What is the typical Western question? Perhaps this one: “Do you believe in God?” The West has a long history of belief, but also of doubt. And people from the West have long since gone East, most notably to India, to find the answer to that question. Some of the most famous representatives include Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade who both travelled to India and both wrote about the religious dimension as essential to man. And so when James Ivory shoots The Householder in 1963, he is following a well-travelled path, which many more people, flowery or otherwise, will also take in the wake of the hippie movement during the sixties. “Spiritual India” is a cliché of course, but when you’re looking for meaning and direction, you often start with them. A picture somehow shows you to the real thing.
The householder is a little clumsy and tentative, even if the great Satyajit Ray was asked to help. James Ivory was only a beginner then, and such masterpieces as The remains of the day or Howard’s end were still a long way ahead. The story centres around Prem (Shashi Kapoor, who does his best) and Indu (Leela Naidu, not too bad), a recently married couple who confront the difficulties of getting to know each other (theirs is an arranged marriage), and in the process have to deal with the formidable mother in law (Durga Khote, of Anupama’s fame), called precisely because powerless Prem cannot cope with his shy young wife. Prem also has trouble at college, where he teaches Sanskrit etymology: his students don’t respect his authority, and his seniors despise him. On top of that, finances are very tight, and the headmaster systematically discourages any payrise request.
So when Indu, as bored as she’s exasperated, leaves the household to go back to her own mother, Prem is left alone with Maa, his troubles and his childish inefficiency. What happens next? Well, that’s where spiritualism enters. Because there’s nothing much to entice back home, Prem hangs around in town and meets Ernest, who is earnestly in search of “enlightenment”, and who lives with a bunch of very highly lit-up individuals, all of white skin, who have come to India in search of spirituality. They’re “all united in their quest”, as they say. Four people: Ernest, the athletic truth-seeker, Kitty the “lovely” hostess (she’s in love with essential Love) with her rolling eyes and scary bosom; then there’s bobo, a fine young girl, only she’s “a little mixed up”, and finally the Professor, hypnotically wide-eyed, who upon seeing Prem, analyses the shape of his cranium (“Ajanta, I would say, or perhaps even Gupta”) and blurbs about “the drone of continuity” in the Indian cycle of lives and deaths... In fact, everything these people say about India is true, to an extent; what is artificial and false lies in the attitude of possesiveness and purposefulness which they display.
Luc Boardwalk at IMDb suggests quite interestingly that Ernest is doing nothing more than going round in circles in the Jantar Mantar where he says his dil is beating so strongly. And so of course that’s an apt description for the pursuits all these westerners follow, because when Ernest tells Prem that India “grows souls” instead of favouring the flesh, Prem is simply worrying about his job, wife and mother at home. Ernest tells him that the solution to his problems is “nonattachement”… But who’s “attached” to an Orientalist cliché, to a condescending illusion of a “spiritual” India? Towards the end of the movie, Ernest tells Prem he’s leaving this India, having not “found” whatever he was looking for, light, truth, God knows what. Mind you, this departure shows he’s managed to free himself from the maya that had taken hold of his mind!
The strange thing is that Prem had gotten caught too, because at one stage they visit a guru in the forest, and they pledge to stay with him. But the old man kindly makes them understand that their pursuit, while not impossible, is perhaps too early: why doesn’t the householder take care of his wife and children to come, first? In twenty or thirty years, he can always come back…Indeed, soon enough, Indu returns and the two young ones, eager now to be together (arranged marriages promote love, it seems!!) manage to get rid of self-pitying Maa, who half-tearfully, but really delighted, takes the train, in order to go and impose her indispensability on a daughter or a niece. They are now ready to focus on their own adventure.
So the film clearly intends to debunk the delusion that bigoted dreamers might have about India, its stale “spiritual” reputation, where as soon as you arrive there, you “feel” more religion than elsewhere on the globe. When the professor tells Prem he doesn’t have a name, because his individuality is lost in the cosmic soul of the Universe, James Ivory is having a lot of fun. But, one has to ask, isn’t there some truth in the fact that the West (at least, the old West) is losing its traditional attachment to religious practices, and is becoming increasingly materialistic? On the contrary, doesn’t India retain an overall religiosity – or spirituality – which people are right to notice as they see all these various rites, temples, sadhus, festivals, etc? It is in India that the two above-mentioned authors came in order to establish their observations of Man as an essentially religious being.
Christianity is considered by some to be “the religion of the exit from religions”, that is to say, the religion which has enabled man to leave his age-old submission to the Gods created by himself in an attitude of fear and awe, and has led him towards a more rational and authentically divine faith – that is, if you believe that Jesus is truly God himself who has inhabited a human body, and therefore is no longer a projection of man’s religious needs. But this perspective might also be Christianity’s undoing: by freeing man from his transcendental inner Heaven, where he roamed in a sort of trance, by making him come down to Earth (even if it is God himself who makes him come down), hasn’t it run the risk of enabling man to decide that he doesn’t need God any longer, and that himself, man, could be his own God, level with the incarnate Son? India, in that case, where Christians represent only a little fraction of a massively religious one billion people, would have had little impact on changing the general “spiritual” needs of men.
In the meantime, Prem (this name means love) faces his ordinary problems with the religious attitude of the simple at heart. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the scene where his brother in law explains him that he will have to be much stricter in his expenses, once he has his baby (Indu is pregnant), and while they’re talking, a lady with a child in her arms comes begging behind their seat. Prem without thinking gives her some money. “Why do you encourage them?” asks the modernist brother in law. Prem doesn’t answer, but his attitude is the real religious one, the one that doesn’t think about reasons or justifications, and just gives because there is need (“O, reason not the need!”, says King Lear in Shakespeare’s play). He’s the quintessential believer. That’s not exclusively Indian, but certainly India has its fair share of such a spirit.