Watching the downfall of innocence can be a tragic affair. What Satyajit Ray gives us, in his adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's "The Home and the World" (Cineplex, Friday), is an intricate weaving of honor, duty and desire. He suggests that guilt in such matters is not simple--it may lie as equally with a pridefully assured husband as with an ardently pursuing lover.
Two worlds are shattered in Nobel laureate Tagore's classic novel, set in East Bengal in 1908. First is the subdued, princely one of Nikhil Choudhury (Victor Banerjee), a handsome, gentle, British-educated rajah, and his beautiful and adored wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee). Nikhil, liberal for his time, has coaxed his wife out of purdah--she had not been in the company of any adult man but her husband for 10 years--and has encouraged her to learn English and English manners.
Then there is the seething outside world, where the British, in an action that casts a long shadow, have just separated the Hindus and Muslims of East Bengal (now Bangladesh), as part of their plan of divide and rule. It has set the two religious groups, once living side by side, against each other and has fanned violent anti-British activity, including terrorism and a growing nationalist movement.
Enter Nikhil's oldest college friend, political firebrand, spellbinder and dangerous ladies' man, Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee). A Hindu, like Nikhil, Sandip is a passionate speaker for "Swadeshi," a boycott of everything English--all imports, all goods in British stores, from bedroom furniture to salt and cigarettes.
Nikhil, more reasoned, more moderate, knows it is the poorer Muslims who will bear the brunt of this action. None of them can afford to buy Indian-made goods, which are, ironically, both shoddy and prohibitively expensive. Nikhil has even tried his own version of Swadeshi, only to see it fail.
Nevertheless, Nikhil invites Sandip to stay with them although he is captaining a movement for which Nikhil has no sympathy. With something amounting to a pride of ownership, what Nikhil really wants is to show off his wife and her accomplishments to his cunning, dashing friend, even though he can say about him that "the less one knows about Sandip, the more one likes him."
Although Bimala protests, first modestly, then sulkily, that she is truly the happiest of wives, this besotted husband must test his wife's love for him when she has a chance to compare him with another, up close. It is a sweet, unworldly and finally disastrous plan.
While remaining intensely literary and not a little stately, "The Home and the World" is also both erotic and passionately intelligent as the sparks fly among these three. Political debate begins to carry a heavily charged undertone (and, in the two views of terrorism, it seems startlingly current).
Each facet of character is revealed: Nikhil's amused detachment as his friend uses the most outrageous flattery on Bimala; her faint taunting of Sandip, whose notion of sacrifice to the cause of Swadeshi does not include his giving up English cigarettes or first-class train seats.
Like every Ray work, "The Home and the World" moves with the most delicate subtlety: In one of its most indelible moments we watch the magnetic Bimala, her red-and-gold sari hooding her head, emerge from her apartments, walk quietly and resolutely down a corridor carrying enormous yellow chrysanthemums. With no fanfare (save Ray's musical score, which offers haunting variations on the classic "Long, Long Ago"), she brings a whole tradition down as she makes her way from "the home" to "the world," not 50 feet away.
Fascinating and even hypnotic as the film is, it is not top-drawer Ray--not in the class with the Apu trilogy or even the more recent "Distant Thunder." We can see far too easily where it is going, and it goes there with no surprises. (Ray sets it up that way, telling us in the first two minutes the outcome, more than two hours away.) This is not to say that even middling Ray isn't worth more than a closetful of whatever else we've had lately--perhaps an entire roomful. But by measurement against the best of Ray himself, this is longer than it is deep.
That still leaves a great deal to be grateful for, especially the cast, working together with graceful intelligence. In particular there is Victor Banerjee's profoundly moving portrayal of a complex man whose noble reticence is his only flaw. This is Swatilekha Chatterjee's first film, which seems extraordinary in view of her beauty and great screen presence. It is Soumitra Chatterjee's 12th for Ray, and although he looks almost comically like a combination of a hero out of epic Indian films and Olivier as Othello, he has the quicksilver quality necessary for the devious Sandip. It is also lovely to see Jennifer Kapoor as the sweet and somewhat oblivious English tutor, Miss Gilby, first victim of the mob.
'THE HOME AND THE WORLD'
A European Classics release. Produced by the National Film Development Corp. of India. Direction, screenplay, music by Satyajit Ray, based on the novel by Rabindranath Tagore. Songs performed by Kishore Kumar. Camera Soumendu Roy. Editor Dulal Dutt. Art director Ashoke Bose. Costumes Haru Das. Makeup Ananta Das. Sound Rabin Sengupta, Jyoti Chatterjee, Anup Mukherjee. With Soumitra Chatterjee, Victor Banerjee, Swatilekha Chatterjee, Gopa Aich, Jennifer Kapoor.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.