The Gurudev and the Auteur

Rabindranath Tagore, whose 75th death anniversary was observed on August 7, is among the most celebrated Indian men of letters. Yet, despite the Nobel he won for the translated version of his original work, those of us kept away from the sweet language of Bangla due to our own limitations of space and time can only begin to appreciate the intellectual depth of his poetry and prose.

The lyricism in Tagore’s work was informed by his exposure to the best of both Western and Eastern cultures. It was quite natural that they would lend themselves to celluloid trans-creations, more so in the language in which his thoughts found expression. The IMDB credits him with having acted as a creative influence on at least 151 movies — through his music, poetry, novels and short stories. This included Natir Puja (1932), a recording of Tagore’s stage production which he directed. Among the many film-makers he influenced, one was Satyajit Ray.

We can recall here that the Tagores and the Rays enjoyed a symbiotic relationship — both Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore and his father Sukumar were regular visitors to Jorasanko, the Tagore family’s home. It was quite natural that the master film-maker would seek the bard’s artistic company, in whose Santiniketan he spent a few years learning oriental art, when he took to cinema.

Marie Seton, in her biography of Ray, Portrait of a Director, writes that Tagore had appeared to a young Ray, when he visited him at his home, as “remote, like God”. However, when it comes to adapting Tagore on screen, Ray interpreted the laureate to suit his own vision.

Rabindranath Tagore (documentary) — 1961

Ray had been commissioned by the Government of India, with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s approval, to make a documentary that would pay appropriate tribute to the Gurudev on his 100th birth anniversary. The documentary begins with Ray’s commentary as we are shown Tagore’s funeral procession, interspersed with Rabindra Sangeet and his own music: “On the 7th of August, 1941, in the city of Calcutta, a man died. His mortal remains perished, but he left behind him a heritage which no fire could consume,” says Ray in his baritone.

As he blended available footage of the poet’s own life with recreations of his youth, set against the backdrop of the real locations, Ray would have found Tagore’s humanist vision — one suffused with an unconditional love for the spirit of human race — merging with his own affection for human beings in general.

Teen Kanya (1961):

This was made along with the documentary as a centenary tribute feature. It was an anthology that combined three of Tagore’s short stories — The Postmaster, Monihara and Samapti — that had three women at different stages of their lives as central characters.

The Postmaster, written in 1891 when the poet was managing the Tagore estate in East Bengal, was one of his earliest attempts at short story writing. As Ratan, an unlettered village girl of nine develops a sense of attachment, affection and care toward Nandalal, a young, self-centred postmaster who has taken to teaching her just to while away time, we realise that neither age nor exposure to formal education are a prerequisite to show empathy toward fellow humans. This film, whose lead character was loosely based on a postmaster Tagore knew during his years in East Bengal, was considered by Ray as the best of the three.

Monihara is about the immature obsession of Manimalika, an affluent housewife, with her jewels and the earnest surrender of Phanibhushan, a naive husband, to her desires. The huge Victorian palace and the mist introduced by Ray, also doing the cinematography here, lends a feeling of horror to the entire narrative. Tagore’s song here, based on a south Indian tune and sung by Ray’s niece and Kishore Kumar’s ex-wife Ruma Guha Thakurta, only adds to the touch of haunting eeriness in the tale.

The third, Samapti, the most detailed one among the three in terms of the time period it covers, relates to the transformation of Mrinmoyee, a young tomboyish girl just married to Amulya, into an understanding spouse.

Teen Kanya marked the first instance when Ray handled the music department.

Charulata (1964):

Probably the most well-analysed of Ray’s movies, it was also one the film-maker once admitted he considered the best among his works, the one with “the fewest flaws”. It was based on Tagore’s novella Nastanirh ( The Broken Nest) written in 1901 — whose inspiration was Tagore’s emotional and intellectual bonding with his deceased sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, the wife of his brother Jyotirindranath Tagore. The film captures the inner void in the life of Charu, a neglected housewife, and the intimacy she seeks in the company of Amal, her husband’s cousin. As their relationship crosses the boundaries set by Victorian-era morality -- best captured by the two songs Phoole Phoole and Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare, and their conversations with rich allusions to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s literature -- the viewer finds himself developing attachment to their undefinable bonding.

While doing his research on the script, Ray came across the original manuscript of Nastanirh, says Marie Setan and Andrew Robinson in their biographies of Ray, Portrait of a Director and The Inner Eye.. Ray noticed, in the marginalia of the manuscript, references to Hecate -- Tagore’s moniker for his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, who had committed suicide in 1884 -- and deciphered that Tagore’s sense of admiration for his sister-in-law had informed his character sketch of Charu. Kadambari, Tagore’s muse, also inspired many of his later day works.

In fact, Tagore confessed to artist Nandalal Bose in his later years that it was the memory of Kadambari’s eyes that made him draw those haunting portraits in his 70s, the final decade of his life.

Ghare Baire (1984):

The novel, written in 1916, a decade after Lord Curzon’s decision on Bengal’s partition along communal lines and the Swadeshi and Boycott Movement that accompanied it, expressed Tagore’s exasperation at narrow notions of nationalism. This was the form of patriotism that forced an individual to develop hatred for the notional “other”. It is told from the point of view of the three lead protagonists -- the nobleman Nikhilesh who refuses to boycott foreign goods but is perhaps more sympathetic to the cause of the downtrodden than even the fervent nationalists; Bimala, his wife for whom the Swadeshi Movement provides an opportunity to have greater interaction with the outside world; and Nikhilesh’s friend Sandip whose narrow sense of nationalism has a certain selfish angle to it, one that makes him not averse toeven murder the ‘other’, in many cases someone from a different community.

As Robinson, Ray’s biographer, documents, Sandip is no revolutionary -- though the rousing nature of the Kishore Kumar-sung Bidhir Badhon Katbe Tumi after which Bimala is inexorably drawn toward him may suggest so. His chief goal is to acquire power, which involves an element of suppression and his supposedly revolutionary invocations do little to cloud his fierce ambitions.

Robinson also writes that Ray saw and approached the novel more like a love story than a clash of competing values. Nikhil’s desire to free his wife from the traditional bondage that being a housewife imposed on her is what drew the film-maker to the story. And, from his treatment, it is clear that his sympathies lay more with the ideology-agnostic Nikhil than the self-professed radical Sandip.

During the shooting of this movie, Ray suffered two major heart attacks which limited his mobility and made him having to confine the backdrop of his subsequent films to indoor locations. Perhaps his illness also forced him to experiment more with the writings of the Gurudev.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 3:48:01 PM |

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