Thursday 17 September 2015


                        Kabuliwala to Chokherbali

The legacy of the famous poet and writer, Rabindranath Tagore lives onscreen,
touching our souls even after his death

Around four years ago there were worldwide celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore turning 150 years. Tagore is not only India’s most revered poet but the most progressive writer as well. In the recently-launched Epic Channel, director Anurag Basu is revisiting Tagore’s short stories and wonders, when Gurudev was so ahead of his time, why has India turned regressive?  I piece together a tribute to the ultimate guru of our country, Rabindranath Tagore and his relationship with cinema.

Born in 1861 and died in 1941, Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore was a multifaceted personality. He wrote short stories, novels, dramas, recited poetry on public platforms and yet Tagore is not
as frequently translated on celluloid, as Sharat Chandra or Bankim Chandra for example. This is because his interplay between characters did not conform to tradition. Revisit any of his films, be it ‘Charulata’ or ‘Ghare Baire’, and you realise that Tagore’s stories were devoid of childhood love, separation of brothers, villains, betrayal or even a broken heart which are a pre-requisite for the
mainstream cinema.There is another more practical reason why Tagore could not be reached to a
wider audience. Everything associated with him - his songs, dramas, stories, poetry, whenever presented in a medium had to be cleared by Vishvabharati University instituted by him many decades ago. The process was long and tedious and dissuaded passionate filmmakers attracted to Tagore’s writing because they didn’t have the time and patience to cross those hurdles.
Tagore’s strength as a writer was that he was rooted to the soil. This was also a limitation because when his stories were turned into films, there was little scope for dressing up his milieu and characters. His writing was too truthful and pure to be deviated or distorted and called for an aware audience willing to go beyond the spoken word. His stories demanded skilled filmmakers who understood his art and mind.

Tapan Sinha directed ‘Kabuliwala’ (1960) set in the social context of feudal Bengal and also (1960) about a young collector living in a haunted mansion who falls in love with a ghost. Satyajit Ray was fascinated with Tagore’s novella ‘Nastanirh’ which he made into ‘Charulata’. When Ray was shooting the film, he was in conflict about the concluding scene. The book ends with the husband knocking on the door and the wife opens it standing wordless, leaving the interpretation to the reader. Satyajit Ray felt the unexplained scene was appropriate for literature ‘Kshudito Paschan’ but unreasonable in cinema, and altered it to Madhabi Mukherjee saying “Ashi” and stretching her hand. The film ends with their outstretched hands that don’t meet. It was a very minor deviation from the original, but when the film was released, there was uproar from Tagore fans who criticised the climax. There were angry protests from Vishvabharati and the controversy settled only after Ray penned a column in a newspaper to explain his stand that he meant no offence to Gurudev. It is therefore not surprising that very few filmmakers dared to present Tagore on celluloid. Satyajit Ray made a documentary ‘Rabindranth Tagore’, ‘Teen Kanya’ (‘Postmaster’, ‘Monihara’ and ‘Samapti’) 1960 followed by ‘Charulata’ 1964 and decades later, ‘Ghare Baire’. Ray had been obsessed with ‘Ghare Baire’ ever since he first read the story and was eager to make it into a film but no producer was willing to risk investment. As a result, Ray was coerced to shelve the project. He tried to make ‘Ghare Baire’ again in the 50s and 60s but again failed to convince the financier. Finally, Ray was able to make his dream project as late as mid 80s, which many of his critics describe as Ray’s weakest film. This was partly because the lead actress did not match to the charisma of Madhabi Mukherjee, a Ray favourite. But Ray nursed no regrets. He said to senior writer Swapan Mullick in an interview that he was happy he did not get to make ‘Ghare Baire’ (1985) earlier, because those days he was greatly influenced by Hollywood and would have made a dishonest film. The passing years had mellowed him and the present version was closer to Tagore’s sensibility and vision of emancipated women.

Tagore’s idealism and crusade for gender equality was influenced by Bengal’s Renaissance leader Rajaram Mohan Roy who fought for widow remarriages and that is why his films are about the mental journey of his characters, especially women trying to find a foothold in feudal society. His women were real and engaging, be it the little girl Minnie in ‘Kabuliwala’ or the adolescent
Mrinmoy in ‘Upahaar 71’ directed by Sudhendu Roy. Sometimes she was manipulative like Binodini in ‘Chokherbali’ where the young widow manipulates not just the men but all the women who come into her life. In the end, Binodini has everything she wanted, but hankers for peace and walks out on everybody.

There is an interesting story about how Tagore got associated with cinema. Everybody knows that Tagore was absorbed in words and his churnings resulted in novellas, songs, poetry and drama. In pre-Independence time, Tagore travelled extensively to perform and raise funds for his university. Those days, his troupe staged a dance drama ‘Notir Puja’ based on his story. The drama was extremely popular and collected large crowds wherever he traveled. One day in the audience, was
owner of New Theatres BN Sircar who was mesmerised by the beauty and power of the ballet. He expressed his desire to make the ballet into a film, provided Gurudev recited poetry in his voice and made an appearance in the film. Tagore agreed because it meant big funds for his university.

The year was 1932 and ‘Notir Puja’ was premiered as part of Tagore’s 70th birthday celebrations, but sadly the film was not as effective on the big screen as on stage, but Tagore had no regrets. He said cinema was the only complete medium that combined sound and moving images. Today most of the reels of ‘Notir Puja’ are destroyed and all that remains in the archives are a few scenes that work as documentary on Tagore.

It is important to mention the lesser talked about Tagore films like ‘Char Adhyay’ 1997 directed by Kumar Sahni and ‘Chaturanga’ directed by a theatre director. ‘Khoka Babu’ was a tale of a long serving domestic help who robs the son of his master and gifts him back on the son’s wedding day. ‘Nauka Dubbi’ made as ‘Ghunghat’ by Ramanand Sagar in 1960 and now ‘Kasmakasha’ is about a new bride landing up with the wrong groom after a ship wreck. All his films ‘Maryada’ or ‘Chirokumar Sabha’ were about trauma and complexities, sensual and lyrical. Music played an important part in all films penned by Tagore. Whether it was ‘Komal Gandhar’ celebrating the universe or Kishore Kumar humming “Ammi chni go chini” in ‘Charulata’, Tagore has been an inspiration to many musicians. Late Kanan Devi, Pankaj Mullick and KL Saigal played a role in projecting life to Tagore’s poetry on screen.

Among the younger music directors, SD Burman was vastly influenced by Gurudev, and this is apparent in his playback of ‘Guide’ and many years later in ‘Abhimaan’. Director Rituporno Ghosh has used Rabindro sangit undiluted in a long sequence of ‘Chokherbali’ and those moments are magical!

As long as Tagore lived, he remained in Shantiniketan, Bengal, but his vision and words were global and that is why they touch our soul till today.

- Bhawana Somaaya/ @bhawanasomaaya

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