Controlled Burn
Michael Sicinski on The Home and the World

Satyajit Ray’s 1984 feature The Home and the World is bookended by conflagration. After a title sequence silhouetted in bright orange flames, the film opens with a flash-forward to the final events of the story, a violent confrontation between upper-middle-class Hindus and Muslim peasants. Taking place in 1907 following Great Britain’s partition of Bengal, The Home and the World is focused on the efforts of two men with very different ideas about resisting colonialism and religious bigotry, but by opening the film with the town of Sukhsayar already in flames, Ray tells us in advance that their efforts are all in vain. There are no winners in The Home and the World, except perhaps the mostly unseen British.

There is a subtle thread woven throughout Ray’s film involving fire, and in particular how different individuals control and manipulate it. At this pivotal moment in Indian history, all it will take is a simple spark to ignite everything within reach. So in a way, The Home and the World is about methods of control—how to inflame passions, how to fire up the rabble, and whether a gradual, reformist approach, a “slow burn,” might ultimately prevent greater damage in the long run. As it happens, only one character controls the flames; in fact, he possesses a small, smoldering fire that he can drop at a moment’s notice. He is Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), a revolutionary more than willing to burn everything to the ground. Incidentally, he is also a smoker. In The Home and the World, Sandip’s pack of foreign cigarettes features prominently in a number of scenes, serving as a clue to his self-serving hypocrisy.

At the core of The Home and the World is a slowly developing love triangle involving a married couple and the husband's old friend Sandip, a political activist. But the very fact that an affair can develop is itself tied to a new set of ideas and principles. Nikhil (Victor Bannerjee) is a wealthy landowner whose Western education has made him a liberal in the fullest sense. Spurning old Bengali traditions involving the sequestration of women within the home and away from other men, Nikhil insists that his wife, Bimala (Swatilehka Sengupta), cross the threshold into "the world," that part of the family home that faces outward onto the public, patriarchal sphere.

The Home and the World is a complex, nearly flawless examination of various crises, all meeting at the intersection of tradition vs. social change. It demonstrates the ways in which power corrupts, free will demands responsibility, and the fact that Bengalis recognized the waning of British rule but were largely uncertain where to go next. The film examines the lure of ideology, yet it does so in a manner nearly free of doctrinaire assumptions. Adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s 1916 novel, The Home and the World has sometimes been interpreted as the author’s coded condemnation of Gandhi, although this does not exactly line up with the progression of Indian history. From a contemporary standpoint, Ray’s adaptation reads much more like a reasoned argument against demagoguery and political opportunism.

Sandip is an anti-colonial activist who is the leader of the Swadeshi movement, an attempt to win independence by boycotting foreign goods. He and his followers wield the slogan "Hail Motherland" as a definitive shibboleth distinguishing friends from enemies, demonstrating how quickly patriotism devolves into nationalist fervor. Sandip vilifies Nikhil for his refusal to ban foreign products from the marketplace on his estate. But Nikhil is no colonized dupe. Rather, he recognizes that the boycott would overwhelmingly impact the merchants, who also happen to be poor Muslims. Sandip rallies against the partition of Bengal, but he is willing to sacrifice anyone who stands in his way, including the Muslims his movement ostensibly aims to defend.

Despite his strident demand for Swadeshi, the comprehensive boycott (and eventual destruction) of imported goods, Sandip pointedly makes an exception for himself. Bimala meets Sandip in the drawing room at Nikhil’s behest, and almost immediately Sandip pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights up a smoke. Nikhil wryly observes that Sandip smokes foreign cigarettes, a direct violation of the buy-Indian mandate of Swadeshi. Sandip laughs, remarking that smoking Indian cigarettes would be “unthinkable” because of their poor quality, and avers that foreign smokes are the only non-Swadeshi luxury he permits himself.

