indian cinema heritage foundation

Tagore and Indian Cinema: Legacy and History

07 May, 2020 | Long Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Uphaar (1971). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

Unlike the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who was dismissive of cinema, Rabindranath Tagore followed the medium closely and even engaged with its development in its early stages. On his anniversary, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri provides a snapshot of how the poet and writer has been a muse for film-makers for over ninety-years. 

‘As in politics, so in art the aim is independence … that cinema has so long been subservient to literature is due to the fact that no artiste has been able to redeem it from this slavery by dint of his genius. The principal element of the motion picture is the flux of image. The beauty and grandeur of this form in motion has to be developed in such a way that it becomes self-sufficient without the use of words. If some other language is needed to explain its own, it amounts to incompetence.’ –
Rabindranath Tagore

It is testimony to Rabindranath Tagore’s understanding of the medium of cinema that even close to a century after he made the observation, it remains the touchstone for anyone aspiring to make a film. Unlike the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who dismissed cinema as a corrupting influence, Tagore followed the medium closely and even engaged with its development in its early stages. On the eve of India’s first talkie in 1931, Tagore visited the Soviet Union in 1930, where he watched Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and in interactions with film-makers discussed making a film on the history of mankind. According to Edward Thomson, his biographer, there were negotiations with Hollywood honcho Alexander Korda on a project to make films based on Tagore’s works which unfortunately never materialized. He also wrote a script called Child, based on a play on Christ that he had watched on a visit to Germany. The film was never made, though Ritwik Ghatak would use the first two lines from it for his film, Subarnarekha, albeit in an entirely different context. 

On the eve of India’s first talkie in 1931, Tagore visited the Soviet Union in 1930, where he watched Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and in interactions with film-makers discussed making a film on the history of mankind. According to Edward Thomson, his biographer, there were negotiations with Hollywood honcho Alexander Korda on a project to make films based on Tagore’s works which unfortunately never materialized.
Tagore also played an important role in the first family of Indian cinema, the Kapoors, venturing into films. In his early days in theatre in Calcutta, Prithviraj Kapoor had played Ram to Durga Khote’s Seeta, in the stage production of Seeta. Tagore had seen it and was impressed by his performance. So, when his friend, B.N. Sircar, producer and founder of New Theatres, decided to turn Seeta into a motion picture, Tagore suggested that he cast Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote in it. Seeta, the film, was a blockbuster. Thus began the Kapoor khandaan’s tryst with the Hindi film industry.
When his friend, B.N. Sircar, producer and founder of New Theatres, decided to turn Seeta into a motion picture, Tagore suggested that he cast Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote in it.
Tagore’s stories, novels and poems have inspired film-makers right from the early days of cinema in India. His songs find their way into Bengali films with unfailing regularity even today. 

The Early Films
The first film based on a Tagore story was made in 1923. Manbhanjan was directed by Naresh Mitra, who was also the first to adapt Saratchandra Chatterjee’s Devdas.
The first film based on a Tagore story was made in 1923. Manbhanjan was directed by Naresh Mitra, who was also the first to adapt Saratchandra Chatterjee’s Devdas. In 1929 came Grihabala, directed by Modhu Bose, who made two more silent films based on Tagore’s stories. Tagore himself worked on the film’s script adapted from his stories Manbhanjan and Dalia. Naval Gandhi’s Balidan (1929) was based on a play that Tagore had written. According to the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927–28 cited Balidan as one of the films to ‘show how serious Indian cinema could match Western standards’. Natir Puja (1932), a recording of Tagore’s 1926 stage dance-drama, remains the only film to credit Tagore as director. In 1935, P.C. Barua’s Mukti – the title suggested by Tagore who had met Barua in Europe and been impressed with his passion for cinema – became the first film to use Rabindrasangeet in its narrative. Pankaj Mullick, who also set Tagore’s poem ‘Shesh Kheyai’ to tune in the film, got Tagore’s approval to use ‘Aami kaan pete roi’ and thus began a trend that continues even today. 

Nitin Bose’s Milan (1946)

Nitin Bose’s maiden directorial venture for Bombay Talkies after he shifted from New Theatres was Sajanikanta Das’s adaptation of Tagore’s 1907 novel Naukadubi. The film starred Dilip Kumar and marked his first film with Bombay Talkies. Dilip Kumar has acknowledged Nitin Bose as having groomed him and shaping his acting style with Milan. Radhu Karmakar’s cinematography came in for critical acclaim while Anil Biswas’s music, comprising four evergreen numbers rendered by his sister Parul Ghosh and a couple of others by Geeta Dutt, has stood the test of time. 

