity can be fixed. For the record, both Sen and Hindi-speaking Rai have been re-voiced in Bengali, but exceptionally well.

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