“Maanbhanjan”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Maanbhanjan” (“Fury Appeased”), the fifth episode of the well-received anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) that was created and directed by Anurag Basu, is based on the short story of the same name that Tagore (1861-1941) published in 1895 [1].  It tells the story of some people consumed by the adulation that can arise from role-playing. 

The story concerns Gopinath (played by Trishaan), a young zamindar who got married to his wife, Giribala (Ranjini Chakraborty), when they were both children.  As they grew up together, they were playmates and had a close relationship.  But as Giribala tells it, when Gopinath’s father died and he took over the zamindar responsibilities, Gopinath’s relationship with Giribala cooled.  Although we can clearly see that Giribala is elegant and beautiful, Gopinath now neglects his wife and spends most of his time, even his evenings, outside their home.  Giribala is left alone in their mansion and idly spends time playing games of chess with herself.

While Giribala is left home in the evenings, Gopinath is out attending theatrical stage shows. There he fixes his gaze on lead actress Latika (Purva Naresh), whose performances he worshipfully applauds.  In fact Gopinath is having an extra-marital affair with Latika, and he sneaks backstage after her performances to spend more intimate time with her. But Gopinath is possessive, and he grudgingly confesses to her that he doesn’t like it when other people gaze at her.

When the viewer sees Latika, he or she is immediately challenged with the question as to what it is about the woman that so attracts Gopinath. Compared to Giribala’s refined beauty, Latika is fleshy and earthy, and from appearances alone she would seem to be no match for the woman.  But Latika’s allure seems to come from the fact that she is performing romantic roles on stage that fire her audience’s imagination.  She is like a media star, and she comports herself with the confidence of a star.  She is used to being admired, and she expects the adulation she receives.

Eventually Giribala sends her woman attendant Shudhomukhi (Natasha Pillai) out to track her husband’s evening activities, and the woman reports back about his watching Latika on stage.  She also remarks that Latika looks like a very unlikely candidate for his affections.  Now more curious than ever, Giribala decides to go out to the theater and see things for herself. When she sees Latika emerge from her dressing room after her show and face her adoring fans, including Gopinath, Giribala cringes with jealousy.

When she starts attending the theatrical shows, though, Giribala quickly becomes rapt with feeling for the characters she is experiencing vicariously.  Soon she is laughing and crying at what she sees being performed before her.  So while Latika revels in being the focus of so much empathy, Giribala is on the other side, immersed in empathic feeling.  They are both enthralled by the potency of shared experiences generated by role-playing.

So Giribala goes home and decides to do some glamorous role-playing for Gopinath.  She dresses up as a legendary princess and tries to seduce her husband.  But he will have none of it.  Instead he rewards her coquettishness by rudely roughing her up and then storming out of the house to  see Latika.

Meanwhile Latika, knowing that her infatuated lover, Gopinath, is a rich zamindar, imperiously commands him to fund a lavish new stage production for her.  This he proceeds to do, and he gets the best director, musicians, and production designers for the task.  However, when rehearsals begin, the production’s new director looks critically at Latika’s skills.   He is not a stage-struck fan, but a hardened professional, and he sees her work as awkward and coarse.  When Gopinath walks in on a rehearsal and sees Latika suffering from the director’s scornful criticism, he angrily whisks her out of the show and proceeds to elope with her out to a remote country residence.  Giribala has now been thoroughly abandoned.

Gopinath and Latika are presumably now living in romantic bliss, but Latika begins longing for the old excitement of performing before an enraptured audience.  She reads in the newspaper that there is a new diva superstar drawing rave reviews for her performance as Miribai, and she presses to go back to Kolkata and see how the woman performs. 

When they go back and attend a show, Gopinath is stunned to see that the new diva is none other than Giribala, whose moving soulful performance tops whatever Latika could do.  Now it is Latika’s turn to humbly watch Giribala emerge after the show to face her own adoring fans.


The ending of “Maanbhanjan” brings to mind the ending of Random Harvest (1942). Sometimes a person long searches for paradise, not realizing that the sought-after heavenly goal was standing there right in front of him or her all the time.  Gopinath had fabricated a romantic narrative out of Latika’s persona that was based on her fantasy role-playing on the stage.  When he sees Giribala in that same kind of role at the end, he can’t take it.  His possessive nature has now been completely overturned.

With respect to the two women in this story, Giribala and Latika, they were both captivated by the lure of performing.  They wanted to play romantic roles that would appeal to their audiences, but perhaps Giribala was more fully and soulfully immersed than was Latika in the romantic roles she was playing. That made her even more alluring.
½

Notes:
  1. Durgas, “Atithi, Maanbhanjan & Detective – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2)”. Writersbrew, (23 July 2015).  

“Atithi”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Antithi” (“The Guest”) is the fourth episode of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) that was created and directed by Anurag BasuThe episode is based on the short story of the same name that Tagore (1861-1941) published in 1895.  It tells the story of a gentle teenage boy consumed with wanderlust.

