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Tagore’s innovative mind and creative dynamism welcomed the emergence of the cinema as an art form and he clearly perceived the keen link between cinema and commerce. He did not take long to realize that making a film was not like writing a novel.

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Rabindranath Tagore in 1925. (Photo: wikimediacommons)

In the Bengali film industry Tagore’s literary texts still attract creative film-makers and the adaptations are an interesting study, as the film version of a literary text is a text in tandem, it is as much a text by the original author as it is a text by the film-maker. The dual authorship that is integral to the making of a well-known literary text into a film is a riveting study. After all, it is the film versions of Tagore’s fictional narratives that prove Tagore’s relevance in postcolonial India and lately in globalized 21st century India.

Dominant film-makers of Bengal even today find it worthwhile to adapt Tagore’s colonial texts for the cinema as the poet’s relevance and contemporaneity lies in his universalist vision and inclusive spirit. Tagore’s innovative mind and creative dynamism welcomed the emergence of the cinema as an art form and he clearly perceived the keen link between cinema and commerce. He did not take long to realize that making a film was not like writing a novel, as the film required a team of skilled workers as well as financial support, while the novel could be constructed or created as a solitary endeavour.

It is interesting to find Tagore’s interest and enthusiasm about the film genre and it is indeed remarkable that ten films based on Tagore’s texts were released during his lifetime. Moreover, the filmic version of Tagore’s Natir Puja can also be regarded as his debut film as film director. Also, Tagore himself acted briefly in the film Tapati. This film was not completed. Interestingly then, on 26 November 1929, when silent film making was the only known mode of cinematic representation in colonial Calcutta,


Tagore wrote a letter to Murari Bhaduri, brother of the thespian Sisir Kumar Bhaduri that bears evidence of the poet’s perceptive realization of the far-ranging potential of the art and craft of filmmaking as a distinct and powerful genre. The poet seemed to have remarkably anticipated its potential as a tool of mass communication that could combine entertainment and awareness. So Tagore wrote in his letter to Murari Bhaduri, The distinctiveness of the components determines the distinction of the art form. I believe the cinema as a new mode of filmic art is yet to reveal itself, As the state claims sovereignty so does any art form.

Or else due to lack of self-dignity its expression becomes vague. The cinema is still in the mode that flatters printed literature, the reason being no film-maker has had the genius to rescue it from the slavery to literature. This rescue act is tough as the components of literature, painting and music are not impossibly expensive. Whereas making a film requires significant economic capital not just creative genius.

The primary feature of the cinema is the motion of images. This motion of images should be expressed in such a way that the beauty and glory of a sequence can be understood without resorting to the use of words and sentences. If an extraneous language tries to interpret the visual images and dictates the language of the cinema, then it can have a crippling effect on the cinematic language. If music can be created from tonal rhythms that are not dependent on words, then why will not the motion of images create an independent space free from words?

When it doesnt happen, it is because there may be lack of such a creative film maker ~ and the indolent ignorance of the public viewers ~ as they do not deserve Ananda (transcendent happiness) they are submerged in hopes of narcotic thrills. Yours, Rabindranath Tagore, November 26, 1929. Interestingly, Tagore’s friend Edward Thompson was deeply interested in the production of film versions of Tagore’s literary texts and in a letter to the poet, Thompson criticized the lack of authentic Indianness in Indian films which seemed to be cluttered with exotic essentialisms that almost caricatured ethnicity.

In his letter dated April 16, 1935, Thompson had written to Tagore, I agree with you. The shabbiest wrong that Britain has done to India is that your peoples connection with us, instead of being an open door to the outer world has generally been a shut door. As a result the outside worlds opinion about India is a chaos ~ baroque art and gigantic monstrous images, rajas, elephants, tigers, Brahmins, untouchables. And when India is filmed it is Clive of India or Lives of a Bengal Lancer what lovely films could me made of your Chitrangada, Kacha and Devayani, your Hungry Stones, your Karna and Kunti.

