Wednesday, January 7, 2009

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.

Mahendra blows Binodini's photograph to the floor-Wasn't his type, I guess.

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.


Nicki January 8, 2009 at 8:10 PM  

I think this movie is Ash's best performance. I agree that the movie alone is worth it for her. Raima is quite underrated. I just am not happy with her Bollywood film choices though. I'm going to try to update tonight!

Anonymous,  January 8, 2009 at 8:18 PM  

Chokher Bali and Raincoat both directed by Rituparno Ghosh show Aishwarya at her best - subtle effective performances with very little makeup. Plus the other cast members in both movies were very good too.

I hope she does more movies with directors like Ghosh, Ratnam and Gowarikar who all seem to get the best from her.

Darshit January 8, 2009 at 9:17 PM  

I think I should watch this one. I have seen 'Raincoat' and found it fabulous. Ash is not my personal fav. but still i liked her in that one. Here, she is looking promising.
Also I like Raima a lot. She is always adorable. As Nicki said, she should choose Good movies in Bollywood. I loved her in Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. and Parineeta.

P.S.: How about auto correct you screencaps?? They look very dark.

BB January 9, 2009 at 12:31 AM  

I've seen caps of this movie before, and "Clark Gable" was one of the first things that popped in to my mind, too! Now I don't feel like a total nerd.

I can usually handle unsympathetic characters, provided they're interesting (which is why I enjoyed Tere Naam).

Nida January 9, 2009 at 9:38 AM  

Nicki--Yes, I think this was my favorite performance from her, possible sharing the spot with "Jodhaa-Akbar". And please do update tonight if you get a chance! :) We miss your posts!

Anonymous--I agree Ash works better with certain directors. I've got to see "Raincoat"! I've heard about that one before too. Thanks for stopping by!

Darshit--Will have to check out "Parineeta" as I own it but haven't seen it yet :) And again, another recommendation for "Raincoat"! Now I'm really curious...Hmm will have to work on the auto correct thing. I don't even know how to do that! But I'm sure its easy to figure it?

BB--hee hee. Yep, he totally reminded me of Clark! And don't worry, Binodini is definitely interesting. In fact, she sort of has split personalities.

ajnabi January 9, 2009 at 6:44 PM  

It sounds like more of a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving those sexy widows lying about the house like stumbling blocks in your husband's path. ;-) I'll have to keep that in mind. "No, dear. I'm sorry, but we can't have our widowed friends over. You're weak and they're beautiful and that's just a bad combination."

I loved her in Parineeta, too. You should definitely check it out; it's the film that turned me into a Saif fan and I could listen to the soundtrack all day long.

Darshit January 10, 2009 at 6:36 AM  

Oh yes, Auto correct is easy.
If u r using MS, then Photo Editor will be there. You have to hit the button 'auto correct' thats it. If it cant do the thing, then just Undo it. And go to Brightness/contrast settings. And set Midtones to higher level.
Or else, use Picasa by Google. They give great options of filling light in pictures. Also there is 'I m feeling lucky' button too. which will auto adjust.
And yes, check out Raincoat's soundtrack first before watching flick. Its AWESOME.

Ipshi January 12, 2009 at 2:11 AM  

im 50% bengali (my mom) so when u asked about the sand in the eye thing i just had to reply. The gal pals coin that term for themselves cos a grain of sand in the eye is a constant irritation that just doesnt go away because thats what the girls r to others. but this is also a theme in the movie

mahendra's love for ashalata is a constant source of irritation for mahendra's mom and binodini, asha becomes a irritant to mahendra later and asha's ill treatment by mahendra becomes an irritant for behari...

also i found it very interesting in this movie how behari is more devoted to asha than her own husband

btw, i love how ur checking out movies that go beyond commercial cinema.

Im so glad u loved Golmaal!! U cud also check out Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Chit Chor, Anand and Bawarchi. cant wait for ur reviews. also Kishore Kumar movies like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Half Ticket, oh man, they're all such a treat. Sorry for the long post :)

bollyviewer January 12, 2009 at 12:23 PM  

I saw this one a while ago, and in the company of a friend who'd read Tagore's original story and provided a running comparison of the two! So my perception is colored by my friend's reading of the book. I seem to remember that Binodini takes up with Mahendra after being repulsed by Behari (she does flirt but things go no further on her part than that) and is only attracted to what Mahendra can give her (in terms of material things and undying devotion) rather than the man himself. Behari himself wasnt unaffected by her, but her affair with Mahendra puts her beyond the pale for him.

For all its flaws though, I love it because it talks of a woman who not only wants more from life than conventions allow, but doesnt demonise her and doesnt make her "rival" seem like a pathetic idiot, either. And its such a nicely made movie. Your review is inspiring me to re-watch!

Anonymous,  January 12, 2009 at 9:42 PM  

Good review. Would like to read your reviews on Antarmahal (2005) and other films directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

Chevalier January 14, 2009 at 3:27 PM  

I saw your blog on patrix's top 10 bollywood blog list, and I loved your review!

