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.
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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.