We know that for all his literary prowess, Rabindranath Tagore didn’t make much of a splash as a filmmaker. Fortunately for him, other filmmakers have been more than willing to do the splashing for Tagore. Here are some favourites from the long and storied list of Tagore’s novels and short stories, adapted to film.
This 1906 novel of Tagore has long been a movie-maker’s delight. The story of a boat wreck affecting two wedding parties and leading to two brides being exchanged has fascinated a wide range of directors, from Nitin Bose to Ramanand Sagar and T. Prakash Rao. My personal favourite is Rituparno Ghosh’s adaptation, in which he cast Riya Sen and Raima Sen (the legendary Suchitra Sen’s granddaughters) as the two brides. The similarity in their features went a long way to explain the absurdity of the bride exchange.
Tagore’s short story about an Afghan moneylender and peddler of dry fruits in Calcutta and his tender relationship with a Bengali child had a strong emotional content and this was fully exploited by Tapan Sinha in his debut movie. The 1957 film had Chhabi Biswas playing Rehmat the dry fruit pedler, and was a run-away success. This prompted director Bimal Roy to produce a Hindi version, which came out in 1961 and had Balraj Sahni in the lead. Biswas and Sahni make these two movies unforgettable.
There have been numerous adaptations of Tagore’s short story “Kshudita Pashan” (The Hungry Stones), including one by Tapan Sinha which was a runaway hit. Gulzar tried his hand at modernising it by setting Lekin (1990) in Rajasthan and introducing a reincarnation angle. For me, the best take on “Kshudita Pashan” came from Mrinal Sen. On paper, Antareen is an adaptation of Sadat Hasan Manto’s “Badshahat ka Khatimah” and within the film, the protagonist turns to Tagore’s “Kshudita Pashan” for inspiration. (Manto gets writer’s credit in Antareen.) It was genius on Sen’s part to see the resonances between Manto and Tagore’s stories. With characteristic pragmatism, he stripped Tagore’s story of its fantasy elements and honed in on the loneliness that is in its subtext.
Perhaps the most felicitated Tagore film adaptation, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata needs no introduction. Ray’s decision to focus on the loneliness of a young housewife and the yearning she feels for romance, made this film as much Ray’s creation as Tagore’s. It’s also given us some of the most breathtaking visuals, like the shots of Madhabi Mukherjee looking at the world beyond her home through opera glasses.
The struggle for Independence, which often took violent turns especially among Bengal’s youth, deeply troubled Tagore. His last novel Char Adhyay is based on the role of armed insurrection and how it devastates the life and love of two brilliant people, Atin and Ela. The novel was adapted by Kumar Shahani and counts as one of the most interesting experimental films in Indian cinema. Shahani included documentary footage and explored the adverse effects of nationalism and patriotism. It may feel dialogue-heavy in parts, but look out for K.K. Mahajan’s cinematography.
The novel Chaturanga is regarded among Tagore’s most tightly-structured novels, which uses a love story to explore a complex range of (often conflicting) ideas. Anchoring the story is Sachish and his relationships with two women (one of whom is his brother’s abandoned mistress) and his sidekick friend Sribilash. Suman Mukhopadhyay’s adaptation followed the zigzagging relationships superbly, and explored complex conflicts between idealism and truth, as well as desire and longing.
Tagore’s retelling of this legend from Mahabharata casts as its heroine a princess from Manipur who has been raised as a prince. When she meets Arjun, she wishes to be transformed into a traditionally feminine beauty, and is granted this wish. Ultimately, however, Chitrangada asserts her non-binary identity at the risk of losing the man she loves. Rituparno Ghosh took Tagore’s Chitrangada and used it to talk about queer identity and contemporary issues, like gender fluidity, gender affirmation surgery and child adoption for same-sex couples. It was, perhaps, a film ahead of its time, discussing subjects that we hadn’t yet found even a vocabulary for in India. Ghosh’s Chitrangada is not just one of his best films, but also one of the most thought-provoking portraits of being queer in modern India.