“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.


Notes:
  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).   

No comments: