It's Every Woman's Worst Nightmare...Aishwarya Rai's Moving In and She Wants Your Man!!!...Chokher Bali
Oh, that naughty little Ash. Just because she's the "Most Beautiful Woman in the World" she thinks she can have whoever she wants, doesn't she? :)
Choker Bali, a "passion" play, as the box calls it, is a 2003 Bengali film starring Aishwarya Rai. Set in 1902, it's based off by a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, and is a love quadrangle of some sorts. Ash plays Binodini, a young bride whose husband passes away after less than a year of marriage. As a widow, she lives like a caged bird, eager to fly but trapped by society's restrictions for a woman of her circumstance. Naturally, Binodini aches for more, and one can hardly blame her--she's beautiful, educated, and speaks English well (Not to mention that if I looked like Aishwarya Rai I wouldn't want to be stuck at home in a plaincloth saree, either...I'd be eager to break out the red heels and hit the town, too!).
Jokes aside (and I don't mean to make light of the treatment of widows at all), its of course no way for anybody to live. Yet despite the longing in her heart, Binodini seems to accept her fate and doesn't show any sign of rebelling. Except, well, there's this one nagging thing she just can't seem to shake...
You see, Binodini's husband was not her family's original choice for her. The first man she had been offered to, a young doctor named Mahendra (Prosenjit Chatterjee), had rejected her without ever meeting her face to face. That's right--Mahendra had seen Binodini's exquisite photo and cast it aside, laughable as that may sound considering how beautiful she is. But wait, it gets better--he wasn't the only one who turned her down! His best friend and fellow doctor, Behari (Tota Raychoudhuri) also rejected the proposal. I'm not sure what their reasoning was (What man in their right mind looks at a photo of Aishwarya Rai and says "Nah, no thanks!"?), but perhaps I missed something that would become clear with a second viewing or in reading the book.
While Binodini begins her life as a widow, Mahendra's friend Behari (the second person to turn Binodini down, remember?) is offered the hand of a young woman named Ashalata (Raima Sen). However, he takes Mahendra along with him on his first meeting with the girl. Mahendra, possibly out of competitiveness and a desire to want what somebody else has, decides he wants to marry Ashalata and tells Behari so. Behari, being the ever loyal friend that he is, agrees, and Mahendra and Asha tie the knot instead.
When Asha moves into Mahendra's house, the newlyweds' happiness sparks jealousy amongst the widows of the manor--In particular, Mahendra's mother (Lily Chakrabarti).
Naturally, Mahendra's mother feels the need to vent her anger to someone--and goes to have tea with Binodini, complaining openly about the attention her son gives his new bride. Binodini, with longing in her eyes, listens as she thinks of what might have been had she married Mahendra instead.
This seemingly harmless (and so humanly natural, you can't even get angry with her at this point) envy is heightened when Binodini gets her hands on some poetry that Mahendra has written for his wife. She reads it passionately, almost as if it was written for her, as if the words satisfy the burning desire of her lonely heart. How could a man love and yearn for a woman so much? Binodini seems to ponder this as she reads.
The only person who seems naive to her husband's affection is Ashalata herself. She is coy and flirtatious with him, yet doesn't seem to realize how "lucky" she is (as the women around her keep pointing out) since she's never known any different. In some ways she takes this for granted, thinking his love will be hers and only hers forever. Logically speaking, she's entitled to feel this way (his love should be hers to keep), but unfortunately, this is her first mistake.
Mahendra's mother, who has become quite fond of Binodini, invites her to stay with them at the house. At first, Binodini and Asha become inseperable friends, even coining a mutual pet name "Chokher Bali" (which is translated as "Sand in the eye"--and if anyone can elaborate on that a little better, because I have a feeling it goes deeper than the literal translation, please do so!).
While Asha's frienship seems to be genuine, Binodini's loyalty is suspicious from the very start. At first, she seems to live vicariously through Asha's stories of married life, probing and encouraging her along the way.
But then we see Binodini trying to use her sex appeal to her advantage--she casually lets her saree fall and expose her smooth back in Mahendra's sight... she appears cool and aloof when he is around...she even flirts with Behari. Man, Ash really works it here--she plays all her cards, using every ounce of sensuality her luminous good looks provide.