At the beginning, the teenage boy Tarapada (played by Rohan Shah) is shown working in the service of a minstrel singer who wanders about the countryside seeking alms for his spiritual songs.  The boy, who has taken his minstrel master to be a spiritual sage, is surprised to hear him talk onetime about mundane concerns. His master responds by saying that the boy must presumably be, like many youngsters, in search of the meaning of life.  But the boy says to himself:
“I simply want to live life.

I don’t want to ask the tall trees how they grew so big. I simply want to watch their vastness and feel delighted.

I don’t want to question the flow of the river.  I simply want to watch it flowing, for miles on end. 

I want to assimilate this unique aspect of nature within myself. I want to lose myself and not find myself. I want to dissolve, as the sun dissolves in water.

I don’t know the meaning of life.  But I want to know what life is.”
It is on this account that Tarapada, perpetually searching for new experiences with life’s wonders, has many times run away from his home and family. So the boy now wanders off on his own and encounters a zamindar, named Motilal, and his family traveling on the river in a budgerow (houseboat).  When the boat docks, the helpful boy makes himself useful to the zamindar’s retinue, and soon he is taken on as an extra helper.

Although Tarapada is at first only a servant, his constantly cheerfully congenial and assistive nature soon endears the boy to the zamindar’s family.  When he is not industriously attending his chores, he charms the family with his singing and flute-playing.  In fact Tarapada’s many soulful vocal serenades charm this viewer, too, and are a feature of this episode.

After awhile the zamindar and his wife invite Tarapada to come to their stately mansion, and they begin treating the boy like a member of their own family.  But not everyone is pleased with this new situation.  The zamindar’s preteen daughter, Charusashi (aka Charu), is spoiled and not used to sharing the spotlight of the family’s attention with someone else. Soon she is petulantly disrupting or spoiling as many of Tarapada’s activities as possible.  When the good-natured boy refuses to take offense at her shenanigans and tries to befriend her, she simply sulks and turns away.

Things only get worse for Charu’s spoiled ego when she learns that her father has begun teaching the inquisitive boy English.  Charu demands to be included in the English instruction, but she doesn’t have the discipline to learn; she only wants to be the center of attention.  When that fails, she insolently spoils Tarapada’s homework by pouring ink all over it.  All during this time, though, Tarapada remains patient and forgiving.  And little by little, Charu slowly warms to Tarapada’s presence, and they start spending more time together.

At this time Motilal and his wife are thinking of choosing a marriage partner for Charu.  Although the girl is very young, the arranged marriage of preteen girls was common in India at this time (Rabindrath Tagore’s own wife was only ten-years-old when she was married to him).  However, when an audience is arranged for a prospective groom’s family, it is spoiled by Charu’s ill-tempered tantrum, and Motilal and his wife realize that it will be difficult to find anyone who can put up with Charu’s petulance. 

They finally come to the conclusion that Tarapada would make an ideal husband for Charu.  Although he comes from a poor family, he is intelligent, cooperative, industrious, and seems to be the only one who could tame Charu’s self-indulgence.  Motilal is so impressed with the boy that he also intends to include him as his partner in managing his landlord estate. Tarapada will become more than a guest, he will become like a step-son, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the boy. But can he resist his eternal urge to hearken to and follow the song of the open road?  You will find out at the conclusion of this story.


Overall, “Atithi” is a tale that is exquisitely told.  It displays a poetic lyricism featuring an almost  perfect blend of soulful music and atmospheric imagery.  In fact for the expression of its narrative theme, it stands as a cinematic “tone poem”.

“Chokher Bali”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Chokher Bali” (“Speck in the Eye”, 1901) is a novel by Rabindranath Tagore that was adapted by Anurag Basu for his Indian television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015 – Episodes 1, 2, and 3).  This story revolves around four characters and their evolving amorous relationships, which are complicated by the machinations of arranged marriage:
  • Binodini (played by Radhika Apte) is an educated young woman who becomes the object of the affections of the other two men in this story.
     
  • Mahendra (Bhanu Uday) is a young man studying to be a doctor.
     
  • Ashalata (Tara-Alisha Berry) is a beautiful, but uneducated, young woman who marries Mahendra.
     
  • Bihari (Sumeet Vyas) is another young man studying to be a doctor and is Mahendra’s close friend.  Since he and Mahendra have been very close since boyhood, they consider themselves to be “brothers”. 
The story is told nonlinearly, beginning when Binodini and Bihari accidentally meet six years after the tale’s main events, which are then recounted in various flashbacks.  The major narrative events of this earlier period can be pieced together from this as follows:
  1. Binodini is offered in marriage by her mother to Mahendra, who declines the opportunity of even meeting the girl because he feels he is not ready to marry.  She is then offered to Bihari, who also declines because he was the second choice.
     
