Donald Crisp

Films of Donald Crisp:

“The Navigator” - Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp (1924)

Buster Keaton was one of filmdom’s masterful auteurs [1], and some of his great silent classics stand as testaments to that fact.  One of these, The Navigator (1924), was an early example.  Coming as it did immediately after Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), which was only a modest success with the critics and at the box office, The Navigator was one of Keaton’s biggest commercial successes.  We can attribute part of this success to Keaton’s adherence to his own special scheme of narrative progression, the structure of which I will remind you a little bit more about below. 

First it is worth mentioning a couple of items about the production.  Keaton often liked to give his films an atmospheric setting, the nature of which plays an important role in his cinematic storytelling.  Here in the case of The Navigator, Keaton’s production team acquired a 500-foot ocean liner that was about to be condemned for scrap metal, and most of the film is set onboard this ship [2].  And the ship’s environment is so important that in some respects we could say the ship is a key character in the story.  With respect to another production matter, we note that although veteran Donald Crisp is officially listed as having co-directed the film with Keaton, the two of them did not get along, and Keaton went ahead and finished most of the film without Crisp’s participation [2]. 

As for that matter of Keaton’s narrative progression, it is a unique feature that I have discussed in connection with my review of his Our Hospitality (1923) [3] and comprises a movement across three basic narrative schemata:
  • The Quaint  
    Here we see Keaton as an earnest but naive young man operating in accordance with what he thinks are the rules in an artificial and quaintly stilted social setting. 
      
  • The Slapstick 
    In these scenes the protagonist must deal with a relentless sequence of unexpected  events and obstacles that result in one acrobatic pratfall after another.  It is here that Keaton’s amazing agility and athleticism are on full display.  And on this occasion, Keaton’s slapstick theatrics are well complemented by those of his costar, Kathryn McGuire.
     
  • The Maelstrom 
    In this phase the world, itself, seems to close in on the protagonist and present a blizzard of unfathomable existential threats.  Chaos reigns, as Keaton struggles to survive in an increasingly dizzying world.  It is Keaton’s closing maelstrom phase that is his signature and most memorable contribution.
The story of The Navigator passes through three phases that roughly correspond to these three narrative dimensions.

1.  Getting Onboard The Navigator
This whole first phase is basically portrayed in Quaint mode.  In the beginning we are introduced to two wealthy and spoiled young people whose lives are disrupted by an obscure rivalry between two overseas countries.  When wealthy businessman John O’Brien sells the ocean liner, The Navigator, to one of the two rivalrous countries, agents of the adversarial country immediately make plans to sabotage the ship by setting it adrift from the harbor that night. 

Meanwhile, the young heir, Rollo Treadway (played by Buster Keaton), to an equally wealthy family’s fortune impetuously decides to arrange to marry O’Brien’s daughter, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire).  And he purchases tickets for himself and Betsy to go on an immediate honeymoon the very next day to Hawaii.  But when Rollo gets down to actually proposing to Betsy, she curtly turns him down.  With his honeymoon ticket already paid for, the now dazed and disconsolate Rollo decides to take the trip to Hawaii by himself, and since he doesn’t like getting up for an early morning departure, he decides to board the ship that night.  However, some pier sign confusion leads Rollo to board the wrong ship – not his Hawaii cruise ship, but the about-to-be sabotaged The Navigator

A little bit later and knowing nothing about Treadway’s doings, John O’Brien, accompanied by his daughter Betsy, makes a last-minute evening visit to his just-sold ship.  Unfortunately, the foreign saboteurs are now ready to strike, and they capture O’Brien and take him ashore.  Hearing her father’s call for help, though, Betsy boards The Navigator to look for him.  It is just then the saboteurs disengage the ship from the pier and cast it adrift.  The Navigator is now adrift in the Pacific Ocean with just two passengers, Rollo and Betsy.
                   
2.  Coping at Sea
In the second phase of the film, we move into Slapstick mode.  We have two spoiled and impractical rich kids alone on a large ship adrift in the sea.  Initially they each find evidence that there is someone else on board, and some time is spent on frenetic chase scenes as they search for each other.  When they eventually meet up, they then have to figure out what to do.  Since they have always been attended to by servants all their lives, neither Rollo nor Betsy has even the faintest knowledge concerning how to cope with practical affairs.  In particular, there is a six-minute segment showing their ludicrous attempts to prepare food in the kitchen.

Then they see a ship approaching from the distance, and Rollo, hoping to attract the ship’s attention, hoists a flag.  However the flag he unwittingly hoists is one signaling that their ship is under quarantine, and the approaching ship quickly sails away.

Since they have soaked themselves a few times in the water, they find some drier, sailor clothing to wear, and this occasions our seeing Keaton now decked out in his signature porkpie hat.  They retire to sleep in separate bedchambers, and there is a funny sequence in which Betsy sees in her own chamber a disturbing picture of a scowling sea captain, which she rids herself of by hanging it outside her port window.  But the scary picture hangs down and swings in front of Rollo’s port window, scaring the daylights out of him even more.

Eventually they find boxes of firecrackers and Roman candles which they hope to use to signal other ships.  But, of course, these get detonated accidentally all at once, causing further mayhem.  

3.  Weeks Later 
Time passes, and it seems that Rollo and Betsy have learned somehow to feed themselves on the well-stocked, but still-adrift, ship.  They have hooked up some makeshift Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions to help them deal with the large kitchen devices in the ship’s galley.  Things seem to be going better.  But finally they catch sight of what they have long been looking for – land!  This should lead to their salvation, but here it only leads to the Maelstrom.

When they look at the land through their spyglass, they see that it is an island full of cannibals.  Even worse, as their ship approaches the island, it runs aground and springs a leak.  Betsy finds a deep-sea diver’s outfit for Rollo to don, and once he is so clad, she then helps lower him over the side to repair the ship’s hull from the outside.

When Rollo enters this aquatic underworld, he finds himself barely able to move (because of his cumbersome diving suit) and having to cope with threatening sea creatures, like octopuses and swordfish.  At one point he even has to grab hold of one swordfish and use it as a weapon to engage in a sword fight with another, bigger swordfish.

Meanwhile the island cannibals have spotted the grounded The Navigator and have canoed en masse out to it, where they capture Betsy and take her as a prisoner back to their island.  Rollo, still at the bottom of the sea, sees that his line to the ship has come loose, but he somehow manages to stagger all the way to the island. 

When the natives see the strange looking figure emerge from the ocean, they think it is a monster, and they all scatter in fright.  Betsy and Rollo then make their way back to the ship, with Betsy sitting on the floating, diving-suited Rollo and rowing as if in a rowboat.  But the natives overcome their initial fright and soon chase after them.  A chaotic battle ensues, and it seems that the maelstrom only worsens.

The natives overwhelm the ship, and Rollo and Betsy try to escape in a lifeboat, but that effort fails, too.  They find themselves struggling unaided in the ocean, and all hope seems to be lost. The maelstrom has overwhelmed them.  But just as they are about to sink underwater for the last time, they are saved by an out-of-nowhere US navy submarine that lifts them out of the water and rescues them.


As is evident from the events described, the title of this film is somewhat ironic.  Far from charting and managing a planned course of action, our protagonist struggles to survive a torrent of problems that flood his way.  Overall, though, The Navigator stands out as displaying a perfectly crafted Quaint-Slapstick-Maelstrom Keaton narrative sequence.  Some critics especially single out the Slapstick part for praise [4], and perhaps it is due to this section that the film has been hailed as one of America’s all-time funniest films [5].  But I think, as with most of Keaton’s masterpieces, it is, again, the Maelstrom part that renders The Navigator its surreal, existential aura that is so special about Keaton’s best films.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Legendary film theorist Andrew Sarris included Keaton in his “pantheon” of greatest American directors:
    • Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968).
  2. “The Navigator (1924 film)”, Wikipedia, (15 March 2019).        
  3. The Film Sufi, “Our Hospitality - Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone (1923)”, The Film Sufi, (26 May 2018).    
  4. Ed Howard, “The Navigator”, Only the Cinema, (3 April 2012).   
  5. “America’s Funniest Movies”, American Film Institute, (2002).     

“Dhaai Aakhar Prem Ka”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Manda (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s comedy Shesh Rokkha (Saved at Last, 1926-29) is a multisided farce about the vagaries and uncertainties of love and marriage in traditional India.  This play served as the basis for the 23rd and 24th and episodes, “Dhaai Aakhar Prem Ka” (“Make a Love”), of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Samrat Chakraborty and directed by Debatma Manda.

