“Monihara”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Monihara”, aka “The Lost Jewels” [1] (1898), is a haunting ghost story about duty, greed, guilt, and grief.  This story served as the basis for the 25th episode, “Monihara” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been scripted and directed by Debatma Mandal

Tagore’s story about a married couple, whose conflicting visions of what matters in life bring them both to ruin, operates on several levels.  On one level it is a straightforward tale of how excessive greed brings tragedy.  Then it moves into a ghost story, which may be hallucinatory, that is driven by excessive grief.  But on another level, the story concerns and toys with the nature of narrative, itself. 

This story was the basis of one of the featured segments of Satyajit Ray’s earlier Teen Kanya (1961), which I have also reviewed [3]; and it is interesting to compare how these two filmed versions of the story differ.  Ray’s version of the story follows Tagore’s original scheme quite literally, and, in particular, it more closely sustains the original story’s aura of otherworldly mystery.  In contrast, in Mandal’s version there are some differences from Tagore’s (and Ray’s) telling; and as a consequence it loses some of that ghost-story flavor in order to concentrate its focus on inner suffering.  The shift is from horror to grief.

The narrative of Monihara, which comprises a story within a story, can be considered to have six segments, with the first and sixth segments composing the outer story.

1.  At a Riverbank the Recounting of a Story Commences

The story begins with a local townsman, Narayan (played by Atul Srivastava), taking up his usual fishing spot along a river and noticing a stranger sitting on a nearby rock by the river.  When Narayan observes the stranger contemplatively staring at a dilapidated mansion over on the other side, he tells the man that he will relate to him an old story about that mansion that is well-known to the local people.  At this point the narrative shifts to the inner story that makes up most of the film.

2.  Fani and Monimala
The occupants of that mansion were a young married couple, Fani Bushan Saga (Ajay Chaudhary) and his wife, Monimala (Poorvi Mundada).  Fani is a successful silk merchant, and he dotes on his beautiful and vain wife by regularly showering her with gifts of sumptuous jewelry that he can purchase from his ample earnings.  Right away the viewer can see that the stranger to whom Narayan is telling this story is Fani.  This marks a significant departure from Tagore’s and Ray’s telling, where the identity of the mysterious stranger on the riverbank is only revealed at the end of the tale.

And interestingly, Fani wears horned-rim glasses, which is a common feature of many of the male protagonists in this series.  Horned-rim glasses suggest a mild-mannered, middle-class bearing that contrasts with the more emotive female characters in this series.  Since they first became popular in the 1920s, their presence here also suggests that this episode has a setting in conformity with most of the episodes in this series – sometime in the 1930s.

For her part, Monimala is obsessed with her own glamour and incessantly seeks more of the necklesses, bracelets, brooches, and bangles that her husband keeps giving her.  She admits to him that her very identity is defined by the degree to which her beauty is decorated.  In fact one’s self-identity is something of a theme in this film.  For Monimala her identity is based on her bejeweled self-image; while Fani’s self-identity is centered around his image of marital bliss.

We are also introduced to Madhusudan (Puneet Kumar), a distant relative of Monimala’s who has come to work in their household as a laborer for Fani.  It is clear that Madhusudan is an unscrupulous lowlife who is only interested in money.

One day Fani learns that a shipment of his silk was pirated in the Bay of Bengal and that he faces an enormous financial loss.  To help restore his business, he asks Monimala if he can use her jewelry as collateral for a bank loan that he needs, assuring her he will return her jewelry to her in a few days.  But she is horrified at this prospect of even temporarily losing her jewelry, and she sees his request as an existential threat.  She reminds him that it is a husband’s irrevocable duty to satisfy his wife’s needs. 

So Fani accepts his wife’s demands, and he tells her that he will go alone to Kolkata and see if he can raise the needed money from some of his associates.

3.  Monimala and Madhusudan

Home alone with her unsavory “brother” Madhusudan, Monimala gets a letter from Fani informing her that he is having trouble securing the needed funds, but that he will try to be home soon.  This news puts the woman into a complete panic about her precious jewelry, and she decides to run away with her jewelry to her father’s home.  She asks Madhusudan to take her there, and they set off in a rowboat down the river.  Along the way, we see Madhusudan greedily eyeing Monimala’s jewelry box, and we know that something horrible is about to happen.

