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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Overall, though, and despite deficient English subtitling once again (they are often held too briefly onscreen), the production values of this filmed version are excellent.  In particular, I would like to call attention to the fine acting, especially that of Shreye Narayan in the role of Sharmila, as well as the atmospheric music and Raja Satankar’s superb cinematography.
½

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

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