In Tagore’s India, and indeed in many quarters of India today, young people had few opportunities to get to know each other before a parent-approved marriage arrangement could be organized.  Even when young people were given the choice, they had little information to go on concerning who would be an appropriate marriage partner for them.  Indeed, even in the modern world, most people have little idea of what it means to share one’s life with another and how that might affect their futures.  In “Dhaai Aakhar Prem Ka” these basic uncertainties are at the foot of an entangled series of misunderstandings that lead, almost, to serious missteps on the parts of the characters [1].

The story concerns some interrelated relationships centered around a man, Chandrakant (played by Amitabh Bhattacharya), who regularly hosts meetings with some male friends to share and discuss their mutual interests in literature and poetry.  Since the thirty-something Chandrakant is the only married member of this group of about a half dozen mostly younger men, he also sometimes offers to them his reflections on married life.  Among his discussion group are
  • Vinod (Sudarshan Patil), a young lawyer who has already made something of a name for himself for his poetry;
      
  • Gaudai (Vaibhav Raj Gupta), a final-year medical student who, unlike the others, sees things from an objectivist, scientific point of view;
     
  • Lalit (Harsh Aggarwal), a relatively modest young man who is distinguished from the others by his preference for Western clothes.
Chandrakant also has two pretty and marriageable sisters who live with their father in a neighboring flat:
  • Kamal (Sudipti Parmar)
     
  • Indumati (Sainee Raj), Kamal’s impish younger sister.
Given the intertwining plot threads, the story is not really partitioned into acts, but I will somewhat arbitrarily section off the narrative into six parts.

1.  Introducing the Setting
In the beginning, Chandrakant’s group are meeting to discuss poetry, and Vinod is distracted when he hears a woman’s mellifluous voice outside the window singing a beautiful song based on his own poetry.  Vinod cannot see who is doing the singing, but the viewer can see that it is Kamal singing from inside her neighboring apartment.

Vinod returns his attention to his group and, to the wonder of his friends, recites some apparently spontaneously composed verse for them:

“The tears of the night don’t stay on a lotus leaf; they slip off.  
Sometimes the union is left incomplete. 
Sometimes all that is left are stories. 
A peaceful mind was disturbed by a chord of the heart.
A symphony of the beloved plays in each breath.
Only my beloved doesn’t know my feelings.”

Later, Chandrakant’s wife Khantamani (Pradnya Shastri) goes to visit her two sisters-in-law, Kamal and Indumati (aka Indu), where they discuss Kamal’s so-far-unseen love, Vinod.  Learning from their discussioon that Indu is just as eager to find a love of her own, Khantamani suggests that two other men from her husband’s discussion group might be good candidates – Gaudai and Lalit.

From the outset we see the two contrasting perspectivess on love generally held by the men and women in this story.  The men, obsessed as they are with poetry, have a view based on ethereal, poetic abstractions.  For them, love is focused on inner feelings and is therefore more self-obsessive.  For the women in this story, love is focused on more practical, interactive concerns of the here-and-now.

However, we also see that Chandrakant, the one person already married, sees things from a more disenchanted perspective, and he tells his fellow group members that his wife has no element of poetry in her – marriage can be a bore.  Unfortunately, Khantamani, from another room, overhears her husband say these things, and this only further contributes to the downward spiral of their relationship.

2.  Mistaken Identities
Vinod is so enamored by Kamal’s pretty voice that he decides she must be the ideal mate for him.  Even though he has never seen the girl, he forces his friend Chandrakant to support him when he approaches Kamal’s father, Nivaran, (Neeraj Shah) for her hand.  So that Kamal can see who is proposing to her, Chandrakant gives Nivaran a photo, which shows Vinod along with Chandrakant and Gaudai.

Later Indu happens to see that photo, and asks Khantamani who is that attractive third person in the photo, (who we can see is Gaudai).  Khantamani, who doesn’t have the photo in front of her, mistakenly tells her that the third person must be Lalit.

Indu then goes into a neighboring room and sees Gaudai there.  Flustered for the moment, she tells Gaudai that she is Kadambani, the daughter of bazaar merchant Chowdhari Babu.  But even in that momentary interaction, Gaudai is smitten with love.  Even though he has been dedicated to objective science and has up til now seen love as a disease, Gaudai quickly begins writing romantic poetry dedicated to his new beloved, “Kadambani”.

We now have cases of love at first sight (or sound), but there is a problem of misidentification.  Indu thinks her love (who we know to be Gaudai) is named Lalit.  And Gaudai thinks his love (who we know is Indu) is named Kadambani.

Moreover, we now see that this story has three primary relationship concerns:
  •  Chandrakant and Khantamani
  •  Vinod and Kamal
  •  Gaudai and Indu
These parallel relationship threads will be the narrative focus for the rest of the story.
Meanwhile Nivaran, on his own, goes to Gaudai’s father, Shibhcharan (Atul Srivastava), and arranges for Gaudai marry Indu.  This should be ideal, but it won’t work, because Gaudai thinks he wants Kadambani, and Indu thinks she wants Lalit.

3.  Marital Dreams Unfulfilled
At this point Chandrakant’s discussion group of men hold a bachelor’s party to “celebrate” Vinod’s upcoming marriage to Kamal. This is one of the most amusing scenes in the film, because it is evident that Vinod’s companions, far from celebrating the event, are actually mourning what they see is the inevitable loss of freedom that will come to Vinod’s married life.

And in fact, shortly after the wedding ceremony, the marriage of Vinod and Kamal starts to fall apart due to Vinod’s many incessant complaints and insensitivities.  Soon Kamal runs away to live in her parents’ home.

The Chandrakant and Khantamani relationship has also been breaking down and has descended into quarrels.  Finally Khantamani has had enough; she packs her bags and leaves her husband.  Chandrakant, however, is so fed up with Khantamani’s bad temper and constant nagging that he celebrates his newfound freedom.

Meanwhile Gaudai has been stalking the grounds outside the home of his supposed Kadambani, but he never sees the woman he loves.  His father happens upon him onetime and summarily informs him that he has arranged for him to marry Indu.  This news greatly distresses Gaudai, and he timidly informs his authoritarian and hot-tempered father that he cannot marry Indu because he loves Kadambani (although we know that the woman he actually loves is Indu, who he wrongly thinks is called “Kadambani”).

4.  Indu’s Intervention
Back in her original family home, Kamal is soothed by her sister Indu.  Speculating that Vinod’s insensitivity might be due to his having other love interests, she composes a phoney love letter from an admirer to Vinod and signs it, “Kadambani”, a name she drew out of the air.  The letter proposes a secret meeting with Vinod in the park.  However, when Gaudai visits Vinod and happens on the letter, he assumes it was written by his Kadambani, and he is crushed.

Indu coerces her friend Rajni (Natasha Pillai) to pretend to be Kadambani at the meeting.  Vinod, accompanied by Gaudai, reluctantly goes to the meeting, but when he sees the woman he tells her that he truly loves his wife, Kamal.  This assertion is eventually reported back to Kamal.  And when Gaudai saw Rajni, he could see that she is not his “Kadambani” (whom we know, but he doesn’t, is actually Indu).  So Indu’s continued schemes of misidentification actually help, on this occasion, to move two relationships closer to reconciliation.

5.  Further Identification Entanglements
Seeking to do the right thing, Gaudai’s father, Shibhcharan, now tracks down the real Kadambani’s father, Chowdhari Babu (Sameer Chandra), and arranges for Gaudai to marry that woman. 

Meanwhile Kamal learns from her sister Indu that the man she loves (whom she mistakenly calls “Lalit”, but who is actually Gaudai) mistakenly thinks that she, Indu, is named “Kadambani” (recall, she had once foolishly told him that).  So Kamal dutifully goes to Chandrakant and tells him to explain things to Lalit.

When Chandrakant talks to Lalit, though, the bewildered young man says he has never even heard of Kadambani or Indu.  When these denials get back to Indu – that her beloved cannot remember even meeting Indu – the news breaks the poor woman’s heart.

6.  Putting Things Right
Now people start coming together to try and resolve all this zany confusion – both in the world and in their hearts.  At Chandrakant’s poetry club, his friends see that he is miserably lonely for his departed wife.  They try to console him, but Chandrakant worries that is too late and that Khantamani probably won’t come back to him. 

Just then the still distressed Indu barges in and demands to see Lalit, who she cannot believe does not even remember her.  But when she looks over the group of men there, she finally sees that the man she truly cares about is actually Gaudai, not Lalit.  So Indu and Gaudai are finally connected together.  But there are still major problems to be resolved.