Nitin Bose remade the film in Bengali in 1947 with Abhi Bhattacharya essaying the role played by Dilip Kumar. However, the more talked-about ‘remake’ happened in 2011. More about that later. 

Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala (1957) and Kshudhita Pashan (1960)

Kabuliwala is probably Tagore’s most celebrated short story and Tapan Sinha’s film does full justice to it in a straightforward adaptation – ‘I faithfully followed Rabindranath, keeping his spirit intact, and that perhaps is the simple reason behind its success,’ the director said in an interview. Chhabi Biswas is unparalleled in the titular role, reprised by Balraj Sahni in Bimal Roy’s 1961 Hindi production directed by Hemen Gupta. Tapan Sinha’s version won the President’s Gold Medal for the best film of the year and the best music award – scored by Ravi Shankar – at the Berlin Film Festival. The Hindi version was immortalized by Manna Dey’s rendition of ‘Aye meray pyare watan’.

 
Chhabi Biswas in Kabuliwala (1957). Image Courtesy: Cinestaan
 
Kabuliwala is probably Tagore’s most celebrated short story and Tapan Sinha’s film does full justice to it in a straightforward adaptation – ‘I faithfully followed Rabindranath, keeping his spirit intact, and that perhaps is the simple reason behind its success,’ the director said in an interview.
According to Tapan Sinha, ‘Rabindranath wasn’t a name that garnered enthusiastic approval from people related to the film industry. It was believed that his stories simply could not earn money…and as such, he was relegated to the intellectual bastion … [yet] here was a producer who was offering me a chance to work on a story by Rabindranath. Before he could misinterpret my silence and change his mind, I gave him my consent. Ashit babu went on to add that the process of filming would be very difficult as his funds were rather limited. He promised to pay me three hundred rupees every month during the shooting of the film. … I would have worked in the film even if I didn’t get paid for it. I regarded [Rabindranath] to be central to my existence, whose faithful disciple I’ll ever remain, and who stands as glorious as the north star of my life…’
In an interview in 1991, Tapan Sinha had expressed a desire to remake Kabuliwala. ‘The main theme of this story, love, is an issue that has tremendous scope of being projected to the world. I’d like to begin the story from Afghanistan. I may even try and incorporate the current Gulf crisis.’
In an interview in 1991, Tapan Sinha had expressed a desire to remake Kabuliwala. ‘The main theme of this story, love, is an issue that has tremendous scope of being projected to the world. I’d like to begin the story from Afghanistan. I may even try and incorporate the current Gulf crisis.’ Interestingly enough, Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala (2018), which starred Danny Denzongpa in the lead, reworked Tagore’s classic against the backdrop of the fundamentalist Taliban, bringing in the bioscope in place of the dry fruits that Tagore’s Rehmat Khan traded in.
 
Balraj Sahni in Hemen Gupta's Kabuliwala (1961). Image Courtesy: Filmfare, October 6, 1961

Tapan Sinha returned to Tagore with Kshudhita Pashan in 1960, a gothic romance that in the words of BethLovesBollywood brims over with an ‘abandoned Mughal palace, horses, ghosts, guns, whooshing wind, flickering lanterns’. Boasting a brilliant background score, courtesy Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Arundhati Devi, the film had sketches of Fatehpur Sikri by Satyajit Ray. Not as big a success as Kabuliwala, this ode to the supernatural was more visually stimulating with some striking cinematography by Bimal Mukherjee which adds to the film’s sense of impending doom.
Tapan Sinha returned to Tagore with Kshudhita Pashan in 1960, a gothic romance that in the words of BethLovesBollywood brims over with an ‘abandoned Mughal palace, horses, ghosts, guns, whooshing wind, flickering lanterns’.
Almost thirty years later, Gulzar made Lekin..., loosely inspired by ‘Kshudhita Pashan’. Though the film failed at the box office, its music played a crucial role in bringing melody back to Hindi films after it had plumbed new depths in the second half of the 1980s. Apart from its national award–winning score, the film garnered critical acclaim for Vinod Khanna’s sensitive performance and for Dimple Kapadia, arguably the most beautiful ‘ghost’ in Hindi cinema ever.  

The Satyajit Ray Films

Tagore had a profound influence on Satyajit Ray who had studied at Santiniketan. When Ray was a mere boy of six, Tagore even composed a poem for him:

বহু দিন ধোরে, বহু ক্রোশ দুরে
বহু ব্য্য় কোরি, বহু দেশ ঘুরে
দেখিতে গিযাছি পর্বত্ মালা, দেখিতে গিযাছি সিন্ধু
দেখা হয় নাই দু চোখ মেলিযা
ঘর হোতে শুধু দুই পা ফেলিযা
এক্তি ধানের শিশের উপর এক্তি শিশির বিন্দু

(For years I have travelled miles, journeyed to lands far away
I have been to the mountains, I have been to the oceans.
But I failed to see,
Two steps from my home,
A drop of dew, glistening on a sheaf of grain.)
In Tagore’s centenary year (1961), Ray directed not only the feature Teen Kanya (comprising three stories by Tagore: Postmaster, Monihara and Samapti), but also a 54-minute documentary titled Rabindranath Tagore.
In Tagore’s centenary year (1961), Ray directed not only the feature Teen Kanya (comprising three stories by Tagore: Postmaster, Monihara and Samapti), but also a 54-minute documentary titled Rabindranath Tagore. Innovatively structured, the film’s first part comprises dramatized vignettes from Tagore’s childhood and adolescence, while the second, drawn from archival footage, is a more conventional documenting of his public life. In his biography titled Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson quotes Ray as saying that ‘ten or twelve minutes of [the film] are among the most moving and powerful things that I have produced’.
 
Charulata (1964). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Ray himself has been on record that if there is one film he would make exactly as he did, the film in which he made the least number of mistakes, it is Charulata (1964). From its celebrated opening sequence – arguably one of the greatest in cinema – to the famed swing scene to its controversial freeze-frame ending, Charulata is a triumph at every level.
Ray himself has been on record that if there is one film he would make exactly as he did, the film in which he made the least number of mistakes, it is Charulata (1964). From its celebrated opening sequence – arguably one of the greatest in cinema – to the famed swing scene to its controversial freeze-frame ending, Charulata is a triumph at every level. If Madhabi Mukherjee had never acted in another film, Charulata would always remain her ticket to cinematic greatness. Soumitra Chatterjee, who portrayed her brother-in-law Amal, calls Tagore’s Nastaneer one of Tagore’s finest stories. Recalling the perfectionist in Ray, he says that for the sequences where Amal plays the piano, the director rented one and sent it home for the actor to practise, teaching him how to play the instrument with both hands. Then, in keeping with the period the film is set in, Ray also got Soumitra Chatterjee to change his handwriting. The star’s handwriting was rounded, a style that had been ushered in by Tagore. The director reasoned that since the story was written by Tagore, the writing had to reflect an earlier period. The extraordinary calligrapher he was, Ray collected a number of texts of the pre-Tagore era and got the actor to develop a whole new handwriting for the sake of authenticity. The actor also had an important part to play in the way the film’s memorable final shot was conceived after he expressed his dissatisfaction with the way Ray had first visualized the sequence.
 
Ghare Baire (1984). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Ray returned to Tagore twenty years later with Ghare Baire, a 1916 novel that Ray had always dreamed of adapting. In fact, this was the screenplay he had ready even before Pather Panchali
Ray returned to Tagore twenty years later with Ghare Baire, a 1916 novel that Ray had always dreamed of adapting. In fact, this was the screenplay he had ready even before Pather Panchali, and had even discussed casting Soumitra Chatterjee as Nikhilesh during the making of Apur Sansar. By the time he actually got to making it, Victor Banerjee came to be cast as Nikhilesh with Chatterjee giving life yet another memorable Ray character in Sandip. This was probably the first full-fledged antagonist that Ray had created and gave the actor an opportunity to play a scheming hypocrite who uses his oratory and his charm to seduce his friend’s trusting wife. 

The Rituparno Ghosh Films

If there is one film-maker after Ray who reinvented Tagore to present it to a new generation, it is Rituparno Ghosh. Based on Tagore’s novel Binodini, Chokher Bali (2004) chronicles the journey of a widow who refuses to play the game by the rules that society lays down. In the hands of Ghosh, who changed Tagore’s ending to the novel to give the heroine a rare agency, it becomes a heady, full-bodied tale that explored the female gaze. It is interesting to note that Tagore himself had regretted the end he had devised for his novel. ‘Ever since it was published I have always regretted the ending,’ admitted before his death. ‘I need to be seriously criticized for it, I deserve this criticism.’
 