I do not see how people can fail to see the deep beauty of the conceptions behind such stories But your Sarabhais and Birlas ought to build up a real Indian film expression, though would they not fall under the sectional bigots, who would produce pictures like the outside worlds distortion of India at present? If they could produce the best and loveliest of India, I believe we could force a hearing over here Please do not give up hope In his letter to Edward Thompson, dated January 6, 1934, Tagore stated that he seriously hoped that the Hungarian filmmaker Korda would be interested in creating film versions based on his fictional narratives. ~ I like the idea of such an experienced film magnate like Korda doing some of my own books for the screen.

I shall await developments with interest. Tagore was eye-witness to the making of 10 of his literary texts into films. Of these Manbhanjan (1923), Bicharak (1929), Giribala (1929), Dalia (1930), Naukadubi (1932) were silent era films. Among the talkies made during Tagore’s lifetime were Dena Pauna (1931), Natir Puja (1932), Chirakumar Shabha (1932), Gora (1938) and Chokher Bali (1938). Most of the film reels of this early era are either untraceable or damaged, though Gora is available, according to film archival experts.

In fact, according to the film documentarian Arun Kumar Roy it seems of the 2000 Indian films that were made in the silent era, only 13 have survived. The silent films on Tagore’s texts are not included among them. Nevertheless, it is indeed strange that serious disillusionment about the world of films, film culture and the genre itself would replace the positive reception and enthusiasm that Tagore had initially expressed. In an unequivocal caveat to one of his closest disciples, Santidev Ghosh, Tagore wrote a few months before his death, on January 21, 1941.

I will just advice you about two things. You have been nurtured in this ashram, if you ever tarnish yourself with any greed for the cinema and such others, then it will be tantamount to insulting and blemishing the image of the ashram and me Tagore seemed to have been aware that apart from feature films, film documentaries could effectively publicize his dream projects ~ Visva Bharati University and Sriniketan, the vocational training centre. So as early as 1923, we have a reference in film-maker Gretchen Green’s autobiography, The Whole World and Company that Tagore enthusiastically participated in the making of a documentary on Sriniketan, a unique experiment in establishing a vocational school that encouraged homegrown skills from farming to handicrafts.

The documentary titled Sriniketan was screened along with the feature film Manbhanjan on April 11, 1923 in Calcutta. Unfortunately, both films are lost to posterity. Yet, throughout his life Tagore expressed both his eagerness as well as his reservations about the film industry. Hollywood feature films seemed to him too invasive of personal privacy and the exaggeration and aggressive imaging of what seemed consumer friendly and therefore profitable disturbed Tagore.

The critic Sisir Das has referred to a report titled “Films in India/Dr Tagore’s Views/A Libel on Western Civilization” published in The Observer, London, on August 8 1925 which stated, The over-sensationalism of the modern film was strongly deprecated by Rabindranath Tagore in an interview which he gave to Mr J Aubrey Rees, of the British Empire Institute. However the report also referred to Tagore’s interest in art of the cinema, striking evidence of his ambivalence ~ “Rabindranath Tagore welcomed the formation of the British Empire Institute and was so impressed with the value of its work that he consented to join its Grand Council. Every movement, he said, aimed at encouraging the emergence of higher standards of art in this industry deserved every support.”

In fact, Tagore had been perceptive about the fact that cinematic representation relied on compactness and speed, though he was skeptical about the qualitative achievements of the cinema when compared to printed literature. In his diary entry on February 7, 1925, Tagore had observed in Paschim Jatrir Diary (Diary of the Western Traveller), This time I got a chance to view film acting. I noticed that its primary aspect was speed. The rush of incidents was causing thrills repeatedly. Cinema has now become a matter of addiction for the general public.

Both young and old are thrilled by the cinema every day. This means in every department more than art skillful technique is coming to the fore… Tagore elaborated his discourse by comparing cinematic images with European cultural decadence. It can be expected that Tagore’s fictional narratives and hopefully his narrative poems, plays and dance dramas, will inspire, provoke and challenge contemporary film-makers to translate into celluloid the timeless texts of Tagore. In a world of unprecedented digitization and a narcotic addiction to the visual, it seems rather than the printed texts, it is through feature films and inspired film documentaries that Tagore studies can be effectively sustained in the twentyfirst century.

(The writer is former Professor, Dept of English, Calcutta University)