It has been quite some time since Tagore has been handled on the screen and, to that extent, the release of two films revolving around the poet — one on a story that raises basic questions on the liberation of women and the other dealing with a tragic phase in his own life — must have raised some interest. The films have two directors who have taken their work seriously and have distinguished themselves in handling subjects that are off the beaten track. Suman Ghosh&’s Kadambari revives the tragic story of Tagore&’s sister-in-law with whom the young poet shared a tender relationship that ended in her suicide at the age of 25. The basic facts are known — that she had married Jyotirindranath who had not given her much attention and that she became a source of creative inspiration for the young Rabindranath in his songs and poems till she took her life four months after he married.
Sekhar Das, on the other hand, tries to look for fresh insights into Jogajog, a story that found Tagore expressing his concern for women in a harsh, male-dominated milieu where the protagonist still manages to preserve her sense of individual freedom and dignity. It may look a bit curious that, after having dealt with such challenging ideas as the political climate in Krantikaal and the tragic reality of social discrimination and injustice in Nayanchampar Dinratri, he should return to a somewhat familiar story that does not throw up too many possibilities of creative interpretation.
Here he is dealing with characters that are predominantly one-dimensional. The woman has grown up under the care of her elder brother (and revered guardian) in a sheltered home and has no choice when she is thrown into the arms of a husband who is coarse and arrogant but manages to protect her sense of self-respect in a harsh setting. While audiences are familiar with all this and may even feel that this is more appropriate to the kind of films made half a century ago, what makes it difficult to swallow are the mannerisms inflicted on the character (Madhusudan) by Bratya Basu. The negative aspects are stretched to the point where it suffers from repetition and then makes the fluctuations of mood even more difficult to explain.
Bipradas has little to do except express the saintliness that doesn’t give the character played by Arjun Chakraborty much depth in the contemporary context. Kumudini draws more attention than the other two women in the family (played by Ananya Chatterjee and Locket Chatterjee) primarily because the audience finds a relatively new face that sustains a freshness — that of Shuvolagna. She is demure yet dignified and delightful to watch in her moments of smouldering silence. But it doesn’t add up to much because the three main characters eventually follow a familiar track that doesn’t leave any of them with lasting qualities of social or human significance.
Unlike his earlier films, Sekhar Das doesn’t try too many innovations and that may not be a bad thing after all. There could be some sections that prefer simple stories of courage being told with straightforward competence and emotional integrity.
The treatment of Kadambari can afford to be different because it is not related to a given text and is thus open to creative insights. The actors have to rely on historical records to bring the characters to life but are better placed to give them a fresh look. Audiences can make subjective assessments and start another round of speculation on Rabindranath and his young Muse because there is an element of mystery that makes such explorations interesting and relevant. By comparison, Jogajog doesn’t lend itself as easily to brave exercises in the contemporary context. The film may have acquired a smarter look but that is always the dilemma that filmmakers are confronted with in a Tagore story. There is little scope for taking liberties that cannot be justified. At the same time, cinema has moved on and there is little or no justification for faithful translations that may look dated.
Satyajit Ray had given a twist to Charulata that he was eventually obliged to justify in the face of sustained criticism. It was later that even critics discovered that his human observations reinforced by his cinematic devices had a core of contemporary significance. These have stood the test of time. The same impression survived with his treatment of Ratan in Postmaster — the young girl who in his reckoning became a symbol of resistance that didn’t exist in the original story. These are the masterstrokes that one hopes will help produce more inspired work in future.