Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire and lessons for India’s nationalism

By Ayesha Nasir Alavi

Set in 1907, Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire is an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel with the same title. The film is an insight into the consequential effect that political movements have on the life and functioning of individuals, whether it is in their interpersonal relationships, their business, or their education. Ray uses his characters to pull the spectator into a whirlwind of emotions and their consequences. 

The story revolves around Bimala and Nikhil, an upper-class Bengali couple, and the journey of their relationship with the Swadeshi movement. Nikhil is a western educated “modern” man who doesn’t follow traditions blindly. He recognizes “Islamic infiltrations” in his Hindu Bengali culture and finds it irrational. He thinks that the traditional treatment of widows is a sign of the dark ages. He wants his wife to be a free woman capable of making her own decisions. Nikhil is a revolutionary in his own calm and introverted manner. The story of his contributions to Swadeshi is spat out by his Masterji, who reveals that he had already established indigenous factories for swadeshi soap and sugar, handlooms for cloth, and a swadeshi bank. However, the markets did not favor his business, they were ridiculed and had to shut down. He is far ahead of the others and has witnessed the failure of the Swadeshi movement. Therefore, he becomes the only man standing in the way of a popularly loved and supported Sandip. 

In my understanding, Nikhil represents Tagore’s idea of nationalism. For him, nationalism was to locate the true basis of reconciliation and mutual help. He believed that with globalization the faith in the human race must increase and people should become more inclusive of identities and not indulge in eliminating the aliens. 

The position that Ray seems to take in Ghare Baire is that Swadeshi was the movement of the upper-class rich Indians. Nikhil elucidates that the poor traders were not a hindrance to the Swadeshi movement. That the movement could easily sustain without their participation. For Nikhil people are a priority, they are the nation. He points out that the country can neither be imagined without Muslims nor traders. He identifies the hatred embedded in the Swadeshi movement and tries but fails to end it. Subsequently, nationalism is a more humanitarian idea for him. The greater good of the people must be sought after for they constitute the nation. 

Bimala is the embodiment of an aware and impressionable mind that is for the first time experiencing the flavors of freedom. She is exposed to the radical but enticing ideas of Swadeshi by a very charming Sandip. She is immediately emotionally connected to the cause and the mantra that Sandip propagates. However, Bimala’s newfound freedom positions her to make choices, and unsurprisingly she blunders across well-defined boundaries and puts her trust in people and ideologies that later backfire. 

While it can be argued that Bimala is a representation of India, but I believe that this buys into Sandip’s abstract idea of a Mother Goddess that must be served, worshipped, prayed to, and protected. I interpret Bimala as a representation of any individual trying to identify their political belonging. They are put through a journey of choices and then bear outcomes from the same. 

Bimala’s journey has been to identify her position in the Swadeshi movement. She is put in situations where she could have chosen to get rid of Sandip before things got out of hand, especially when she identifies that she doesn’t want to make the poor suffer. However, she decided to let her longings cloud her judgment and that translated into the ultimate loss of her husband. She identifies that she has to sustain the outcomes of her decisions. She identifies the violence and dishonesty in Sandip and recognizes them as detrimental and her faith in the movement disappears with her faith in Sandip. For Bimala Nationalism is discovery. She discovers that ideas that seem enticing are shallow with far-reaching detrimental reverberations. She discovers that ideas that initially seem “placid” are far-sighted and resilient. She discovers that she is part of a bigger nation and that her own choices affect the people around her.

An interesting contrast is the impressionable mind of the 17-year-old Amulya who believes in Swadeshi and has gone as far as committing theft and violence for it. He is fully aware that Sandip is a spendthrift, that he travels first-class, yet his commitment to Swadeshi is beyond Sandip’s hypocrisy. His commitment to the cause does not disappear with Sandip.  Amulya discovers nationalism in adhering to his choices no matter where they take him. However, Amulya too has a journey in locating his position in the Swadeshi movement. He joined the movement thinking that he would win his land from the colonizers. Yet, the unfurling of Sandip’s activities shows Amulya that he has become part of individualistic propaganda. However, he is too far down the road to come back. I interpret Amulya’s efforts to not sell Bimala’s jewelry as a realization of his deviation from serving his country, and as an effort to undo the damage caused by Sandip. He realizes that the violence and theft done by him have been to substantiate Sandip’s propaganda and not for the greater good of Mother Goddess India. So, he refuses to go forward with Sandip and chooses to remain at the site of the riots because he is ready to bear the repercussions of his actions.

Sandip is best portrayed in a scene where he is seated comfortably on a rock, smoking his foreign cigarette, while cries of Vande Matram echo, and an out-of-focus fire burns symbolizing the riots on the unrelenting Muslim traders. Sandip is a charming but arrogant Swadeshi leader. He is easily identified as the noble revolutionary by his people who carry him on their shoulders. He is talkative, restless, and likable. However, as Nikhil puts it, “The less a person knows Sandip the more he likes him.” Sandip does not care about the consequences of his action. He seems blinded by power and leadership. The egoistical Sandip could not accept that his prescribed solution was not being accepted by an entire class of poor Muslim traders, on his own friend’s estate. He employs all his capabilities in that direction. He resorts to violence, bribes the authorities, and uses Bimala to persuade Nikhil. He ends up causing a rift between the two religions and hypocritically exits the situation and shrugs responsibility. 

For Sandip nation is what is won by force. He has no consideration for his actions and is stubborn about the differences that he has with others, there is no element of tolerance or reconciliation in him. He finds an ideological point of difference with Nikhil as well and doesn’t take his advice because Nikhil is a follower of Ram and Sandip believes Ravana to be the hero of Ramayana. In my understanding, Sandip says this because it serves as a convenient exit for him. He subscribes to whatever suits his individualism. Whether he believes in the collective and inclusive approach of Ram or the forceful approach of Ravana, is immaterial; for both these kings are worshipped for their leadership and sacrifice, and Sandip on the other hand, does not portray any of these qualities. He believes in escaping the situation. This is precisely Tagore’s critique of nationalism. He emphasizes that differences multiply aggressively and they benefit no one. Therefore, he preaches tolerance and acceptance, no matter what cost it comes at. For according to him the alternative comes with devastating outcomes and in this movie that is portrayed beautifully. 

In today’s India, it is obvious that the ideology of hatred has reached its peak. Every day there are cases of mob lynching, hate speeches, violence against practitioners of various faiths, and lands are being taken away from tribals. In times like these, reading Tagore’s critique of nationalism seems fitting. As a nation, India is extremely diverse, so it lacks the western prescription of what a nation should be. We do not have Renan’s prescribed “shared history”, different religions identify with different time frames of history. We do not have Anderson’s prescribed “imagined communities”, as Partha Chatterjee critiques it by asking who gets to imagine that community, and as diverse as India is, images of the community may be different for different people. Robert Cover’s ideas on “narratives and norms” again do not satisfy India’s need because of its diversity, when looking for “the other” we find them within our nation. 

Indian society can only find its roots in Constitutional values. Those are the ideas that we collectively consent to through daily plebiscite and they form the basis on which the diverse communities of India can reconcile. Tagore’s idea of accepting diversity despite its shortcomings is a solution to the petrified minorities of India. It is more peaceful to adapt Nikhil’s inclusive and collective approach than to use Sandip’s brutal force for reaching reconciliations. 

Ayesha is an LL.M. candidate at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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