Tagore in film

That is a clip from The Postmaster (the first story in Teen Kanya, directed by Satyajit Ray).

Trisha Gupta on Tagore’s characters, seen better in films than in English translation:

In film after film, we see events through the eyes of the educated Bengali man trying to deal with a world that has either changed too much—or too little. The protagonist is often a young man from the city who arrives at a small provincial outpost, armed with a modern Western education and little else, his head full of glimpses of another world that seem only to succeed in cutting him off from everything around him.Think of Soumitra Chatterjee as the personable young revenue collector who goes to work for the Nizam’s government in Khudito Pashan, ostensibly too rational to listen to the locals who urge him not to stay in the haunted palace. Or of the amiable (if faintly ridiculous) Anil Chatterjee in The Postmaster, who talks of writing poetry and refuses an invitation to the local gaaner ashor (musical evening) because he’s “just started on a work by Scott”. Or Soumitra again, as the would-be lawyer in Samapti, returning to his mother’s village home with the barely-disguised impatience of the urbane, reading a copy of Tennyson’s poems on the boat.

These are characters under the mythic spell of what they understand as Western civilisation. It was a feeling that Tagore knew all too well. “Before I came to England,” he wrote in 1878, “I supposed it was a small island and its inhabitants were so devoted to higher culture that from one end to the other it would resound with the strains of Tennyson’s lyre.”

But while he sees the incongruity of these characters, and is able to laugh at the absurdity of their attempts to distinguish themselves from the supposedly uneducated masses—the postmaster attempts to sit and read his Walter Scott on a chair, but it collapses under him and he is forced to crouch on the mud floor, under the gaze of the village madman; the would-be lawyer with his highly polished shoes refuses to heed the boat boy’s warning and falls headlong into the mud—Tagore never fails to take seriously the fact that these are men who are striving to be modern, to break from the past.

And the objects of their desire for change, most often, are women.

[Read the full essay.]

And here is Satyajit Ray’s superb documentary on Tagore:

6 thoughts on “Tagore in film”

  1. Good article. I disagree however on the Ray documentary on Tagore. I think it is a rather ordinary piece of work. It is possible that Films Division’s brief to Ray was to do something uncontroversial and introductory. For someone who has no idea of Tagore it could be a good starting point. However the documentary falls in the category of “Tagore worship” rather than a critical reading of Tagore. Ray played safe and avoided the chance of an attack from the Tagore establishment.

    1. What’s the evidence that “Ray played safe”? And what “critical reading of Tagore” does the author have in mind that should be reflected in a documentary? I would like to learn because I thought Ray’s treatment of Tagore is exemplary for the documentary form, notwithstanding tall claims from Mani Kaul, Kumar Sahani etc.

  2. The opening lines about young, western-educated etc. do not apply to Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Jalsaghar, Ashani Sanket, etc. (unless Ray’s camera itself is viewed as western-educated etc.). Khudito Pashan was not directed by Satyajit Ray, but Tapan Sinha. Perhaps the author is confusing Khudito with Monihar, one of the story-trio in Teen Kanya.

  3. A critical reading of Tagore could have done many things. Just some examples – ask the question as to whether Tagore himself fell into the trap of “Gurudev” image, whether the bhadralok society created a Tagore that suited them and selectively forgot him, whether Tagore himself thought of his Santiniketan-Sriniketan experiment to be a success or a failure, explore Tagore’s relationship with women, so on and so forth. What Ray did was simple narrative of Tagore’s life rather than trying to pay respect to him by giving us his own interpretation of Tagore.

    1. So, there is supposed to be a distinction between “simple narrative of Tagore’s life” and “(Ray’s) own interpretation of Tagore”. This means that Ray had an “interpretation” that differs from what was presented in the “simple narrative”. Any evidence for this? Are you familiar with Ray’s lengthy responses to Ashok Rudra’s “Marxist-European” understanding of cinema in the Parichay magazine? As for women, that Amartya Sen makes much of, how much is true and was known in 1960 to be included in an authoritative documentary? Similar remarks apply to other “critical readings”. This is not to deny that one may disagree with Ray and come up with a different portrayal of Tagore, whatever be the worth.

  4. This is not a discussion on Ray in general and therefore Ray’s reply to Ashok Rudra is not relevant here, unless it has something to do with the particular documentary. The documentary is nothing more than a birth to death narration of Tagore’s life and not an interpretation of Tagore.I have not seen any audio-visual analysis of Tagore but there are some very good interpretations in written form like Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay in Provincializing Europe or the recent essay by Sumanta Banerjee on Bhadralok society and Tagore. However I do not think that this debate is going anywhere and therefore this is my last post on the issue.

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