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Chokher Bali, A Grain of Sand

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A widow with nothing to lose seduces her friend’s husband in colonial 19th century Bengali society. This is the storyline of a novel written by Rabindranath Tagore called Chokher Bali(Grain of Sand). The book was made into a movie and the dangerous widow, Binodini, was played by none other than the lovely Aishwarya Rai, Miss World, and considered a rising star internationally, according to Time magazine.

Though the movie makes crucial departures from the book which the author could not have done due to early Victorian period that it was written in, yet the movie remained true to the theme of exploring a frustrated woman’s psyche that deliberately goes down the road of self-destruction hurting the very people who love her.

Binodini is a young widow who is brought back to Calcutta by her mother’s best friend from an obscure village and she quickly befriends the daughter in law. As time passes she uses her beauty and wit to seduce the man of the house (Mahendra). But once he is ensnared in her web she treats him with utmost disdain.

Having conquered the heart of a man she turns her affection towards his friend Bihari; man of noble character and integrity whose philanthropic spirit and calm attitude seem a direct contrast to Mahendra’s self-absorbed and churlish personality.

Knowing that her affections would not be reciprocated by the elusive Bihari and having been thrown out of the house by Mahendra’s mother on account of her ruining Mahendra’s marriage, Binodini returns to her village a frustrated widow with a craving for riches that she had grown accustomed to while living in Calcutta.

Aishwarya Rai
Aishwarya Rai

Bewitched by her beauty and vivacious personality Mahendra leaves his docile wife and ill mother behind and follows Binodini around as she journeys through northern India. Blinded by insatiable desires he stalks her every step hoping and praying for a moment when she would weaken and let him seduce her.

Binodini, however treats him more like a piggy bank sponsoring her trips as she searches for Bihari and remains aloof to his amorous gestures, making him more obssessive in his desire to posess her.

Ashalata is the naïve wife who finally grows into a self-assured woman due to the tragedy the falls on her. Newly married she merely lives to please her husband and having lead a sheltered life falls prey to Binodini’s false gestures towards friendship.

Once her husband leaves her for another woman, she shows inner strength to rise beyond her own sufferings and looks after her grief stricken mother-in-law and earns respect not only in the eyes of her mother-in-law but also the servants.

As one progresses through the book the comparison between Binodini and Ashalata begins to tilt in favor of the latter. Not because Ashalata is the victim but because she possesses a giving heart despite lacking in the department of wit and education.

Tagore clearly points out that while brains and beauty are qualities that one should cultivate yet they are wasted if the bedrock is a heart filled with anger and envy. He also indicates that a woman should have a mind of her own and there is no reason why a wife should treat her husband as her god which was a novel idea considering the period the book was written in.

Ashalata maintains her distance from her wayward husband when he visits his mother on hearing that she had taken to bed. She clearly sees him for the immature, spoilt jerk that he is and shows quiet dignity which Mahendra is unable to deal with and finds wanting in Bidoni who behaves more and more like a shrew.

The book ends with Mahendra returning home a changed man though still immature in many ways. He returns home to find a wife who would treat him like an equal instead of an idol and a mother on her death bed who still loves him but is no longer blinded to his faults.

Binodini reconciles with her widowhood and realizes that despite Bihari’s reciprocation of affection she couldn’t marry him due to the social stigma attached to widow re-marriage. She decides that the best alternative would be for her to be the mistress of her own fate and asks Bihari to let her run one of his charities so as to have a purpose in life.

Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian to win a Nobel in literature and is well known in the West more for his poems than his short stories and novels. He was sometimes seen as an apologist for the British Empire, but he returned his knighthood in protest against British excesses, particularly the horrific Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. He was a key proponent of education, and even wrote 2000 songs, forming the main corpus of modern Bengali classical music. His song, “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem of India. (Tagore books on Project Gutenberg)

Apart from Chokher Bali, the other book of his that I thoroughly enjoyed was Gitanjali, whose introduction was provided by W B Yeats. Both the books proved to be light reads and the movie a sultry, exotic watch thanks to breathtaking Aishwarya Rai.

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About Deepti Lamba

  • SFC SKI

    Indian food and Bollywood actresses, 2 of the great things to come out of India. I have toknow, is there a singing and dance musical number? Every other big time Bollywood film seems to have one whether it fits teh plot or not.

  • http://darkeroticism.blogspot.com swingingpuss

    No, this movie is very far from the typical Bollywood potboiler. Do check it out on Netflix.

  • SFC SKI

    Thanks, every once in a while I stumble across a good Indian film on TV or for sale on DVD, even at places like Wal-Mart, where I bought a copy of “Asoka”. I think slowly but surely, more good films from around the world are becoming easy to find out about and obtain.

    I haven’t done Netflix, because most of my time is spent out of the country. In Germany, however, many films are available for rent, I will look this one up when I get back there.

  • http://darkeroticism.blogspot.com swingingpuss

    Well you could visit the local Indian store and get the movie.

    BTW, Asoka had me snoozing 😉

  • SFC SKI

    I agree, it did drag, but the fight scense were good, and the leading actress kept my attention. Are green or hazel eyes common in India, or is it a trick of the light?

    There are several Indian markets where I currently reside, as well as back in Germany, I’d never thought ot look for films there.

    Having lived and worked in the Arabian Gulf region, I met several people from India, and one of my colleagues lived in Delhi for two years. Everything they told me makes me want to visit, but not during the monsoons. I really need to learn more of the language, All I can remember right now is “namaste”.

    All this talk of India has made me hungry, alas there are no all-night curry shops in this part of the country.

  • http://darkeroticism.blogspot.com swingingpuss

    Some North Indians do have colored eyes on account of Aryan and Greek bloodlines

  • SFC SKI

    Interesting. Those Greeks and Aryans sure got around. In Iraq I saw more than a few natives with blue or green eyes, some with very red hair as well.

    Wonderful what a little “miscengenation” can do.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    No, that’s because of the ‘reptilians';)

  • Rare

    I have seen this movie and is as intresting as the review is presented. I felt this movie a bit complex to a normal movie watcher.

  • http://www.shinyprettythings.net rohin

    random tidbit: chokher bali literally translates from bengali into english as “sand in eye” ; bali means “sand” and chokher loosely means “of the eye” but in context, it means sand in the eye…

    and also, i love aishwarya rai — the leading actress in this film, though i have yet to see this film or another of her acclaimed movies — Raincoat (which is on my netflix queue)…she was also in Bride and Prejudice which is a good primer for bollywood and a campy spoof on just about everything in movies. i recommend it for those who want an evening of light entertainment.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    This picture’s not as hot.

    But this woman already accounts for more worldwide box office and more fans than any actress in Hollywood today. Bollywood is crazy huge, I read.

    That is all.

  • geet

    Choker bali is indeed a good watch. Acting is sublime and powerful, tough storyline drags it is definetly thumbs up.

  • anybody

    the film is so different! why didn’t Rituporno focus on Ashalata’s growth as a matured self-dependent woman? it seemed that all of the director’s sympathies were with the rebel widow, Binodini.