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

Rabindranath Tagore’s story “Aparichita” (“The Unknown Woman” [1], 1916) relates how the course of a young man’s life is fundamentally altered in an unexpected fashion by an “unknown woman”.  This story served as the basis for the 20th episode, “Aparichita” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu.  Samrat Chakraborty wrote the screenplay and dialogue for this episode, which was directed by Debatma Mandal.

Tagore’s story “Aparichita” is interesting in several respects.  In common with a number of stories in this series and in alignment with a significant Tagorean theme, it features an independent-minded young woman striving to find her way in a traditional male-dominated society.  In particular, aspects of this story hinge on specifics of the way traditional Indian arranged marriages are/were structured.  And although the story concerns a potentially romantic hookup between a man and a woman, it doesn’t evolve the way most such encounters do.

The story is told from the perspective of the young man who meets this unique woman, but there are some significant differences between the way Tagore tells the story and the way Chakraborty and Mandal tell it.  Tagore’s story is a first-person narration, and the events covered are described in a linear  timeline.  However, in this filmed version, the events are dramatized, and their presentation is laced with several flashbacks that may have a confusing effect on the viewer, as I will discuss below.

The story of “Aparichita” in this filmed version passes through six phases in a nonlinear fashion.

1.  On the Train
The story begins with a young man in his early twenties, Anupam (played by Kranri Prakash Jha), who is accompanying his widowed mother on a train to Haridwar.  Anupam is clearly a well-mannered son who is attentive to his mother’s comfort.  While their train is stopped at a station, Anupam hears from his train compartment a young woman, whose name we will later learn is Kalyani (Abigail Pande), outside on the station platform shepherding some young girls in her company as they look for some vacant seats on the train.  In Tagore’s story we are explicitly told that Anupam was bewitched by the mellifluous tones of the young woman’s voice, but in this filmed version we only see his smiling facial expression.  In fact in the story, Tagore expresses his appreciative wonder over the charms of the human voice [1] –
“I have always been fascinated by the human voice. The physical beauty appeals to everyone but to me it is the voice that really conveys the essence of what is unique and elusive in a person.”
– and this concern has some significance in the original story that may be overlooked by viewers of the filmed version.  In any case, the sound of this woman’s voice evidently causes Anupam to ruminate over some events that transpired two years earlier.

2.  Two Years Earlier – Harish Visits
Anupam has recently been graduated from the university, and he is visited by his friend (and perhaps cousin) Harish (Asim Ahmed) from Kanpur.  Hamish, after cordially scolding Anupam for not having the gumption to find a suitable wife for himself, informs his friend that he has found an ideal marriage candidate for him.  The girl’s name is Kalyani, and she is the only child of businessman Shambhunath Sen in Kanpur.  After getting Anupam’s consent, Harish approaches Anupam’s young uncle Ajit (Harsh Khurana), who is now the head of his mother’s household, to agree to arrange for the marriage between Anupam and Kalyani.  We see quickly that even though Ajit is only about thirty years old, he is an assertive and prideful man and that the respectful Anupam is always obedient to his demands.  As with many traditional Indian families, Ajit is not concerned whether Anupam and Kalyani are a good  match but instead whether the two families are a good match, i.e. whether the Sen family is worthy of being conjoined with their family.  So Ajit sends Anupam’s older brother Vinod to Kanpur in order to inspect the Sen family.

While Vinod is visiting the Sen family in Kanpur, Anupam calls up their residence to speak to his brother, and we see a young lady, presumably Kalyani, answer the phone.  At this point the viewer can see what Anupam can’t – what Kalyani looks like and that she is the same woman that Anupam would encounter two years later on the train.  In fact given the rigidity of Hindu Indian marriage arrangements, the lesser commonality of photographs at that time, and Anupam’s subservience, he is unable to see what Kalyani looks like until the actual marriage ceremony, itself. 