4.  Fani Returns Home
The action jumps forward to show Fani happily returning home from Kolkata.  He has secured the money he needs to save his business, but he only finds an empty house – both Monimala and her jewelry box are missing.  Thinking that Monimala has gone to her father’s house, he asks his steward, “uncle” Santosh (Arvind Parab), to go there and bring her back.  That night Fani hears from his bed mysterious noises in the hallway.  Then Santosh reports back that Monimala never made it to her father’s house.

So the police are summoned, and they conduct an all-out search for Monimala.  They do find her empty jewelry box floating in the river, but they fail to find any trace of the woman.  Fani, of course, is extremely disturbed.

5.  Mysterious Visions
That night Fani hears a woman’s voice mysteriously calling to him, “please forgive me.”  He goes out into the hallway, but again noone is there.  The next night Fani has lost hope of finding his beloved, and he tearfully gazes at the jeweled brooch he had brought back from Kolkata to give to Monimala. 

At this point a vision of Monimala appears and joyfully asks him, “is that for me?”  Fani is overjoyed to see his beloved, but then the ghost suddenly disappears.  So Fani goes out to the hallway again, and this time the ghost of Monimala reappears and reaches oout to take his hand.  Then she silently guides him outside and down to the river.  Still holding his hand, the beautiful ghost slowly takes Fani out partway into the water, and then again suddenly vanishes.  As if in a trance, Fani slowly turns around and sees his Monimala’s dead body floating in the water.  Shattered by what he sees, Fani falls face-down in the water and remains motionless.  His unbounded grief brings him to join her in death.

6.  The Story’s End
At this point Narayan has come to the end of his story, and he discusses his own thoughts about how true the story may be with the stranger to whom he has told it.  He reminds the stranger that, after all, it’s only a story and that Nature has more important things to do than to make up entertaining stories.  This comment about narrative’s place in the grand scheme of things is in Tagore’s original story, too.  

Then Narayan asks the stranger, whom we have clearly seen all along is Fani, how he liked the story.  The stranger says that the story is good, but it contains a few errors.  Astonished, Narayan asks the stranger how he could know that the story had some errors.  Then when he looks over at the stranger, he sees that he has disappeared.  Terrified at the realization that he has all along been speaking to an apparition, Narayan runs away.

So the ghost-story aspects of this tale permeate both the inner and outer narrative.  Narayan has been talking all this time to Fani Bushan Saga’s ghost.  This is a key and cdommon feature of all three versions (Tagore’s original text, Ray’s Teen Kanya, and Mandal’s version here), but this version has two elements that distinguish it from the two previous versions:
  1. One is the already-mentioned fact that the identity of the stranger that Narayan meets by the riverbank is immediately seen by the viewer to be Fani.   This shifts the viewer’s perspective concerning narrative weight somewhat and casts Fani more in the role of the main character.  From the outset we want to know what happened to him.
  2. Another distinguishing feature is that in Tagore’s story, Monimala’s reappearance at the end as a ghost is in the form of a skeleton, while in this film, her ghostly reappearance is in her usual beauteous bodily form.
In both of the above cases, Tagore’s tale is more of a horror story, and Mandal’s version moves back from the ghastly horror evoked in Tagore’s and Ray’s version and takes a turn towards sympathy and sadness for the departed love.  Monimala’s obsessive narcissism led both to the loss of her own life and to the loss of the life of the one person devoted to satisfying her self-love in all possible ways.  It is a sad reminder that sometimes we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Lost Jewels”, (1898), (translated by W. W. Pearson), The Modern Review, pp. 630-636, (1917), The Internet Archive, (4 July 2015).   
  2. Durga S, “The Uncanny – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (9)”, Writersbrew, (9  March 2016).      
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Teen Kanya’ - Satyajit Ray (1961)”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2017).   