Gaudai’s dictatorial father, Shibhcharan, now arrives to take Gaudai to Chowdhari Babu and the real Kadambani in order to carry out the arranged wedding.  When Gaudai tells him he can’t go because he really loves Indu (the girl with whom an earlier arranged marriage (in Section 2) had been setup for him and which Gaudai had mistakenly rejected), Shibhcharan loses his temper.  He and Chowdhari Babu both stubbornly insist that Gaudai must now go ahead and marry Kadambani.  And Chowdhari Babu warns he will take legal action to ensure this wedding commitment is enforced.

But just then Chandrakant comes up with an idea.  He tells Chowdhari Babu and Shibhcharan that Gaudai and Indu are already married!  He makes up the story that the couple had a Gandharva marriage, which is an hoc type of marriage “based on mutual attraction between two people, with no rituals, witnesses or family participation” that is part of the classical Hindu tradition [2].  Chowdhari Babu and Shibhcharan reluctantly have to accept this state of affairs, and Chowdhari Babu is further appeased when the real Lalit comes forward and agrees to marry Kadambani.  Now Gaudai and Indu are united at last, and the parents are happy.

Meanwhile Kamal, newly assured of her husband’s love, returns home, and she and Vinod are reconciled.

In the final scene, Khantamani returns home and sees her husband Chandrakant packing his suitcase for a trip.  She tearfully asks if she can go with him, and he joyfully accepts.


So everyone finally ends up happy in this rather contrived tale.  We are dealing with people who fall in love based on fleeting glances or songs, and there are no personal, intimate interactions that could provide more substantial material to kindle a loving relationship.  And this lessens the seeming depth and authenticity of these amorous expressions of love.  What seems to be emphasized here instead is the need to respect the individual autonomies of those participating in (or are about to participate in) a marriage relationship.

This rather complex story has been described as hilarious and a “laugh riot” by one reviewer [1].  I wouldn’t go that far, but I was charmed by the enthusiastic performances on the part of the cast, and the effective manner in which the various dramatic elements were woven together.


Notes:
  1. Durga S, “Shesh Rokkha (Dhai aakhar prem ka" – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (8)”, Writersbrew, (3 March 2016).   
  2. “Gandharva marriage”, Wikipedia, (21 January 2019).   

“Daliya”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Dalia” (1892), aka “Daliya” or “Daalia”, concerns the innocence of love in a social climate dominated by family duty, honor, and revenge.  This story served as the basis for the 26th and final episode, “Daliya”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Anurag Basu and directed by Tani Basu.

Tagore’s story, as well as this episode, is set in 17th century Mughal India and concerns real historical personages, which is a departure from most of the episodes of this series that are set sometime in the 1930s.  The themes here, though, should be familiar to readers of other, more contemporary, Tagore stories – the contrast between love (understood to be an intuitive feeling of the heart) and tradition-bound social demands devoted to duty, honor, and revenge.

The historical background elements are concerned with the family of Shah Suja, who was the second son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, known for, among other things, commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal.  Shah Suja was serving as the appointed governor of Bengal, when his father, the emperor, came down with a serious illness.  This led to a ruthless war of succession, which resulted in the brother of Shah Suja, Aurangzeb, acceding to the Mughal throne and Shah Suja’s desperate flight to the Arakan (Rakhine) state in what is now Myanmar.  There the Arakani king supposedly offered refuge to Shah Suja and his family.

We can break the story of “Daliya” into four sections, or “acts”, parts of which are dramatized flashbacks.  Note that since this story has a surprise ending, you may want to avoid reading my account of the final act, as well as that of another review [1], before you see it for the first time.

1.  A Forest Caravan

At the outset a caravan transporting a litter (hand-carried sedan) is shown traveling through the forest.  We will soon learn that the principal figures of this caravan are: 
  • a well-dressed young woman, Zulekha (played by Preeti Sharma)
  • Zulekha’s attendant, “Uncle” Rehmat Khan (Dadhi Raj)
  • Zulekha’s younger sister Amina (Shriya Sharma)
  • a fisherman friend of Amina’s named Daliya (Kirin Srinivas)
  • Amina’s fisherman stepfather, Budha (Niraj Sah). 
During a rest stop, Rehmat tells Budha that his adopted daughter is about to marry a king.  In order to explain why, Rehmat has to give Budha some background information.  Although later important background information will be presented in dramatized flashbacks, this background is told verbally.  Rehmat tells him that
  1. Amina’s real father was Shah Suja, the brother of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who had taken refuge in Arakan.
  2. Years ago the Arakani king Sudamma had wanted his three sons to be married to Shah Suja’s three daughters, but Shah Suja rejected the offer/demand.  King Sudamma was so angered by this rejection that he decided to have Shah Suja killed.  So the King of Arakan ordered them all (Shah Suja and his three daughters) to be taken out in a boat and drowned.
  3. In the event, Shah Suja and one of the daughters died, but the other two daughters, Zulekha and Amina, as well as Rehmat, somehow managed to escape immediate death. 
  4. Although Rehmat and Zulekha had escaped, Amina, who was then a just small child, had been swept away in the water.  It turned out, though, that the fisherman Budha had found Amina in the water and rescued her.
  5. One day not long ago, Rehmat had heard from one of his informers (played by Samrat Chakraborty, who also wrote the dialogue for this episode) that King Sudamma had passed away and that his son Budh Dutt (not to be confused with fisherman Budha) had become king of Arakan.  
  6. The informer also told Rehmat that the new king Budh Dutt Sudamma had recently gone hunting and had seen Amina, now a young woman, in the distance walking in the forest.  He was immediately smitten by her beauty, and it was now his intention to marry the girl.
  7. Hearing this and guessing that this girl must be sister Amina, Zulekha and Rehmat, who obtained from the informer the approximate location of the girl, had decided to go find her before King Budh Dutt did.
Thus the caravan’s participants that we see indicate that Zulekha and Rehmat had found Amina.

2.  Flashback – Zulekha Meets Amina
The story now moves to a flashback sequence depicting when Zulekha, riding in her litter through the forest, spotted Amina running nearby.  After they meet and embrace, Amina takes her sister to meet her “father”, the humble fisherman Budha.  Zulekha wanted to find her younger sister before the Arakan king did so that she could convey to her the necessity of doing her duty – commit a murder.  In order to avenge the brutal killing of their father and their older sister, it was necessary, she told Amina, for her to kill the king when she had the chance.  Even though this act of revenge would probably cost the girl her own life, it was absolutely necessary for Amina to fulfil her familial duty.  For her part, Amina expresses the (correct) opinion that revenge is pointless, and she is undecided about accepting her sister’s command to take revenge.

But we also see in other flashbacks that Amina has a very friendly relationship with another local boy, Daliya, who is another humble fisherman.  Indeed, Zulekha can readily see that the insouciant and flirtatious way that Daliya acts toward Amina suggests to her that the two of them are in love.

3.  A   Marriage Proposal is Received
Budha now receives an official marriage proposal from King Budh Dutt Sudamma for his stepdaughter, and the king also wants to have a meeting with the girl before the marriage.  Zulekha is excited, because she feels that this meeting will offer her sister the best opportunity to kill the king.  Again, she insistently calls on Amina to fulfil her duty to enact revenge.  And Amina reluctantly accepts.

But as Amina thinks things over, she realizes to her regret that the man she really cares about, Daliya, doesn’t seem unhappy that she is about to marry the Arakani king.  She realizes that she really loves Daliya.  This is the most beautiful part of the story, because it portrays Amina’s inner struggle between her heart and her sense of duty.  Even Zulekha, seeing her sister’s ardor for Daliya, begins to question whether her own obsession for revenge justifies sacrificing her dear sister’s life.

As the time approaches to go to the meeting with the king, Amina desperately tells Daliya that she loves him and that she wants to elope with him.  But Daliya just laughs her off and tells her he is too carefree for marriage.

4.  Meeting the King
Zulekha and Amina go to the arranged prenuptial meeting place, and just before Amina is about to go alone into the king’s chamber, Zulekha hands her sister their father’s bejeweled dagger.  She has been saving it for years for the right moment, and now the time has come. 

Amina enters the room and approaches the royally robed king from behind.  Trembling, she raises the unsheathed dagger to strike.  But at that moment, the king turns to face her and reveals himself to be her dear Daliya!  Seeing his face, Amina faints, and the king/Daliya carries the unconscious girl to the bed. 

