Along life of 80 years allowed Rabindranath Tagore to experience many historic landmarks. In this span, he saw India’s rapid growth and modernity; while abroad, he saw science and technology pushing new heights of civilisation. He witnessed two World Wars and endured an eventful journey in life. Throughout his journey, he encountered the strength and power of cinema as a tool of mass communication. In 1913, he became the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize and soon became a global icon. In his time, Bengal had finally started enjoying the magic of motion picture even before the first feature film hit theatres around India. Tagore initially entered the film industry as a story writer in the silent film era. However, his direct participation in cinema lasted a short while, and sadly, not with the heartiest memories.
The first offer to visualise Tagore’s story on film came from Rustamji Dotiyala, owner of JF Madan’s company who approached Dhirendranath Ganguly (DG), the principal of Nizam Art College (Hyderabad). His famous play, Bisarjan, a dramatic version of his novel Rajarshi, was visualised for cinema. However, the initiative did not follow through due to the lack of actresses or the possible indifference between DG and Rustamji. Eight years later, the project was resumed and produced by Orient Picture Corporation and Madan Theatres. Two top actresses, Jubeda and Sulochona, from the Silent Era played the lead. Before its commercial release in Calcutta, it was screened in West End Theatre (London) on 12 June, 1928. In December, it was released in Calcutta’s Crown Cinema. Sadly, Tagore fell ill and was unable to watch this production.
Tapati – the abandoned project
On 22nd December, 1929 The Illustrated Weekly of India of Bombay published a news report under the heading “Rabindranath Tagore as Film Star”, which celebrated Tagore’s approval to compose a cinematic script based on his play Tapati. The same news was also published in Calcutta’s The Statesman,Amrita Bazar Patrike and Ananda Bazar Patrika. Quarter of a way through filming, Tagore rushed to Soviet Union and Germany, abandoning the project. Soon, the film was forgotten, and three reels of footage were lost.
Tagore revisits Germany
In a single day, Tagore travelled from Munich to Oberammergau, a place known for plays based on the life of Jesus Christ. In this journey, Tagore was engulfed by the play’s artistic charm. On his return to Munich, UniversumFilm-Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) offered him the opportunity to compose a screenplay. For the first time in his life, he began to compose an English language poem in the form of a script, titled The Child. Later it was translated in Bengali known as Shishu Tirtha.
Tagore in land of Soviets
For many reasons, Tagore’s visit to USSR in 1930 is considered an empowering experience. For the first time, Tagore interacted with artists and technicians of Russian cinema, visited film studios and special cinematic shows. A special screening was arranged for Tagore, to view Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Old & New. Battleship Potemkin, a critically acclaimed film, inspired Tagore. He was moved by the power of the cinema as a new medium of art.
When Hollywood came closer to Tagore
In 1935, biographer, Edward Thomson, proposed two stories of Tagore to Hollywood: Chitrangadaan opera based on a part of Mahabharata and Khudita Pashan, a mystic thriller. However none of the stories were sanctioned by Hollywood as India was still considered a regressive nation. Still, Thomson kept in touch with famous directors like Robert Joseph Flaherty, the pioneer of documentary film. Flaherty expressed his wish to film documentaries based on the Indian scenario, though, not feature films. Thus, the plan of filming Tagore’s story in Hollywood was nipped in the bud.
Tagore, the subtitle writer of 1930
Manbhanjan, the first film based on the life of Rabindranath Tagore, was released in 1923 as a silent film. Later, Tagore renamed the filmed as Giribala. The film was produced by Madan Theatres and released on 15th February at Crown Cinema in Calcutta. Tagore himself was present at the first show where he expressed his satisfaction towards the film. For the first time, Tagore saw his own life unravel before his eyes on screen.
Movie on Tagore censored
In 1928, legendary thespian of Bengali stage, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, directed the movie Bicharak with cinematographer, Nitin Bose, which narrated Tagore’s real life encounters and experiences. It was banned by the censor board on the grounds of low morale and indecency. It generated quite a buzz in Bengal’s cultural world. Three years later, it returned to the screen.
Natir Puja- A miscalculated venture
In 1931, Tagore’s dance drama titled Natir Pujawas translated into a motion picture in the foregrounds of Tollygunge studio where Tagore himself played the role of a partial director. The film incorporated real live footages from the drama which was reenacted in Jorasanko, Tagore’s ancestral home, from December to January of 1931- 1932. Natir Puja was written by Tagore in 1926 under the request of his daughter -in-law, Patrima Devi, who envisioned a female oriented drama to be performed by the students of Shantiniketan.
Hence, he translated his famous poem Pujarini into a dance drama: prayer of the consort (Natir Puja) Soon, Tagore himself began playing the role of the male character, named Upali. The play became a major hit in and around Calcutta, and ran multiple shows in Old Empire and Jorasanko.
It was first recorded in film by Art Film Syndicate, although not available for the public. Impressed by the popularity of the drama, BN Sircar, the then boss of New Theatres, offered to take the play into cinema theatres, with the help of Tagore’s film direction. In the span of four days, the film was complete, with Tagore co-managing the roles of a director and a character featured in the film.
After completion, Tagore invited New Theatre to exhibit the preview. On 22 March, the only Indian film acted and directed by Tagore was released in Chitra Cinema of Calcutta. Sadly, the film generated negative feedback on the basis of poor and static camera movements, unrealistic camera angles, poor adjustment of frames, unrealistic acting performances, inaudible sound retention, and poor selection of sound tracks. On 27th March, English daily Liberty wrote “… it is an intellectual feast but there is not much of action in the play, the thirst of screen lovers is not satisfied… The two girls who have taken the part of Radha and Rani have hopeless talking voices … unnecessary volume of sound has been transferred to the sound camera by the artists.”
According to many, the failure of Natir Puja as a film can only be attributed to its poor direction. Tagore had become increasingly frustrated with the lengthy film-making process and guided the cinematographer, Premankur Attarthi, resting on a sofa. On 7 August, 1940 a fatal fire broke out in New Theatre, and the film was destroyed. For Tagore it was a bitter moment as his only film was destroyed forever. Years later, 16 mm footage of the film was retrieved from Visva-Bharati. In 1992, the film was handed over for restoration to NFDC. In the footage, Tagore is seen at his Calcutta home, and snippets of Natir Puja were also visible which was then documented by Prashanta Roy.
Tagore had lasting faith and respect for cinema, but feared that it would lose value if injustice was allowed in the flow of literature. In 1929, in a letter addressed to Murari Mohan, he wrote, “The beauty and the 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.”