Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thoughts on: "Tagore Stories on Film"

Biting the bullet: silent, black-and-white, Bengali.

On occasion of the 150th birthday of the acclaimed literature-nobelprice winner from India, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian government published a filmset consisting of six films concerning the literary legend. This was done with the help of the National Film Development Corporation. 

There have been many filmatizations of the stories and novels that Tagore has written, but the government and NFDC have selected the following for the compilation:

Khudita Pashan (1960) - Tapan Sinha, Bengali
Teen Kanya (1961) - Satyajit Ray, Bengali
Kabuliwala (1961) - Hemen Gupta, Hindi
Ghare-Baire (1984) - Satyajit Ray, Bengali
Char Adhyay (1997) - Kumar Shahani, Hindi

Natir Puja (1932) - Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali
Rabindranath Tagore (1961) - Satyajit Ray, Bengali

I promised you to write about the filmset by the time I'd be finished watching all seven films, so here I am, talking about three things I thought I would never fully be able to appreciate as much as I wanted:
  1. Silent films (Natir Puja)
  2. Black-and-white films (Natir Puja, Khudita Pashan, Teen Kanya, Rabindranath Tagore)
  3. Bengali films (Natir Puja, Khudita Pashan, Teen Kanya, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghare-Baire)
With the exception of the silent film, which I simply cannot truly adjust to, I've grown fonder of the latter two than I had excepted initially - but what am I rambling; let's start to dive deeper into the subject...

(including a few of those essential trying-to-be-objective remarks)

The only Tagore story on film that I had seen before this cinematic crash course, was Chokher Bali, the 2003 Bengali version with Aishwarya Rai in the lead. I also had - and have - not read any of Tagore stories, novels and other books, with the exception of his poem on rain.

Seven films further, I feel that I have got a very brief impression of Tagore; his ideas and his brilliance, his greatness. I would certainly like to read some (or one) of his longer works.
But what can I say about the selection of films for this filmset...? Do I have the right to say anything about it whatsoever? Me, surely the only one who has seen all these films and read nothing about or of Tagore?

... I'll take the risk. 
First of all, I want to say that I find it a wonderful and appropriate idea to include one of the films that Tagore himself directed, even though most part of it is missing. NATIR PUJA is, to put it nicely, overwhelmingly boring. There are many persons - even film snobs - that have a problem with silent films, including me; I want to, I genuinely want to be able to give them the same amount of attention as I give every other film, but it is so hard! And if there are just small fragments of a film with very bad quality, I simply cannot stay focused. But off course I believe that in context with its time and blabla, NATIR PUJA is a good film.

The other essential film of the compilation is Satyajit Ray's documentary RABINDRANATH TAGORE, which casts light on the history of the actual person Tagore, his personal life - and naturally his development as an artist. The film is constructed much like a feature film, especially the first half consists of a variety of imitated scenes from Tagore's youth. Later on, we also get to see small clips of the real Tagore, an experience that is both fascinating and somehow scaring. It's like seeing Gandhi in some pixel-y video, when larger-than-life gets mixed-up with reality. Even out of context, it is a watchable documentary, also for fans of Ray. Some pieces are slightly boring, but that's mostly due to Ray's calm and subtle way of directing.

My favorite film happens to be the very first one I saw: KHUDITA PASHAN. The story of a taxman who moves into an old mansion and falls in love with an ancient ghost had me glued to screen from the first minute. Soumitra Chatterjee, who also plays smaller roles in two of the other films of this set, gives a very charming performance of the somewhat naive and loveable taxman, while Arundhati Devi is enchanting without speaking more than a few sentences. It is surprising how exotic this film and many of the others do seem, the India in them is so different from the one that I have grown to know from more current, especially Hindi films. By that I do not mean to say that Hindi films are unrealistic or anything, more the contrary: I understand Hindi films. It really makes a difference when you know the language of a film, I think - for example when I watched an Italian film recently, it also felt quite unworldly. Anyhow, I'm drifting off the topic.

TEEN KANYA and GHARE-BAIRE are some of the first Satyajit Ray films that I have seen and it isn't hard to see how he gained such great international fame. His way of story-telling and directing is, as I have said before, simple and almost with a minimalistic tendency in them. Not that he excludes any "realistic" elements as Lars von Trier did in DOGVILLE, for instance, but there's a severe consistency in the shots, mise-en-scene and narration. Many scenes are very long and relying strongly on dialogue and often only two persons who communicate with each other. (Spoiler) Something that surprised me as well was the kiss in Ghare-Baire. Even though it is a Bengali film, this was something I had not expected from an 80s Indian film. (Spoiler).
In my opinion, both films are excellent choices for a compilation of Tagore films for various reasons - Satyajit Ray is said to be a great fan of Tagore, which would be the main reason why his films are fitted to be included. The other is that he's a superb film maker and I don't think you can ever be wrong watching his films.

While KABULIWALA proved to be oddly forgettable - though sweet and partially very informative - one films stands out as the worst film of this compilation.
CHAR ADHYAY starts out in a quite avantgarde-esque way with calmly experimental shots of sea-roses and Indian classical dancers and then starts telling the story of a woman who has been fighting for the freedom of her country, just to fall in love with a poet who doesn't think violence is the right way to undermine the British government. 
The best thing about this film are definitely the dialogues and the two leads - and the scenes they have together. There's poetry all over these parts, even though they admittedly are quite uncommon for a "normal" film... but that's not bad. Until you see those abstract.. I don't know what they mean scenes and you think "Oh yeah, that's interesting and that could be a symbol for... blabla... SHIT - WHAT AM I DOING?! This is so SNOBBY AND PRETENTIOUS". 
It doesn't help at all that the first half of the film is very confusing and it takes you about an hour to figure out what the film is actually about. And I was so unsure that I read the DVD-booklet after finishing the film. 
Still, CHAR ADHYAY is a film worth seeing, just to try something very new and certainly uncommon for Hindi films - as much as I like Bombay's Parallel Cinema. So I figure it's good that it was included in the set, because I wouldn't have seen it otherwise, and it gives a nice reflection on some of the movements in Tagore's time. 


The producers of the compilation have thought about their selection and chosen appropriate and by all means interesting films. Everyone who would like to broaden their cinematic horizon should pay the absurdly low price of this outstanding DVD-box about an outstanding artist and idol. Once you've worked your way through both the most boring and the most beautiful scenes, and everything in between, you will be rewarded with knowledge and inspiration for many intellectual afternoons and evenings where you will be able to reflect on the cinematic and philosophic value of Tagore Stories on Film.
I sound like an insurance vendor, and I don't give a damn. For those who only read half of the words, or those whose concentration is on the descend: WATCH THESE FILMS!


  1. Really enjoyed reading this, Mette. Rabindranath Tagore is one of my favorite poets and though I have read much of his work, I have not watched a single film about him... So it was nice to read someone who has done the opposite :-) Where did you get this collection? I would love to purchase it too.

    1. That's funny - I think you should watch some of the films about him and I should read some of his work. You can get the collection from most Bollywood DVD shops, for example induna: (currently sold out).

  2. I liked ur list. But I think u missed out the really adorable Charulata. It is a much written about film and completely adorable

    1. It wasn't in the Box, these were just the films that were in the DVD box, as I said. But Charulata is a film I absolutely have to see, I've read so much about it.


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