Zulekha, who had been waiting outside, rushes into the room.  Daliya explains to her that he knew all along who Amina really was, and that he figured that the only way he could ever get her to accept him was to approach her first as a commoner.  He wanted her to see him without thinking of all the treachery associated with her father’s murder, which he admitted was a terrible wrong.  He tells Zulekha that he truly loves Amina.  When Amina awakens, she is thrilled to see her beloved Daliya tending to her.  And Zulekha is finally won over, too.


This is another moving story about love triumphing over all obstacles.  But a key feature here is that in this story, it is a man’s, not a woman’s, faith in love that turns the tide and wins the heart.  And Daliya accomplished this not by relying on his earthly powers, but by following the dictates of his compassionate heart.


Notes:
  1. Durga S, “The Happy Endings – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (10)”, Writersbrew, (27 March 2016).   

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

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Monihara”, aka “The Lost Jewels” [1] (1898), is a haunting ghost story about duty, greed, guilt, and grief.  This story served as the basis for the 25th episode, “Monihara” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been scripted and directed by Debatma Mandal

Tagore’s story about a married couple, whose conflicting visions of what matters in life bring them both to ruin, operates on several levels.  On one level it is a straightforward tale of how excessive greed brings tragedy.  Then it moves into a ghost story, which may be hallucinatory, that is driven by excessive grief.  But on another level, the story concerns and toys with the nature of narrative, itself. 

This story was the basis of one of the featured segments of Satyajit Ray’s earlier Teen Kanya (1961), which I have also reviewed [3]; and it is interesting to compare how these two filmed versions of the story differ.  Ray’s version of the story follows Tagore’s original scheme quite literally, and, in particular, it more closely sustains the original story’s aura of otherworldly mystery.  In contrast, in Mandal’s version there are some differences from Tagore’s (and Ray’s) telling; and as a consequence it loses some of that ghost-story flavor in order to concentrate its focus on inner suffering.  The shift is from horror to grief.

The narrative of Monihara, which comprises a story within a story, can be considered to have six segments, with the first and sixth segments composing the outer story.

1.  At a Riverbank the Recounting of a Story Commences

The story begins with a local townsman, Narayan (played by Atul Srivastava), taking up his usual fishing spot along a river and noticing a stranger sitting on a nearby rock by the river.  When Narayan observes the stranger contemplatively staring at a dilapidated mansion over on the other side, he tells the man that he will relate to him an old story about that mansion that is well-known to the local people.  At this point the narrative shifts to the inner story that makes up most of the film.

2.  Fani and Monimala
The occupants of that mansion were a young married couple, Fani Bushan Saga (Ajay Chaudhary) and his wife, Monimala (Poorvi Mundada).  Fani is a successful silk merchant, and he dotes on his beautiful and vain wife by regularly showering her with gifts of sumptuous jewelry that he can purchase from his ample earnings.  Right away the viewer can see that the stranger to whom Narayan is telling this story is Fani.  This marks a significant departure from Tagore’s and Ray’s telling, where the identity of the mysterious stranger on the riverbank is only revealed at the end of the tale.

And interestingly, Fani wears horned-rim glasses, which is a common feature of many of the male protagonists in this series.  Horned-rim glasses suggest a mild-mannered, middle-class bearing that contrasts with the more emotive female characters in this series.  Since they first became popular in the 1920s, their presence here also suggests that this episode has a setting in conformity with most of the episodes in this series – sometime in the 1930s.

For her part, Monimala is obsessed with her own glamour and incessantly seeks more of the necklesses, bracelets, brooches, and bangles that her husband keeps giving her.  She admits to him that her very identity is defined by the degree to which her beauty is decorated.  In fact one’s self-identity is something of a theme in this film.  For Monimala her identity is based on her bejeweled self-image; while Fani’s self-identity is centered around his image of marital bliss.

We are also introduced to Madhusudan (Puneet Kumar), a distant relative of Monimala’s who has come to work in their household as a laborer for Fani.  It is clear that Madhusudan is an unscrupulous lowlife who is only interested in money.

One day Fani learns that a shipment of his silk was pirated in the Bay of Bengal and that he faces an enormous financial loss.  To help restore his business, he asks Monimala if he can use her jewelry as collateral for a bank loan that he needs, assuring her he will return her jewelry to her in a few days.  But she is horrified at this prospect of even temporarily losing her jewelry, and she sees his request as an existential threat.  She reminds him that it is a husband’s irrevocable duty to satisfy his wife’s needs. 

So Fani accepts his wife’s demands, and he tells her that he will go alone to Kolkata and see if he can raise the needed money from some of his associates.