“The Story of a Muslim Girl”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story draft “Musalmanir Golpo” (“The Story of a Muslim Girl”, aka “The Story of a Mussalmani”, 1941 [1]) portrays how the universality of love transcends traditional sectarian restrictions.  This story served as the basis for the 22nd episode, “The Story of a Muslim Girl” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Anurag Basu and directed by Tani Basu.

“Musalmanir Golpo” was Tagore’s last story, and it was composed about two months before his death in 1941.  Although the story was relatively brief and schematic, it still embraced Tagore’s lifelong themes of humanism and love.  Anurag and Tani Basu expanded on this story draft to craft a moving and soulful drama that captures what I think was Tagore’s emotive intent.  This telling was significantly enhanced by the lyrical cinematography of Abhishek Basu, Anurag’s brother.   Indeed this cinematography is a highlight and deserves special attention because of the recurring way it uses fluid slow-motion and rack-focusing camera shots to quietly evoke an emotional atmosphere. 

The narrative of “The Story of a Muslim Girl” is about a young woman’s experiences navigating across the social boundaries of a conservative society, and it has five sections, or phases, to it.

1.  Kamala is Rescued
The story is set sometime in 19th century Bengal, which distinguishes this episode from most of the others in this Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series that are mostly set sometime in the 1930s.  The viewer here is told at the outset that these were turbulent times in Bengal, and the common people were subjected to several oppressive elements:
  • exploitative British government overlords,
  • dishonest local landlords, 
  • ruthless dacoits (brigands) that overran the countryside,
  • caste and religious prejudices.
There was one notorious dacoit, however, who was different and was something of a “social bandit” [3], i.e. a Robin-Hood-like figure who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor”.  This was Habir Khan (played by Sunil Sinha), a devout Muslim who had his own sense of justice.  In Tagore’s story Habir Khan was not a dacoit and was simply a revered senior figure in the Muslim community.  I am not sure why Anurag Basu made this alteration, and I don’t think it contributes to the story.  Anyway, Habir Khan’s dacoity doesn’t really figure into the rest of the story.

The focus then shifts to a Hindu Brahmin household, where Kamala (Shubhangi Atre Poorey), an orphaned girl, has been raised by her aunt and uncle.  Kamala has grown up to be a beautiful young woman, and she dotes on her two younger cousins, the boy Laltu and the girl Bimla. 

But Kamala’s aunt only sees Kamala as a burden, and in these troubled times even Kamala’s beauty is seen by the woman to be a detrimental feature likely to attract unwanted attention.  She wants to have her niece married off as soon as possible.  When Kamala’s uncle receives a marriage proposal for the girl from the already-married and irresponsible son of a wealthy landlord, he readily accepts, despite Kamala’s objections. 

A formal wedding ceremony is immediately arranged.  Afterwards, though, the evening wedding procession through the countryside is attacked and plundered by a different dacoit’s gang, that of the dacoit Raghu.  However, Habir Khan’s own gang, which includes his son Nawaz (Kirin Srinivas), arrives to break up the attack, and they manage to rescue Kamala.  Kamala is then taken back to the safety of Habir Khan’s compound.

2.  Kamala’s Refuge in an Ecumenical Household
The next morning from the safety of the room provided to her, Kamala looks out her window and watches in wonder the act of Habir Khan and Nawaz devoutly praying.  But Habir Khan comes to comfort the fearful girl by telling her not to worry,
“True Muslims consider it their duty to protect other religions.”
This should serve as a reminder to viewers, that, like virtually all religions, there are compassionate versions of Islam, such as Sufism, that embrace universal love and do not endorse the fanatic intolerance and resentment that underlie some hateful sects so frequently presented in the media.

Then Habir Khan goes on to warn Kamala that her own family will now consider her to be unclean and will absolutely reject her.  They won’t take her back.  He then shows her that his compound can be a home for her – it contains a special mahal devoted to rescued Hindus, and it even has a small Hindu temple.  But Kamala insists on being escorted back to her family anyway, and Habir Khan assents to her request.

