The decaying mansion into which Banalata has ever more deeply withdrawn since the death by snake bite of her intended on the eve of their wedding is shadow-ridden; it sometimes comes as a shock to us when a door opening to the outside reveals that it isn’t night. A younger Miss Havisham, this spinster/quasi-widow is shrouded in a darkness that suggests her status in India’s society. It also reflects her indistinct self-image and her sense of hopelessness.
Although The Lady of the House is the English-language title that Bengali writer-director Rituparno Ghosh’s Bariwali has been given, it too might have been called Great Expectations—the title of the Charles Dickens novel in which the character of Miss Havisham appears. Circumstance compels Banalata to rent out a part of her house to a crew that is making a film, and Banalata becomes enamored of the film’s director and dazzled by the celebrities now in her midst. Exploiting her to maintain the use of her house, the director even gives her a small part in the film; Banalata begins to fantasize having a new life—a film career and a man of her own, even though she knows that he is married and that the film’s star, his former lover, is again after him. But no one connected to the project, including the director, has anything to do with her once shooting has ended, and she learns that her part in the film has been edited out. Hers is a return to nothingness—a replay of the earlier cancellation of the “great expectations” attending her dreamed-of married life, except that this nothingness has become further objectified for her as the full definition of her being and social reality.
With patience and an attention to psychological nuance and material detail, Ghosh reflects on the status of certain women in India, generates a metaphor for the relative status of all women in India, and achieves another metaphor besides: one suggesting the status of minority groups, such as Bengals, vis-à-vis India’s Hindu majority.
Like certain masterworks by his idol, Satyajit Ray, what Ghosh has created here quietly devastates.
Best Asian film, Berlin.
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