Rabindranath Tagore was born 158 years ago from today. May 7 marks the birth anniversary of the celebrated litterateur whose works through poetry, novels, music, paintings and essays find resonance among readers and audiences even today.

Tagore’s philosophy and ideas have reverberated in the creative field. Apart from influencing the Bengali diaspora, he influenced people from all walks of life through his music, lectures, and poetry.

Rabindranath Tagore was born to a family which was at the forefront of Bengali Renaissance. They hosted the publication of literary magazines; theatre and recitals of Bengali and Western classical music featured in them regularly.

Tagore’s father Debendranath Tagore would invite established Dhrupad musicians to teach his children. Having grown up in an environment of such intellectual and creative stimuli, it is easy to understand where Tagore’s creative sensibilities developed from.

Tagore is credited for not just reshaping Bengali literature and music along with Indian art through Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and 20th century; his contributions and impact on cinema, then an emerging medium of artistic expression, are not to be missed.

Strangely, very few people discuss Tagore’s involvement and contribution to the growth and development of Indian cinema. In a letter he wrote to Murari Mohan, younger brother of the renowned pioneer of Bengali theatre, Sisir Bhaduri, he had said, “I believe that the expected emergence of cinema as an art form is yet to take place. 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.”

The conflict he addressed then is still a relevant notion and often debated and worked upon in the medium. When films first came to India, Tagore was in his mid 30s and by the time talkies arrived, Tagore was in the twilight years of his life.

In 1930, on his visit to the then Soviet Union, he watched Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin, regarded as one of the greatest films ever. He visited film studios and interacted with filmmakers and technicians. At that point in time, he also discussed making a film on the history of mankind with the Russian filmmakers.

His biographer Edward Thompson, some five years after his visit to the USSR, negotiated a film deal with Hollywood movie mogul Alexander Corda about the possibility of making films based on Tagore’s works. For some reason, the idea never materialised.

Tagore also penned a script for a film titled, Child, which never saw the light of the day. Inspired from a play on Christ that he saw during his visit to Munich, Germany in 1929, the script was both experimental and stylistic in nature. No filmmaker made a film from that script until Ritwik Ghatak used the first two lines for his film, Subarnarekha, in a totally different context.

While many talk about Tagore being a contemporary influence on popular cinema, many forget his contributions to and impact on silent films before talkies came into being.

Here are a few silent films that were inspired from his works setting a precedent for films that have now become cult-classics and most visibly attributive of Tagore’s influence on them.

Manbhanjan (1923)

Directed by Naresh Mitra, Manbhanjan was the first film to be made on one of Tagore’s short stories. Naresh Mitra was also the first filmmaker to adapt Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas into a silent film.

During the silent films era, Naresh Mitra and Sisir Kumar Bhaduri made many films adapted from Tagore’s work.

Grihabala (1929)

Directed by Modhu Bose, the story is about the hypocrisy of men’s moral standards, explored through a love triangle of a husband-wife and stage actress narrative. Bose made two silent films based on Tagore’s works. In fact, Tagore helped with the script of the film, which was an adaptation of Manbhanjan and Dalia.

Mukti (1935)

PC Barua’s directorial saw noted music composer and singer Pankaj Mullick set to tune one of Tagore’s poems, Shesh Kheyai for the film whose title had also been suggested by Tagore. In fact, a lesser known fact is PC Barua first met Tagore by accident in Europe. Tagore was so impressed by Barua’s fascination for cinema that he wrote him a letter of recommendation for a course in cinematography at the famous Cox Studio, Paris.

With Tagore’s assent, Pankaj also used Rabindrasangeet, “Aami kaan pete roi”, for the first time to give tune to film songs, which later became a trend that still flourishes.

Balidan (1927)

Directed by Naval Gandhi, this film was based on a play by Rabindranath Tagore. A social-reformist costume drama film, written by Tagore in 1887, was set in the fictional kingdom of Tippera and involved clashes between a progressive minded king and a tradition-bound priest.

Balidan is cited as one of the top ten lost films of Indian cinema by PK Nair(founder-director NFAI). The Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927–28 used Balidan as one of the films to “show how ‘serious’ Indian cinema could match Western standards”. (Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema- Ashish Rajadhyaksha; Paul Willemen; Professor of Critical Studies Paul Willemen)

Natir Puja (1932)

Natir Puja is the only film where Rabindranath Tagore is credited as director. It was an experimental film as it was not shot by typical film standards; instead it was shot like a stage drama. The film itself was a recording of Tagore’s 1926 stage dance-drama.