"Sunrise" - F. W. Murnau (1927)

In 1927 F. W. Murnau, one of the great German Expressionist filmmakers (e.g. Nosferatu, 1922; The Last Laugh, 1924; Faust, 1926), was invited by American producer William Fox to come to Hollywood and given carte blanche authority to make a masterpiece of his own choosing.  The film Murnau made, Sunrise (aka  Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927), has come to be regarded as the culmination of silent film expressiveness and one of the greatest films ever made.  In fact coming as it did just when sound films were first appearing (The Jazz Singer was released at about this time), it is sometimes thought to be the capstone of the silent film era.

The artistry of Sunrise was quickly recognized, and it won three Oscars, including one for Best Cinematography and a share of the prize for Best Picture [1].  And admiration for the film has only increased over time – the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound Critics' Poll ranked Sunrise as the 5th greatest film of all time [2], and its Directors’ Poll ranked it 22nd greatest of all time [3].

What makes people marvel about the film is not so much the story, which is relatively straightforward, but the presentation [4].  Murnau’s regular scriptwriter, Carl Mayer, adapted the short story "The Excursion to Tilsit" (1917) by Hermann Sudermann, and it concerns the effects of a farmer’s adulterous relationship with another woman.  Murnau’s expressionistic way of telling this story, though, is what people remember.  In this connection film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum remarked [5]:
Sunrise triumphs as a masterwork of thought and emotion rendered in terms of visual music, where light and darkness sing in relation to countless polarities: day and night, fire and water, sky and earth, city and country, man and woman, thought and deed, good and evil, nature and culture.”
Indeed, a number of reviewers have focussed their critical attention and praise on the film’s amazing and innovative technical effects, such as slow-moving tracking shots that shift their focalization during the course of their duration [6,7].  In addition, coming as it did at the dawn of the sound era, the film has elements of the new technology.  While Sunrise has no spoken aural dialogue, it does have a synchronous soundtrack featuring background music and a few diegetic sound effects.

But I am less concerned with those technical matters and am more interested in what the viewer sees. In fact the film has few intertitles, and its message is essentially conveyed by its visual imagery.  In this context the film is generally viewed as a fable [4,8], but not everyone sees it in the same light.  Some people praise the film for simply being an idyllic love story [9].  But I see it primarily as a disturbing nightmare that has within it a romantic fantasy.  In fact, to me, Sunrise is something of a horror film.

The story of Sunrise focuses on just three unnamed characters:  The Man (played by George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor), and The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston).  Their anonymity presumably elevates them to iconic status in this tale.  But although they may represent human abstractions with which we can all identify to some extent, these characters embody turbulent emotions in true expressionistic fashion.  This is particularly the case with George O’Brien’s portrayal of The Man, a character often subject to an unseen emotional maelstrom whirling inside of him.

The film’s drama moves through three movements, or acts, each of which recounts its own highly contrasting nightmare [5].  In each one, the brooding, turbulent inner dimensions of the main character, The Man, lie just below the surface. 

1.  A Crime of Passion
A provincial lakeside farm village serves as a summer vacation site for many city dwellers, one of whom is The Woman From the City (or “The City Woman”). She has been lingering in the town because of her adulterous affair with a local farmer (The Man), who is married (to The Woman) and has an infant child.  In the evening The City Woman dresses up and goes outside The Man’s farmhouse, where she whistles for him to come out for a tryst.  He sneaks out to meet her in the woods, and the camera almost excitedly follows him (in that famous 90-second tracking shot), even rushing ahead to fix its gaze on the City Woman awaiting his arrival.  Although The City Woman appears to be a vain urban sophisticate and The Man a rustic villager, they are apparently passionately in love.

When The City Woman urges her lover to drown The Wife and make it look like a boating accident, so that they two can go live together in the big city, he erupts in rage, throttling and nearly strangling the woman.  This is the first of several instances in the film revealing The Man’s essentially violent nature, so I will label it “violence-1".  But The City Woman responds to this violence by covering him with kisses and swinging him over to her plan.  Then she prepares a bundle of reeds that he can use to save himself when he later overturns their rowboat on the lake.

Although wracked with guilt, The Man goes home and invites his loving wife to go on a trip across the lake to the big city.  When they are on the rowboat in the water, The Man menacingly approaches his wife to kill her (violence-2), but he is too overcome with guilt to go through with it.  But his wife could clearly see his murderous intentions and is horrified.  He sullenly rows them to the far shore, whereupon his terrified wife rushes off towards the city.  The Man, now remorseful, chases after her.

2.  Love’s Renewal
With The Man continually beseeching forgiveness from The Woman, the two of them arrive in the bewildering splendour of the big city.  In this act of the film, we see this rural couple sampling some of the sights of the urban environment.  When they sit in on a church wedding ceremony taking place and hear the exchange of wedding vows, The Man breaks down in tears, and The Woman finally forgives him. Janet Gaynor’s subtly emotive facial expressions in her portrayal of The Woman are very effective in these scenes, and it is not surprising that she won an Oscar for her performance.

In love again and imagining themselves now as newlyweds, they decide to go to a photo studio to get their pictures taken, and for this they decide first to go to a hair salon.  When another man importunately flirts with The Woman while she is watching her husband getting a shave, The Man erupts in rage and menacingly threatens the offending man with his pocket knife.  Nothing transpires on this occasion, but we have another instance here of The Man’s inner turbulence (violence-3).

Later they go to an amusement park, phantasmagorically presented by Murnau, where they sample some of the wacky offerings.  After The Man’s pastoral skills enable him to capture a runaway piglet from one of the park stalls, the onlooking crowd is delighted.  A dance hall conductor then tells his orchestra to play a “peasant dance”  and invites the two of them to dance to it.  The Man is reluctant, but when he gets an encouraging shove from an admiring onlooker, he takes violent offence (violence-4) and has to be calmed down by his soothing wife.  Then the two of them go ahead and charm the crowd by enthusiastically performing the desired peasant dance.

With their love restored, the happy couple now head home in the evening.

3.  Tragedy Looms
On their way back across the lake, the dreamy couple are immersed in their newfound love.  But just then a ferociously deadly thunderstorm arises.  The Man desperately tries to row them ashore, but he can’t stop their boat from being swamped.  Just before the boat capsizes, he pulls out the reed bundle that The City Woman had prepared for his murder attempt, and he ties it around The Woman.

Sometime later, The Man regains his senses after he has been washed ashore, but there is no sign of The Woman.  A desperate search for her on the part of the whole village ensues, but they are  unable to find her.  All the people, including The Man, assume she has lost her life in the storm.

The City Woman has been watching all these events from a distance, and she assumes that The Man had carried out their  murderous plan.  So she again dresses up and goes outside his farmhouse to whistle for him to come out.  When he comes to the door, The City Woman approaches him, but The Man is so upset that he starts brutally strangling her again (violence-5).  Just before he is about to kill The City Woman, though, he hears people calling out that his wife has been found alive.  He rushes off to be with The Woman, and they embrace. 

In the early morning at sunrise, The City Woman is seen departing the village and heading back to the big city.  And The Man, The Woman, and their child are in bed rejoicing.


Many people see Sunrise as an idyllic fable about the love between a man and a woman in a bucolic setting.  Temptation had reared its head but was overcome by a recognition of one’s commitment to love.  However, as I mentioned above, I see the film as more of a nightmare.  Even the presumptively uplifting Act 2, with its focus on forgiveness and refinding a neglected love, has its dark side.  Lurking below the surface of all of us, there may be dark, turbulent passions.  These passionate urges and fears are expressionistically manifested in The Man, and they persisted even in the supposedly redeeming Act 2 (e.g violence-3 and violence-4) as well as in the other acts.  Indeed, Act 2, much of which is situated in the bizarre, carnival-like atmosphere of the amusement park, has an eerie, hectic quality that has its own disturbing undertones.  Overall, The Man is rediscovering his earlier love, but his inner nature continues – remember this presumably remorseful man almost vengefully killed The City Woman near the close of this story.

So Murnau’s film, even with its expressionistically exaggerated portrayals, goes beyond naive presentations of love and evokes feelings, as Rosenbaum suggested, about the complexity of human existence.  And that is what makes it mysteriously fascinating.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Sunrise won the Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929, while Wings (1927) won the similarly prestigious award for “Outstanding Picture”.
  2. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  3. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).    
  4. Dorothy B. Jones, Sunrise: A Murnau Masterpiece”The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Spring, 1955), pp. 238-262; reprinted in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, (Lewis Jacobs, ed.), The Noonday Press, (1960), pp. 107-129.
  5. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]”, The Guardian, (31 January 2004).    
  6. Roger Ebert, “Sunrise”, RogerEbert.com, (11 April 2004).  
  7. James Berardinelli, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (United States, 1927)”, Reelviews,  (9 November 2009).     
  8. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “Notes on Friday’s Film [SUNRISE] (1963)”, The Bard Observer, (7 May 1963).    
  9. Pamela Hutchinson, “My favourite film – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, The Guardian, (16 November 2011).  

Michael Landon Jr

Films of Michael Landon Jr:

“When Calls the Heart” - Michael Landon Jr (2014-2018)

When Calls the Heart is a Canadian-American television series based on prolific author Janette Oke’s 1983 novel of the same name.  Like much of Oke’s work, this series is an example of “inspirational fiction” [1], which features upbeat stories imbued with religion-inspired messages and moral lessons suitable for families.  The series was developed by Michael Landon Jr and has been a hit with audiences over the past five years.

The setting for the series is a small western Canadian coal-mining town, Coal Valley, in Alberta in 1910.  The narrative threads revolve around a young woman from a wealthy family, Elizabeth Thatcher, who arrives in the town from the more cosmopolitan eastern Canada (Hamilton, Ontario) to serve as the town’s only schoolteacher.  Many of the themes of the series concern the cultural contrast between Elizabeth’s more culturally-refined background and the provincial circumstances with which she has to adjust.  In this sense the viewer might be reminded of another famous television series, Northern Exposure (1990-95), which featured a similar cultural clash.  However, I would say that When Calls the Heart does not measure up to Northern Exposure’s wit and insight.

A distinctive feature of this series is the narrative focalization on the women characters.  Most things that take place in these stories are seen from their perspective.  And indeed women are the primary agents of changes that prevent negative consequences and lead to positive outcomes in the stories.

Another positive series feature is the atmospheric cinematography of Michael Balfry and Robert Brinkmann, which supports the emotional tone being conveyed.  However, the acting in the series is uneven, at best, and this is probably primarily due to the simplistically formulaic construction of many of the characters.   Nevertheless, lead performers Erin Krakow (in the role of Elizabeth Thatcher) and Daniel Lissing (playing Jack Thornton) often manage to rise above the trite nature of their scripted interactions by means of their subtly emotive facial expressions.  In fact Ms. Krakow’s soulful countenance offers a crucial underlying current of feeling throughout the series.

1.  Season 1 (2014)
Elizabeth Thatcher arrives in Coal Valley to serve as the town’s schoolteacher in the aftermath of a tragic coal-mine explosion which killed 46 of the miners a couple of months earlier.  The whole town is still in a state of shock and mourning, and Elizabeth becomes acquainted with a number of newly-widowed mothers who are now even more concerned about their children’s educations.  Notable among these widows is Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin), who lost her husband, who was the mine’s foreman, and her son in the disaster.