Bimala, meanwhile, is impressed with Sandip's fervor. She supports the Swadeshi movement and its intent. But Sandip, ostensibly impressed with Bimala's independence and intellect, withholds from her the uglier truths about his organization's motives. She is welcomed into "the world," but only as a symbol of "the home." (Sandip calls Bimala his "queen bee," a nickname whose meaning gradually shifts from political to sexual.) And while Bimala's commitment to the Swadeshi boycotts is clearly inseparable from her growing attraction to Sandip, Ray continually makes clear that this is not the extent of her interest. Rather, she is forced, all at once, to contend with her own conflicting desires.

After Sandip has left the house, Bimala lingers, thinking about the charismatic man she has just met. It is worth noting that Bimala meeting Sandip at all is a bold transgression of Hindi tradition, which bars women from public spaces and any unchaperoned encounters with men besides their husbands, fathers, or brothers. Bimala flouts this tradition at Nikhil’s behest, because he wants to observe more modern, Western notions of propriety. Sandip may be gone, but he has left his cigarette burning in an ashtray on the table. Ray slowly zooms in on this cigarette, its smoke curling into the air. Close-up reaction shots of Bimalamake clear that this focus on the cigarette—Sandip’s lingering air—reflects her subjective point of view.

Within this scene, Sandip’s foreign cigarettes serve a pointedly different function for each of the three principal characters. For Sandip, they display a Brahmin’s arrogance, showing that the rules of Swadeshi apply only to “the people,” and not their leader. (Later in the film, we learn that Sandip has been embezzling funds from the Swadeshi movement in order to travel first-class and stay in nice hotels. “Hardship saps a leader’s strength,” he remarks.) Nikhil, meanwhile, notices Sandip’s pack of foreign cigarettes as soon as he pulls them out. They are a small but crucial signal to Nikhil that Sandip is more than willing to compromise his principles as it suits him.

But for Bimala, the smoking itself is an erotic trigger, a sign of Sandip’s power and appeal. While living in a historical tinderbox, Sandip plays with fire, uses it to pleasure himself, and then carelessly leaves it behind when he has lost interest in it. In a later, private meeting with Sandip, Bimala confesses that she finds Nikhil intolerably passive in a time of social turmoil. Nikhil’s rationality cannot compete with Sandip’s seductive recklessness, and although smoking is often used as shorthand characterization, to denote a “bad boy,” Ray is doing much more with it here. Sandip is the flame, capable of bending passions and dangers to his own will. Whether he is employing fiery rhetoric, demanding Hindu/Muslim unity one moment, vilifying Muslims the next, or manipulating Bimala through seduction and faux self-effacement, Sandip practices an irrational, affective brand of politics. If he cannot seduce you, he will happily burn down your home and marketplace.

But he would prefer to be adored. Tagore and Ray are fairly clear that Sandip is a proto-fascist, with his “Hail Motherland” chant and salute, or his Swadeshi pamphlet entitled “Our Struggle.” One might think that the foreign cigarettes operate like a “tell,” showing that Sandip is a liar and a fraud. This is what they signify for Nikhil. But they are actually an open secret, something Sandip makes no effort to hide. The cigarettes display the illogic of Sandip’s appeal, the fact that we will blatantly demand sacrifices of others that he would never make himself, and no one will so much as bat an eyelash.

To a large degree, The Home and the World is a film about the circulation or people and objects. Who is permitted to sell what? Who is allowed to go where? How do objects assume cultural significance well in excess of their utility? Ray’s creative intelligence allows him to identify the pack of cigarettes not only as an ordinary object, but as a set of social relations congealed into the commodity form. They show that Sandip is in control of potential wildfire at all times, willing to drop the match as he sees fit. But the hypocrisy the cigarettes represent also exemplifies the post-truth nature of political theater, the concept of integrity as a corny holdover from a liberal democratic formation long since passed. Like Sandip, Narendra Modi appeals to the ordinary Indian citizen, who will happily overlook his patrician arrogance and harmful policies as long as he upholds the torch, prepared to unleash racist violence at a moment’s notice. And by the time the nation is ablaze, he’ll already be out the door, the telltale abandonment of the absent father. He’ll be right back. He’s just gone out for cigarettes.