“Mrinal ki Chitthi”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Streer Potro”, (“Strir Patra”, “Wife’s Letter” [1,2] (1914), concerns an age-old problem in traditional societies – the customary suppression within the family household of a woman’s personhood.  This story served as the basis for the 19th  episode, “Mrinal ki Chitthi”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Tani Basu

Tagore’s story is about the stifling climate for women in religiously conservative Indian households and how this climate suppresses the most elemental aspects of her existence.  The story is actually in the form of a long letter written by a young woman, Mrinal (played by Amrita Bagchi), to her husband while she is away from Kolkata visiting the Lord Jagannatha temple in Puri.   Since this is the first time she has been separated from her husband in the fifteen years of their marriage, this is the first letter she has written to him.  This filmed version of the story  adopts the same format, beginning with the commencement of the Mrinal’s letter-writing and shifting from time to time into flashbacks concerning past events she is describing.

Early on we see that Mrinal’s married life is relatively arid.  Her husband seems cold and aloof, and he is only interested in her when he needs her to attend to him for things like sewing some buttons on his trousers.  She was married as a child-bride not for her dowry or social status, but for her good looks.  Her mother-in-law had selected Mrinal, who was from a poor family in a remote village, for her son in order to have a pretty ornament in their family and thereby offset the plain appearance of Mrinal’s older sister-in-law.  Any further attributes of Mrinal were of no interest.  When she was first married, she had noone to talk to, and so her only companions turned out to be two cows that were owned by her husband’s family.

But Mrinal was actually very articulate and intelligent.  In order to find a private way to express herself, she took to writing poetry.  However, when her husband came across one of her poetry-filled notebooks, he scolded her and told her that her poetry was rubbish.  He wanted her to only concern herself with her wifely chores.  But Mrinal continued to write poetry in secret anyway.

On another occasion Mrinal’s husband discovered that she had corrected some arithmetical mistakes in the family’s accounting log.  Mrinal smiled and said that since she was skilled in these things, she could offer him some assistance.  But this offer only made her husband angry, and again he insisted that activities in this area were forbidden to women.

When Mrinal became pregnant, she found herself subjected to the traditional prejudice that late-pregnancy women in India are considered “unclean” and are not fit to live with the rest of the household.  So she wound up having to undergo her birthing labor in a shed that was so filthy it probably contributed to the baby’s dying as soon as it was born.  Thus Mrinal was denied the chance of having the one person around her with whom she had a chance to have meaningful interactions and on whom she could bestow her maternal love – her own child.

Finally Mrinal described the time when her older sister-in-law’s niece, Bindu (Jannat Zubair Rahmani) first came to their home one night in the pouring rain.  Bindu, who was an orphan of about thirteen years of age and has been working as a servant for another household, had been severely beaten and scarred by her masters for breaking a vase she had been assigned to clean, and so she had run away.  Despite her sister-in-law’s hesitancy, Mrinal said they would offer Bindu refuge in their home.

Mrinal’s family was not happy with their new resident, though, and they gave Bindu every menial chore they could think of.  They scorned her for her poverty-stricken background and even for having a dark complexion, which was considered lower-class.  And when anything in the household was mislaid for a few minutes, they immediately wrongly presumed that Bindu had stolen it. 

But meanwhile Mrinal was looking after Bindu with maternal affection, and when she saw that Bindu was forced to sleep in the outdoor kitchen shed, she invited the girl to come sleep on a mat in her own bedroom.  Bindu had never been given kindly attention like this before, and she became infatuated with Mrinal’s beauty and tenderness.  In fact the two neglected young women fell into a platonic love for each other, with, for example, Bindu begging for the opportunity to dress and comb Mrinal’s luxurious hair.  Now for a time these women could have meaningful interactions with another person.