Of course, she and Mahendra end up having an affair. I'm not spoiling anything by telling you this--their tryst, and how it affects the people around them, is the real story of Chokher Bali.
Will Ashalata find out? Will Mahendra leave Asha for Binodini? What will Mahendra's mother say once she discovers the truth? How does Behari fit in--and, has he ever really gotten over losing Ashalata? All these questions and more make up the remainder of this deeply emotional film.
I have to be completely honest and admit that I'm not sure how I really feel about Chokher Bali. On the one hand, its a compelling drama with stellar performances that I could watch again and again. But on the other, it makes me very angry--Angry with Binodini, angry with Mahendra, and angry at the way women are expected to prize their husbands and gravel at their feet when they decide to go astray. I suppose this is what the movie intends to do--at no point did it come across as a sunshiney film--and in that respect it suceeds. But a lack of reasoning on Mahendra's part (if he supposedly loved his wife sooo much, can he really just turn off his desire for her like a switch in favor of another? Scary, when you think about it), and a rapidly diminishing level of respect for the protagonist left me feeling a little cold. Still, its definitely worth a watch --and probably a rewatch, because I get the feeling there's a lot more I'd pick up on with subsequent viewings.
Like I said above, I found it hard to believe that Mahendra's heart was so fickle. When the film began, I thought he and Ashalata were a darling couple with that heartwarming factor that makes me sigh blissfully when I hear a "love after marriage" story. He spoiled and doted on her like a child , then turned around and devoured her passionately in the bedroom. One could argue that he treated her like a toy, as a plaything that existed solely for his satisfaction. I didn't get that at all from their relationship--In fact, it reminded me a little of Rhett's love for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.
In fact, up until the affair, Mahendra reminded me a lot of Clark Gable. He was regal, classy, and handsome--I could practically smell the soft mixture of cologne and tobacco on his shirt while watching him onscreen. But then he slept with Binodini and became weak, slimy, and completely unappealing instead.
Don't get me started on Binodini. Perhaps its because I liked Ashalata so much, and really wanted her to win in the end, that I became increasingly unsympathetic to Binodini's fate. I just didn't get how she could betray her "Bali" so...and Aishwarya's obvious beauty made it even easier to hate this woman, since she seemed to use it to her advantage so much.
That's not to say that the performances weren't superb--they absolutely, positively were. Ash was at her subtle best--She played her role solemnly and effectively, sometimes saying very little while conveying a wide range of thoughts and emotions. Even her makeup, as it was in Jodhaa-Akbar, was low-key (a look I think suits her very well). And what a vamp she was, seducing Mahendra with those cat-shaped emerald eyes and rose-petal pink lips! If only she'd used that approach in Umrao Jaan (a performance I felt she could have played a bit more seductively)! There was only one scene in Chokher Bali that I can remember offhand where she did that shriekly laugh--I love Aishwarya but that damn laugh really gets under my skin--but, other than that, she was perfect.
Raima Sen was equally outstanding as Ashalata. I loved her childlike innocence, her gullibility and, as I said above, I was rooting for her in the entire film, not Binodini.
The entire cast was physically chosen to perfection. Mahendra's classic good looks made him believably desirable (at least until I realized he was a pig, but I won't get into that again). Behari was attractive enough, but lacked Mahendra's charm. Ashalata, while strikingly beautiful in her own right, was still outshone by the flawless glow of Binodini's ethereal beauty. Yet the two women were somewhat identical, appearing almost as mirror images in certain scenes--another brilliant move by the director.
I hate to say it (and no disrespect to Raima Sen, because I think she's gorgeous, too), but its almost as if the film wanted for us to see Binodini as a more exquisite, celestially beautiful version of Ashalata. Perhaps to make us see through Mahendra's eyes? That he'd chosen his wife, then found something his egotistical, pigheaded mind deemed as "better"? To be fair, I do think Mahendra's lust was based on more than just Binodini's looks. They were both educated and perhaps he felt more drawn to her intellectually. But still--I felt so bad for poor Ashalata!
The pace of the film is fast at first, much different than the slower pace of most Hindi films, but then, this isn't a Hindi film at all. Towards the end it dragged a little but never to the point that I lost any interest. I think I was just eager to see how it would all turn out, and many times when I thought the end was near it just kept going. But make no mistake--overall, this is a very interesting film and deserves a look for Aishwarya's performance alone.