Elizabeth also meets Royal North-West Mounted Police Constable Jack Thornton (Daniel  Lissing), who has been newly assigned to look after the town’s region. Although Elizabeth and the handsome and soft-spoken Jack seem like a natural pairing, things get off to a bad start between the two.  Jack initially resentfully dismisses the young woman as a spoiled rich girl whose wealthy father may have stunted his career ambitions by having him assigned to this backwood’s spot in order to see that his daughter is protected.
 
Another key figure is Henry Gowen (Martin Cummins), who is the owner of the coal mine and who basically bosses the company town.  Gowen is a cynical, hard-hearted opportunist who seeks to exploit every situation he encounters. 

So throughout this first season, a somewhat simplistic moral opposition is portrayed between two basic stances that are embodied by Gowen and Abigail:
  • Henry Gowen embodies self-centered exploitation and heartless cruelty.
  • Abigail embodies a positive and Christian-inspired attitude of inclusive kindness and you-can-do-it optimism about the world.
In a number of cases, there is a Gowen-backed obstacle placed before the Coal Valley community, in response to which Abigail lights a faith-inspired pathway to overcome that obstacle and find harmonious contentment.  At the end of Season 1, these Gowen-Abigail confrontations come to a head in the form of a prospective court case concerning who may be held responsible for the coal-mine disaster that killed 46 people.  Abigail has found some evidence pointing to Gowen’s culpability in this matter, while Gowen and his lawyer insist that the guilty party is Abigail’s deceased husband.

In addition to the ongoing Abigail-Gowen narrative thread, there is of course the Elizabeth-Jack relationship thread, which is suggestive of Northern Exposure’s Fleischman-O’Connell relationship thread.  This is a stumbling and fitful progression that much of the time appears to be going nowhere, apart from some unseen longing glances on the part of the two of them towards each other.  One of the impediments is Jack’s natural reticence and straight-arrow sense of bearing a high moral character. Another problem, which impedes so many relationships, is that of pride and concern for one’s sense of dignity.  And there is also the complication brought on by the unexpected appearance of Jack’s former fiancé, Rosemary LeVeaux (Pascale Hutton), a flamboyant  actress who represents competition for Elizabeth’s interests in Jack.  But at the close of Season 1, Elizabeth and Jack have finally shared a tender kiss, acknowledging their mutual affection for each other.

These developing narratives make the latter episodes of the twelve-episode Season 1 more connected and compelling, and they gradually lift the series above its early randomly episodic character.
½

Season 2 (2015)
In the second season of the series, there are two recently introduced male characters that come into prominence.  One is Bill Avery (Jack Wagner), a Mountie investigator who has come to the town to investigate the mining disaster.  Avery appears to be benevolent but also apparently has hidden  motives that make him a questionable figure.  The other key new character is Leland Coulter (Kavan Smith), a wealthy visitor who decides to open up a sawmill in the town after the mine has been closed down.  Both of these men are relatively laid-back, but they have key influences on the way the plot turns.

There are also two relatively new female characters who receive more narrative focalization.  One is Jack’s former fiancé, Rosemary (Rosie) LeVeaux, who moves to Coal Valley in an effort to win back Jack’s previously spurned affections.  Another is Elizabeth’s flighty younger sister, Julie (Charlotte Hegele), whose romantic fantasies overwhelm her.  Both of these characters are exaggerated stereotypes who are so over-the-top that they are likely to put off the viewer’s involvement in their stories.  In particular, Rosemary’s incessant ear-to-ear toothy grins and smirks become a distraction.

Although human relationships are key to this series, this second season is driven by four external dramatic events.
  1. The Court Case.  First comes the court case concerning the culpability behind the mining disaster.  A rare woman attorney comes to Coal Valley to take up the state’s prosecution of the case (another instance of this series’ focus on women’s proactivity).  Although it looks like phony evidence concocted by the evil Henry Gowen is going to swing the case in favor of the mining company, a last-minute witness testifies for the prosecution, and Gowen’s company loses the case.  The widows of the 46 miners who died in the tragedy are awarded damages, and the mine is ordered shutdown.
     
  2. The Sawmill.  With the coal mine shutdown, the prospects for Coal Valley’s continuance look dim.  But newly arrived investor Lee Coulter decides to build a sawmill there, and the town is saved.  To celebrate the town’s new future, it is renamed “Hope Valley”.
     
  3. Return to Hamilton.  Elizabeth learns of her mother’s serious health condition back in  Hamilton and is escorted by Jack to the city to be with her family.  Seeing her back in her upperclass surroundings, Jack is disturbed by the recognition that he and Elizabeth have such different backgrounds.  He is also unhappy to see Elizabeth aggressively courted by her old childhood friend, Charles Kensington III (Marcus Rosner).  Kensington is a handsome and polished upperclass gentleman who is ardently in love with Elizabeth.
     
  4. The Counterfeit Money Case.  The secretive Bill Avery has been investigating a crime involving counterfeit money, and the viewer is given various bits and pieces of this case along the way.  At a critical point the finger of guilt winds up pointing directly at Bill.
Of course these external events provide the dramatic context for the key romantic relationships involving the principal female characters that are the focus of this season.
  • Elizabeth.  Elizabeth’s budding relationship with Jack is threatened by her new involvement with Charles, and the introverted Jack withdraws from her emotionally.  By the end of this second season, thoug, seems almost to have been resolved.
     
  • Abigail.  The widowed Abigail starts responding to Bill’s tentative expressions of interest, and it looks like they are falling in love.  This is ruined when Bill’s estranged wife Nora shows up on the scene.  Later Abigail starts becoming interested in the town’s new church pastor, Frank Hogan (Mark Humphrey).  But this relationship is clouded when she learns about Frank’s criminal past.
     
  • Rosie.  Rosemary LeVeaux is politely courted by Lee Coulter. However, her insatiable ego presents a continuing problem for this relationship to move forward.
     
  • Julie.  Julie Thatcher’s mad infatuation with Jack’s younger brother, Tom Thornton, seems headed for their elopement.  But the upper-crust Thatcher family is adamantly opposed to such a union.
Throughout all these affairs, Abigail remains the series’ beacon of Christian generosity and compassion.

The combination of these context-providing events and romantic relationships are enough to make this a successful season for When Calls the Heart.  Even the annoyingly artificial presentations of the Rosie and Julie characters are not enough to spoil one’s overall enjoyment.


Season 3 (2016)
In the third season there is a new narrative structure introduced in which each episode is wrapped inside an outer contextual narrative showing Elizabeth writing about her experiences.  This doesn’t really change things much, and we can assume all earlier episodes were stories “written” (inside this narrative) by Elizabeth. 

Again romantic human relationships continue to be paramount, but now there is a heightened focus on Rosie LeVeaux.  This is unfortunate, because her unending and outlandish thousand-volt schemes to put herself in the spotlight become wearisome.  Her presence in this series may have been an attempt to recreate something like Lucille Ball’s eponymous wacky character in the TV comedy series “I Love Lucy” (1951-57).  But it doesn’t work.

There are four external narrative threads, providing some context for the human relationships, that would seem to be narrative drivers for this season.  But they often refer to events that take place off-camera, and they tend to terminate abruptly.
  1. Bill Avery’s counterfeit money investigation, clues for which had occasionally appeared in previous seasons, ends abruptly when Bill quickly captures the villain.  There is little background given concerning motivation and context for this thread.
     
  2. Frank Hogan’s criminal past, for which we had served a three-year prison sentence, comes back to haunt him when the Garrison gang shows up in Hope Valley.  Again, this thread ends too abruptly when the gang is violently thwarted by Jack and captured.  An associated credulity-stretching sequence with this subplot concerns the Hope Valley residents’ discovery of Frank’s criminal past.   Initially the townspeople express their wish for a new church pastor to replace the former felon.  But when Abigail makes a simple appeal to all of them for Christian forgiveness, they, incredibly and unanimously, do forgive Frank and retain him as their pastor.
     