Note that this early connection between marriage candidate Kalyani and the unknown woman on the train is something that was not made in Tagore’s story, which followed a linear timeline.  Connecting the two of them at this point early in the film was an aesthetic decision on the part of the filmmakers that, similar to Random Harvest (1942), had dramatic tradeoffs that you may question (although the filmmakers of Random Harvest hardly had a choice in this matter). 

3.  On the Train (again)
Back on the train again two years later, Anupam can be seen overhearing with pleasure the chatter from the next train compartment, where the unknown woman (Kalyani) has found empty seats for herself and the young girls in her company.  Anupam would like to talk to them, but he is too timid to knock on their door.  It doesn’t matter, because after awhile Kalyani and her girls are dispossessed of their seats by people who have reserved them, and Kalyani asks Anupam’s mother if she and her girls can move into their compartment.  Anupam’s mother cordially informs her that she and Anupam have reserved the entire compartment for themselves and that Kalyani and her girls are welcome to join them. 

4.  Two Years Earlier – the Wedding
Continuing the narrative thread of two year earlier, Vinod reports back to Ajit that the Sen family is acceptably humble and that, as per his instructions from Ajit, he has gotten Shambhunath Sen (Kali Prasad Mukherjee) to agree to all their demands, since the bride’s family must host the wedding ceremony.  The wedding arrangements proceed as planned.  However, just before the actual ceremony, Ajit tells Shambhunath Sen that he wants his own goldsmith to assess the true value Kalyani’s wedding jewels, which are part of the bride’s dowry.  Naturally, Shambhunath Sen is silently offended, but he agrees to go ahead with the inspection if Anupam is in agreement with Ajit’s intentions.  Anupam is summoned and as usual quietly expresses his submissive assent to Ajit’s  inspection. 

The inspection goes ahead, and the bride’s jewelry is confirmed by the goldsmith to be authentic and of a high standard.  Then Shambhunath Sen unexpectedly feeds a dinner to all the wedding guests and afterwards informs everyone that the wedding is cancelled.  He will not have his daughter wedded to a family that thinks her father could be a swindler.  Ajit is furious and vows revenge.  And Anupam has still not set sight on Kalyani – he still doesn’t know what she looks like.  So it is finally clear to the viewer why Anupam doesn’t recognize Kalyani later on the train.

5.  On the Train (once again)
Returning to the later narrative thread on the train, we see Anupam again charmed to listen to Kalyani read fairy tales to the young girls who are with her.  But then at a train stop they are confronted by two pushy male British passengers who demand possession of their train compartment and order them to vacate.  Anupam is timidly ready to submit to their demands, but Kalyani refuses to budge, insisting that they have the legal right to remain in their compartment.  After a brief standoff, the insolent British passengers give way, and Kalyani triumphantly returns to her seat. 

This is a seminal moment in the story, because it delineates a fundamental difference between Anupam and Kalyani.  While Anupam is respectful and genteel, he is too timid to stand up for what is right.  Kalyani, on the other hand is a principled idealist and will fight for what is right.  Impressed by Kalyani’s brave stand, Anupam’s mother asks her name, and she replies that she is Kalyani, daughter of Shambhunath Sen from Kanpur.  It is at this point that Anupam finally learns that this charming woman is the person he was supposed to marry two years earlier.

6.  Two Weeks Later
Hoping to rectify his past errors, Anupam approaches Shambhunath Sen and begs his forgiveness.  He says that he has long since disconnected himself from his pride-hungry uncle Ajit and that he really wants to marry Kalyani.  Shambhunath Sen says he has no objection, but the decision is really up to Kalyani.

When Anupam approaches Kalyani, she courteously tells him that he just wants to assuage his guilt feelings and that he should forget about her.  She flatly rejects his renewed marriage proposal.  In fact, she tells him, their earlier marriage fiasco was a blessing in disguise for her.  It allowed her to discover something that would give true meaning to her life – a career devoted to educating young orphan girls.

The final scene shows Anupam writing a letter to his friend Harish.  He tells him that he is now working in Allahabad supporting Kalyani’s efforts to launch a school there for orphan girls.  He adds further:
“Kalyani can never be mine.  The two banks of a river can never meet.  But they can at least move together.  I just want to be a small part of Kalyani’s big dream.”
So the story ends on a curiously positive note.  What the rudderless Anupam needed was not a traditional wife, but a person who could inspire his basically well-intentioned self to take the bit between his teeth and positively engage in a meaningful mission, one based on the idealistic principles that his new life’s guide, Kalyani, believes in.

This episode is interesting and well-made, with excellent dramatic performances by all.  However, as I mentioned above, it would have been good if the filmmakers had placed more of an emphasis, as did Tagore’s original story, on the engaging effects of Kalyani’s sweet-sounding voice on Anupam’s soul.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “Aparichita” (1916), (trans. by Meenakshi Mukherjee ,1992), Scribd.  
  2. Durga S, “The Happy Endings – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (10)”, Writersbrew, (27 March 2016).   

“Two Sisters”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Sachin Deo (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s story/novella “Dui Bon” (“Two Sisters” [1], 1933) shows two contrasting womanly ways of relating to men, and in this tale one man experiences both types.  This story served as the basis for the 17th and 18th episodes, “Two Sisters”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu.  Basu wrote the screenplay and dialogue for these two episodes, which were both directed by Sachin Deo.

Tagore wrote a number of stories that sensitively considered man-woman relationships, at least partially and often substantially, from the woman’s perspective, and several of them are included in this series.  In “The Broken Nest” (“Nastanirh”), a young wife is faced with the attentions of two men, her husband and his cousin.  Here in “Two Sisters”, the roles are reversed, and a married man must choose between his wife and her sister.

The two sisters featured in this story each embody one of the two different ways that Tagore mentions at the story’s outset by which women may care for the men they are attached to:
  • the Maternal type.  They want to satisfy all the needs of the men they care for.  This means looking after every last detail of their beloved’s lives and nurturing them with loving concern.
  • the Lover type.  They want to dance endlessly with their beloved.  This means being a constant companion and playmate in the never-ending journey through life’s wonders.
Of course, most men would like to find a woman who combines both of these types, but that is extremely difficult.

The story of “Two Sisters” is concerned with four principal characters, each of whom is distinctly profiled:
  • Shashaank (played by Bhanu Uday Singh) is a young engineer working for a British-owned company.  He is friendly and cooperative, but he is also self-indulgent and rarely looks beyond the horizon of his own selfish concerns.
  • Sharmila (Shreye Narayan) is the daughter of a now-deceased wealthy zamindar, Ram Mohan, and is Shashaank’s loving wife.  She is the epitome of the aforementioned maternal type and devotes herself round-the-clock to looking after her self-absorbed husband’s every need.
  • Urmimala, or “Urmi”, (Jayashree Venketaramanan) is Sharmila’s younger sister and is studying to be a medical doctor.  She is an instance of the lover type – expressive, fun-loving, and eager to engage in playful interactions with like-minded men.
  • Nirad (Abhishek Narat) was a long-time friend and medical-studies schoolmate of Sharmila’s and Urmi’s recently deceased brother, Hemant.  Ram Mohan had established a hospital to help the needy, and he had wanted Hemant to run it in the future.  But after Hemant’s death, Ram Mohan chose Nirad to be the future manager of the hospital, and to secure that scheme and make Nirad a virtual family member, he had arranged for Nirad and Urmi to be betrothed.  Like Shashaank, Nirad is also self-absorbed, but in other respects the two men are quite different.  Unlike the ebullient but neglectful Shashaank, Nirad is dry, rigorous, and pedantic.  And Nirad is also totally self-reliant and doesn’t need to be looked after like Shashaank does.
In Tagore’s original story, each of these mental dispositions is explicitly articulated, and I consider that to be a strong tenor of the story [1].  However, in this filmed version of the story, Basu has largely eschewed such explicit exposition, and he reveals the characters’ inner landscapes more through their behavior that is shown [2].  This is a major difference and a somewhat risky divergence, but I think Basu and Deo manage to pull things off pretty well.  There are also some other narrative differences between this filmed version and Tagore’s original story which I will mention further on.

The 17th episode of the series, and the first half of this story, begins with some background material concerning the four main characters.  They live in their quarters at the lavish zamindar estate, where their upscale lifestyle is clearly in evidence, and we see that the main characters are all fluent in English.  Sharmila is shown constantly mothering the spoiled Shashaank at home, to the point where Shashaank sometimes complains he is being smothered by her affection.  And opposites Nirad and Shashaank clearly don’t like each other, but they are civil towards each other when they are in each other’s presence.  We also see that Sharmila is starting to suffer from dizzy spells and is perhaps showing the initial signs of a serious illness.

Then Nirad gets word that he has been admitted for professional medical study at Bristol Medical College in London, and he informs Urmi that he will go there alone to study.  Meanwhile Shashaank, who had been anticipating his promotion to chief engineer at his company, is disgruntled to learn that he has been passed over.  Sharmila, mindful of her husband’s wounded pride, strongly urges him to quit his job and find another one.  To facilitate this move, she secretly uses her own personal, inherited wealth to arrange with her uncle Bimal for Shashaank to team up with Bimal in a joint business venture.  When he is informed of this deal, Shashaank reluctantly agrees to it; but once he starts working on the new project he feels that his pride is at stake, and Shashaank devotes himself to the new work as a workaholic.  He spends most of his time working in his office.  Shashaank’s hard work, though, is paying off, and he proudly announces that he has made enough profit to pay off Sharmila’s investment.  So now we have the two men, Nirad and Shashaank, totally focused on their own careers and neglectful of their women partners.

However, Sharmila’s medical condition worsens, and she becomes basically bedridden.  So her sister Urmi comes to her household to look after her and her household duties. This means that we now have Sharmila, Shashaank, and Urmi living in the same quarters, and this gives Urmi and work-preoccupied Shashaank occasional opportunities to interact.

As we move to the 18th episode of the series, there is further coverage of those scant opportunities when Urmi and her workaholic brother-in-law Shashaank can interact alone together, and it can be seen that their similar fun-loving dispositions match well together.  For entertainment Urmi gets Shashaank to take her out to the theater and other places, and it can be seen that they enjoy each others’ company.  When Urmi gets a letter from Nirad informing her that he is going to pursue further medical studies in England and that he now intends to marry an English girl that he has met, thereby breaking off his engagement with Urmi, she just laughs it off.  She is happy with her current preoccupations with Shashaank and Sharmila.

Sharmila watches this budding relationship between Shashaank and Urmi with mixed emotions.  As always, she wants what is best for her loved ones.  Then she gets the shattering news from her doctor that she is terminally ill and may have only weeks to live.  So she urges Shashaank to take Urmi for a brief vacation to Baralpur for a few days.  While there, Shashaank and Urmi, increasingly attracted to each other, share a kiss.  And when they return to their estate home, they surreptitiously spend the night together in bed.

Aware of what is happening, Sharmila is tearful.  And then she gets the further disturbing news from her uncle Bimal that during the time Urmi has been living with them, Shashaank has been totally neglecting his work responsibilities, and that their joint business is now bankrupt and hopelessly in debt.  So Sharmila uses all her remaining wealth to repay Shashaank’s business losses and restore the viability of his business.

Then Sharmila gets Shashaank and Urmi to take her before the idol of Kali at the family temple so that she get them to accept her self-sacrificingly loving and maternal vow.  She tells them:
“Goddess Kali did not make me fit for you.  I did what I could do.  I tried a lot and sometimes I overdid it.  I have made many mistakes, Shashaank. . . . Til today Goddess has never refused anything to me.  I request that even you both will not refuse me the promise that I am going to take from you.   Don’t refuse . . . This is my last wish.   If after my death you both stay together, then I will be able to die peacefully.  Whatever you did not get from me is there in Urmi.  Urmi will not let you feel my absence.”
Then Sharmila tells them that as long as she is still alive, they should live together as a ménage à trois.  Urmi and Shashaank remain shamefully silent and then separately go to their own rooms to think about what to do.

