“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).   

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