  3. The town’s sawmill, on which Hope Valley’s survival depends, is hit with sabotage events that cause the mill to be shutdown.  The now-mayor, Henry Gowen, is the natural suspect, of course, since he seems to be behind all perfidy in the town, but the real culprit turns out to have been Lee Coulter’s assistant.
     
  4. There is another mining disaster near the end of this season.  The nearby Silverton mine suffers a mudslide and cave-in that results in two deaths and about twenty serious injuries. Most of these minors are dirt-poor and have been living in a tent village near Hope Valley.  In response to this disaster, the Hope Valley residents, led by Abigail, Elizabeth, Jack, and Frank, all rush to help these victims thanks to their faith-based sense of charity.
On the human relationship level, the main focus is on the romantic threads:
  • Jack and Elizabeth continue their snail’s-pace courtship.  They are now both dreaming of a future life together.
  • Lee and Rosie come together.  At the end of this season, they get married.
  • Abigail and Frank are now an openly revealed couple.
  • Surprisingly, Henry Gowen and Bill’s former wife, Nora, come together romantically. We learn that the two of them were involved with each other years ago, before Nora married Bill.
In addition there is the unannounced arrival in Hope Valley of Jack’s eccentric mother (Brooke Shields!), who presents some compatibility challenges for Elizabeth.  And as usual, Bill Avery remains a mysterious character, with apparently further unrevealed secrets concerning his past.  Bill’s habitual vengeance-oriented posture is often a provocative element to the efforts of his community-supporting teammates.   In fact we can discern roughly three different stances to what we might call the ad-hoc "team" of Elizabeth, Abigail, Jack, Bill, and Frank:
  • Faith-based promotion and support – Abigail, Elizabeth, and Frank
  • Law-based rectitude – Jack
  • Righteous vengeance – Bill
Overall, this season does not measure up to its predecessor.  It mostly consists of disconnected episodes that do not sustain a narrative continuity.  And much of the time we are subjected to trite moralizing that is often presented in lesson form to Elizabeth’s school students, such as that one should always face up one’s fears.  Moreover, the acting, outside of Elizabeth, Abigail, Jack, and Frank, is frequently unconvincing.
½

Season 4 (2017) 


Notes:
  1. “Inspirational Fiction”, Wikipedia, (17 September 2017). 

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

One of Rabindranath Tagore’s more popular short stories, “Kabuliwala” (1892), formed the content of  the seventh episode of the recent anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) under the general directorship of Anurag Basu.  One measure of this story’s popularity is that it has previously been the basis of two successful feature films, the Bengali movie Kabuliwala (1957) and the Hindi movie Kabuliwala (1961).  This TV episode, which was directed by Anurag Basu’s wife, Tani Basu, follows Tagore’s story quite closely; however, it features a flashback temporal construction that was not part of the original story [1].

The “Kabuliwala” story is about a poor Afghani Pashtun street trader (known in India as a “Kabuliwala”) in Calcutta who fortuitously strikes up an unusual relationship with a very young girl from an upper-middle class Bengali family.  The young girl in Tagore’s story, Mini, is only five years old and described as a relentlessly energetic chatterbox.  Actress Amrita Mukherjee, who plays the role of Mini in this episode, is about eight years old and perhaps less exuberant, but she still presents a compellingly cherubic figure.

At the outset of the story, a successful Bengali novelist (played by Bobby Parvez) is making extensive preparations for his daughter Mini’s imminent marriage ceremony and celebration. In the midst of these concerns, a somewhat disheveled man off the street, Rahamat (Mushtaq Kak), comes to their home hoping to see Mini.  The father does recognize Rahamat, but he has not seen him for the past eight years, because the man has been in prison.  The story then shifts into an extended flashback concerning events that took place eight years earlier.  Unfortunately this movement into flashback is not well signaled cinematically, and some viewers may be temporarily confused by the changed context.