Ultimately, Shashaank vows to stay monogamously with Sharmila and make a personal and concerted effort to nurse her back to health.  Meanwhile Urmi departs silently and leaves Shashaank and Sharmila with good-bye letters.  In her letters she tells them that she is going abroad to diligently study medicine and that she will devote herself to living up to Sharmila’s high standards of loving compassion.  So both Urmi and Shashaank, now going their separate ways, have finally been changed for the better by experiencing the depths of Sharmila’s maternally loving nature.

I should emphasize that this is not so much of a moral tale as it is a narrative exploration of the nature of love.  Even so, there are some significant differences between this filmed version and Tagore’s original story (at least as I read it in English translation [1]).  For one thing, in Tagore’s story the relationship between Shashaank and Urmi never becomes explicitly amorous, as it does in this filmed version.  In addition, in Tagore’s story there is an indication near the end that Sharmila has been given a miraculous medication and that she will make a recovery.  This, of course, offers an altered perspective with respect to how we view the future of Shashaank and Sharmila.  In this connection, there is a key moment late in Tagore’s story, but not present in the filmed version, when Sharmila vows to learn more about her husband’s routine engineering and business activities.  This suggests that she will in the future try to be more of a loving companion.  So at the end of Tagore’s tale, there is a promised coming together of the two womanly types – the lover Urmi vows to be more maternal, and the maternal Sharmila vows to be more of a lover.  This optimistic symmetrical assimilation of virtues at the close of Tagore’s story is missing from the filmed version.

Overall, though, and despite deficient English subtitling once again (they are often held too briefly onscreen), the production values of this filmed version are excellent.  In particular, I would like to call attention to the fine acting, especially that of Shreye Narayan in the role of Sharmila, as well as the atmospheric music and Raja Satankar’s superb cinematography.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Two Sisters: Rabindranath Tagore”, (1933), (trans. by Arunava Sinha, 10 August 2012), Translations – translations of contemporary, modern and classic bengali fiction and poetry by arunava sinha.       
  2. Durga S, “Dui Bon (Two sisters) – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (7)”, Writersbrew, (15 February 2016).   

Robert Benton

Films of Robert Benton:

“Kramer vs. Kramer” - Robert Benton (1979)

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is considered by many to be an outstanding courtroom drama, and indeed the American Film Institute has ranked the film as the 3rd greatest courtroom drama of all time [1].  But in my view the courtroom does not really lie at the heart of this film, and in fact the legal court procedures do not so much serve as an instrument of justice here, but are instead more an instrument in support of self-discovery.  And it is the subtlety and depth of this discovery, about what it means to love your own child, that makes this a memorable film. 

Certainly, for whatever reasons, the film, which was based on Avery Corman’s novel Kramer vs. Kramer (1977) and adapted for the screen by writer-director Robert Benton, was very well-received in all quarters.  It was a hit at the box office and received five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  And it was nominated for four other Oscars – for Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Cinematography (Néstor Almendros), and Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg).  Cinematographer Néstor Almendros, by the way, was already well-known in Europe for his excellent camera work for Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Terence Malick, and it was he who recommended to the producers that Robert Benton, famous for having co-scripted Bonnie and Clyde (1967), be hired to direct Kramer vs. Kramer.

The story of Kramer vs. Kramer concerns and focalizes on a nuclear family in conflict, and one of the things that makes this story special is that all the sides of this conflict are shown with relatively equal sympathy [2].  These are real, complex people, and there are no obvious villains here.   The three family members are:
  • Ted Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman), an ambitious and hardworking art director for a New York advertising firm. 
  • Joanna Kramer (played by Meryl Streep, in perhaps her first major film role) is Ted’s soft-spoken but frustrated housewife.
  • Billy Kramer (Justin Henry) is the Kramers’ six-year-old son.
As we watch the story about Ted, Joanna, and Billy unfold, we can sympathize with them all and recognize a bit of ourselves in each of them.

