“The Broken Nest”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s famous novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest, 1901 [1])  was the basis for the 9th and 10th episodes of the recent anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015). This series was created by and under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, and these two episodes covering Tagore’s story were directed by Anurag Basu’s wife, Tani Basu

Tagore’s Nastanirh concerns what happens in an upper-class Bengali household when the neglected young wife of a workaholic newspaper editor develops an unsettlingly close relationship with her husband’s younger male cousin. Tagore’s subtle portrayal shows a cultured family trying to come to grips with a potentially disruptive situation.  A related aspect that has always fascinated Tagore followers is that this kind of familial situation seems to have mirrored Tagore’s own personal experiences.  When he was growing up, Rabindranath Tagore was friendly with his older brother Jyotirindranath’s young wife, Kadambari Devi.  Similar to the age distribution of the principal characters in Nastanirh, Rabindranath was twelve years younger than Jyotirindranath but almost the same age as his sister-in-law.  With more free time available to them, Rabindranath and Kadambari Devi spent a lot of time together and became close companions, with common interests in poetry and art. However, shortly after Rabindranath had an arranged marriage at the age of 23, Kadambari Devi committed suicide, and it has always been assumed that her close relationship with Rabindranath may have figured into this tragic event.  I will not comment further about this other than to suggest that the feelings evoked in Tagore’s Nastanirh were probably very close to his heart.

It is not surprising then that Tagore’s delicate story about this situation has been filmed on several earlier occasions – the most notable of these being Satyajit Ray’s masterful rendition, Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964).  All things considered, both Ray’s film and Tani Basu’s TV production are relatively faithful presentations of Tagore’s Nastanirh, and both are excellent.  But they differ somewhat with respect to what they emphasize, and so I will make some comparisons between the two productions in what follows.  In this connection I invite the reader to consult my review of Ray’s Charulata, which I will occasionally refer to below [2].

Note that there is an idiosyncratic aspect of the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore that must be brought to your attention in case you just want to see this story in the series.  The individual Tagore stories were written over a fifty-year period, but they are linked together in this series, which is set sometime in the 1930s, so that at the tail end of one story, there is a lead-in to the next story.  In many cases this lead-in material offers significant information for the succeeding story that should not be missed.  This happens to be the case with the story of The Broken Nest, where important lead-in material is provided in the last eight minutes of the preceding story, “Punishment”, Episode 8 of the series.

The story of The Broken Nest concerns only five characters:
  • Bhupati Babu (played by Kranti Prakash Jha) is a thirty-something upper-class Bengali and is the editor/publisher of a new progressive newspaper.  He is obsessively concerned about the success of his new newspaper, into which he has poured all the resources of his family estate.
     
  • Charulata (Amrita Puri) is Bhupati’s beautiful and culturally aspiring young wife.
     
  • Amol is Bhupati’s younger brother in this version of Tagore’s tale.  In Tagore’s original story and in Ray’s film, Amol was Bhupati’s cousin.  However, this distinction between brother and cousin seems not to be significant in these circumstances, since in accordance with Bengali family practice, cousins were often treated like brothers, and they called each other “brother”.  Amol is about a decade younger than Bhupati and comes to visit his “brother’s” household after finishing his undergraduate studies.
     
  • Umapada is Charulata’s older brother.  Although he is thus Bhupati’s brother-in-law, again family custom leads Bhupati and Umapada to call each other “brother”. 
     
  • Manda is Umapada’s young and relatively banal wife.
Because Bhupati is continually preoccupied with his work, Charulata is left unattended and is bored with her life.  In an effort to provide his wife with some companionship that might make things more interesting for her, he has invited his brother-in-law, Umapada, and his wife, Manda to come live with them at their family estate. 

At the outset of the story, shown in the last eight minutes of Episode 8 of this series, Charulata (aka Charu) is shown to be neglected and lonely in her sumptuous family estate.  Her husband Bhupati is busy at work all the time preparing for the inaugural issue of his new newspaper.  Although he has invited her brother Umapada and his wife Manda to come live with them, their presence hasn’t provided any stimulating company for Charu.  In hopes of finding something interesting to do with her time, Charu tells her husband that she wants to learn singing.

At the beginning of Episode 9, Amol comes to stay in the Babu household.  We immediately see the contrast between the two “brothers”, Amol and Bhupati.  While Bhupati is a gentle and thoughtful introvert, Amol is a loud and self-absorbed extrovert who wants to attract all attention to himself.  Though Amol is ostensibly engaged in the study of law, his real passion is for singing.  Upon seeing this, Bhupati asks Amol to teach singing to Charu.  Soon Charu and the viewer are regaled by songs sung by Amol.  And their growing affinity gradually becomes evident.  When Bhupati receives an attractive marriage offer for Amol (from a good family with a generous offer to finance his future legal studies), Amol flatly rejects the offer.  He can’t bear to abandon the carefree life he is now leading.

Meanwhile we see that Bhupati has engaged “brother” Umapada to look after the business side of his fledgling newspaper so that he can concentrate his time on editorial matters. 

Much of this 9th episode, though, is devoted to presenting Amol’s singing, and this lends a decidedly lyrical feeling to this first-half of the story.  This musical tone of the story is in fact a key feature of this telling of Tagore’s story.  Note that in Tagore’s original story, as well as in Ray’s film, The Lonely Wife, Amol and Charulata engage each other by composing and reciting poetry.  So there is a resulting contrast between the logical and analytical world of Bhupati’s prose and the more free-flowing and emotive poetic world of Amol and Charulata.  But it is still bounded by the limitations of text.   Here in The Broken Nest, by contrast, the distinction between Bhupati and Amol is more profound – it is that between the mechanical formulations of text and the visceral feelings of music.  And in my view that is a significant virtue and advantage of this work.  A further advantage here is the way these songs are presented visually, with evocative and well-edited closeups giving expressive color to the songs that are sung.