3.  Monimala and Madhusudan

Home alone with her unsavory “brother” Madhusudan, Monimala gets a letter from Fani informing her that he is having trouble securing the needed funds, but that he will try to be home soon.  This news puts the woman into a complete panic about her precious jewelry, and she decides to run away with her jewelry to her father’s home.  She asks Madhusudan to take her there, and they set off in a rowboat down the river.  Along the way, we see Madhusudan greedily eyeing Monimala’s jewelry box, and we know that something horrible is about to happen.

4.  Fani Returns Home
The action jumps forward to show Fani happily returning home from Kolkata.  He has secured the money he needs to save his business, but he only finds an empty house – both Monimala and her jewelry box are missing.  Thinking that Monimala has gone to her father’s house, he asks his steward, “uncle” Santosh (Arvind Parab), to go there and bring her back.  That night Fani hears from his bed mysterious noises in the hallway.  Then Santosh reports back that Monimala never made it to her father’s house.

So the police are summoned, and they conduct an all-out search for Monimala.  They do find her empty jewelry box floating in the river, but they fail to find any trace of the woman.  Fani, of course, is extremely disturbed.

5.  Mysterious Visions
That night Fani hears a woman’s voice mysteriously calling to him, “please forgive me.”  He goes out into the hallway, but again noone is there.  The next night Fani has lost hope of finding his beloved, and he tearfully gazes at the jeweled brooch he had brought back from Kolkata to give to Monimala. 

At this point a vision of Monimala appears and joyfully asks him, “is that for me?”  Fani is overjoyed to see his beloved, but then the ghost suddenly disappears.  So Fani goes out to the hallway again, and this time the ghost of Monimala reappears and reaches oout to take his hand.  Then she silently guides him outside and down to the river.  Still holding his hand, the beautiful ghost slowly takes Fani out partway into the water, and then again suddenly vanishes.  As if in a trance, Fani slowly turns around and sees his Monimala’s dead body floating in the water.  Shattered by what he sees, Fani falls face-down in the water and remains motionless.  His unbounded grief brings him to join her in death.

6.  The Story’s End
At this point Narayan has come to the end of his story, and he discusses his own thoughts about how true the story may be with the stranger to whom he has told it.  He reminds the stranger that, after all, it’s only a story and that Nature has more important things to do than to make up entertaining stories.  This comment about narrative’s place in the grand scheme of things is in Tagore’s original story, too.  

Then Narayan asks the stranger, whom we have clearly seen all along is Fani, how he liked the story.  The stranger says that the story is good, but it contains a few errors.  Astonished, Narayan asks the stranger how he could know that the story had some errors.  Then when he looks over at the stranger, he sees that he has disappeared.  Terrified at the realization that he has all along been speaking to an apparition, Narayan runs away.


So the ghost-story aspects of this tale permeate both the inner and outer narrative.  Narayan has been talking all this time to Fani Bushan Saga’s ghost.  This is a key and cdommon feature of all three versions (Tagore’s original text, Ray’s Teen Kanya, and Mandal’s version here), but this version has two elements that distinguish it from the two previous versions:
  1. One is the already-mentioned fact that the identity of the stranger that Narayan meets by the riverbank is immediately seen by the viewer to be Fani.   This shifts the viewer’s perspective concerning narrative weight somewhat and casts Fani more in the role of the main character.  From the outset we want to know what happened to him.
     
  2. Another distinguishing feature is that in Tagore’s story, Monimala’s reappearance at the end as a ghost is in the form of a skeleton, while in this film, her ghostly reappearance is in her usual beauteous bodily form.
In both of the above cases, Tagore’s tale is more of a horror story, and Mandal’s version moves back from the ghastly horror evoked in Tagore’s and Ray’s version and takes a turn towards sympathy and sadness for the departed love.  Monimala’s obsessive narcissism led both to the loss of her own life and to the loss of the life of the one person devoted to satisfying her self-love in all possible ways.  It is a sad reminder that sometimes we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.
½

Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Lost Jewels”, (1898), (translated by W. W. Pearson), The Modern Review, pp. 630-636, (1917), The Internet Archive, (4 July 2015).   
  2. Durga S, “The Uncanny – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (9)”, Writersbrew, (9  March 2016).      
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Teen Kanya’ - Satyajit Ray (1961)”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2017).