Every community in India gets stereotyped by each other. When it comes to Bengalis, we have been stereotyped by our love for fish and rice, afternoon siestas, our political intellect, football, and Tagore. While I or many like me might contradict some of these stereotypical ideas, I feel very few Bengalis will contradict when it comes to our irrevocable love for Tagore and his work.
A child, born into a Bengali household, develops a love for Tagore at home (for me, it was my school too, we sang his songs in assembly every day!). Every other kid gets used to learning his poetry and singing his songs. And Tagore and a child’s growing up thus becomes intertwined and blossoms into an inseparable bond. Tagore becomes a teacher, a friend, a guardian who helps every Bengali learn values, and come face to face with the true realities of life.
His ideas of humanity and human emotions expressed through his poetry, novels, short stories, and musicals are what still make him relevant. Through decades, film directors have adapted his work and catered them to a larger crowd through the silver screen.
On his 160th birthday, I, just another Bengali, decided to pay a tribute to him through this article, which talks about a few handpicked movies that will stir interest in a non-reader to pick up a Tagore’s book next time. The following movies have some of the strongest female protagonists, shining in all their complexities and innocence, questioning the norms of the narrow-minded society.
1. Teen Kanya (Three Maidens) Director – Satyajit Ray
This 1961 anthology by the Maestro explores Tagore’s three beautiful, thought-provoking short stories – Postmaster, Monihara (The Lost Jewels), and Samapti (The Conclusion).
Postmaster is simple yet heart-wrenching enough as it digs deep and explores the emotional dependencies that a pre-adolescent orphan girl develops for a kind-hearted postmaster. Ratan, the orphan girl, lived a solitary life and had never known what it is to have a family until she gets Nandalal’s (the postmaster) company. How certain acts of kindness and respect form humane bondage is remarkably expressed in this piece by Tagore.
If one thinks Tagore is only about romanticism, then his Monihara is surely going to prove you wrong. A complex and unsettling horror, Monihara revolves around a conversation that involves a school teacher narrating the unfortunate story of a rich Zamindar and his wife, Monimalika, to a stranger. The story horrifies one on a psychological level as it speaks of the sad yet lustful soul of Monimalika. It shows us the horrors of greed that sit deep in all of us and how giving in to it can take one on a path to self-destruction.
Samapti (The Conclusion) tells another unostentatious love story of a carefree girl, Mrinmoyi. The story explores Mrinmoyi’s character development from a free-spirited tomboyish girl to becoming a woman in love. The realisation of her love for Amulya, her newly-wed husband is what makes the story beautiful. Tagore thus masterfully crafts another emotional journey in one of the most simplistic approaches.
Director – Satyajit Ray
Based on Tagore’s unmatched novel ‘Nastanirh’ (The Broken Nest), Charulata still stands as one of the finest cinemas on women and society. Madhabi Mukhopadhyay portrays Charu to perfection, be it the restless roaming while she is confined within her mansion with a volume of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Kapalkundala or focussing her lorgnette through the closed shutters of the window while she sees the outside world.
This particular Tagore novella as always spoke volumes of women’s potential being dominated by society and consigned to the inside world of the household as they seek endless possibilities in the outer world. The novella also explores the emotions of a woman developing companionship, which, in the eyes of society was viewed as forbidden, and Tagore was misunderstood.
3. Chokher Bali (A Grain of Sand in the Eye) Director – Rituparno Ghosh
Ghosh has never disappointed when it comes to adapting Tagore in all his glory. Chokher Bali stands as a Bengali term for a person who is an irritant, just like a grain of sand in the eye. The story revolves around one of Tagore’s strongest female protagonists Binodini.
Binodini is bold, intelligent, passionate, and someone who does not shy away from expressing her sexual emancipation. Though a widow, looking for love from her once unrequited suitor Mahendra, finally finds her soul mate in Behari. Tagore’s fearless words are what gave us such a celebratory character who can be cherished even today.
4. Shesher Kobita (The Last Poem)
Director – Suman Mukhopadhyay
Based on my personal favourite work of Tagore, Shesher Kobita drew negative criticism towards Tagore as society perceived it as a novel promoting adultery. It revolves around Amit Ray, an Oxford-educated barrister, calls himself a hobby poet and socialite, a married man, falling helplessly in love with Labanya following an accident of their cars and fate in Shillong.
While Tagore wrote modern women characters like Binodini and Charu, Labanya personally feels more empowering. She is a woman who knows to stand her own ground and even though she loves unconditionally, she does not forget her identity. She finds her separation from Amit profoundly fulfilling as her belief of soul mates revolves around having a special bond rather than being stigmatized by marriage. Tagore transcends love beyond the facade of marriage in this novel and Suman Mukhopadhyay did a decent job of portraying it on the silver screen.
Director – Rituparno Ghosh
One of the most lyrical Nritya-Nāṭya or dance-drama or musical, Chitrangada still stands as an important work on gender identity. This piece, again, has a special palace in my heart as it always walks me down the memory lane to Rabindra Jayanti (Tagore’s birth date celebration) in my mother’s house where I played the warrior princess year after year. Raised by the king as a boy, Chitrangada has to fight her inner conflicts of identifying herself as a woman.
Ghosh took this to a praise-worthy personal journey where he drew relevance between Tagore’s warrior princess and her search for femininity with his own search of embracing his feminine side. The part of Bodhon in the musical was transformed into a sex change surgical procedure in Ghosh’s work which is sure to stimulate a spectator’s perspective.
So whenever one talks about Tagore, one cannot avoid talking about his women. His women belonged to a society of the late 1800s to early 1900s, but feel no less relevant than a 21st-century woman. A progressive thinker that he was, his words brought up bold subjects that our society still sees as taboo. His writing advocated women’s rights, liberation, equality, freedom, justice, power, and dignity.
Subho Rabindra Jayanti!