The film begins with Joanna sadly kissing Billy goodnight and whispering to her sleepy son that she will always love him.  Then Ted comes home late from the office and excited that he has just been promoted by his firm to take over their biggest advertising account.  He is so preoccupied with this promotion that he barely hears her when she tells him she is leaving him and Billy.  We are given no backstory about what precipitated this shocking announcement, but we can guess.  Joanna, a Smith College alumna, feels neglected by her work-obsessed husband and seeks something more fulfilling in life than just being a stay-at-home housewife.

So right away Ted’s life is thrown into turmoil.  He will immediately have to take over all the parenting responsibilities for Billy while still attending to his overloaded work schedule.  With Joanna now out of the picture, the next hour of the film is devoted to covering the ill-prepared Ted’s assumption of his heretofore neglected fatherly duties.

We can see how much he had left parenting up to Joanna when we watch him hurriedly taking Billy to school and asking him along the way what grade he is in.  Ted also doesn’t know how to maintain an even disciplinary keel in the domestic household.  Sometimes he tries to be Billy’s buddy, as if the two of them are equals; while at other times he loses his temper when the young boy makes relatively innocent mistakes, like accidentally spilling a drink over Ted’s office papers.  Ted is clearly a well-meaning but novice parent, and he is shown making the kinds of mistakes that almost all novice parents tend to make.

But time passes, and over the succeeding months Ted begins little by little to show more patience and loving attention to Billy.  And these segments are the most heartwarming parts of the film, with outstandingly nuanced portrayals showing this coming together by Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry, as Ted and Billy.  One of the best sequences is the one showing Ted carefully and earnestly showing Billy how to ride a bicycle for the first time.  When Billy finally succeeds in cycling on his own without support, Ted is overjoyed. 

Along the way, Ted befriends his wife’s friend Margaret (Jane Alexander), who is also a single parent.  But there is no suggestion of a budding romantic attachment between these two.  They are merely sharing the joys parenthood with each other. One afternoon, though, while they are both watching their kids play in the park, Ted is horrified to see Billy fall from the park’s junglegym and sustain a serious head injury.  He immediately picks him up and runs frantically through the streets in order to get him to a hospital emergency room, where he lovingly caresses him while the doctor gives him emergency treatment.

Meanwhile all this increased devotion to parenting his son, including attending school functions and PTA meetings, is taking a toll on Ted’s demanding workload at the ad agency.  He finds himself arriving late to crucial meetings and generally disappointing his superiors.

Then another complication arises.  After fifteen months of absence, Joanna returns to New York and seeks custody of Billy.  She says she is now cured of her depression, has secured a high-paying job (one that even has a higher annual salary than Ted's), and wants to return to being Billy’s mother.  But Ted has changed during this time, too.  He has become a loving and devoted father, and he is unwilling to give up custody of Billy.  So the eponymous court proceedings are set in motion.

Ted’s fortunes receive another serious setback when he is suddenly fired from his job at the ad agency.  Knowing full well that he has no hope at all of holding onto custody of Billy if he is unemployed, Ted immediately launches an intense and desperate search for a new job, any job, even though it is now in the midst of the Christmas holiday season. 

The viewer’s sympathies may be pulled in different directions at this point.  We have been watching Ted transform into a truly loving father.  But Joanna seems sincerely devoted, too.  And Billy is overjoyed to see his mom again.  We presumably would like to see an outcome that is best for Billy, but what would that be?  We might think that Billy, still only seven years old, needs his mother.  But, after all, she already walked out on him once, and how do we know something like that won’t happen again?

The ensuing court case is arduous and full of acrimony, with intense cross-examinations, but it seems realistic to me.  During the proceedings both Ted and Joanna come to learn things about each other that they never knew during their eight years of marriage.  They come to see each other in a deeper and more appreciative light, and the way these revelations are brought about in court are another strong aspect of the film.

In the end the court magistrate goes along with conventional social attitudes that a young boy needs to be with his mother, and Ted loses the custody case.  Billy is to be handed over to Joanna.  But the film doesn’t end with that verdict, and when the handover is to take place, a more heartfelt arrangement is finally achieved.  No, the film doesn’t succumb to the sentimental notion of Ted and Joanna getting back together again, but it does wind up on a positive note that is likely to satisfy the viewer.
Kramer vs. Kramer is a story about love, but not one about romantic love.  The beauty that is shown here has nothing to do with the glamorous or the erotic.  What is explored here in this film is deep parental and filial love, and it is eloquently portrayed by all the principal performers in this film.  They were all nominated for Oscars (this may have been Dustin Hoffman’s most subtle performance), but, to me, one of the most astonishing performances was that of the young Justin Henry as Billy Kramer.  His emotive performance seemed utterly genuine.  How could such a young boy “know” (or be coached to show) how to act so well?

  1. “AFI's 10 Top 10", Wikipedia, (9 December 2018).  
  2. Roger Ebert, “Kramer vs. Kramer”, RogerEbert.com, (1 December 1979).   

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

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Samapti” (“The Conclusion”, 1893) is about an independent-minded girl’s resistance to an arranged marriage and her ensuing gradual coming to terms with connubial love.  This story served as the basis for “Samapti”, the 12th and 13th episodes of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with these two episodes having been directed by Tani Basu.  

Tagore’s stories are often about how love struggles within the constraints of a tradition-bound society, and “Samapti” is a good example.  This story was filmed years ago by Satyajit Ray as a substantial segment, “Samapti (The Conclusion)”, of his Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), which was made to celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s birth.  Ray’s version, which is similar in length to the Basu version under review here and which I have earlier reviewed [1], is certainly an excellent rendition of this story, and I would think it would be very hard to match.  But the Basus’ version, which was scripted by Bijesh Jayarajan, has its own distinctive perspective and is very good, too.

One of the things I like about this version is the dreamlike rendering of the story that is evoked by cinematographer Bappa Mir’s extensive use of slow-motion photography.  This is aptly supplemented by the expressive soundtrack music from Anurag Saikia and Rana Mazumdar.  It is often the case that Film narratives have the character of dreams and vivid memories of the past that have a narrative structure with an emotional tone.  This film’s recurrent use of remembered images and slow-motion sequences emphasizes that emotive quality.

The story of “Samapti” proceeds through four approximate acts.

1.  Apoorva connects with Mrinmayi
The opening sequence of the story is actually shown at the tail end of Episode 11 of this series and shows a young man, Apoorva Chandrat Rai (played by Abhishek Tewari), returning from completing his college studies in Kolkata to his home village.  While walking near a river, he slips and falls down in the mud, heavily soiling his clothes.  His awkward mishap is observed with much mirthful delight by some young onlooking teenagers, the most mockingly derisive of whom is the only girl among them, Mrinmayi (Chitrangada Chakraborty).

When Apoorva arrives at his sumptuous family home, his widowed mother (Savita Prabhune) is overjoyed to see him, and she tells him it is now time for him to get married and that she has already arranged a perfect marriage match for him.  Knowing that her son has to return to Kolkata in a few weeks to take up law school studies,, she has already chosen an imminent “auspicious” day for his wedding.  Being a dutiful son, Apoorva, suppresses his misgivings over such rushed arrangements and agrees to meet the proposed bride, Krishna Ganguly, and her family the next day.

However, when he goes to visit the Ganguly family, he is dismayed to see how reticent and uninteresting the very young Krishna is.  Her passivity is further accentuated when the obstreperous mango thief, Mrinmayi, barges in demanding to play outside (i.e. steal more mangoes) with Krishna’s younger brother.  The contrast between the super-shy Krishna, and the exuberant tomboy, Mrinmayi, couldn’t be greater.  Then when Apoorva wants to return home, he finds that his shoes have been stolen.  Walking home in borrowed slippers, Apoorva is approached by the naughty Mrinmayi, who silently returns the shoes that she had stolen from him.  Before she can run away, though, he grabs her by the wrist, and they exchange a silent eye-to-eye interaction for several seconds.  This is one of those extended slow-motion elements that apparently signify a remembered moment in Apoorva’s life, and it comes up as one of the flash memory images when he is thinking about things later.