As their singing sessions continue, Charu unconsciously becomes more and more attracted to the brash and handsome Amol.  One day she hears Amol singing one of their songs on national radio.  For Amol, this is a proud moment, but Charu takes offence that a song she had taken to be composed for her, alone, had been made into a public commodity.  So she goes ahead and composes her own song.  But when she sits down at the piano and plays it for Bhupati, she is perturbed to see that her over-worked husband has fallen asleep.

In the 10th episode the ramifications of the previous developments come to a head.  First Charu sings her own composition to Amol, and he is impressed with and charmed by her own musical abilities.  But then a disaster strikes the household.  They learn that Umapada has all along failed to pay Bhupati’s business creditors and has now made off with all of the money that Bhupati had entrusted to him.  Bhupati is financially ruined, and his newspaper must be shut down.  All his hard work has come to nothing. However, Bhupati confides to Amol that the biggest hurt came from being betrayed by someone close to him and whom he had trusted. But he says he can keep going as long as he has Charu by his side.  Amol listens to this lament and realizes that his growing relationship with Charu represents a potentially even greater betrayal of Bhupati’s trust.

So when Bhupati receives another marriage proposal for Amol, the now silently self-reproving young man quickly accepts the offer.  Charu is immediately distraught at the prospect of losing her cherished friend.  When they have a chance to be alone, she begs Amol to decline the proposal, and she tearfully embraces him in desperation.  But Amol is adamant.  Honor ultimately triumphs over love in this situation, and he departs.

The scene now shifts to two months later, and Bhupati has been hesitantly sharing with Charu his nascent attempts at writing poetry.  But Charu is still obsessed with the absent Amol and is trying to exchange telegrams with him.  In the closing scene, when Bhupati finally realizes that Charu has a hitherto concealed passion for Amol, he breaks down in tears and disconsolately burns all the poetry he had written for Charu.  Then he departs from his broken nest.


There is an underlying philosophical theme of this story that was well articulated in Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophical treatise Either/Or (1843) concerning the tension between the ethical and the aesthetic modes of human existence. Accordingly, the uppermost levels of the aesthetic side are driven by love and aesthetic appreciation, while the top levels of the ethical side are driven by humanistic principles governed by human reason.  In this regard the ethical  side in this story is represented by Bhupati, and the aesthetic side is represented by Amol and Charulata.  As I mentioned in my review of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata,
“. . . Bhupati is a decent, ethical man.  He tries to follow the rules.  He means well, and he strives for a world in which justice prevails and the common good thrives.  His concerns center around how practically to build a world that achieves these aims.  By deliberately and rigorously following such a path, he believes that a progression towards a better world can be achieved.” [2]
whereas
“Though they would not deny Bhupati’s aims, Charulata and Amal seek something beyond Bhupati’s just world. This is a world where human creativity rises above the mechanics of ethical rules. The world they seek is a mystical union – one of love . . .” [2]
This tension between the aesthetic and ethical modes of existence is more clearly articulated and balanced in Ray’s Charulata than it is in Basu’s The Broken Nest.  Here in The Broken Nest the emphasis is very much tilted toward the aesthetic side.  Indeed in this version of Tagore’s story, Bhupati’s Brahmo-Samaj-inspired political progressivism (i.e. his external ethical concern) is downplayed, and he is shown to have his own aesthetic sensibilities (his poetry), too.  So the ethical vs. aesthetic divide is less clear-cut in this treatment as compared to Ray’s Charulata.  Thus with respect to this underlying philosophical theme of the aesthetic vs. the ethical, I would say that Ray’s film is the more successful presentation.

Nevertheless, Basu’s The Broken Nest has its undeniable virtues.  The episodes encompassing this story are permeated with a melodic quality that enhances the feelings about what this tale is about.  Besides the many songs that are explicitly sung, the background music is, despite its often intrusive character, a further instrument supporting this story’s overall musical temper.
             
Note also that given the blurring of the aesthetic vs. the ethical opposition here in The Broken Nest, we might say that the duality under concern here is not so much the ethical vs. the aesthetic as it is the related pair of the textual vs. the musical.  Bhupati here in this presentation is a man of text.  He supervises rationally-based textual discourse for his newspaper; and when he is away from the paper, he writes poetry.  In contrast, Amol is a man of soulful music.  He  sings what is in his heart.  Moreover, in this version as compared to Ray’s film, the Bhupati character is more sympathetically portrayed, while the Amol character is more self-centered and egotistical – he is less Charu’s soul-mate here.  That slight shift in character portrayal in this version renders the musical/passion side of the presented duality more mindless and instinctive – which makes Charu’s ambivalent feelings more profound to her innermost being and therefore more tragic.

Overall and despite some occasional uneven elements, I think Basu’s The Broken Nest is an excellent work.  It is particularly buoyed by the well-crafted and lyrical songs that are presentedd, along with the moving performances by Kranti Prakash Jha (as Bhupati Babu) and Amrita Puri (Charulata).


Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, Broken Nest and Other Stories, (Sharmistha Mohanty, trans.), Westland Limited, (1901/2009).
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Charulata’ - Satyajit Ray (1964)”, The Film Sufi, (30 November 2013).     

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