In the flashback, the little girl Mini is seem prattling away to her loving father, who dotingly allows her to interrupt his work on his novel to allow her to proclaim her childish opinions about the world around her.  One day, though, Mini notices a Kabuliwala peddling his dried fruit on the urban street in front of her home, and she gleefully calls out to him, “Oh, Kabuliwala!”.  When the bearded street peddler, who we see is Rahamat, turns towards her house, Mini runs inside in terror.  Seeing this, Mini’s father chides his daughter for being a scaredy-cat, and he politely buys some fruit from the man.

Soon, though, Mini’s father observes that the Kabuliwala has overcome Mini’s skittishness and has become her friend.  He regularly stops by their house, offering the girl some of his fruit and engaging in children’s games that they mutually concoct.  This is the beautiful part of the story – the way Rahamat can lovingly relate to Mini and engage her on her childish terms.  We see a series of incidents showing Rahamat on his knees before the child and enthusiastically participating and wrapped up in one of their playfully dreamed-up narratives.  One of the pet phrases the Kabuliwala uses is when he naughtily warns Mini about going to the home of her in-laws, a playful reference to something far beyond the little girl’s existing comprehension.  She would respond by asking her Kabuliwala whether he would go to his in-laws.

These sequences remind us that when we interact with anyone – and with a child, in particular – in order to be effective, we need to relate to a shared narrative that we both embrace and commit to.  To a certain extent Mini’s father does this with Mini; but Rahamat does it more fully.  He is her best friend.

Mini’s mother was alarmed over her daughter’s close friendship with a shabby, perhaps unsavory, older foreign man off the street.  She wanted to forbid it, but her husband gave her assurances that the Kabuliwala-Mini relationship was entirely innocent.

One day Mini’s father hears a disturbance out on the street in front of his house, and he goes out to see Rahamat being led away in handcuffs. He learns that Rahamat has been arrested for stabbing a customer who had refused to pay his overdue bill.  When Mini comes outside and sees her Kabuliwala being led away, she asks him where he is going.  He responds by ironically telling her that he is going to the home of his “in-laws”, which is another slang meaning for “going to the in-laws”, i.e. going to jail, that is beyond the girl’s comprehension [2].

That concludes the extended flashback, and we return to the “present”, eight years later.  Rahamat wants to once again see his dear little friend.  Mini’s father is disturbed to bring his about-to-be-married daughter before the ex-convict Rahamat on this portentous day, but when he once again perceives the sincerity of the man, he relents. 

When Rahamat finally sees Mini, he is struck by the realization that his dear friend has grown up into a young woman and has all but forgotten him.  He realizes that his own only daughter, of the same age as Mini, back in Afghanistan has similarly grown up and now may barely remember her own father.  He breaks down in tears.  At this point it is revealed that Rahamat’s love for Mini was a surrogate expression of his parental love for his own daughter back in Afghanistan.  When Mini’s father sees this, he realizes that he shares a deep bond and sympathy with the man.  The universal feeling of parental love for one’s innocent child transcends all the class, cultural, and national differences that might be presumed to separate the two men.  Even a man capable of a violent, homicidal act can share this with an educated compassionate humanist.  Both men are going through the shared and inevitable pain of seeing their daughters fly off to their new in-laws.

As a partial expression for his sympathy, Mini’s father immediately gives Rahamat a considerable sum of money that will enable the Kabuliwala to return home and see his own daughter.  And so at the end of this story, we are left to ponder how that reunion may turn out.

This poignant expression of the universality of parental love is the charming theme of this story.
½

Notes:
  1. Here are two English translations of Tagore’s “Kabuliwala”:
    • Rabindranath Tagore, “Kabuliwala”, (1892). (trans. by Mohammad A. Quayum, Flinders Open Access Research, Volume 1, Issue 2, May 2009, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia).    
    • Rabindranath Tagore, “Kabuliwala”,  (1892).   
  2. Durgas, “Kabuliwala – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (3)”, Writersbrew, (3 August 2015).