Re-imagining Tagore’s 'Postmaster'

The trailer of director Srijon Bardhan’s debut Bengali feature film Postmaster — to release in West Bengal on June 24 — brought back memories of the poetry of > Lootera . For one, both films strive to add more flesh and blood to what were short and personal tales of loneliness, sacrifice and despair. While Vikramaditya Motwane’s film was an adaptation of O. Henry’s The Last Leaf, Bardhan’s Bengali film is his take on Rabindranath Tagore’s Postmaster.

Also, both movies seek to re-imagine an ambiguous, enigmatic relationship between two individuals in the respective stories and conjure up a narrative of romance from them.

“From a state of platonic love in the original story, I have derived a tale of classical love,” says Bardhan. As did Motwane, the director of Lootera.

However, the most important parallel between the two pertains to the lyricism in the two short stories, and the musical reinterpretation by the directors. Lootera acquires a life that transcends The Last Leaf in the last 30-40 minutes, thanks to three monstrously moving songs, punctuated with a graceful gaze of nature, that obviates the need for any dialogue. From Postmaster’s album, specifically from the Kheyar Tori song, it feels like Srijon Bardhan — also the lyricist and the music director for the movie -- has sought to achieve the same aesthetic effect.

Director Srijan Bardhan (second from right) during the shoot of the movie. Photo: Special arrangement

Tagore’s short story Postmaster, one of his earliest ones, was written in 1891 when he was living in East Bengal, along the banks of River Padma, managing his family estates. The two lead characters -- a young urbane postmaster and Ratan, a 11-12-year-old orphan -- find common ground in their loneliness, a leitmotif in many of the short stories written by the legendary storyteller. The solitude of the anonymous postmaster, who finds himself a misfit in the village of Ulapur, perhaps mirrored Tagore’s own sense of seclusion at that time. When asked about his storytelling, Tagore once said there was a virahani naari (a woman with longing and unrequited love) residing in his heart that made him tell tales of pain and separation. This short story was no exception.

The silent suffering of young Ratan reflects the misery of many young village girls in late 19th century Bengal, when, as Bardhan says, “if a girl was not married off at the age of 9, it was considered a bad omen”. Pujarini Ghosh, who plays the lead in Bardhan’s movie, says being an educated urbanite, the challenge for her was to bring the innocence and spontaneity of a village girl.

The postmaster in the original story tries to ward off his loneliness and isolation by striking a relationship with nature through poetry and forming a bond with the pre-teen girl, deputed as a servant, by educating her. However, for the young girl, he becomes the sole source of contact, through her learning sessions, with the outside, much more ‘civilised’ world. The relationship that develops between the two is left undefined in Tagore’s original short story but gives the impression of unreciprocated affection.

In > Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of the story, that forms a part of Teen Kanya, the relationship is shown taking the form of sibling companionship. Though young and naive, Ratan takes care of Nandalal (the character is given a name here) like she would care for her own brother. Moved by this, he even writes a little poem for her.

Srijon Bardhan’s movie, which transposes the story from the 1880s to late 1970s, shows the girl as a 15-16 year old lower-caste girl living in a village in Plassey, who falls in love with the postmaster. Bardhan says he has also tried transforming the lead character, Nandalal, from a self-centred urban individual to a rebellious angry young man.

Ishan Majumdar, who plays the lead says, “It is the journey of the person shown in three phases of his life. The nucleus is the same as imagined by Tagore but the story progresses much beyond that.”

But why take inspiration from a short story when there is a rich corpus of full-length novels available? Bardhan says when it comes to Tagore’s stories, a dictum applies: Shesh hoiao, hoilo na shesh (Much remains unsaid even after the tale actually ends). “Even after the actual account ends, it retains its flavour which can be used to derive interpretations. I wanted to explore these hidden layers” he says.

The most striking component of the film’s trailer is the Kheyar tori song which almost feels like the theme motif of the movie. Listen to it separately and you realise, even if you are only faintly familiar with the language, that it attempts to plumb into the depths of pain experienced by the lead woman, a subaltern creation of Tagore. Listening to the song and reading the story simultaneously, I felt the tune tries to capture the third-last paragraph in which the postmaster, while bidding adieu to the village where he always felt like an outcast, experiences despair as he observes the “rain-swollen river” that looks like “a stream of tears welling up from the earth”.

Bardhan says Kheyar Tori composed in the structure of a Baul song and though there are multiple instruments used, the dominant sound is that of the drums, the intention being to create the effect of Dabhol. “ Kheyar Tori translates to ferry boat. The song is about the pain experienced by the both characters as Nandalal moves away from Ratan in a ferry boat,” he says.

The trailer ends as it begins, with a funeral, with the high-pitched tune of Kheyar Tori and with some indication of the lady’s extinguished desires as the film’s title reveals itself in an imagery of sindoor (vermillion) metamorphosing into curdled blood. Music and imagery looks as important to Bardhan as silence and minimalism did to Ray while making his version.

Trivia on Postmaster

The lead character of Tagore's story is loosely modelled on a postmaster he knew in East Bengal.
Satyajit Ray’s Postmaster was part of Teen Kanya, an anthology of three adaptations from Tagore stories. Along with Ray’s documentary of Tagore, Teen Kanya was conceptualised to commemorate the poet laureate’s birth centenary in 1961.
Kheyar Tori is sung by Malabika Brahma, an accomplished singer of Baul songs, who has also sung in Hindi for the album Gulaab Gang.
The album also has Dui Hridoyer Nodi, a relatively-unknown Tagore song, composed for a wedding.

Watch the trailer here:

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 9:18:02 PM |

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