When Habir Khan takes Kamala back to her aunt and uncle’s house, though, she is devastated by their response.  They tell her that caste rules consider her defiled and render her dead to them.  This encounter is accompanied by a lyrical song on the soundtrack:
“Cast Away Your Caste”
"What a weird system this is
Nobody is interested in doing the right thing.
I see it all . . .
What was your caste in the past?
What caste did you become since?
What caste will you be when you leave?
Think it over and tell me.”
Kamala returns to Habir Khan’s compound and takes up residence there.  She starts praying at the Hindu temple, where a compound-resident priest informs her that Habir Khan’s deceased mother had been a Hindu and had been allowed to retain her religion.

3.  Kamala and Nawaz
Now the film moves into its most lyrical phase, as it portrays the gradual and tentative attraction that Kamala and Nawaz begin to feel for each other.  This is conveyed by emotive rack-focus shots of their brief encounters that focus on their subtly evolving appreciative facial expressions.  Because of their contrasting religions and backgrounds, their opportunities to even see each other from a distance are few and only momentary.  Some of these moments are
  • Nawaz showing Kamala where she can find some ceremonial Bermuda grass in the yard;
  • Kamala singing a Sanskrit hymn, which charms the surreptitiously overhearing Nawaz and Habir Khan;
  • Kamala, in turn, being charmed when she overhears music being played by musicians before Nawaz and Habir Khan;
  • Nawaz coming to take holy alms being given out on the street by Kamala;
  • Nawaz showing Kamala how to ride on a horse;
  • Nawaz showing Kamala how to fly a kite.
All of this represents an expansion on Tagore’s original story, which only briefly mentioned their growing mutual fondness for each other.

In the midst of all this, Kamala learns from a resident Hindu woman that her cousin Laltu is gravely ill and has been calling for her.  She rushes back to her home village to get a glimpse of Laltu, but again her aunt and uncle reject her for defiling their caste and turn her away.

4.  Nawaz Makes a Proposal
Finally Nawaz goes to his father and tells him about his love for Kamala.  Although Habir Khan has been kind and sympathetic to Kamala, he rejects her union with Nawaz as unthinkable.  But then Nawaz reminds him that his own grandmother, Habir Khan’s mother, was a Hindu.  Then Kamala, who has been overhearing this encounter, intervenes and expresses her own willingness to marry the Muslim man who loves her:
“For the first time I got respect and honor in your shelter.
Father, devotion and faith comes from respect and honor, right?
. . .
I worship the God who has given me shelter.
Now he is my god. 
His religion is my religion.
. . .
I will follow both the religions.”
Since this is such a key moment in the story, I will quote to you Tagore’s original words from the translated version of the story [1]:
"Father, I've no religion of my own. The man I love is my religion. I could not find the grace of God in the religion which deprived me of all love and dumped me to the garbage heap of neglect. The deity there humiliated me every day. I can't forget such insults. Father, I discovered love for the first time in your house. I realized that the life of a destitute like me has some value. I worship the deity which has sheltered me through the respect of such love. He's my God—he's neither Hindu nor Muslim. . . . You can convert me to Islam, I've no objection—maybe, I belong to two faiths."
Here is Tagore, at the end of his life, affirming his divine faith in a humanistic notion of compassion that should be an underlying theme of all religions.

Moved by their fervent expressions of love, Habir Khan accepts these pleas and embraces them both as a new coupling in his family.

5.  Another Wedding Procession Raided

The scene now shifts forward sometime later, and there is another ceremonial wedding procession in progress moving through the forest.  Again the dacoit Raghu’s gang of thugs makes an attack for plunder, and once again Habir Khan’s gang comes to the rescue.  This time, though, we see Kamala on horseback and an active participant of the rescue operation.  When Kamala goes over to the litter (sedan) carrying the bride and opens the door, she is shocked to discover that the rescued bride is none other than her very own cousin Bimla.

The final scene shows Kamala returning Bimla to her parent’s home and assuring them that her chastity and purity have not been compromised.  Before returning to her own home, Kamala tells Bimla that should she ever be in need, her Muslim sister will always be there for her.

This is one of the most heartwarming episodes of the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series, thanks to its uplifting message and the nuanced way in which it is told.  The music, camera work, editing, and acting are all excellent and are knitted together in a satisfying fashion that work together harmoniously.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Story of a Muslim Woman”, (a draft translated from the original Bengali by Swapan Kumar Banerjee), Parabas, (2010).   
  2. Durga S, “The Happy Endings – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (10)”, Writersbrew, (27 March 2016).    
  3. “Social bandit”, Wikipedia, (7 February 2019).   

“Not One Less” - Zhang Yimou (1999)

Zhang Yimou has displayed his cinematic mastery across a range of expressive styles – from  
All of them have their artistic merits, but one of the best of them all was the naturalistic Not One Less (Yigè Dou Bù Néng Shao, 1999), which was based on Shi Xiangsheng's 1997 story "A Sun in the Sky".  Filmed on location in a rural village in Hebei province and in its nearest metropolitan center, Zhangjiakou, which is a city of roughly 800,000 people about 180 km northwest of Beijing, Not One Less was shot entirely with inexperienced amateur actors whose real-life identities matched the roles they played. 

This was the first Zhang Yimou film to receive government support and endorsement [1], and in connection with this backing, the film’s critical reception was initially affected by some critical concerns over the degree to which it was a vehicle for the Chinese government propaganda [2].  Perhaps due to these concerns, Not One Less was not admitted into the 1999 Cannes Film Festival prize competition.  Indeed, many of the early reviews of the film focused on sociopolitical aspects of the story, which I think is a misguided view, and I would agree with Zhang’s assertion that the film is apolitical [2].  What this film does cover, as does most of Zhang Yimou work, are universal aspects of human existence – and that is what gives it its trans-cultural appeal.  It did go on to win the Golden Lion (the prize for best film) at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, and it has received numerous critical plaudits [3,4,5,6].

The story of Not One Less is about a teenage schoolteacher whose naive and stubborn efforts to solve a problem she runs into grow to reach epic proportions.  Along the way, the teacher’s pupils, the people she encounters, and even the teacher, herself, are transformed by the modest and relentless sincerity of her persistence.  The rewards of holding fast to the pursuit of your goals is one lesson conveyed in this film.  But ultimately the film also does have something profound to say about human society.  It vividly demonstrates that (even naive) faith in human cooperation through direct engagement can work wonders for all concerned.  And in fact this is the greatest and most rewarding lesson that a teacher can give to her students.

The narrative of Not One Less progresses through five phases of the earnest schoolteacher’s quest.

1.  A Substitute Teacher Arrives at the School
At the outset, 13-year-old Wei Minzhi (played by Wei Minzhi) is installed as the temporary substitute teacher at the tiny Shuiquan village one-room primary school (1st – 4th grades).  She is to substitute for the elderly Teacher Gao (Gao Enman), who needs to go away for a month to attend to his dying mother.  When Teacher Gao sees how youthful and unprepared Wei Minzhi is – she hasn’t even gone to highschool – he protests to the village mayor (Tian Zhenda).  But the mayor replies that given the poverty in the area, this is the best he can come up with. 

So resignedly, Teacher Gao tells the new teacher just to assign the students the daily task of copying down Chinese characters from the class instruction book and to be careful not to waste chalk used for the class chalkboard.  He also tells her that a major school problem is students dropping  out – at the start of the school year, they had 40 students, and now they are down to 28.  He will  give her a 10-yuan bonus to her 50-yuan overall salary if she can get through her month without losing any more students.  “Not one less!” he sternly tells her before departing. 

When Wei Minzhi begins teaching, it is clear that she is completely in over her head.  The class is unruly and ignores her hesitant and timid remarks.  In particular, the class troublemaker, 11-year-old Zhang Huike, boldly challenges her authority.  In an ensuing class scuffle the teacher’s desk is overturned, and much of the precious chalk is crushed underfoot.  So Wei Minzhi orders the class to do their copying assignment and then leaves them by themselves and sits outside guarding the door to prevent any of the students from running away. It is evident that her main concern is not providing good instruction but instead just ensuring that the class size is “not one less” so that she can secure her bonus money.

Soon, however, Wei Minzhi is alarmed when a public sports official arrives at her school to recruit her fastest running girl student to enrol in a sports academy.  Mayor Tian assures Teacher Wei that this departure won’t threaten her bonus money from Teacher Gao, but Wei is not taking any chances.  She hides the student away from them.  However, Mayor Tian bribes the naughty Zhang Huike to reveal where the athletic student is hiding, and the athletic girl is taken away (without getting permission from the girl’s parents, by the way).  It is evident here that money is a driving force for both Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike.

2.  Another Student Goes Missing
Shortly thereafter, Teacher Wei comes into her classroom to see that Zhang Huike has impudently seized a girl classmate’s diary and is reading aloud to the rest of the class her expressed concerns about the crushed classroom chalk and the general unruly tenor of the class.  Wei is moved by these words and forces chief culprit Zhang Huike to apologize.  This is the first time that Wei has looked at things from beyond her own selfish interest.

The next day, however, Zhang Huike is missing from class, and Wei learns that Zhang’s ill and indebted mother had ordered him to go to the city and find work.  Now Teacher Wei’s class size is down to 26, and she realizes she is not living up to her promise to Teacher Gao to sustain the school.  From here on Wei’s altruistic instincts begin to dominate.  She resolves to go to Zhangjiakou and fetch the boy so that he can continue his education. 

However, Mayor Tian refuses to fund Wei’s trip expenses to go Zhangjiakou, and Wei realizes that she will have to find her own means to get there.  So she consults her class for help, and this is where the film makes a beautiful turn.  Although Wei is naive and inexperienced, when she works with the class in pursuit of a noble goal, they all share what little they know and learn from each other.  Teacher Wei and her class become a team, and this is, in fact, the best way to learn.

After pooling their knowledge, they conclude, wrongly as it turns out, that a bus ticket to Zhangjiakou would cost 3 yuan, so Wei would need 9 yuan to go there and bring back Zhang.  Wei suggests that the class further pool their resources by each contributing 50 cents, yielding a total of 13 yuan.  But one of the students reports that they can collectively earn the money by moving bricks at the local brick factory.  So the class “team” joyfully rushes off to the brick factory and enthusiastically shift 1,500 bricks for storage.  The brick factory manager is not happy with this work, but when he sees their eager persistence, he donates 15 yuan to the class.

Now with a surplus of 6 yuan above their presumed required trip expenses, Wei takes her class to the local store to drink some Coca-Cola.  One can of Coke costs 3 yuan, and this gives the viewer an idea of just how puny are the sums of money under consideration.  With only two cans of Coke available for them, the class again goes into collective sharing mode, with each student taking a couple of sips.

When they all go to the bus station, though, they learn that a one-way ticket to Zhangjiakou actually costs 20.5 yuan, so Wei doesn’t have enough money.  But she won’t give up.  After trying (at the class’s suggestion) unsuccessfully to sneak onto a bus, Wei winds up walking and hitchhiking all the way to Zhangjiakou.

3.  In the Big City
In the big city there are lots of people, but they are only connected by rules and mechanical protocols.  Wei tracks down a middle-school student, Sun Zhimei, who had come to the city with Zhang also looking for work, but it turns out that the girl had lost track of Zhang upon arrival in the train station.  At a cost of 2.5 yuan, more than Sun’s daily wage, Wei enlists her support to help her find Zhang.  They spend a long time looking around the train station, but their efforts are fruitless and Sun goes back to her own work.

Then Wei notices a missing-person poster and decides to make some of her own.  With all of her remaining 6.5 yuan, she buys a pen, ink, and 100 large sheets of paper to make the posters.  Then she diligently sets about hand-producing one hundred posters.  After spending hours on this activity in the train station, an attendant walks by and scoffingly tells her that her efforts are useless.  So Wei asks the attendant what he thinks she should do instead.  As he reflects on this problem, the attendant tells her
  • people are too lazy to respond to a poster;
  • the police are too busy to look for the boy;
  • a newspaper ad will be too small to be noticed.
Her only hope, he tells her, is to go to the TV station.  Although the TV station is a bus ride away, Wei is now broke and walks all the way there.

