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Tagore with a twist

May 7 flagged off a yearlong celebration around Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Every creative person is writing on Gurudev, so how could I not too. So many muses, I picked out two.

bollywood Updated: May 08, 2011 15:53 IST
Roshmila Bhattacharya
Roshmila Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Rabindranath Tagore

May 7 flagged off a yearlong celebration around Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Every creative person is writing on Gurudev, so how could I not too. So many muses, I picked out two.

One, Charulata, that I believe, is Satyajit Ray’s best film. His son Sandipda once told me that even his ‘baba’ thought so and would have remade the film in exactly the same way, including the ending. Not many would have dared to give their own interpretation to a Nobel Laureate’s published work but Manik babu (Ray) did the “unforgivable”.

Charulata is based on Tagore’s Noshto Neer that revolves around Bibhuti Dutta, the editor-publisher of an English daily, his bored, beautiful wife Charu and Amal, his young cousin. Charu who’s trying to while away time watching an obese figure waddling down the street, is drawn to the romantically idealistic Amal whose literary aspirations fire her own. And soon, the playful ‘devar-bhabhi’ flirtation turns serious for her. But Amal is scared away by her confessions of love. She tries to put her life back but is betrayed by a pair of slippers. Bibhuti, heartbroken by the double betrayal (his brother-in-law Umapada had absconded with the money in the safe), prepares to leave home.

In the book, Charu asks to be taken along. Bibhuti hesitates, perceptibly, and her quiet “thak” (let it be) is poignant with the realisation that the relationship cannot be mended, reinforcing the title The Broken Nest.

In the film, Bhupati returns home. Charu opens the door. It is dark, a servant brings in a light. She reaches for her husband’s hand and he reaches for hers. The camera freezes on their hands in mid-grasp, their half-lit faces, with Tagore’s title ironically superimposed on the shot. The open end can be construted as love lost or a tentative reconciliation between two people bound by a sense of belonging rather than passion.

In 1964, when the film was released, the question-mark end had the traditionalists up in arms but was accepted by the common man, collections rising with every show.

Charulata’s influence on Chokher Bali (Grain Of Sand or Dust In The Eye) is unmistakable, right down to the binoculars Binodini uses to peep into a life she wishes for but can’t have. Ray’s experiment emboldened Rituparno Ghosh to ‘stray’ too.

When Tagore had written Chokher Bali, widowhood curtailed the lives of many young women like Binodini. And it seemed right that she retire to Kashi to repent the trouble she’d brought into the lives of Mahendra, his wife Asha and friend Behari. But despite this conventional end, moralists tore him apart when in 1901, Chokher Bali was serialised in Banga-darshan, accusing him of promoting “immorality” in the guise of modernism. While one of his students reprimanded him for the sell-out ending that had Binodini kneeling at the feet of Mahendra and Behari and begging their forgiveness. Gurudev replied with an apology.

In 2003, Rituda took everyone by surprise by sending Binodini away after the liberating realisation that she doesn’t need a man to “complete” herself. Turning away from Behari, leaving behind her binoculars and a baffling letter, she embarks on a journey that is mistaken for nationalistic rebellion but is actually one of self-discovery. His creative liberty didn’t go down well with everyone. I remember a whispered comment after the premiere: “What was that sexy widow planning next?” Not a 7 Khoon Maaf for sure!