When Apoorva returns home, he informs his mother that he rejects Krishna as a marriage partner and instead wants to marry Mrinmayi (whose nickname we soon learn is “Meenu”).  His mother is disappointed that he has chosen such a roughhewn tomboy from a lower-level family, but she goes ahead and makes marriage arrangements with Meenu’s mother.  Meenu has always treasured her freedom and doesn’t want to get shackled into marital servility, but she is forced into accepting it.

2.  The Newlyweds
Meenu glumly submits to the ensuing traditional and sumptuous wedding, but as soon as it is over and she enters her new home, she tears off her wedding jewelry and runs away.  Apoorva finds her in the wild and coaxes her to return home.  But Meenu refuses to join him in the conjugal bed.   Apoorva is all accommodating and asserts to her that he married her because he liked her for who she is.  Meenu tartly responds by asking why it was that nobody asked her whom she likes?  And she coldly adds that she doesn’t like her new husband – “not even one bit”.

Meenu is now a sulking prisoner in Apoorva’s quarters, even though she still refuses to sleep with  him.  However, when Apoorva sees Meenu eagerly reading a warm letter from her father, who works in a remote city and who had been unable to get leave to attend his daughter’s wedding, he offers to take Meenu on a trip to visit  her father.  For the first time since her wedding, Meenu shows delight and smiles at her husband.

As we move to Episode 13 of the series, the two of them go to visit Meenu’s father for three days, where they sleep on the floor in the father’s tiny one-room apartment during their visit.  While there, Meenu for the first time has some cordial domestic interactions with her husband.

3.  A Separation
They return home, but Meenu still rejects the conjugal bed, and she won’t even let the gentle Apoorva kiss her.  So Apoorva, with the deadline approaching for the commencement of his legal studies in Kolkata, consents to leaving Meenu at her mother’s home.  When Meenu asks when she will see him again, he says he will come back to her when she writes to him and summons him. 

With Apoorva away, Meenu starts thinking of him more and missing his gentle ways.  When she hears that Apoorva’s mother is ill, she goes to attend to her.  Little by little, Meenu starts learning what it means to lovingly care for others, and she even starts learning how to cook from Apoorva’s mom.

Finally, Meenu writes a letter to her husband asking him to return to her.  But since she doesn’t know how to address the envelope (she just writes his name and “Kolkata” on it), we can assume he will never get the letter. 

Five months pass, and Meenu doesn’t hear anything from Apoorva.

4.  A Coming Together
Finally, after the five months of stasis, Apoorva’s mother decides to go visit her son in Kolkata, and with a knowing smile she offers to take Meenu along with her.  Meenu jumps at the chance.

When Meenu and Apoorva finally meet up, in Apoorva’s sister’s guest bedroom, there are two wounded egos waiting for the other’s explanation as to why they didn’t write.  Apoorva says he never received Meenu’s letter, and Meenu responds defensively by telling him that he is lying.  Apoorva then tells her that he has always loved her.  But Meenu, still clinging to her adolescent pride and sense of independence, insists again that she doesn’t love him.

But at this point Apoorva has come to know something that we viewers have also been starting to suspect.  He tells her calmly that she is the one who is lying, and he gently kisses her.  And Meenu ultimately accepts his embrace, and with it she comes to her final admission to herself of true love.

This Tagore story, as seen in both its cinematic realizations, reminds me, curiously, of My Fair Lady (1964).  The connection is that in both tales we see an autonomy-loving young woman struggling in the face of a well-meaning man who wants to reshape her in accordance with prevailing social customs.  And in both cases we have some sympathy for each of the contrasting perspectives and hope all along that a harmonious and romantic compromise can be achieved.  Which, of course, is what happens.

Note, however, that this version of Tagore’s “Samapti” has a slightly different feel from Ray’s.  In this instance, Meenu’s shift is not so radical as it is in Ray’s version and is very gradual.  This coloration of gradual acceptance and maturation has a subtlety to it that pulls the viewer in and makes this rendition of the story particularly appealing.

  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Teen Kanya’ - Satyajit Ray (1961)”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2017).