4.  The TV Connection

So Wei arrives at the hub of our modern-day dream of human connectedness: electronic media.  The TV station is fenced off and has an admission gate, and when Wei tries to enter, the gate attendant tells her that she needs prior permission and an ID.  This is another example of how  our modern efforts at human connectedness are rigidly restricted by rules and protocols. 

The ever-persistent Wei keeps trying but gets nowhere, and finally the exasperated gate attendant tells the penniless girl that the only person who could authorize her entry is the TV station manager, a man who wears glasses and who works on the third floor.  Until then Wei will have to wait outside the gate.  So Wei goes outside, and the next four minutes of screen-time show her for the rest of the day relentlessly asking every man passing out of the gate and wearing glasses whether he is the station manager. 

Meanwhile Zhang Huike is shown aimlessly walking the streets and looking for food handouts.  Finally a café owner offers him a full meal in exchange for doing some chores.  Wei is also shown in the evening looking for leftover food scraps before finally settling down to sleep for the night on the sidewalk outside the TV station gate.

The next morning Wei resumes her persistent querying outside the gate, and her endless efforts are finally brought to the attention of the station manager.  He sees the opportunity to present a human-interest story and has Wei inserted as a guest on their TV feature show.  On the air, Wei is hopelessly tongue-tied; but when the show hostess urges her to look into the camera and imagine she is talking directly to the lost Zhang, she tearfully begs Zhang to come back to her.  Zhang happens to see Wei on the TV at the café, and he, too, breaks down in tears.  Wei and Zhang are finally reconnected.  This is the dramatic highpoint of the film, and as Peter Rainer remarked, “it's one of the most improbably satisfying love scenes on film” [4].  Note that this is not romantic love, of course, but rather an altruistic and compassionate love that is an inherent part of everyone’s nature [7].

5.  The Return
The scene shifts quickly to shots showing Wei and Zhang on a bus joyously returning to Shuiquan village and accompanied by a TV crew and a truckload of gifts from well-wishers who had seen the TV show.  The whole village comes out to welcome them.  The final shots show  Wei back with her students in the classroom and working together in Wei’s pedagogically effective mode of “collective discovery” teaching.  Only this time they are working with some of the heaps of brightly colored chalk that has been given to them.

Not One Less stands as a classic, because it reminds us of important and universal aspects of human existence set in an authentic context.  Critics A. O. Scott and Jugu Abraham have rightly compared it to and set it along side of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) as one of the great examples of neorealist expression [3,6]. Neorealism, as earlier presented by filmmakers from Italy and Iran – and here by Zhang Yimou – is not just intended to present documentary reality.  Its overarching mission is to present fundamentals of human existence in authentic social contexts.

In this respect the film’s primary themes are not really concerned with a sociopolitical critique or support of Chinese government policies.  That is merely a diversion that has distracted some critics.  Instead, the film serves as an authentically dramatic reminder of some more wide-ranging and universal concerns:
  • As we all know, sometimes our focus on money can divert us from the real path we need to take.
  • New forms of media can sometimes make direct and authentic human engagement more possible – if we focus our usage of these media in the right direction.
  • The mechanization of modern life has had a tendency to sap it of its humanistic elements. Sometimes a more unsophisticated and naively direct approach can lead to more authentic encounters.
  • The importance of collective cooperation is all too often neglected in our modern world that is dominated by selfish utilitarianism.

  1. “Not One Less”, Wikipedia, (25 October 2018).   
  2. “Not One Less, Critical response”, Wikipedia, (25 October 2018). 
  3. A. O. Scott, “`Not One Less': A Substitute Teacher Is Put to the Test”, The New York Times, (19 February 2000).                   
  4. Peter Rainer, "Not One Less", New York, (n.d.).   
  5. Kevin Lally, “Not One Less”, Film Journal International, (2 November 2004).   
  6. Jugu Abraham, “31. Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang's ‘Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less)’ (1999): A marvelous neo-realist Chinese film, ideal for family viewing”, Movies that make you think, (22 February 2007). 
  7. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Back Bay Books, (2016).