Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Remembering Tagore: Teen Kanya

Tagore's short story "The Postmaster" is ostensibly a simple story - that of a young man Nandalal, whose comfortable life in the lap of his family in Calcutta is disrupted by a transfer to a village post office. As expected, nothing measures up to his expectations - the job, the immediate environment and most important the people . He fails to appreciate the beauty of rural Bengal, he pines for home and family . Having nothing in common with the villagers, the only ray of weak sunshine is the general factotum of his one man household - the orphan child Ratan , who cooks ,cleans and nurses him through a bout of malaria . He teaches the girl to teach , chats with her about his family and in the process livens up his life and offers a ray of hope to Ratan who , bereft of any love dreams of becoming a part of his family .Ratan's little tryst with hope and happiness is shattered when Nandalal gets a transfer back to the city and as compensation to Ratan, without an inkling of the fantastic dreams she has conjured up , offers her a generous tip which she is too proud to accept . A simple story , no doubt, ordinary even but lifted to a level of excellence in characterisation and situational narratives that could only come from Tagore .

The film by Satyajit Ray stars Anil Chatterjee as the whining, complaining postmaster Nandalal who cannot reconcile himself to his new environment and Chandana Banerjee as the orphan girl Ratan. The camera almost caresses the serene beauty of rural Bengal . Ray who had a magic touch with child actors (think Apu-Durga in Pather Panchali,Apu's son in Apur Sansar and the little boys in the Feluda films ) extracts a stellar performance from Ratan who conveys more with her expressive eyes than through dialogue . When the postmaster, ecstatic with joy at his transfer forgets all promises made to the child during their long evenings together , there is a proud and quiet dignity in her moment of epiphany when she realises that people do not mean what they promise on impulse and so she withdraws into herself , treating the tip he gives her with the scorn his action deserves -that money is not the alternative to what she craves - a sense of belongingness , security and a family to call her own .

Ray's treatment of Manihara is pure Gothic. The film opens with the village schoolmaster crossing the ruins and gardens of a house to the ghat on the river which lies beyond , carrying with him his opium pipe and a manuscript . On the steps of the ghat he meets a man draped in a shawl sitting on a lower step, strikes a conversation with him and narrates the story of the people who had lived in the house beyond. The young man is played by Kali Banerjee and his wife by Kanika Majumdar.

We meet Manimala's feet first, shod in elegant velvet slippers and then we see her almost ethereally beautiful face and the exquiste muslin sari she wears. Phanibhushan is besotted with her beauty and would like to claim her entire being but she eludes him. Besotted by her lust for jewels and terrified that her husband would use them to save himself from financial ruin, she plans to go to her paternal house and recruits her rascally distant relative and ex lover, played in a brilliant cameo by the young Kumar Roy , to take her there . For a moment she hesitates because her husband has promised her jewels on his return, if he is successful but the survival of her jewels is uppermost and flinging her keys on the bed she departs .She never returns - except as a wraith, trying twice to enter and failing and finally succeeding on a full moon light , drawn by the promise of the jewellery .

Besides being a ghost story , it deals on different levels with power , pride, possessions, lust , craving and dissatisfaction and a deep sorrow .A sense of impermanence pervades the film , the river a metaphor for change and havoc in the lives of the couple .

The subtle play of light and shadows and the strains of the song “Baajey Karuno shurey “ interspersed with the haunting cry of the curlews creates an evocative atmosphere and brings out the gothic component very forcefully .

Kanika Majumdar’s Manimala is distant -her eyes are constantly searching , her head cocked to one side as if she is listening to a distant song . She is brittle and delicate. Her eyes glitter with a febrile intensity as she becomes temporarily insane, runs her hands through her jewels and adorns herself with them before preparing to run away . The jewels her husband plies her with and which she guards fiercely are a substitute for a deeper craving.

In the short space of about an hour we are caught up by brilliant performances and tremendous cinematography - almost a distillation of a larger canvas done in miniature.

In a sense Samapti or The Ending is the lightest in texture and mood and peppered with a great deal of humour . The story of a girl’s transition from unmarried bliss to marriage – a story of coming of age – the confusions, the ensuing hilarity, perception of mockery of the institution of marriage are played out consummately by Soumtira Chatterji and a very young Aparna Sen who transcends the boundaries of a tall gangling teenager to a woman who realizes what marriage, affinity and love could mean. Ray’s superb touches are there in the scene where Mrinmoyee discards her wedding bed , social norms and shackles to run away and play on her swing in the moonlight , each upward propelling motion reflecting itself in the sheer joy of living that only freedom can gift , the puzzled expressions on the girl’s face when she cannot decipher what she is required to do as a married woman – a set of rules , customs and bindings which have no meaning and the moment of realization when she perceives that she loves the man she is married to .

Tagore’s sensitivity and his exploration of the feminine mystique were far beyond his times. Ray has captured each nuance of his sensitivity and translated them on to celluloid with such consummate mastery that even if one were one not to read Tagore in the original, it would be a stepping stone to understand this Renaissance man.

(Mallika Ganguly works in an Oil PSU, her life revolves around her family and friends. She is also an amateur photographer besides being a blogger and a farmville addict! She blogs at . )

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