But this happiness would not last.  The family was eager to get rid of Bindu without losing face, and they setup an arranged marriage for the girl with a groom they never even took the trouble to meet.  For the family, the only factor of importance was that the impending groom’s family didn’t even require a dowry.  Bindu didn’t want the marriage, because she didn’t want to part from Mrinal.  But Mrinal, much to her later regret, talks Bindu into accepting the marriage proposal, arguing that this may be the best for Bindu’s long-term future.  After all, she points out to Bindu, women don’t have much choice, and the proposing family couldn’t be worse for her than Mrinal’s family, could it?  So Bindu accepts the wedding proposal and goes off to live with the new family.  With the departure of her only companion, Mrinal has to resign herself to renewed loneliness.

However, after a short time, Bindu, looking bloodied and disheveled, reappears before Mrinal and reports that her new husband is insane.  She begs for refuge once again.  Mrinal assures Bindu that she will help her, but Mrinal’s larger family rejects the idea of helping Bindu.  The mother-in-law, brother-in-law, Mrinal’s husband and even the sister-in-law who is Bindu’s own aunt insist that Bindu is now the “property” of her new husband and must be returned to him immediately.  While Mrinal is engaged with vehemently arguing with all of them on Bindu’s behalf, the frightened Bindu sees the handwriting on the wall and runs off again.  Presumably Bindu will be recaptured by her new husband’s family.

Now the story approaches the very recent past, as Mrinal arranges for her pilgrimage to Puri. She convinces her conservative, religious-ritual-minded  husband to let her go to Puri with her brother by arguing that her attendance at the temple will be in order to prey to the gods to let her give birth to another child.  But actually her intent is to run away with Bindu, and for the two of them to flee their oppressive conditions.  She arranges for her resourceful brother to somehow convince Bindu to consent to being spirited away from her new husband and brought to the train station, where she and Bindu will join up and travel together to Puri. 

Mrinal is then shown leaving her home and waiting anxiously in the train station for her brother to bring Bindu.  But when her brother shows up, he brings the agonizing news that Bindu had already committed suicide by setting her clothes on fire.  The only thing that her brother can bring her is the burned fragment of a message that Bindu had written to Mrinal.  Mrinal is shattered by this tragic news. It seemed that the light of her life had been extinguished.  But she goes on alone to Puri and writes the letter to her husband.  Not only is this the first letter she has ever written to him, it will also be the last, she informs him. 

Now, she says, she wants to leave the narrow confines of his home and family and embrace the vast richness of life.  This is something that Bindu had opened up for her, and she feels Bindu’s life had ultimately acquired some meaning by her desperate act of liberation.  To provide further illumination on these thoughts, let me quote Tagore’s own words concerning Mrinal’s thoughts expressed in her letter to her husband about Bindu [2]:
“And I’ve seen also that even though she was a girl, God didn’t abandon her. No matter how much power you might have had over her, there was an end to that power. There’s something larger than this wretched human life. You thought that, by your turn of whim and your custom engraved in stone, you could keep her life crushed under your feet forever, but your feet weren’t powerful enough. Death was stronger. In her death Bindu has become great; she’s not a mere Bengali girl anymore, no more just a female cousin of her father’s nephews, no longer only a lunatic stranger’s deceived wife. Now she is without limits, without end.

 . . .

The day that death’s flute wailed through this girl’s soul and I heard those notes float across the river, I could feel its touch within my chest.

 . . .

The dark veil of your custom had cloaked me completely, but for an instant Bindu came and touched me through a gap in the veil; and by her own death she tore that awful veil to shreds. Today I see there is no longer any need to maintain your family’s dignity or self-pride."
For Mrinal, her relationship with Bindu opened up the opportunity for her to discover life’s richness and her own authentic personhood.

This is a poignant tale that is beautifully told.  Unfortunately, the English subtitling is not up to top standard; but the production is otherwise excellent, with Bappa Mir’s cinematography standing out, as usual.  And the film is further graced by the sensitive performances of Amrita Bagchi and Jannat Zubair Rahmani in the roles of the two leading characters, Mrinal and Bindu, respectively.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “A Wife’s Letter”, Part 1 (Prasenjit Gupta, trans.), Translation, Parabaas, (1914/2009).  
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, “A Wife’s Letter”, Part 2 (Prasenjit Gupta, trans.), Translation, Parabaas, (1914/2009).           

“Waaris”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Sampatti Samarpan”, aka “The Trust Property” [1] (1891-92), is a mordant tale of madness and desolation brought about by overweening greed.  This story served as the basis for the 16th  episode, “Waaris”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

This could almost be considered a horror story, but one that is more focused on the plane of human  feelings rather than on external circumstances.  It begins by showing middle-aged Yagyanath Kundu (played by Rammakant Daayama) laughingly playing with his four-year-old grandson Gokulchandra.  At the same time, Yagyanath is carelessly unmindful of the life-threatening medical condition of his son Vrindavan’s wife in the same household.  A village doctor comes and prescribes some medicine for Vrindavan’s wife, but the selfish and stingy Yagyanath refuses to spend the money on it.  The woman soon passes away, and horrified by his father’s unfeeling behavior, Vrindavan announces to him that he is going to take his son, Gokul, with him and leave the home.  But Yagyanath is unfazed by his son’s departure – it will just mean that he can save some money on his household expenses.  And Yagyanath’s village neighbors, steeped in the traditional customs, are equally unsympathetic towards Vrindavan and think that the son should  not have moved away from his father.  After all, one of them tells Yagyanath, “if your wife dies, you can always get another wife, but you can’t find another father”.  (A similar traditionally misogynist sentiment was expressed in another Tagore story in this series, “Punishment” [2].)

Although Yagyanath is miserly and hardly a good social companion, he misses playing with his little four-year-old grandson Gokul. That’s the one kind of unbalanced relationship he was able to cope with.  Now he is lonely and miserable.  As time passes (which we can discern by the greying of his hair), he becomes a crotchety and eccentric old man, known for his miserly and antisocial ways.  Increasingly he appears to be a lunatic, and he finds himself an object of derision by naughty young village boys, who run by and poke him as he walks down the road.

One day Yagyanath observes among his youthful tormenters a new rascal who seems to be their new leader and who is even more impudent than all the others.  This cheeky boy, Nitai, even boldly comes up to Yagyanath and rips the man’s garment as a rude way of insulting him.  But since the boy is willing to talk to Yagyanath, the lonely man invites him to his home.  Soon Yagyanath  learns that Nitai has away from home, because his father wanted to send him to school.  So Yagyanath invites the impertinent boy to stay with him, and Nitai readily agrees. 

Nitai enjoys being spoiled by Yagyanath, but after awhile he becomes bored and threatens to leave.  Yagyanath panics over the idea of losing his only companion and offers the boy everything he has if he will only stay.  Later a neighbor warns Yagyanath that a man named Damodar Pal has been looking for his runaway son, Nitai, and if the authorities discover the boy at his place he could go to jail.  It is Nitai’s turn to panic now, but Yagyanath assures the boy that this very night he can hide the boy in a place where noone can find him.

Then in the middle of that night, Yagyanath wakes the sleepy boy and ushers him out into the jungle.  He takes Nitai to an abandoned temple and upon entering the main chamber loosens a floorboard, which turns out to be a hidden trapdoor to a secret chamber below.  After the two of them climb down a ladder into the dark, hidden room, Nitai can see pots full of jewels and gold coins.  This is where the miserly Yagyanath has been hiding his great wealth!  And now this will be Nitai’s undiscoverable hiding place.      

But in this connection Yagyanath has a crazed plan.  He madly intends to convert Nitai into a tantric yaksha nature-spirit to guard over his hidden wealth [3].  So he coercively orders the sleepy boy to repeatedly recite a mantra-like declaration that if his grandson, Gokul, or any of Gokul’s heirs, ever appears at the temple and wants the hidden treasure, Nitai  must hand it over to  him.  Nitai is now frightened by these ghostly developments, but he is now in something of a trance and is repeating his mantric declaration over and over.  Then with Nitai still chanting, Yagyanath climbs the ladder and exits the secret chamber.

In the morning, Yagyanath is awakened by his son Vrindavan, whom he hasn’t seen since Vrindavan and Gokul departed his home years ago.  Vrindavan tells him that he is looking for Gokul, who recently ran away from home and who, rumor has it, may now be staying with his grandfather.  He also reveals that, because of Yagyanath’s embarrassingly bad reputation in the area, he had changed his name to Damodar Pal, and he had changed Gokul’s name to Nitai.

With this news – that the naughty boy that he had condemned to be a yaksha in the temple dungeon was actually his beloved grandson Gokul – Yagyanath slips into complete madness.  He absently looks off into space, asking to noone in particular if anyone can hear a child calling.  At this, Vrindavan, in turn, panics and runs off in the wrong direction searching for his lost son.  As the story ends, Yagyanath continues to stew alone in his delirium.

At the close of Tagore’s original story “Sampatti Samarpan”, it is clear that Nitai did not survive his grim imprisonment, but in this filmed episode, “Waaris”, Nitai’s fate, though dire, is left somewhat open.  We are just left to mull over the vengeful trick fate has played on Yagyanath and his demonic scheme. 

Indeed this ironic twist at the end constitutes the appeal of this story, which otherwise suffers from the weakness of having a deranged main character with whom it is difficult to empathize.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Trust Property”, Mashi and Other Stories, The Literature Network, (1918).   
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Punishment’, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)”, The Film Sufi, (6 March 2018).  
  3. Malabika Roy, “Chapter - III: Myths, Symbols and Imagery of Tagore’s Short Stories”, The Poetic Counter-point in Rabindranath Tagore's Short Stories : a Critical Study, University of Gauhati, (Guwahati, Assam, India) (PhD, 2011).  

“Tyaag”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Tyaag”, aka “The Renunciation” (1892) [1], concerns the eternal conflict between what feels right in the heart and what is dictated by social customs. In this case it is a matter of romantic love up against the rigid constraints of the Indian caste system.  This story served as the basis for the 15th  episode, “Tyaag”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

This Tagore story, which was scripted for the screen by Samrat Chakraborty, not only features the emotional urgings of romantic love in conflict with the traditional caste system; it is also laced with strains of personal revenge.  Much of the story is told in flashback, as a newly married couple come to face a crisis associated with their marriage.

The story begins with Hemant Mukherjee at home expressing his rapturous love for and to his new wife, Kusum.  But Kusum has a troubled look on her face and doesn’t express what is worrying her.  Then we move into a flashback relating how the two of them met each other. 

The distinctions between when we are in the “present” and when we are in the past in this presentation of the story are often obscure and poorly signaled.  The primary telltale indicator here is that Hemant in the present sports a mustache, while he is clean-shaven in the flashback scenes.  Here we see in flashback the clean-shaven Hemant immediately smitten when he first sees Kusum on the street in a rickshaw.  He soon starts following her around on his bicycle whenever he sees her rickshaw.  These lyrical sequences of their cautious flirtation via furtive exchanges of glances are the highlight of this episode. They are accompanied by evocative music, notably the beautiful “Come, O’ Monsoon Shower of the Night”, which I believe is a song by Tagore.

Then back in the present, we learn what was troubling Kusum.  Unbeknownst to Hemant, who belongs to an orthodox Brahmin family, Kusum is not a Brahmin – she is a Kayasth, which is a lower caste, and it is forbidden to orthodox Brahmins to marry outside their caste.  Hemant had believed when they were married that she was a Brahmin, and she had been meaning to tell him ever since about this lie.  But before she could muster the courage to tell her husband, he is informed of the problematic situation by his father, Harihar.  Harihar orders his son to immediately cast out Kusum from his home, insisting her presence is polluting their entire family.  Already the father of his sister Hemlata’s fiancé, Sumont Banerjee, has cancelled their upcoming wedding because of this supposedly scandalous situation.  When Hemlata asks Sumont what he is going to do about this edict, Sumont meekly tells her that he will abide by his father’s’ wishes.

Now in another flashback we learn about Kusum’s background.  As a very young girl, after her parents had passed away, Kusum was adopted and raised by a kindly Brahmin, Biplavdas Chatterjee. Everyone always assumed that she was Chatterjee’s legitimate daughter and therefore a Brahmin, too.  But now that Kusum has come of age, the elderly Chatterjee has started to worry about Kusum’s future.  His relative Pyarishankar, however, urges Chatterjee to go off on a long put-off religious pilgrimage and that he, himself, will look after Kusum while Chatterjee Baba is away.

During this time Pyarishankar sees that Hemant and Kusum are enamored with each other, and he arranges for them to get married, with Kusum presented as being a Brahmin.  When Kusum expresses misgivings about this lie, Pyarishankar tells her that
“a lie that can unite two hearts is better than a hundred truths”. 
When Chatterjee returns from his trip, Pyarishankar convinces him, too, to let the marriage go ahead in the name of true love.  So Hemant and Kusum were then married in a sumptuous and traditional ceremony.

Now we return to the “present” again, and Hemant is shown to be greatly troubled about having been deceived about Kusum’s background by Pyarishankar.  Pyarishankar explains to him that his marriage was arranged in order to take revenge on Hemant’s father, Harihar, whom he had known earlier.  Years earlier in a Bengali village where Pyarishankar lived, Harihar had led the locals to banish Pyarishankar from the area for the crime of funding his son-in-law’s study abroad, something forbidden to orthodox Brahmins.  Pyarishankar was accused of polluting Brahmin purity.  Although as a penance Pyarishankar had offered to douse his house in river Ganges holy water and force his son-in-law to eat cow dung, his pleas for forgiveness were rejected, and he had to leave the village and move his family to Kolkata.

Later when Pyarishankar saw that Harihar’s son was in love with a non-Brahmin, he saw his chance to take revenge and pollute Harihar’s family.  Then after the unholy marriage took place, he wrote a letter to Sumont’s father informing him how Hemant’s blasphemous marriage had polluted the Mukherjee family and had consequently rendered Sumont’s marriage to Hemlata untenable.  It was all done not to support true love but in the interests of revenge.

In the final scene, Hemant sees Kusum, having been ordered out of their home by Harihar, packing her bag to leave.  Harihar tells Hemant that it is necessary for him to forsake Kusum in order to salvage Hemlata’s intended wedding to Sumont.  But Hemant, having thought things over, tells his father that he will forsake his wider family and his caste before he will forsake his wife.  He is going to stick with Kusum, come what may.  And at this point Hemlata informs them that she doesn’t want to marry Sumont, anyway.  She, too, it seems, stakes her future on true love above traditional ritual.

Then in the very last shot, there is a knock on the door, and Pyarishankar is shown getting in his last vengeful dig.  He has come with some Ganges water and cow dung to give to the still-stubborn Harihar so that the man can serve penance for his sins.

That final shot was tacked on to the tail of Tagore’s story to give what I think is an unhelpful sarcastic twist at the very end.  However, another, and in my view more productive, addition to the tale was an amplification of Hemant’s sister Hemlata’s role in the narrative. This expansion ties up something of a loose end that was left unattended in Tagore’s original story.  Overall, this is a slight tale, but it is eloquently told.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “THE RENUNCIATION”, (1891), The Hungry Stones and Other Stories, ©. F. Andrews, trans.), The Project Gutenberg, (2013).   

Abdellatif Kechiche

Films of Abdellatif Kechiche:

“The Secret of the Grain” - Abdellatif Kechiche (2007)

One of the more highly lauded French films of recent years was the Franco-Tunisian production The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet, 2007), which in English is also known as Couscous and Mullet and Couscous.  Written and directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, this film received César Awards (the highest film awards in France) in 2008 for Best French Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Most Promising Actress (Hafsia Herzi).  Perhaps because the film has a cultural perspective of particular interest to the French – the nuances of French-Arab social and cultural relations – it has attracted a particularly enthusiastic response from the French public and critics.  But English-language critics have also been generally highly supportive [1-5], although not uniformly [6].  From my own perspective, I would say that there are some interesting positive and negative peculiarities about the film, which I will discuss below. 

The film’s story concerns events surrounding a Tunisian immigrant, Slimane Beiji (played by Habib Boufares), who is an elderly dockside worker in the French Mediterranean seaport town of Sète.  Very early on in the piece, the viewer learns that the 61-year-old Slimane is a rather deliberate (and hence not quick enough) worker and that, due in part to declining import traffic at the port, his work is of reduced value to his employers, and so his hours are to be reduced.  Slimane suspects that soon he may even be let go.

Slimane has been working in the Sète docks for thirty-five years and presumably immigrated to France during the wave of Tunisian immigration that began in the 1960s following Tunisian independence.  His six children, being second-generation Tunisians in France, are much more comfortable with French and the French way of doing things.  That and the fact that Slimane is a particularly stoic and laconic individual mean that much of the film’s focus turns out to be on Slimane’s family and acquaintances.  They are a varied lot, the most prominent of whom are listed here:
  • Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) is Slimane’s vigorous ex-wife and the mother of his six children.  She is an excellent cook, and couscous is her specialty.  Every Sunday evening her extended family comes over to her home to feast on it and gab with each other.
  • Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) owns a tiny dockside hotel and is Slimane’s current partner.
  • Rym (Hafsia Herzi) is Latifa’s twenty-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage.  Because of her mother’s relationship with Slimane, she feels filial affection for Slimane and wants to help him.
  • Karima (Farida Benkhetache) is a married daughter of Slimane and Souad and has two little kids.
  • Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) is a younger, but still adult, daughter of Slimane and Souad.
  • Majid (Sami Zitouni) is Slimane Souad’s eldest son.  Although married and with a young  son, he pursues adulterous sex with other women.
  • Julia (Alice Houri) is a Russian immigrant and is Majid’s neglected wife.
  • Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) is Slimane and Souad’s youngest son.
A key weakness of The Secret of the Grain, however, is its generally slack narrative.  Instead of keeping an eye on the primary issue, which concerns what should be done about Slimane’s situation, it often gets sidetracked and wallows at times into various situations with Slimane’s family members, which seem little more than distractions.  And so what we often wind up with are extended sessions that, although featuring dramatic intensity, slow things down.  Paradoxically and at the same time, though, some of these intense encounters are what we take away as the film’s most memorable moments.

Overall, we can consider the narrative to be divided into three general sections.
1.  Slimane and his family
The first part of this section starts with an overview of Slimane’s dockside situation.  But then it moves, rather quickly and without much narrative motivation, over into a surveying coverage of his extended family.  The main vehicle for presenting the family together is Souad’s weekly couscous feasts, and the family are seen gathered around the table and enthusiastically gorging themselves on Souad’s cooking.  This is all shown using extreme wide-angle closeups, often with disruptive jump-cuts.  And it is all done with a shaky handheld camera.  This has a strange, disturbing effect, because the extreme facial closeups place the invisible viewer much closer to the faces under scrutiny than would be the case for someone occupying a place at the table.  Instead the viewer is placed almost on top of the respective person in view and is subjected to uncomfortably observing their eating in all its lip-smacking squishiness.  This is presumably intended to establish intimacy with the subject matter, but it didn’t work for me.  In fact the shaky handheld, wide-angle cinematography throughout the film is atrocious and is a considerable detriment to the overall viewing experience.

