“Rabindranath Tagore” - Satyajit Ray (1961)

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was one of the world’s remarkable cultural polymaths – he ranks right up at the top with the likes of Da Vinci and Al-Biruni.   In producing so many novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, dramas, poems, paintings, and more than two thousand songs, Tagore reshaped the entire landscape of Indian literature, music, and art. And enthusiasm for Tagore’s work was not just limited to his native Bengal: Tagore’s songs were used for the national anthems of India (Jana Gana Mana) and Bangladesh (Amar Shonar Bangla), and the Sri Lankan national anthem was inspired by his work.

So to celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s birth, the Indian government, at the insistence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, commissioned Satyajit Ray to make an hour-long documentary in English on the great poet [1].  Ray was a particularly apt choice.  Not only was Ray a consummate film artist, but his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, was personally acquainted with Tagore and his illustrious family.  And Ray, himself, had been schooled at the special academy, Santiniketan, that Tagore had founded.  Ray would proceed to make several films that were based on Tagore’s stories, including one that he was working on contemporaneously with this documentary film – Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), and The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984).

Making a documentary on Tagore may seem like a straightforward enterprise, but the remarkable subject’s range of expression presented challenges for Ray.  How could one capture in an hour-long film the full spectrum and magnificence of Tagore’s poetry, fiction, music, and art?  In particular, there was an issue with Tagore’s poetry.  Although he was justly famous in India, Tagore’s poetry was not known internationally until he traveled to England in 1912 and showed some of his own translations of his Gitanjali [2] collection of poems to English colleagues there.  These were enthusiastically received and came to the attention of famous poet William Butler Yeats, who praised Tagore’s poetry emphatically.  For a taste, here are some sample verses in English from Tagore’s Gitanjali [2]:
Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full. Thus it is that thou hast come down to me. O thou lord of all heavens, where would be thy love if I were not?
Thou hast taken me as thy partner of all this wealth. In my heart is the endless play of thy delight. In my life thy will is ever taking shape.

And for this, thou who art the King of kings hast decked thyself in beauty to captivate my heart. And for this thy love loses itself in the love of thy lover, and there art thou seen in the perfect union of two.    
. . .
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?

Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones.

He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put of thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!
In short order Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-European to be so honored.  However, a number of Indian critics have felt that the magic of Tagore’s Bengali verse has never been adequately captured in English.  For example, Amartya Sen remarked [3],
“Anyone who knows Tagore's poems in their original Bengali cannot feel satisfied with any of the translations (made with or without Yeats's help). Even the translations of his prose works suffer, to some extent, from distortion.”
Evidently Ray was of the same opinion, and he decided not to include any quotations or recitations of Tagore’s poetry in his documentary [4].  Ray also took the uncommon step of eschewing any interviews in his film   Ray did not want to just document Tagore’s achievements; instead he made the effort to evoke the inner spirit of his subject.   As he remarked [5],
“I put in as much work on it as on three feature films.  My approach to the biography was to stress Tagore as a human being and patriot.”
This involved staging some dramatized re-enactments from Tagore’s youth and surrounding circumstances.  But Ray avoided presenting any dramatized events showing the adult Tagore, because he knew that Tagore’s authentic visage was too familiar to many members of his intended audience.  So in the second half of the film he had to work with a lot of static photographic images and somehow make them more dynamic by employing subtle camera movements.  In the end,
“he came to the conclusion that the Tagore film would require more camera movement than any three of his feature films; that there would have to hundreds of opticals each worked out with mathematical exactitude.“ [6].
The result of all of Ray’s efforts was a moving and thoughtful evocation of an enlightened soul, the visual portrayal of which was graced by Ray’s own eloquent narration. 

The film opens with historical footage of the massive crowd that assembled in Calcutta for Tagore’s funeral in 1941.  Then it jumps back in time to cover the background of the wealthy and  prominent Tagore family, who were Bengali Brahmins and important social figures.  His grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore (1794–1846) and his father Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) were both important cultural personages who participated in the 19th century Bengali Renaissance and were actively involved with the Brahmo Samaj (Brahmoism) movement, a progressive monotheistic Hindu reform movement.  Rabindranath Tagore was the youngest of Debendranath’s fourteen children, many of whom became prominent writers and musicians.  Indeed, one of his sisters, Swarnakumari Devi (1855–1932), became the first published Indian woman novelist.

Surrounded by older, highly intellectual, siblings, Rabindranath, known as “Rabi”, couldn’t tolerate formal classroom instruction, and was instead largely home-schooled within the Tagore household.   Soon, even as a teenager, Rabi was writing poetry and stage plays and was inspired to take up Brahmoism.   This section of the film showing Rabi’s upbringing and his rigorous absorption of Indian, Persian, and Western culture includes a number of dramatized depictions of Rabi’s family environment that is effectively suffused with moody Indian music on the soundtrack [7]. 

Tagore quickly established himself as a leading Bengali intellectual, but in addition to his prolific authorial output (he would publish more than two hundred books over his lifetime), we also see other sides and interests of the man.  In 1901 Tagore founded an ashram and progressive school based on Upanishad principles at a Tagore family-owned estate at Santiniketan.  Over the next thirty years he would spend much of his time and energy to nurturing this school, which Tagore wanted to offer as a creative alternative to the robotic pedantry that infects most schools the world over. Later, in 1921, Tagore established Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan. Among those who later received schooling at Santiniketan were Satyajit Ray, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and later Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Tagore was also actively interested in politics, too, and he became fervently involved in the opposition to British governor Lord Curzon’s “divide-and-rule” intention to partition Bengal into Hindu and Muslim sectors that would fuel internecine communalism. (The idea of fanning the flames of identity politics in order to create mayhem and weaken the broader social order is, of course, a complex and recurring issue.  For other films touching on this subject in the Indian context, see my reviews of Viceroy’s House (2017) as well as Ray's  adaptation of another Tagore story, The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984).)

By 1912 Tagore was fifty-one and although famous in India, he was still relatively little known internationally.  The film now covers his trip to England and the publication of the English translation of some of his Gitanjali poems.  The resulting explosive popularity of this work led to Tagore receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 and a British knighthood in 1915. 

But Tagore still held true to his principles.  Europe was now engulfed in the self-destructive Great War, and Tagore in 1916 denounced the notion of nationalism as an underlying cause of this catastrophe.   Tagore was further disturbed by the cruel Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar massacre) undertaken by British troops firing on unarmed protestors, which led him to renounce his knighthood in 1919.

All the while, Tagore was continuing to express his spiritually influenced notions of rational humanism and  expand the range of his artistic output.  Remarkably, in his late sixties, he took up painting for the first time and demonstrated a marvelous flair for abstract surreal and expressionistic imagery.
In his latter years Tagore was also engaged in meeting up with and exchanging ideas with many famous intellectuals and cultural leaders from all over the world, including, of course, his longtime friend and, for the most part, ally, Mohandas Gandhi.  One such intellectual exchange was the interesting encounter that Tagore had with Alfred Einstein in 1930, which has been recounted by Amartya Sen [3]:
"The report of his conversation with Einstein, published in The New York Times in 1930, shows how insistent Tagore was on interpreting truth through observation and reflective concepts. To assert that something is true or untrue in the absence of anyone to observe or perceive its truth, or to form a conception of what it is, appeared to Tagore to be deeply questionable. When Einstein remarked, 'If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?' Tagore simply replied, 'No.' Going further - and into much more interesting territory - Einstein said, 'I agree with regard to this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.' Tagore's response was: 'Why not? Truth is realized through men.'"
From my perspective, Tagore’s Interactionist view expressed here is much richer and more profound than Einstein’s apparent Objectivist view [8].

At the very end of his life, Tagore saw that Europe, from whose admired rational-humanist principles he had been inspired to incorporate into his own thinking, was once again engaged in a self-annihilating conflagration.  And again he could see how closed-minded self-identity politics and nationalism could ruin even the greatest of civilizations. So on the occasion of his 80th birthday and now severely ill, he turned his critical eye one more time to the external culture from which he had drawn so much inspiration and which he most admired, but in which he also saw fatal weaknesses – England.  This resulted in one of his last public statements, Crisis in Civilization [9], and Ray eloquently summarizes Tagore’s feelings on these matters in this film’s closing section. 

As mentioned, Satyajit Ray’s film here focuses on Tagore, the enlightened spirit, rather than on the specifics of Tagore’s many artistic creations.  To a certain extend Amartya Sen’s essay on Tagore [3] has a similar focus, but Ray’s film is more eloquent and directly engaging.  Overall, Ray does seem to capture and evoke the spirit of Tagore, and for this reason this is an outstanding documentary film.

Note that Tagore's enlightened spirit included a social humanistic perspective that was in accord with the four fundamental principles requisite of a beneficial society, which I have labeled with the acronym RMDL [10]. 
  • R – Human Rights
  • M – Free and equitable exchange of goods and services, i.e. open Markets
  • DDemocratic governance
  • L – Rule of Law
But in recent times there have arisen populist rulers (think of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, et al.) who have gained support from significant sectors of society by evoking feelings of resentment, pride (masked as “dignity”), and suppression of alternative views [11,12].  These rulers have expressed contempt for RMDL and the principles it stands for.  What is needed now is widespread advocacy of the principles of RMDL in concise terms that people can understand and appreciate.  (“RMDL” is itself an attempt at such a concise expression.) Thus Rabindranath Tagore’s civilized and spiritually inspired messages are needed now more than ever. 

In particular, Tagore’s amalgamation of Western rational humanism and Eastern spirituality may well be what we need to save our increasingly interdependent but, on a human level, disconnected world. As he, himself, said in his Crisis in Civilization, perhaps a new dawn can arise from the East [8]:
“As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. “
Satyajit Ray’s Rabindranath Tagore is an eloquent introduction to a man who can help us bring about that new dawn.  Unfortunately, the visual condition of available copies of this film is atrocious, but it is still good enough for you to absorb its poetic and inspiring content.  I recommend that everyone have a look at this film and draw inspiration from this message from the East.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 167-173.
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore”, (1 January 1992).   
  3. Amartya Sen, "Tagore and His India", The New York Review of Books (26 June 1997).   
  4. Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, I. B. Tauris, (1989, 2004), p. 278.   
  5. Marie Seton, op. cit., p. 169.
  6. Ibid., p. 170.
  7. Although Ray is not credited music composition for the film, his biographer Marie Seton said that he devised some of the film’s music (see ref. [1], p. 171).
  8. For further discussion on Interactionism, see my essay and the following reviews:
  9. Rabindranath Tagore, Crisis in Civilization, Indian Society for Cultural Co-operation and Friendship, (14 April 1941).   
  10. For further reflections on RMDL, see my reviews of 
  11. Roger Cohen, “Moral Emptiness: Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Greatness  Moral Emptiness Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Greatness”, Der Spiegel, (6 November 2017).  
  12. Anne Applebaum, “100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.”, The Washington Post, (6 November 2017).  

“Teen Kanya” - Satyajit Ray (1961)

Teen Kanya (Three Girls or Three Daughters, 1961) is a three-part anthology film by Satyajit Ray based on three early short stories of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – “The Postmaster” (1891), “Monihara” (“The Lost Jewels”, 1898), and “Samapti” (“The Conclusion”, 1893).  Tagore was a towering Bengali cultural figure and Nobel Laureate who also had been a  friend of Ray’s distinguished family.  Both Teen Kanya and Ray’s subsequent film, the documentary Rabindranath Tagore (1961), commemorated the centenary of Tagore’s birth. 

Because of the length of the collected segments, the film was released internationally without the second of the three stories, “Monihara”, included, and its English title was Two Daughters [1].  So most English-speaking viewers have only seen this truncated version.  In this review, however, I will refer to all three segments.

Given the monumental esteem in which Tagore was held in India, it took great self-assurance on the part of any filmmaker to modify Tagore’s stories when using them as a basis for making a film. However, Ray’s embellishments to Tagore’s stories in Teen Kanya, which were considerable with respect to “The Postmaster” and “Samapti” and which were criticized in India at the time, offered, in my view, significant enhancements [2].  Ray could do this, because he, like Tagore, was himself an artistic polymath.  He not only wrote, directed, and produced the film; here he also for the first time scored the film music. 

Earlier Ray had relied on famous Indian musician-composers for his musical scores – Ravi Shankar (for the Apu Trilogy [3] and Paras Pathar), Ustad Vilayat Khan (for Jalsaghar), and Ali Akbar Khan (for Devi).  Ray, himself, had no formal musical training and was not a musician, but he had an intense and lifelong intuitive passion for music.  And Teen Kanya marked the opening assertion of his musical prowess.  From here on, except for the documentary Rabindranath Tagore, Ray would score all of his films.  Note that, in general, sound is a very important feature of Ray’s films.  The ambient sounds included in these stories significantly helps create an atmosphere of contextual immersion and evokes the narrative mood of the participants in the tales.
Teen Kanya also marked another new feature in the Ray production team repertoire with the introduction of cinematographer Soumendu Roy, who took over for the ailing Subrata Mitra.  And in fact it is probably no coincidence that a notable feature of Teen Kanya’s visual presentation is its excellent use of deep-focus cinematography.  Hereafter, Roy would frequently be the cinematographer for Ray’s films.  A constant element of Ray’s production team, though, was  Dulal Dutta, who handled the film editing duties for all of Ray’s films.
Even though the three individual stories of Teen Kanya each focus on a young woman, they appear to have contrasting flavors and themes, and to many people they may seem quite distinct.  I would say, in retrospect however, that they do feature a common thread – the eternal inscrutability of womanhood before the male gaze.  All three stories feature a young girl whose personal scope vastly exceeds the conventional roles to which she has been assigned.  And in each case there is a narrative perspective from a male observer (in alignment with the unseen narrative witness of you, the viewer) who is baffled and ultimately bewitched by the girl.

Let us look at these stories individually. 

The Postmaster
In the first story Nandal (played by Anil Chatterjee), an educated young man from Calcutta, arrives in the small rural village of Ulapur to take on the job as the local postmaster.  The pre-teen orphan girl Ratan (Chandana Banerjee [4]) is assigned to be his cook and housekeeper.  From the outset it is clear there is a disconnect between Nandal and the life in the village.  This is exemplified by Nandal’s terror at the sight of a village lunatic, whom the diminutive Ratan shoos away as just a harmless pest.  At his postoffice, Nandal’s everyday work includes  constant spectators – the idle old men of the village who are fascinated by the exotic newcomer.  But again the disconnect is evident. 

Meanwhile Nandal and Ratan get to know each other a little.  She sings a charming song for him, and he offers to spend some of his idle time teaching her a little how to read and write.  But finally Nandal comes down with a serious case of malaria (a common ailment in India in those days).  In response, Ratan devotedly spends the whole night applying cold compresses to his feverish forehead, and she dedicates herself to nursing him back to health.  Throughout this period of the story, we get the feeling that Ratan sees Nandal as the wished-for replacement of her father, who died so early in her life that she can’t even remember him.

Nandal recovers and writes a simple poem about Ratan, one that she is now able to read aloud.  She is so delighted.  But Nandal is fed up with the boring village and decides to resign from his post and go back to Calcutta.  The news of his impending departure crushes Ratan, and she petulantly refuses even to acknowledge him when he approaches her for the last time to say goodbye.  It is only then that Nandal seems to realize that he and Ratan shared a special relationship – a form of love – that he has abandoned and is now lost.  It is that poignant last shot showing Nandal’s final anguish that long lingers in the mind of the viewer. 

One can get a feeling for how Ray enhanced Tagore’s work by having a read of Tagore’s original story [5,6].  The local color of the village, such as the depictions of the lunatic and the village elders are not present in Tagore’s text.  In addition the tentative, growing relationship between Nandal and Ratan is much more developed in Ray’s film than in Tagore’s dry description.  Tagore’s story, while interesting, is basically reflective and contemplative.  Ray’s rendition fleshes out the characters of Nandal and Ratan, and it captures the emotive feelings that more effectively stir the heart.

Monihara (The Lost Jewels)
The second segment is a dramatized ghost story that is read to the viewer by its supposed author on the footsteps of a ghat in front of the thought-to-be haunted Saha mansion.  The narrator, who is a local schoolmaster, has an audience of one – a hooded figure sitting at the base of the ghat.  The ghost story itself is rather simple.  What makes it interesting is the atmospheric way it is told, featuring Soumendu Roy’s expressionistic cinematography.

At the start of the narrator’s story, which he says begins many years ago, Phanibhushan Saha (Kali Banerjee) and his wife Monimalika  (Kanika Majumdar) have just inherited a large mansion and associated jute plantation in Manikpur.  Phanibhushan is hopelessly and timidly in love with his wife, who is self-indulgently obsessed with her own glamor.  One day while her husband is out, Monimalika is visited by an obscure “relative”, Madhusudhan (Kumar Roy), who refers to himself as her distant “brother” and who has come looking for a job.  It is clear from the photography and eerie music of this scene that there is something sinister about this visitor.  He apparently has some shady connections with Monimalika ‘s cloudy past, and she wants to have no part of him. 
Afterwards she sings alone by the window a beautifully melancholic song that shows off her mysterious ethereal beauty.  But the scene also further underlines her self-absorption.  Her primary concern is her large collection of jewelry. 

But then disaster strikes.  A huge fire burns up their jute plantation, and Phanibhushan tells Monimalika that they have run up a large debt.  He has to rush back to Calcutta to secure some funds, while Monimalika chooses to stay behind in Malikpur.  

Monimalika wants to stay behind, because she is terrified that her husband will try to pay their debts by pawning her jewelry collection.  So she decides to flee with all her jewels back to her own family up the river, and she summons Madhusudhan to take her there on a boat.  When we see the unsavory Madhusudhan again, it becomes clear to the viewer that some sort of mayhem is going to happen to Monimalika on the way.

Later when Phanibhushan returns from Calcutta with money and new jewels for his wife, he finds Monimalika missing and the mansion empty except for an elderly servant.  We now move into the ghostly imagery of a haunted house.  In the evening he keeps hearing footsteps in the hallway, and he thinks it is his beloved Monimalika returning.  But it turns out to be a ghost instead.  All of this part of the story is shot with expressionistic, spooky effects leading up to the final encounter between Phanibhushan and the bejeweled, skeletal ghost.

When the narrator finishes his tale on the steps of the ghat, he looks over at his hooded listener, who has so far only been seen from behind.  Now the figure stands up and says the narrator’s story contains some inaccuracies, and then he reveals himself to be Phanibhushan, himself.  Then to the narrator’s astonished horror, the figure magically disappears, indicating that he, too, is a ghost.  So the inner-narrative ghost story ultimately recoils back up to the outer narrative of the local schoolmaster.

This Monihara segment has thinner characterizations than the other two, and its primary virtue is its atmospheric evocation of mystery.

Samapti (The Conclusion)
The final segment of Teen Kanya, Samapti, is the most light-hearted of the three offerings,  and in this case it closes on a happier note.  Again there is a young woman who baffles the man who is interested in her.  But the real feature of this segment is the magnetic characterizations of the two principals, thanks to the energetic performances of two young Indian movie stars – Soumitra Chatterjee (a Satyajit Ray favorite) and Aparna Sen (her debut performance at the age of 16).  Also worth noting is the emotive performance of Sita Mukherjee, who plays the doting mother of Soumitra Chatterjee’s character.

This story begins with Amulya (played by Soumitra Chatterjee), having successfully passed his college exams, returning by river boat to his home village to visit his widowed mother.  When he gets off the boat, he slips and falls on the muddy shore, much to the mirthful delight of an onlooking tomboyish teenage girl, Mrinmoyee (Aparna Sen).   Amulya takes note of the source of this giggling mockery before she runs away.

Amulya’s mother, Jogmaya (Sita Mukherjee), is delighted to see her son, but she quickly tells him that it is now time for him to get married and that she has already chosen an auspicious wedding day and a girl from a “good family” (most important concerns for Indian arranged marriages).  Amulya reluctantly but dutifully goes through the motions of formally meeting the family of the proposed girl and hearing about the shy and taciturn girl’s virtues.  But the whole event is disrupted by the again onlooking and mischievous Mrinmoyee, who releases her pet squirrel into the room through the window, which causes chaos.  Then she steals Amulya’s shoes that he had taken off and placed by the door upon entering the home of the proposed bride.

All of this tomfoolery on the part of Mrinmoyee annoys, but tellingly, fascinates Amulya.  He learns that she is an impish tomboy who plays all the time with the younger boys of the neighborhood and has acquired the nickname “Pagli” (crazy girl).  The naughty, and pretty, girl captivates his heart.  When he returns to his mother, he tells her that he is not interested in the proposed bride, but is interested in Mrinmoyee.

Jogmaya is at first horrified, but she ultimate gives in to her beloved only son, and a wedding is duly arranged for Amulya and Mrinmoyee.  Mrinmoyee is very reluctant to give up her gay, carefree life and take on the duties of being a wife, but she is unable to withstand family pressures.  The wedding goes ahead.

On their wedding night, though, Mrinmoyee tells Amulya that she was forced into the marriage and that she doesn’t want to get into bed with him.  She still wants her freedom and doesn’t want to get locked into matrimonial restrictions. At this point the viewer’s sympathies are likely to lie with Mrinmoyee.  Why should a teenage girl be coerced into a union not of her own choosing?

After they argue and he dozes off, she sneaks out of his house by using her tree-climbing skills and goes out to spend the night swinging on her favorite swing hung from a tree.  The image of a girl swinging on a swing seems to have held a special place for Tagore (and Ray), representing perhaps the joyous nature of free-spirited femininity.  We see similar girl-on-a-swing imagery representing the same theme in Ray’s later Charulata (1964), which was also based on a tale by Tagore.

In this story, though, the still rebellious Mrinmoyee is captured and locked in Amulya’s room.  His relatives urge Amulya to be tough on the girl and exercise his manly rights, but Amulya is too civilized to do that.  He tells Mrinmoyee that he is leaving her in the care of her mother and that he is going back to Calcutta.  If and when she finally accepts him, he tells her, he will return to her.

Mrinmoyee is now more or less a prisoner in her own home, and she takes to perpetually sulking.  After six months of separation have passed, though, Jogmaya, missing her son and feeling something has to be done, summons him to return to their village on the pretext of her being ill.  Amulya dutifully returns, and his mother convinces him to go to Mrinmoyee and inquire after her.

The last few minutes of this segment are lyrical.   Mrinmoyee is at first delighted to hear that Amulya has returned, but when she learns that the reason for his return is to see his supposedly ill mother, she frowns.  Her feelings seem now to be torn.  When Amulya comes to her home, he learns that she has run off into the woods.  Now in the pouring rain, Amulya searches the woods for her, calling out her name.  Still hiding in the brush, the pouting Mrinmoyee hears Amulya’s call and cannot suppress a smile.

Soaked to the skin from the rain, Amulya finally gives up his search and returns to his room, where he discovers a note on his bed from “your Pagli”.  Mrinmoyee has used her tree-climbing ability to sneak back into Amulya’s room.  When he sees her, she smiles meekly and promises never to run away from him again.  They have finally been united in true love.

All three stories of Teen Kanya are about the captivating feminine element in male-female interaction.  In the Tagore-Ray account of things here, the feminine alchemy is spontaneous and utterly unselfconscious, but there is something special about it. 
  • In The Postmaster, the relationship between the postmaster and the young chipmunk-like Ratan encompasses something more than just paternal/filial attachment.  Nonsexual though their relationship is, it still involves the special magic that only the feminine presence can conjure.
  • In Monihara, the feminine element becomes overtly supernatural, but, interestingly, this story is the least evocative of feminine mystery.
  • In Samapti, the mystical feminine element is not only spontaneously projected, but also internalized – Mrinmoyee ultimately responds, herself, to her own feminine impulses.
In all three stories, the male principal is helplessly captivated by an innocent girl, whose charm is guileless.  She is not trying to seduce the man; she is just being her naturally enigmatic self.  It took the brilliance and artistry of both Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore to capture the mystical and wonderful subtlety of these feelings and render them into the cinematic jewel that Teen Kanya is.

  1. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: India's Poetry by Satyajit Ray: He Echoes His Trilogy in 'Two Daughters'”, The New York Times,  (1 May 1963).   
  2. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 160-4, 173-180.
  3. Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959).
  4. It is unclear what is Chandana Banerjee’s age in the film.  The Wikipedia entry on her says she was born in 1953, making her only eight years old.  But Marie Seton (see ref. [2], p. 175) says the girl was eleven years old, which looks about right to me.  
  5. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Postmaster”, The Literature Network, (2015).
  6. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Postmaster”, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stories from Tagore, by Rabindranath Tagore, (24 August 2010).   

Hannes Holm

Films of Hannes Holm:

“A Man Called Ove” - Hannes Holm (2015)

A Man Called Ove (En Man Som Heter Ove, 2015) is a Swedish comedy-drama that has achieved great popularity despite its main character being an incorrigible sourpuss [1].  Written and directed by Hannes Holm and based closely on the 2012 best-selling novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman, the film was recently nominated for a US Academy of Awards Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film.  

The title character (played by Rolf Lassgård) is an embittered 59-year-old man who has recently lost his dear wife due to cancer.  At the beginning of the film he is forcibly “retired” from his job at the railroad, where he had worked for 43 years.  The new, still wet behind the ears, railroad managers inform Ove that modern techniques of “digitization” have made his job redundant.  Now his only activities in life are
  • his daily visits to his wife’s grave, where he holds one-sided conversations with his departed beloved and
  • his fussy enforcement of his gated-community residents association’s detailed, and largely ignored, rules. 
We see clearly early on that Ove is a curmudgeon of the first order.  He barks at everyone he meets and dismisses them all as “idiots”.  Since there is nothing pleasurable for him in this world, he promises to his wife at her tombstone that he will be soon joining her in the afterlife.  He intends to commit suicide. 

There follows a series of carefully prepared for but ultimately interrupted suicide attempts.  In each case the suicide is aborted by some interruption that evokes Ove’s punctilious sense of duty – even though he is in the process of leaving this world, he still feels obligated to attend to some detail in the here and now [2].  Also, during several of these suicide attempts, Ove lapses into a recollection of his past that reveals to the viewer a more humane, earlier version of himself.  So  the suicide motif serves two functions in this story – as a comedic instrument and as a narrative trigger mechanism for revelations about Ove’s past.

Ove’s first suicide attempt involves hanging himself with a rope tied to a hook in the ceiling. But this is interrupted when he looks out his window and sees new neighbors backing a trailer truck along the community sidewalk, a clear violation of resident association rules.  He stomps  outside and meets the new family, which consists of a pregnant Iranian lady, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), along with her klutzy Swedish husband and their two young daughters.  Parvaneh is vivacious and highly sociable, the very opposite of the taciturn and eternally resentful Ove, and she becomes a key counterbalance to his doleful personage in this story.

During Ove’s second suicide attempt, again by hanging from the ceiling hook, Ove lapses into a memory of his childhood.  His mother died when he was a small boy, and he lived alone with his taciturn and reclusive father, who worked for the railway and who preferred tending to machines than spending time with   people.  While Ove was still a teenager (played by Filip Berg), his father was run over and killed by a railway car leaving him alone in the world.  But his father’s ways left their mark on Ove. Machines were reliable, his father always claimed, and they did what was expected of them if they were properly maintained.  This apparently became Ove’s credo, too, and he developed a mechanical view of the way the world works – everything and everyone should operate according to well-defined and mechanical rules.  There was no accommodation in his scheme of things for human caprice, the kind of thing embodied by Parvaneh.  In fact these two opposing perspectives – Ove’s mechanical rule-based way versus Parvaneh’s vivacious human-involvement way – turn out to be the central theme of this tale.

But returning to the present, Ove’s second suicide attempt comes to naught when his rope breaks.  This leads Ove to complain bitterly to the saleslady at the store from which he had purchased the rope that the rope had not been made properly.

The next suicide attempt involves carbon monoxide poisoning in a closed garage, and its occasion launches Ove into another flashback when, as a young man, his family house was condemned by officious governmental “white shirts”, who claimed his house didsn’t meet official standards.  These “white shirts” point to a secondary and  underlying subtheme in the film, an issue that likely comes up more often in countries like Sweden where the government makes a substantial commitment to social welfare.  While that commitment is undoubtedly good, there may be associated intrusive governmental activities implemented that are intended to ensure that the desired social welfare is achieved.  And in this connection there can arise exploitative people who use the government to coercively interfere with ordinary people’s live in order to siphon off public funds for their own profit.  These are the kind of people called “white shirts” by Ove, and we see a few such people in this story.

Continuing with this flashback, a neighbor’s house goes up in flames, and Ove, responding to his innate sense of duty, charges into the inferno and rescues two people.  But his own house, due probably to the complicity of some “white shirts”, burns down, too.  So, now without a home, Ove took to sleeping in empty railway cars, and one time when he overslept led to his meeting the beautiful woman, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), who would eventually become his wife.  Sonja is charming and outgoing, and she practically has to seduce the shy, introverted Ove, herself, in order to stop him from lecturing her about how machines work and get him to propose to her.  Why such a beautiful woman would be attracted to such a nerd as Ove is rather puzzling, but maybe that’s how things work in Sweden.

Returning to the present again, this suicide attempt is interrupted when Parvaneh bangs on the garage door and asks Ove for some driving lessons.  Ove’s sense of duty obligates him to help her.  While driving with her, he tells her about his long, and perhaps only, adult friendship with a similarly mechanically-oriented man named Rune, who teamed up with him in the running of  the residents association.  But there friendship was ruined, because Rune’s preference for Volvo motorcars conflicted with Ove’s preference for Saabs.  This is another comic element that would probably mostly strike a chord with Swedish viewers.

There are still more suicide attempts that come, though.  On one occasion Ove intends to throw  himself in front of an onrushing train.  But this attempt is interrupted when he sees a man faint  and fall onto the tracks; Ove’s sense of duty takes over, and he has to rescue the man.  On another occasion he is about to blow his head off with a shotgun.  But this is interrupted by a local teenage boy who has been thrown out of his home for coming out as a gay and is seeking a place to stay for the night.  Again Ove’s sense of duty compels him to offer the boy a bed..

All the while, Ove is forced by circumstances and Parvaneh’s infectious insistence to have more interactions with the Persian woman and her homely concerns.  She persuasively insists that he adopt a stray cat in the neighborhood that he used to angrily hiss at every time he saw it.  And she also gets him to babysit for her two daughters while she is out.  Before long her kids are calling Ove “grandpa”. 

Ove’s innate sense of duty even spurs him to come to the aid of his former friend Rune.  Rune had recently suffered a stroke and was now paralyzed at home and tended to by his loyal wife.  But “white shirts” from a greedy rest home had now intervened with a government order to seize Rune and have him placed under their care.  However, Ove, with some outside help, manages to fend off the “white shirts” and enable Rune’s wife to keep her husband in her care.

All of this may suggest by the film’s end that, thanks mostly to Parvaneh, Ove has been humanized, that his inner, warm heart has finally opened up to humanity.  That is apparently how many people see the film – a heartwarming story of ultimate redemption.  In particular, the tale  may perhaps be seen as relating how a closed-up man was redeemed by a woman’s loving heart.  But I have some reservations about whether the film succeeds along those lines, despite the excellent acting performances of Rolf Lassgård as Ove, Bahar Pars as Parvaneh, and Ida Engvoll as Sonja.  In this respect we might compare A Man Called Ove to two other cinematic portrayals of a similar nature:
From my perspective, A Man Called Ove compares unfavorably to Bergman’s films.  Although Bergman often has a despairing male figure who may be touched by a woman’s loving nature, he does open the viewer up to the existential loneliness of the man.  We can empathize with this man’s angst.  But Hannes Holm’s Ove is largely closed up and only seen from the outside as a curmudgeon.  We are less drawn into an empathetic feeling for the man, and his suicide attempts are only played for laughs.  So Bergman’s films have more depth.

Similarly, on the theme of redemption, A Man Called Ove doesn’t measure up to Goodbye, Mr. Chips.  In that earlier film, the stiff young schoolteacher Charles Chipping is brought out of his shell by his loving wife, Kathy.  Her love lastingly opens up his heart and redeems him.  In contrast, the two warm-hearted women in Ove’s life, his wife Sonja and Parvaneh, don’t really open him up and change him that much.  All they do is manage to point Ove’s compulsive sense of duty in various fruitful directions that appear to them.  But Ove, even to the very end of the story, remains his curmudgeonly self.  So I don’t feel Ove ever finds redemption in the way Charles Chipping did in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Still, it’s nice to see Ove at the end of the film sleeping in his bed, with the once-despised stray cat lying next to him.

  1. Alissa Simon, “Film Review: ‘A Man Called Ove’”, Variety, (8 March 2016).  
  2. Keith Watson, “A Man Called Ove”, Slant, (26 September 2016).  

“Coming Home” - Zhang Yimou (2014)

Coming Home (Gui Lai, 2014) is Zhang Yimou’s wistful reflection on love, memory, and the futility of bemoaning a tragic past.  In this case the tragic past concerns the period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s during which the Chinese people were subjected to brutal oppression in connection with such Maoist-led campaigns as the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution [1]. Although the famous “scar literature” subsequently emerged that sought to expose wrongdoings of this period [2], it has always been difficult to discuss such matters inside China itself, due to government suppression of these topics. Nevertheless, Zhang Yimou has been able to make some dramas that have been set during these turbulent times by skirting overt political polemics and focusing instead on universal personal values.  This was also the case with Coming Home

The story of Coming Home is loosely based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi (2011) by well-known Chinese authoress Yan Geling, whose novella The 13 Flowers of Nanjing (Jinlíng Shísan Chai, 2011) had earlier been adapted by Zhang Yimou for his film The Flowers of War (2011).  Yan Geling’s novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi tells how the title character, a professor who dared to express his views, was extensively persecuted and forced to work in a prison work camp during the Anti-Rightist Movement and the subsequent Cultural Revolution.  Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation skips over all of those devastating elements and only covers the period at the end of the novel, when the main character is finally rehabilitated in 1979 and returns after a twenty-year absence  to a broken family that doesn’t even recognize him [3].  The film was criticized in some quarters for avoiding the presentation of controversial material about the Maoist dictatorship in order to please the Chinese authorities.  But Zhang may not have had much choice if he wanted to  have a film produced and distributed in the country.  In any case, I would say Zhang’s concentration on the period’s pervasive climate of fear and its devastating long-term effects (which are associated with the latter part of the novel) probably wound up being more subtle and powerful than any obvious depiction of tyrannical prison-camp brutality associated with earlier parts of Yan Geling’s tale [4]. 

A film about love and memory, and focusing almost exclusively on a middle-aged couple, needs strong but subtle acting performances, and Zhang chose two stellar performers for these roles  – Chen Daoming and Gong Li.  Chen Daoming is a well-known Chinese film and TV actor, who had earlier appeared in Zhang’s epic Hero (2002). Gong Li, of course, had been closely associated with Zhang Yimou’s early rise, starring in such films as Red Sorghum (1989), Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), To Live (1994), and Shanghai Triad (1995).  But after that earlier close relationship, she had only appeared in one subsequent Zhang Yimou film, Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).  Here in Coming Home she appears as an unglamorous middle-aged woman, but she still retains her magnetic appeal. 

A third important role was that of the couple’s daughter, which was well played by newcomer Zhang Huiwen.  Her ballet-dancing background was undoubtedly a crucial qualification for the role, since her character is (like Yan Geling was, herself) a Cultural Revolution Red Guard dancer; but her acting performance in other respects is excellent, too. 

The film’s mood and pacing is slow and somber, almost dirge-like, and it benefits from Zhang Yimou’s customary superb cinematography (he started out his career as a cinematographer).  Although in earlier films his cinematic expression is often full of vivid coloring, here everything is muted and grey – almost oppressively so.  And this sustains the mood of melancholy.  This  moody atmosphere is complemented by the contemplative piano music score of Chinese composer Chen Qigang.

There is one aspect of Zhang Yimou’s mise-en-scene in this film that I found surprising, though,  and that was the relatively high number of jump cuts in the visual editing.  Normally when an editorial cut-on-action appears in a film, it has been motivated by the action in the story.  For example we see someone dropping something on the floor, and the next shot shows a downward-looking view of what was dropped.  The viewer doesn’t notice the visual discontinuity of the images, because the narrative flow motivates a desire to see the next perspective.  A “jump cut” refers to an editorial cut-on-action where the two successive shots are from more or less the same angle (the same camera axis) and the image size has not changed significantly.  So the cut was not motivated by the action and stands out to the viewer as a discontinuity.  Hence we feel that the image “jumped”.  Sometimes jump cuts are intentionally inserted into a film sequence, such as in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), in order to create a psychological effect of hectic discontinuity.  And indeed Zhang Yimou has, himself, sometimes used jump cuts in the past to create a emotional montage effect, such as in The Road Home (1999) when Zhao Di is hastily preparing a dinner for the new teacher, Luo Changyu.  But that kind of intention does not appear to be the story here in Coming Home.  Instead there are a number of unmotivated jump cuts, from closeup to medium shot for example, that are only distracting.  But never mind; the film’s virtues outweigh any such minor imperfections.

Coming Home’s story moves through four main phases.

1.  Professor Lu Yanshi breaks out
The time is around 1969, and dissident intellectual Lu Yanshi (played by Chen Daoming), imprisoned in a remote labor camp for unspecified reasons during the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-59), has just escaped from custody and made his way back to his home city in northern China.  He desperately wants to see his wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and young teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), whom he hasn’t seen for ten years, but he knows the authorities will be waiting for him. The police fiercely warn Wanyu and Dandan not to collaborate with the criminal, and cast an aura of intimidation over the family.  Right away Zhang Yimou sets up a triangular separation for the three characters.  Wanyu and Lu are desperate to reunite, but Dandan, who hasn’t seen her father since she was three and who has been indoctrinated by then raging Cultural Revolution dogma, rejects her father as a traitor.  She is now a Red Guard ballet dancer seeking a lead role in an official production of the doctrinaire Red Detachment of Women ballet.

Lu manages to get a message to Wanyu to meet him at the train station so that they can runaway together, but the selfish Dandan wants to thwart the idea.  In an excellently choreographed sequence of ensuing triangular separation (Lu - Wanyu - Dandan/police) at the station, the couple try to escape.  But Dandan betrays them, and Lu is recaptured, while Wanyu is beaten and suffers a head injury.

2. Lu Yanshi returns
The action now shifts forward ten years to 1979.  Mao Zedong has passed away, the Cultural Revolution has been revoked, and leader Deng Xiaoping (who was once an enthusiastic supporter of the Anti-Rightist Movement) has approved the exoneration of thousands of past “Rightists”. Lu Yanshi, now rehabilitated, returns home, but finds his family in ruins. 

On Lu’s return, Wanyu is cordial on seeing her husband but doesn’t seem to recognize him.  Lu soon learns that she is suffering from psychogenic amnesia, a form of selective amnesia that can be caused by a traumatic event – in this case it was the tragic recapture of Lu at the train station ten years earlier. But we will later learn that there was another distressing episode that traumatized Wanyu.  In a frantic effort back then to save her husband’s life, she seems to have compromised her virtue with a Party official, Mr. Wang.  That infidelity is another horrible memory that must be obliterated.

In addition, Wanyu has cast Dandan out of her house and is barely on speaking terms with her daughter, who has given up her ballet aspirations and now works in a dingy factory.  Dandan’s banishment was because of her betrayal of her father and her subsequent destruction of every existing photograph of Lu from the family’s photo albums (which may have contributed to Wanyu’s forgetting what her husband looked like).

In other respects Wanyu appears to be normal, and she still works as a schoolteacher.  And she still passionately loves her husband; she just doesn’t think the real Lu Yanshi that has now approached her is actually that husband that she loves.

3.  Memory recovery attempts
Lu still loves his wife, too, and he is certain their old passion can be recovered if he can just get her to recognize him.  In some ways this is reminiscent of the situation depicted in Random Harvest (1942).  So Lu sets about trying successive ploys in an effort to get his wife to recognize him.
1st Ploy
Since Wanyu thinks her husband is still away at the prison labor camp, Lu sends her a letter as if from there to announce that he will be arriving by train on the 5th of the month.  She eagerly goes to the station to meet him, but she fails to recognize him as he emerges from the train.

2nd Ploy
Since Lu was a good piano player and Wanyu still has his old piano in their home, he presents himself to Wanyu as a piano tuner. After tuning the piano, he sits down and plays one of the pieces that he used to play for her.  This piano music, by the way, matches the melancholy soundtrack score that has served as a moody backdrop throughout the film.  Wanyu is touched by the music and for a moment seems to recognize him.  They embrace momentarily, but then she rejects the suddenly strange man who is touching her.

3rd Ploy
Lu manages to collect all the old letters that he had written to her while in prison but that were  never delivered, and he has them posted to her in a box.  Then he poses as a kindly neighbor who is willing to read the letters to her. Although Wanyu delights in listening to the letters read to her, she never makes the connection that the very man reading the letters is her longed-for beloved. 
Lu is getting despondent about all his vain efforts, but he decides to accept reality and see if he can somehow make the existing situation a little better.  So he starts inserting some freshly composed letters into the collected letter box.  These new letters, which Wanyu accepts as authentic messages from her dear husband, contain advice for her.  He urges her to reconcile with the now-repentant and more empathetic Dandan, and Wanyu does so.  Dandan, in turn, decides to return to her ballet dancing.

4.  Resignation
In the final movement of this sad composition, Yu finally learns about his wife and Mr. Fang.  At first Lu seeks revenge, but eventually learns that Mr. Fang is just another pawn that has been victimized in a heartless system.  He decides in the end to make the best of the existing circumstances and look after his damaged beloved in whatever way he can. 

Zhang Yimou’s dramatic meditation on love and memory in Coming Home is deeper and has a wider scope than a political polemic would have had.  The tragic circumstances that oppressive social forces can impose on people have consequences that can expose universal aspects of human existence.  They remind us of the fundamental nature of human relationships.  This film offers us a metaphor about love and the memories that are such an important part of it.

Essentially, our relationships with people are based on the narratives we have of them stored in our memories.  Sometimes over the course of a long relationship we hold onto the old narratives we have of people and overlook the here-and-now personage.  We fail to engage with the person sitting before us and instead imagine a past image from a remembered story.  I think men are more likely to do this than women.  They cherish the pretty young girl in their memories and overlook the here-and-now partner they are living with.  It is interesting that Yan Geling, a woman author who usually writes from the feminine perspective, has reversed the more customary gender roles in this story.  It is the man who is the here-and-now neglected partner in this story.

Like the principals in Random Harvest, Lu Yanshi is trying to recover the hallowed memory of a lost love.   But the outcome and reconciliation are different on this occasion, and perhaps this time they offer the kind of compassionate advice to all of us that can lead to our personal and collective salvation.  Seek not revenge, and love the one you’re with.

  1.  Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, Random House (2005). 
  2. “Scar literature”, Wikipedia” (27 February 2016).   
  3. Yan Geling and Olivia Geng, “Writing China: Yan Geling, ‘The Criminal Lu Yanshi’”, China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, (7 July 2014).   
  4. Maggie Lee, “Cannes Film Review: ‘Coming Home’“, Variety, (21 May 2014).