Four Chapters is one of those films where you have the feeling that you might have gotten just a bit more if you were from the country of origin. While meditative, well shot, and having a slow beauty, the spiritual search seems distant and troubled, as if something is missing. And perhaps that is the point—spiritual journeys are never easy.
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Four Chapters, Sachish is a young man who breaks with his father’s Hindu religious beliefs to follow his reformist uncle who is willing to feed poor Muslims, which scandalizes the family. When his brother’s young mistress becomes pregnant and is abandoned by him, Sachish offers to marry her to save her from the street. Again, it creates a scandal and the mistress kills herself before the wedding can occur. His uncle then begings a hospital, but soon sucumbs to a fever and dies, leaving Sachish grief stricken. He joins an ashram where he has given up all worldly attachment and follows a guru. Sachish’s friend comes to the ashram seeking to convince Sachish that the guru is a fraud, but, instead, he stays with Sachish to see if faith could be better than the skepticism of his uncle. While they are with the guru they meet Damini who is a widow and a ward of the guru. She sees Sachish and wants to break him free from his allegence to the guru and marry her. Although she tries, he is unwilling. Eventually, they leave the guru so Sachish can find an even deeper faith. Damini who has no other options marries Sachish’s friend who has grown attached to her. Damini and her husband return to the world of work while the last we see of Sachish he is staring at the sea watching singing Sufis walk by.
Four Chapters is even handed in the way it looks at faith. At first it seems as if the guru is going to be a corrupt man, more interested in the physical world than the spiritual. He does need money to run his ashram, but he doesn’t seem to spend it on himself. He is a patriarchal man who thinks women need to be taken care of and supervised. Instead, the criticism is aimed more at the rich families who invite in the gurus, pay them for personal advice, then continue their profligate lives. The gurus are just answering a call. This is why Sachish has to leave the ashram and find something even more spiritual, something that leaves the work of the guru behind. At the beginning of the movie it is Sachish’s father who is spiritual but also doesn’t want to have anything to do with poor Muslims. Sachish who first takes on the asceticism of social reform is natural upset by this and distances himself from his family. It this initial conflict that frames the search for spiritual meaning against the use of spiritualism as something to make you feel better about yourself.
Four Chapters is also interested in looking at how women are treated. Damini has no freedom. As a widow she is dependent of the guru who received her husbands estate, an estate which Damini’s father gave her. She becomes a prisoner in her own estate. To find freedom she must marry again. This is why she trys to attach herself to Sachish. Damini is in a similar position to the woman that Sachish was going to marry at the beginning of the film. She, too, didn’t have any options for life without a man.
Four Chapters is a good film that blends the search for spiritual faith with that of social criticism. It is interested in the subtleties of hypocrisy rather than out and out castigation. That stance makes it a subtle and, at times, slow. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing.