They are often in just half-light, faces highlighted by dark shadow and lanterns. They are mannered, stiff, the blocking stagey like a play, not a television show or movie. Tagore’s original stories span the 1890s through the 1930s, and the show is set solidly in the 1920s, but the characters exist in a dreamy, timeless yet anachronistic state. Cars and trains coexist with with horse-drawn carriages. You feel as if you could turn a corner and be in a modern world, turn another corner and enter an older one yet.
As such, the characters’ desires are relatable even if rooted in their time. Of course, this period was also a time of great change for India, so naturally the characters should struggle in a way we recognize.
What do they struggle with? Desire. Desire to please family and uphold tradition, desire to follow one’s heart, desire for love, desire for sex. The male and female characters feel these desires equally. The majority of this episode focuses on Bihari (Sumeet Viyas), who also narrates much of the episode. But the camera shows us Binodini (Radhika Apte) and Ashalata (Tara Alisha Berry), as well as their female relatives.
Binodini has been widowed just six months after marriage. Literate and articulate, she does not fit in at the widows’ homes. Her white widow’s sari envelops her small frame, though at times instead of hiding or enveloping her, it highlights her shoulder and seemingly bare chest (she doesn’t seem to be wearing a choli as the older women are, but perhaps she is wearing a sleeveless one), showcasing her youth and vitality. The older women are as ghosts, but Binodini is here.
Ashalata has just married; her husband Mahendra (Bhanu Uday) was supposed to marry Binodini, but declined just four days before the wedding, Mahendra had been clear about not wanting to marry, or at least wanting to marry an old-fashioned girl. Ashalata is young and joyful; he teaches her to write. They spend all of their time in their rooms, and it is clear they are both happy and willing participants in their marriage.
Binodini is jealous of their union. Widowed so young, her life is essentially over before it could start. But her anger (for now) is not at the man who rejected her or the society that advocates for arranged marriage and says widows cannot remarry, but at Ashalata. It is easier to be angry at one person than at an entire system.
As a modern viewer, I cheered when Mahendra railed against the system. He didn’t want to marry. No one asked him. Why should he be concerned about the family’s standing? But he is happy to use that system to his advantage, as so many men (or whoever is holding the power) do today. He sees Ashalata, takes in her beauty, and agrees to marry her. No more arguments. Happy participation in the system.
Bihari has grown up in Mahendra’s shadow, even asked to marry the women Mahendra has turned down and to pick up the pieces when Mahendra’s mother is heartbroken, first by his refusal to marry then by his attention shifting to his bride.
By episode’s end, Bihari and Binodini have existed in the same space, operating on the same wavelength, perhaps even fallen in love, but haven’t spoken. The frame story reveals something happened six years ago, and they are both happy and sad to cross paths again.
The first half of the episode was so slow and stilted that I got bored, and even took a break to do other things. But by episode’s end, I was drawn in, and I very much want to know what happens. The pacing and style took some getting used, especially compared to, say, a modern Bollywood movie. But the characters, particularly Binodini, are well-rounded and sympathetic.