2.  Slimane’s project
After awhile Slimane decides to leave his dock-working job and use his redundancy payments to start his own business – a seafood/couscous (“la graine et le mulet”) restaurant to be situated inside an abandoned cargo ship at the dockside.  The featured food will be Souad’s couscous.  All of the family members pitch in to help with this project in whatever way they can.

A major problem to be surmounted with this project is securing all the licenses and permits that are needed from the government, and much of the focus of this section of the film is on this issue.  In this connection Rym comes to Slimane’s rescue as she passionately and patiently guides him through complex pathways of the government’s bureaucratic channels.  It is during this phase that Rym emerges as the real star of the film.

3.  Opening Night
After failing to get all the required permits, Slimane and his family resolve to hold a party at their new, not-yet-commissioned restaurant and invite all the city officials, including the recalcitrant ones.  They hope to wow their guests with good food and thereby get them to approve their remaining permit requests.  This turns out to be a lavish affair, and again the focus is on food.  But there is also on display the interesting contrast between French behavior (the guests) and Tunisian (the servers).  However, a serious problem arises when Majid’s narcissistic perambulations cause the crowning dish of the evening – Souad’s couscous – to go missing.  There ensues desperate efforts on the part of several principles to rectify the situation.  Some people try to find the missing dish, while others set about the arduous task of making a second batch.

Meanwhile, the hungry guests are waiting for their main dish and getting seriously impatient.  So Rym decides to entertain them all by performing an Arabic belly dance.  The passionate earthiness of Rym’s dance highlights the contrasts between French and Tunisian culture, and it arouses the rapt enthusiasm of the no-longer-bored dinner guests. 

So now the film is suspended in unbearable tension.  The guests are waiting.  The servers are scrambling.  And Rym is dancing.  What will happen?  Kechiche draws out this tense situation for an almost unbearable length of time.  In fact he seems to extend it indefinitely, as you will feel if you watch the film’s conclusion.

As I mentioned, there are some intense individual dramatic situations focusing on a single character that Kechiche dwells on for extended periods. 
  1. Julia engages in a long tearful tirade about her sufferings brought on by her irresponsible and unfaithful husband, Majid.
  2. Rym implores at great length for her jealous mother, Latifa, to attend Slimane’s opening night party, even though the featured food has been prepared by her paramour’s ex.
  3. Rym’s lengthy, exhausting, and fleshy belly dance.
These moments in the film hold the viewer in an extended emotional storm that has its own peculiar fascinations, irrespective of their pertinence to the overall narrative.  And they do exhibit a certain degree of moment-extending skill on the part of Kechiche and his actresses.

I have already alluded to three major themes in The Secret of the Grain – food, family, and Franco-Tunisian cultural contrasts.  There is a fourth theme worth mentioning – womanhood.  All of the women in this story are relatively responsible and ready to take the initiative.  The men around them are mostly powerless, and sometimes irresponsible.  This reminds me of another “food film”, The Fish Fall in Love (2006), in which the principal women had more initiative and more emotional fortitude than the men they encountered.  I wonder how much this is generally the case in food films.  In any case, your response to the film will depend on the degree to which the film’s presentation of these four themes resonate with your own feelings.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Secret of the Grain”, RogerEbert.com, (21 January 2009).    
  2. Philip French, “Couscous”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  3. Peter Bradshaw, “Couscous (La Graine et le Mulet)”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  4. Wesley Morris, “The Secret of the Grain: No Secrets”, The Criterion Collection, (27 July 2010).   
  5. J. Hoberman, “The Secret of the Grain”, The Village Voice, (24 December 2008).   
  6. Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban, “SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE”, Urban Cinefile, (n.d.).