Chokher Bali (2004). Image Courtesy: Reelgood
In the hands of Ghosh, who changed Tagore’s ending to the novel to give the heroine a rare agency, it becomes a heady, full-bodied tale that explored the female gaze.
Though not as successful as Chokher Bali, Naukadubi (2011) is my favourite of the two Ghosh adaptations of Tagore. Ghosh takes the basics of Tagore’s story and weaves in his own understanding and admiration of Tagore to create a work as much Tagore’s as his. It goes without saying that the concept sounds ludicrous today: a groom and a bride from two weddings coming together thanks to a boat wreck. However, Ghosh understands Tagore’s larger vision in looking at relationships of choice vis-à-vis chance to create a visually stunning mix of a period and a chamber drama. In the words of film-maker Pratim D. Gupta, then a film critic for The Telegraph, ‘Ghosh turns the adaptation into a full-blown celebration of Tagore. Besides the yarn itself, the characters express their pain and pleasure by breaking into Rabindrasangeet (Khelaghar bandhte legechhi and Tori aamar being the two main themes). What’s more, they have his photo on the bedside table, and Hemnalini even wishes to marry the poet at one point.’ 

The Others

Another landmark adaptation of a Tagore novel came about in Kumar Shahani’s Char Adhyay. Shahani uses his trademark aesthetic to explore the journey of the novel’s heroine, Ela, who starts to question the blind patriotism of the group of revolutionaries she is part of. Shahani’s version is not only a masterclass on Tagore’s criticism of rabid nationalism and the perils of idealism (also seen in Ghare Baire) but also provides invaluable insights into Tagore’s progressive views on women’s role in politics. Brilliantly shot by K.K. Mahajan, Char Adhyay is one of the high points of the parallel cinema movement in India. 
 
Char Adhyay (1997). Image Courtesy: IMDB
Shahani’s version is not only a masterclass on Tagore’s criticism of rabid nationalism and the perils of idealism (also seen in Ghare Baire) but also provides invaluable insights into Tagore’s progressive views on women’s role in politics.
Other minor Hindi film adaptations include Zul Vellani’s 1965 film, Dak Ghar, based on Tagore’s play of the same name. Tarachand Barjatya’s Rajshri Productions made two films from the stories of Tagore. Uphaar (1971), adapted from Tagore’s story Samapti (which Ray had filmed as part of Teen Kanya), was directed by Sudhendu Roy and starred Jaya Bhaduri in the role immortalized by Aparna Sen in Ray’s film. The 1975 musical hit, Geet Gaata Chal (directed by Hiren Nag), starring Sachin and Sarika, based on Atithi, is still remembered for its bouquet of songs composed by Ravindra Jain and sung by Jaspal Singh. 
 
Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


Bimal Roy’s neo-realist classic Do Bigha Zamin (1953) is another film that owes its origins to Tagore. Though the story is credited to Salil Chowdhury, its title harks back to Tagore’s poem Dui Bigha Jomi. The film not only heralded a new era in Hindi cinema with its unrelenting portrayal of greed and exploitation, it also featured Balraj Sahni, who had taught at Santiniketan, in his career-defining role, one of the greatest performances in Hindi cinema.

Coda
Suman Ghosh’s Kadambari (2015) is that rare biopic that is intellectually stimulating while being emotionally satisfying without being flattering to its subject.
I would like to end this by mentioning a recent film that is not based on a Tagore story but which looks at his relationship with his sister-in-law. The reason I do so is that the film provides a unique glimpse into the world of the poet. Suman Ghosh’s Kadambari (2015) is that rare biopic that is intellectually stimulating while being emotionally satisfying without being flattering to its subject. Ghosh looks at the Bengal Renaissance from the point of view of Kadambari, who becomes a part of the Renaissance’s first family, who develops her personality to the extent of becoming the sounding board and critic of Tagore’s poems, only to end up trapped in a world of her own. In what is probably the most eloquent last-quarter of an hour in Bengali cinema in recent times, Ghosh manages to do what Tagore called for in the quotation with which I began the essay. With no dialogues and just one character (brilliantly essayed by Konkana Sen) confined to one room, he conveys the shattering loneliness of the woman who became muse to the greatest of India’s poets. As Ghosh once said, ‘She is alone … and silence is the most powerful tool in what is essentially a visual medium.’




 

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About the Author

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books). 

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