In my adventure romp through the rich fields of Indian cinema, I have been very fortunate. Thanks to the guidance of thoughtful friends in communities like the BollyWHAT? forums to shape my selections, I have seen very, very few Indian movies that I found truly awful, without any redeeming feature. There are only about two Indian movies that I pulled the plug on partway through, and only about two more, out of the ninety or so reviewed on this site to date, that I wished I hadn't stuck out until the end. I regret to say that Chokher bali ("A grain of sand") is a third.
In Raj-ruled Calcutta, Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) has had a hard year. Her family's marriage proposal was rejected by Mahendra (Prasenjit Chatterjee), so she was married to another man, who survived less than a year. Binodini enters the ascetic world of the 19th-century Hindu widow - she dons plain, unadorned sarees, forgoes all makeup and ornamentation, commits to strict dietary restrictions, and ceases her English education. When Binodini arrives for an extended stay at Mahendra's home, she insinuates herself into the quotidian routines of every member of the household. She develops a fast friendship with Mahendra's vapid and privileged wife, Ashalata (Raima Sen), and encourages the other widows in the household - Mahendra's mother and aunt - in the mild transgression of drinking tea, a habit that is both forbidden to widows and also excessively English. She also entertains a light, intellectual flirtation with Mahendra's friend Behari (Tota Roy Chakraborty), a bookish agitator for independence. Most explosively, she cultivates a passionate sexual affair with Mahendra himself. From there, the tightly-wound threads of human relationships in the household snap and unravel.
At least I think that's the story. The film opens with an impenetrable twenty minutes of exposition, in which the backstory leading to Binodini's stay in Mahendra's household is told in a confusing series of voice-overs. It is equally unclear at all moments who is speaking and whose drama is being told - names of characters swirl by with little solid connection to images on the screen. I watched the opening segment several times before I felt confident that I knew who was who; my viewing companion paused the film and referred to a plot synopsis on-line to settle her own confusion. These are not markers of competent filmmaking.
And matters don't improve from there. While the beginning of the film is dense with this exposition - telling the viewer what happened instead of showing it as a film can and should - in the middle of the film, when we finally do get to see the characters interact, there are excruciating segments in which very little happens. The characters' most intense and personal feelings are revealed in letters written to one another and read in voice-over. This device may have worked beautifully in Rabindranath Tagore's famous novel from which Chokher bali is adapted; in the film, however, it only spares the actors the challenge of conveying their emotions on screen, and robs the viewer of the experience of perceiving them.
Whatever message Chokher bali might wish to send - whether regarding the plight of widows, male-female inequality, sexuality, or any other theme - is lost among the endless narrations and the lurching pace of the story. Even the film's ostensible focus, Binodini, is a mess of inconsistent characterization; she wheels from conniving manipulation to false contrition to real contrition and back again so many times that by the end her motivations are completely opaque. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the film, originally shot in Bengali, is dubbed into Hindi, severing the connection between the actors' movements and their words and evoking Sunday-afternoon Japanese monster movies from my childhood. In a better film this would have been forgivable and perhaps not even noticed; here, though, it only exacerbates a simply dreadful cinematic experience.
(Chokher Bali is available for download from Jaman.)