Chokher Bali was amazing, but surprisingly I was feeling for Aishwarya's character the whole time, not for Raima Sen's. The fact that Binodini didn't have much to begin with, and then she tries so hard and fails and fails again, but she fights for what she wants. She falls into the familiar trap of using the easiest route not necessarily the 'right' route, but in a society where the 'right' route is so unrewarding, breaking the rules is probably the only way to effect change.

In fact, in the Gone with the Wind connection, she'd be Scarlett to Ashalata's Melanie Wilkes - the latter is so trusting, so painfully innocent and (therefore) constantly infantilized by everyone around her, including her husband.

And in the book too, Mahendra's character starts off as being this successful alpha male, good looking and charming, and slowly he becomes weak - unable to stand by either his duty or his desire. So very like Ashley.

Finally, the book takes Mahendra and Binodhini to another town, and then just her to a village, etc. The book is even more tragic and nuanced, but this is probably one of the few cases where the movie is actually BETTER than the book in taking you truly inside the characters' heads. And most of the credit needs to go to Aishwarya for a career-best performance, as you said :-).

Chevalier January 14, 2009 at 3:28 PM  

sorry for the loooooooong comment - I didn't mean to put in a quasi-review, was just defending my empathy for Binodini :-)

dubbagol January 18, 2009 at 12:46 AM  

Hi Nida,

Love reading your reviews.Waiting for the next one !!

Dubbagol Team

Ipshi January 19, 2009 at 5:14 AM  

hey nida.... come back :)

Nida January 19, 2009 at 6:11 PM  

Whew, so sorry this reply took so long but I've been working double hours at my second job!Hope to catch up on everything soon, though!

Ajnabi--I'd love to get your take on this one someday! And I own "Parineeta"--will have to watch soon. That's why I haven't read your review on it yet.

Darshit-Thanks for the instructions! I'll have to give it a try. And I just ordered "Raincoat" so--can't wait!

Ipshi--I'm baaack!!!:)Thanks for the breakdown on the translation! Yes, that actually makes much, much more sense. Ahh, I didn't notice the theme of irritation running through the film but now that you've pointed it out it is so clear!Yes, I too thought it interesting that Asha was offered to Behari first and he still remained so devoted to her, too. Still can't believe how Mahendra cast her aside so quickly!
I'm glad to be checking out films beyond commercial cinema, too! Thanks so much for the recommendations! I'll add them all to the list! And also --I never mind a long comment-those are my favorites!:)

Bollyviewer--Thank you!I really need to read this book, I see. Of course, books always give you more insight into the characters, which I think would have been helpful in this movie. It definitely was a nicely made film, wasn't it? Gosh, I want to rewatch myself--and I just saw it! lol

Anonymous--Thank you! And thanks for stopping by and commenting! I'll have to check out the movies you've mentioned. This, so far, is the only film I've seen by this director BUT I did just order "Raincoat" so stay tuned!

Chevalier--Welcome! And what, I'm on somebody's top ten list? That is so awesome, I'll have to check it out--what an honor!:)Thank you for the compliment, and glad you liked the review! Wow, I didn't realize the similarities to Scarlett/Ashley/Melanie--but you are so correct! They are totally there! I see what you mean about Binodini--and yes, Ash was so good at being bad in this film!:) Definitely just like Scarlett O Hara! And don't worry--long comments are always welcomed and appreciated here!Hope to hear from you again soon!

Dubbagol--Thanks so much! The next one should be up very soon, promise ;)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat January 25, 2009 at 12:42 PM  

I think both the girls- Aish and Raima, should have not been interested in Mahendra- bloated and really not attractive- Behari was a better bet all along! Jokes apart, this was the only time I really have respected Aish as an actor- brilliant.

Nida January 25, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

Lol--Oh, Shweta, you are too funny! :)

yves January 28, 2009 at 9:43 AM  

Hi Nida,

Nice review... of a film I didn't like! but I appreciated your dogged attempt to explain your appreciation. Now, why my dislike? Aish and the rest of the actors were fine, it's not their fault. It's the director's: he constantly stylises things, and the plot doesn't come out as really convincing. We keep trying to wonder why characters do what they do. Now there's perhaps a problem in Tagore's storyline, but the the overall effect was one of arty and pretentious, even if beautiful. But precisely, there's beauty, and no real meaning, I thought. You see what I mean?

BUT: I loved most of your screencaps!

Nida January 28, 2009 at 3:13 PM  

Yves, I can completely understand what you mean and what caused you to dislike this film. I agree it was very confusing--particularly towards the end--to figure out what was going through the characters' minds. Still, I got caught up in the artsy beauty of it all and found it a very interesting film. I do see what you mean about it lacking "meaning"--still don't know what the message of the film would be? Though I like Ipshi's interpretation of irritation--like sand in the eye--being the recurring theme.

Thanks, glad you liked the screencaps!

Anonymous,  February 26, 2009 at 3:48 AM  

well when in today's world indian women are attachted to differrent social stigmas . one can think of early 1900's.well i live in orissa a state in eastern india. recently in a survey around 46% of women said that they face domesic violence. can you beleive that? well its true. well the review was really good

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