  2. Binodini is then married to another man (not seen in this story) who dies in the first year of their marriage, leaving Binodini as a young widow.  Widows in traditional Indian culture were expected always to wear white saris, signifying their perpetual state of mourning, and were essentially sidelined from participating in social society.
     
  3. Ashalata is later offered in marriage to Bihari, but when Mahendra chances a glimpse of the beautiful girl, he changes his mind about marriage and importunes on his friend to let him marry her instead.  Bihari accepts his friend’s request, and Mahendra and Ashalata are married.  The newly married couple then fall passionately in love with each other and spend all of their time in the conjugal bedroom.
     
  4. Binodini happens to encounter Mahendra’s mother, who is also a widow, and the young widow is invited to come live with her and her son.  When Binodini arrives, she sees the man who spurned her and vengefully sets herself the task of luring Mahendra away from Ashalata.
     
  5. Binodini seduces Mahendra, and they commence an affair under the nose of the innocent Ashalata.  The more introverted Bihari is also around, and he also falls in love with Binodini, but from a distance.
     
  6. But when Binodini finally does decide that Bihari is the one she really likes, he has already moved away and is out of touch.
Within the context of this matrix of events, Basu tells this tale in the form of a sequence of passionate excerpts from an existing, presumably known but only dimly articulated, narrative.  There is no real character development or progressive psychological motivation expressed in this story telling.  Instead it reels from one passionate, moody situation to another, without the narrative development needed for motivation.  Tagore’s novel, which I haven’t read, presumably has this more in-depth character development that I am looking for, as well more subtle allusions to the cultural prejudices concerning widowhood that pervaded in Indian society. Since these are missing from the episodes under discussion, it would probably be helpful to be already familiar with the main story sequence before watching these episodes.

In addition to the obscurity of the narrative progression, there are also some other weaknesses in this presentation.  There are some confusing shifts of context between the “final” meeting between Binodini and Bihari and the six-years-earlier events recounted in flashback.  This is because Binodini is always wearing a white sari in both contexts, so cuts back to the six-years-later context are often unsignaled.  Director Basu tried to solve this problem by showing Bihari sporting a beard and wearing glasses in the six-years-later context (he is clean-shaven and not bespectacled in the earlier segments).  But this doesn’t always work, because the focus of attention is usually on Binodini.  There are also a number of scenes littered with shaky hand-held camera shots and jump-cuts that can be disrupting to the viewer.  In addition, the acting performance of Bhanu Uday as Mahendra, though emphatic, is weak and artificial.

But there are some compensating virtues to Basu’s presentation, too.  As mentioned, there are a number of emotive, atmospheric sequences conveying passion, longing, and melancholy that are very affecting. These are conveyed by breathtakingly artistic visual compositions with carefully shaded chiaroscuro and character orchestration.  And they are all complemented by the stirring music of series composer Anurag Saikia.  In addition, the moving performance of Radhika Apte as Binodini in many of these scenes is particularly effective.  Her expressive features suggesting suppressed passions are what will linger in your memory.  They remind us that love is a many splendored thing and often the driving force behind our most earnest aspirations.

“Stories by Rabindranath Tagore” - Anurag Basu (2015)

Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) is an Indian television series and covers novels and stories by the great Indian writer and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).  Although Tagore wrote his works in his native Bengali language, the series presentation language is Hindi.  (For more commentary on Tagore, see my review of Satyajit Ray's documentary Rabindranath Tagore (1961) [1]).

The series was created and directed by well-known film director Anurag Basu, who adapted Tagore’s stories in accordance with his own aesthetic schemes and rhythms.  The series features a number of songs written by Tagore, and the overall series music was composed by Anurag Saikia.  

Because of the hour-long format of the series, some of Tagore’s stories are spread over more than one episode.  The series when presented was well receive by the Indian press and the public [2].

The Tagore stories depicted in this series are linked, so that at the conclusion of one story, background characters of the story just concluded are seen to be significant characters of a story about to be told.  Thus at the end of each story, there is a direct lead-in to the next story.  Sometimes, however, these end-of-episode lead-ins to the next story are distractingly too lengthy and contain some significant narrative information that is not repeated when the succeeding episode is presented.
½

Episodes from Stories by Rabindranath Tagore:
  • “Chokher Bali”Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 – Anurag Basu (2015)
  • "Atithi"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 4 – Anurag Basu (2015)
  • "Maanbhanjan"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 5 – Anurag Basu (2015)
  • "Detective", Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 6 – Anurag Basu (2015)
Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, "'Rabindranath Tagore' - Satyajit Ray (1961)", The Film Sufi, (15 November 2017).
  2. Sankhayan Ghosh, “Tagore’s stories have a strange sense of gender equality: Anurag Basu”, The Indian Express, (3 July 2015).    

Anurag Basu

Films of Anurag Basu: