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

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

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

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

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

Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) is an Indian television series and covers novels and stories by the great Indian writer and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).  Although Tagore wrote his works in his native Bengali language, the series presentation language is Hindi.  

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

Because of the hour-long format of the series, some of Tagore’s stories are spread over more than one episode.  The series when presented was well receive by the Indian press and the public [1].

The Tagore stories depicted in this series are linked, so that at the conclusion of one story, background characters of the story just concluded are seen to be significant characters of a story about to be told.  Thus at the end of each story, there is a direct lead-in to the next story.

Episodes from Stories by Rabindranath Tagore:
  • “Chokher Bali”Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 – Anurag Basu (2015)
Notes:
  1. Sankhayan Ghosh, “Tagore’s stories have a strange sense of gender equality: Anurag Basu”, The Indian Express, (3 July 2015).    

Anurag Basu

Films of Anurag Basu:

“Kanchenjungha” - Satyajit Ray (1962)

Kanchenjungha (1962) was a novel and innovative film for Satyajit Ray in several respects.  It was his first color film, and it was the first time he fashioned a film from his own original screenplay. The structure of the screenplay was, itself, innovative, since it involved multiple, parallel narrative threads involving a number of separately focalized characters.  This kind of narrative structure, which has been featured in such classics as Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Altman’s Nashville (1975), has sometimes been referred to as a hyperlink film; but it was then unknown to Bengali film, and it confused some critics at the time. 

The story of Kanchenjungha features a group of wealthy people from Calcutta who are vacationing in the remote northern Bengal hill station of Darjeeling, which lies at the foot of Kanchenjungha, the third highest mountain peak in the world.  The vacationers in this story have come to this outlying natural locale to “get away from it all”, and they seek to both revel in nature’s wonders and hopefully catch glimpses of Kanchenjungha’s majesty, which is often obscured in clouds and mist. In fact the ever-shifting mists in Darjeeling presented production problems for Ray, since they could interfere with shot continuity.  But Ray put up with and even exploited this situation – the shifting mists offered a visual metaphor for the evolving psychological moods and understandings in the story.
                       
Another distinctive feature of this film is that it was shot entirely on location in Darjeeling.  Under such conditions it meant that Ray and his small production crew did not have access to artificial lighting equipment.  Instead, they used bounce-lighting reflectors, a technique that had been pioneered by Ray’s innovative young cinematographer, Subrata Mitra [1,2,3].

Ray had chosen the Darjeeling location, because his grandfather, the writer and eminent intellectual Upendrakishore Ray, used to sometimes retreat there for inspiration.  So Ray went to Darjeeling for a ten-day visit and wrote a detailed scenario for the film while there.  Ray was a meticulous production planner, and he came up with a detailed scheme as to how he could incorporate elements of Darjeeling’s natural surroundings into his film. As a result and despite the unpredictable weather conditions that had to be accommodated to, Ray completed the film with a low shooting ratio of three-to-one. These and other interesting production details – including how Ray, who had no musical training, scored all the music for the film –  are related by Ray’s biographer, Marie Seton, who was at Ray’s side during the entire location shoot and post-production [4].

Note that the idea of educated urbanites leaving their customary trappings and going off into natural surroundings leading to new perspectives was something that Ray would cover again in his superlative Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, 1970).
  
In this story of Kanchenjungha, a family from Calcutta is on the last day of their visit to Darjeeling.  The key issue for them is the semi-arranged and impending marriage proposal that will presumably be proffered to one of the family’s daughters that afternoon.  There are a number of individuals, nearly all of whom are given some narrative focalization (i.e. we see things from their perspectives) along the way:
  • Indranath Roy (played by Chhabi Biswas, who had appeared in Ray’s earlier Jalshaghar (The Music Room, 1958) and Devi (The Goddess, 1960)) is the imperious Anglophilic patriarch of the family visiting Darjeeling. He is the chairman of five companies and is accustomed to getting his own way.  He and his wife have three children – Anima, Monisha, and Anil.
     
  • Labanya (Karuna Banerjee, who was featured in Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956)) is Indranath’s long-suppressed wife.
                 
  • Jagadish (Pahari Sanyal) is Labanya’s widowed brother and an avid bird-watcher.  He is more or less a sympathetic onlooker to what transpires.
     
  • Monisha (Alaknanda Roy) is the Roy’s unmarried nineteen-year-old daughter who is currently in college and is now targeted for a marriage proposal.
     
  • Anima (Anubha Gupta) is the Roy’s elder, married daughter, who was pushed (i.e. coerced) by her father into an arranged marriage ten years earlier.
     
  • Shankar (Subrata Sen) is Anima’s dissatisfied husband.  Shankar and Anima have a young daughter who has accompanied them on this trip.
     
  • Anil Roy (Anil Chatterjee), the Roys' son, fancies himself to be a hip, modernist playboy.
     
  • Bannerjee (N. Viswanathan) is a mannered and self-satisfied engineer who has been selected by Indranath to propose to Monisha.
     
  • Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee) is a young man from Calcutta who meets Monisha on a scenic walking path.  To some extent Ashoke shares with Jagadish the quality of being a free spirit seeking inspiration from nature.
The film opens with brief sequences introducing the principal characters and then settles into the coverage, more or less in real time, of several parallel and interleaved conversations that make up the core of the film. 
  • Monisha and Bannerjee.  The driving conversation in the film is the artificially arranged stroll of Monisha and Bannerjee, during which Bannerjee is expected to politely lodge his marriage proposal.  Bannerjee is gentlemanly but has a quietly pompous demeanor.  Monisha appears to be sensitive and not ready to commit herself to an arranged marriage organized by her father and based on social status.  This conversation, which keeps getting interrupted and makes little progress towards its goal is shown in five separate segments that are interleaved with other conversations.
     
  • Anima and Shankar.  Another key conversation is that between Anima and her husband Shankar.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to be alone together, Shankar tells Anima that their ten-year marriage is a failure, and he indicates that he knows she has long been having an affair with another man.  They both acknowledge that their arranged marriage, similar to what Indranath has proposed for Monisha, was a bad idea from the beginning.  Shankar now says he is willing to give Anima her freedom and offers her a divorce.  But there is an innocent child to be considered.  Is reconciliation possible?
     
  • Ashoke and Indranath.  Ashoke is from a family well below the upper-class status of the Roys.  He is a recent college graduate looking for a full-time job, and when he incidentally meets and converses with Indranath, the idea of Indranath offering Ashoke a job becomes a topic of discussion.  From their discussion the viewer can see the contrast between Indranath’s haughty presumptuousness and Ashoke’s more natural and spontaneous style of relating to others.  When Indranath imperiously offers the young man a job, Ashoke has the courage to stand up to him and say that he himself can manage by his own efforts.
     
  • Monisha and Ashoke.  During these walks Monisha and Ashoke meet by happenstance and have a few brief conversations.  Despite the obstructions of social class, family demands, and impending obligations, it is clear that they share a natural affinity for each other.  In particular, Monisha is attracted to Ashoke’s free-spirited optimism about finding future opportunities.  At one point Ashoke waxes rhapsodic about hoe the natural surroundings they are now in inspired him to look inside himself and stand up to Indranath’s job offer.
    “Maybe this place did it. . . . here I’ve never seen such scenery. The majestic Himalayas, these silent pine trees. This sudden sunlight, sudden clouds, sudden mist!  It’s so unreal, like a dream world. My head was in a whirl.  Everything changed inside.  As if I was somebody. . . A hero, a giant.  I was full of courage.  I was reckless, undaunted. Tell me, a place like this fills one with strength, doesn’t it?”
    Ashoke’s revelation of personal authenticity in turn inspires Monisha about what she should do about her own situation.   
By the end of the film, some important decisions have been made, and they imbue their affected parties with hope about  the future.  Indranath’s smug assumption of control, and, by association, the assumed general acquiescence to the way things have always been, has been challenged.  New doors of opportunity have been opened up.  Getting off into nature, away from the artificial confinement of human conventions, enabled some people to get in touch with their authentic selves.  This was the key theme of the film.


Kanchenjungha was not a big hit at the box office or with critics when it was first released.  But it has since come to be more appreciated, despite neglect of the original color negative, which  has limited modern viewers to watching digital restorations that cannot recapture the original splendor of Ray’s original color cinematography [5]. 

In some ways we could compare this film to The Rules of the Game, because there are multiple  social issues and outlooks on life portrayed.  I don’t think Kanchenjungha quite measures up to that level, but there were some moments in the film that I very much liked and that resonate in my memory.  In particular there was the exquisite moment when Bannerjee was in the process of popping the marital question to Monisha but was interrupted by the appearance of a herd of bell-laden donkeys that were shepherded past them on their path.  The clamor of the donkeys’ bells stopped Bannerjee short, and Monisha seized the opportunity to break away.  This sudden appearance of the donkey herd was actually an interruption to Ray’s shooting of this scene and was entirely unplanned. Ray improvisationally decided to incorporate it into the scene, to heightened aesthetic effect [4].  Thus this scene shows by example how Ray could be both a meticulous planner, with everything worked out beforehand, and also a flexible improviser who could take advantage of opportunities when they arose.
½

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 118-9.
  2. “Reflector (photography)”, Wikipedia, (6 December 2017).   
  3. “‘The World of Apu’ - Satyajit Ray (1959)”, The Film Sufi, (4 September 2013).   
  4. Marie Seton, op. cit., (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 230-250, 270-281.
  5. Omar Ahmed, “KANCHENJUNGHA (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962, India) – ‘Why accept a life of endless submission?’”, Movie Mahal, (20 October 2014).   

“Power of Attorney”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 24 - Harvey Hart (1965)

“Power of Attorney” (1965) was an episode (Season 3, Episode 24) of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65) TV anthology series.  It was directed by Harvey Hart and scripted by James Bridges based on a story by well-known British mystery author Selwyn Jepson.  Bridges is famous, in my mind, as the scriptwriter of the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode “An Unlocked Window”  (Season 3, Episode 17).

This episode here under discussion starred three veterans of stage and screen – Richard Johnson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Fay Bainter.  The story concerns an unctuous swindler, Jarvis Smith (played by British stage veteran Richard Johnson), who preys on lonely older women who are charmed (or seduced) by his emotionally forthcoming and solicitous advances into believing him to be their dear friend.  He poses as a financial investor who is investing his own money in promising selected ventures and urges his new woman companion to take advantage of his expertise and invest her own money, too.  But of course it is all a scam, and the money soon disappears along with Jarvis Smith.

In the opening sequence we see an example of how Smith operates, as he swindles a woman who thinks she is his beloved out of her savings and then vanishes.  From the outset he evinces such an oily and phony manner that one would think his fraudulent nature would be evident to anyone he meets.  This is a weakness of this episode, and the obviousness of Smith’s phoniness seems laughably artificial.

Next Smith is shown introducing himself to two fellow airplane passengers seated across the aisle – the widow Mary Caulfield (Fay Bainter) and her spinster companion Agatha Tomlin (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Mary quickly succumbs to Smith’s entreaties for friendship, but Agatha is resolutely standoffish. 

Smith soon sets his sights on seducing Agatha, and for much of the rest of the episode we see his strenuous (and persistently fake) efforts to insinuate himself into her affections.  The viewer’s sympathies will clearly be on the side of Agatha’s skepticism, so it becomes disturbing when Agatha is shown slowly beginning to soften her resistance to Smith.

Smith eventually does manage to swindle Mary out of her considerable life savings, and Agatha seems to be now of two minds about him.  But it is not evident that Smith has broken any laws, so how can justice prevail?  In the concluding scenes we see that Agatha was tougher and more mindful than we had been giving her credit for being.  She comes up with a lawful way to exact her own “justice”.

This episode, like many in this series, sets up a vain and reprehensible villain for the viewer, and tortuously winds its way towards a supposedly satisfying revenge.  The pleasure you take in this will depend on your sensitivities on this score.  The presentation is marred by Richard Johnson’s grossly over-the-top characterization of the slimy Jarvis Smith.  But it does also feature the redeeming performance of Geraldine Fitzgerald as the continually pondering Agatha.  She is the one who sustains our interest.