Rabindranath Tagore in Cinema: Over a Century of Inspiration

On Tagore’s birth anniversary, we look at how this literary icon’s works have inspired filmmakers
Rabindranath Tagore in Cinema: Over a Century of Inspiration
Rabindranath Tagore in Cinema: Over a Century of Inspiration

Over a hundred years ago, Naresh Mitra, an eminent Bengali theatre director, approached Rabindranath Tagore with a request to adapt one of Tagore’s short stories to film. Tagore agreed and Manbhanjan (1923) was made. (The story would later see many adaptations, including recent ones available on JioCinema and Hoichoi.) Back then, it was still the silent era and mythological stories were the standard cinematic fare, but the audience loved the romantic drama of Manbhanjan, with its sensitive portrait of marriage and womanhood. Tagore was already a literary giant at the time. He now became a favourite of filmmakers. The last decade of the silent film era saw as many as six films based on different short stories by Tagore, directed by luminaries from Calcutta stage and screen including Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, Madhu Bose and Premankur Atarthi. (For many of these, Tagore was involved in the adaptation.)  

Tagore was among those who recognised cinema was developing its own language, independent of the legends and literary works that inspired directors of early films. In 1929, he wrote, “I believe that the expected emergence of cinema as an art form is yet to take place. … In art, the aim is independence… The fact that cinema has so long been subservient to literature is due to the fact that no artist has been able to redeem it from slavery by dint of his genius … It has not been so partly due to the lack of talent and partly due to a muddle-headed public… .”

Tagore, the Frustrated Scriptwriter

Ever curious, but also cautious about this new medium, Tagore made it a point to watch Russian masterpieces like Battleship Potemkin (1925) during his visit to the Soviet Union in 1930. He also went to film studios and exchanged ideas with local film-makers and technicians. That same year, at a small town near Munich, Tagore watched a film that depicted a traditional passion play (about the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) and was so moved that he virtually locked himself up for the next couple of days to write a film script titled “The Child”. 

A reputed German studio was ready to produce a film based on this script and even shot a few reels of Tagore performing the script. These were screened in Calcutta’s cinema halls in 1931 and Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies (the real-life inspiration for Prosenjit’s Roy babu in Jubilee) was brought on board as a collaborator. The project ultimately fell through and Tagore also lost interest after the production team demanded multiple changes. Instead, he chose to turn his script into the genre that he was famous for and was a master of – poetry. Thus was created “Shishu Tirtha”, a poem that is also inspired by T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”.

The popularity of Tagore’s works as base material for films continued into the talkies’ era. From 1931, when the first talkie film was made to the present, there have been more than 60 film adaptations of Tagore’s works. There are also television serials and web series. Few writers can claim to have remained relevant, even as society, the medium and technology of cinematic storytelling changed; and Tagore is one of them. There is, of course, the allure of him being internationally-recognised, a national icon and a Nobel laureate, but more important perhaps is the emotional heart of Tagore’s writing, which makes his characters and their feelings still seem relatable.  

A Literary Icon, But Not a Director

Although “Shishu Tirtha” remained in the realms of poetry, there were other poems of Tagore that transitioned into cinema. Subha O Debatar Gras (1964) made by Partha Pratim Chowdhury in 1964 was a film in two parts – one was the story of the deaf-mute Shubha who features in a short story by Tagore and the second part was based on the poem titled “Debotar Grash”, in which Tagore describes the frantic desire for a dip in holy waters during the Ganga Sagar pilgrimage as well as the selfishness of pilgrims. In 2012, filmmaker Buddhadev Dasgupta had tried to adapt Tagore’s poem “Mukti”, but he did not meet with much success. 

Tagore himself became more cautious about cinema after the late 1920s. When his British biographer, Edward Thompson, recommended Tagore’s dance drama “Chitrangada” to director Alexander Korda, Tagore was not particularly excited. After some initial overtures, Korda too backed off, saying the drama lacked conflict. 

However, we know that Tagore was excited by the idea of making a film out of his hit play “Natir Puja”. Birendranath Sarkar, the founder-owner of New Theatres — then a leading film producer in Calcutta — had offered to back a film adaptation of any of Tagore’s works, helmed by Tagore. The 71-year-old Tagore picked “Natir Puja” and put together an impressive team. The film had art direction by Abanindranath Tagore and costumes by Protima Devi. It was shot in the lawns of the New Theatres studio, but despite all this, the end product was reportedly a disaster. The film was subsequently gutted in a freak fire. Later, some reels were restored and 10 minutes of the film are available for those interested. The surviving fragment offers consolation to humble mortals like us that even Tagore could fail!

Teen Kanya
Teen Kanya

Enter: Satyajit Ray 

The director who would revive interest in Tagore’s writing from the perspective of cinema was Satyajit Ray. While contemporaries like Mrinal Sen were less interested in Tagore’s work (he felt it was disconnected from the contemporary), and Ritwik Ghatak used Tagore’s songs but not his stories, Ray showed that interpretation could turn the Nobel laureate author’s works into modern, cinematic masterpieces. Decades later director Rituparno Ghosh would do something similar, playing around with Tagore’s writing after they were released from the shackles of copyright law. 

Ray first surprised the Bengali audience when he made Teen Kanya to mark Tagore’s centenary year celebrations in 1961. Three independent short stories by Tagore were brought together to create an anthology film, but the audience murmured anxiously about how Ray — then a young director — had dared to change the focus of Tagore’s storytelling to shine the spotlight on the women characters in his films. Cleverly, Ray had not changed the storyline, which is why even purists couldn’t really complain about the changed perspective. 

Next, Ray made a more radical reinterpretation when he took Tagore’s novel Nashtaneer (The Broken Nest) and turned it into the story of the wife, Charu, or Charulata (1964). Although the changed title reflects who Ray saw as his protagonist, the reason for Charulata being the title was more prosaic. Ray had started working on Nashtaneer long before he’d made Teen Kanya, and his script had been near completion when he learnt the title “Nashtaneer” had already been registered by another film producer. Tagore’s original story was from the perspective of the husband, whose ‘nest’ is broken with the collapse of his marriage. Ray now started rewriting his script, changing the perspective to showcase the lonely wife. 

When Charulata first released, Ray faced a barrage of criticism both from critics and scholars who were unhappy by the unfaithful adaptation. However, the film went on to win the Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the international acclaim blunted the sharp edge of criticism at home. Today Charulata is considered one of Ray’s masterpieces.

Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata
Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata

Bringing Tagore into the Present

Between 1960 and 2000, many films drew upon Tagore’s stories and novels and some succeeded in capturing the lyrical quality of his work. However, Ray still stands out for his daring. His interpretations transformed the original stories and are a reminder of how much in storytelling depends on perspective. 

In the 1980s, Ray picked up another Tagore novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), once again a love triangle but this time set against the backdrop of the country’s freedom struggle. The novel had excited Ray ever since he had read it and he had toyed with the idea of making it into a film even before he made his landmark debut film, Pather Panchali (1955). Over the years, he continued to rework the script, made many changes, but ultimately when Ray could actually begin with the project, age was hampering his work. The director’s original choice of actors had to be revised, Ray suffered two heart attacks during the shooting, and schedules changed many times. When the film was finally released, critics compared the film to Charulata and found Ghare Baire (1984) wanting. Some felt that by starting the film from where the novel had ended, Ray could not do justice to the spirit of the original.  

A short story by Tagore that has inspired many filmmakers is “Khudhito Pashan” (Hungry Stones). From Tapan Sinha (Kshudhita Pashan, 1960) to Gulzar (Lekin, 1991) and even Tagore’s non-admirer Mrinal Sen (Antareen, 1993), the story of a haunted palace has inspired myriad retellings. While Sinha faithfully retold Tagore’s story, Sen added a new angle inspired by a Sadat Hasan Manto story. Antareen has a bohemian and imaginative bachelor who has secured a temporary job to look after the ruins of a gorgeous palace. His days are lonely and eventless, until one night, he receives a telephone call from a mysterious woman. Their conversations became a regular affair and their intimacy deepens, even though they are only hearing one another’s voice. 

In a Chekovian finish, Sen brought the two protagonists face-to-face in a crowded train for a few moments. She recognises his voice when he speaks, but remains silent so that he gets off the train, without realising he’s leaving behind his dream woman. Tagore and Manto are difficult to bring together; only the genius of Mrinal Sen could perform that miracle.    

Aishwariya Rai Bachchan in Chokher Bali
Aishwariya Rai Bachchan in Chokher Bali

The Radical Lyricism of Rituparno Ghosh 

The most imaginative reinterpretation of Tagore’s work since Ray has come from director Rituparno Ghosh. An ardent reader of Tagore’s literature, Rituparno made three films based on Tagore’s writings: Chokher Bali (2003), Noukadubi (2011) and Chitrangada (2012). Woven around the beauty and glamour of Aishwariya Rai Bachchan, Ghosh’s Chokher Bali is the story of a young widow. The original story by Tagore centred on the love-hate relationship between a wife and a widow. The wife is a helpless witness to the growing love affair between her husband and guest in her home. The guest is a young widow who refuses to be a victim of social circumstances. Ghosh focused upon widowhood, the force of social conventions and a young woman’s intense desires to create a lush period drama.

Next came Noukadubi, based on Tagore’s novel by the same name. The novel has inspired a legion of filmmakers since the beginning of the talkie era. The first film based on Noukadubi was made by Nitin Bose in 1946. It fared well at the box office, which encouraged him to make a Hindi version, which was titled Milan (1947). Milan was a runaway success and launched Dilip Kumar as a hero. Later, two versions of Noukadubi — one in Tamil and another in Telugu — were made by T. Prakash Rao. Ramanand Sagar also made his version of the novel — introducing a train accident instead of a boat getting wrecked in a storm — with Ghunghat (1960). Decades later, in the Nineties, director Muthyala Subbaiah would make his version of Noukadubi in Telugu. Every version of the novel has been a commercial hit. 

Although there have been attempts to ‘modernise’ Tagore’s works in the streaming era, the most striking and unforgettable example of this has to be Chitrangada (2012) by Rituparno Ghosh, his last and most mature film. Ghosh took Tagore’s famous dance-drama, which is based on an episode from the Mahabharata, and contemporized the gender-bending story by including modern elements like gender affirmation surgery, the rights of same-sex couples and homophobia. Ghosh also cast themself as the film’s protagonist, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The film became a lyrical discourse of what was closest to their heart. However, this daring interpretation of Tagore was not easily accepted by audiences and the criticism quickly devolved to regrettable personal attacks. 


While Ghosh’s Chitrangada is the most compelling modern interpretation of a Tagore work, among the failed experiments has to be Q’s Tasher Desh (2012), based on Tagore’s play by the same name. Q’s film is about a playwright who becomes obsessed with Tagore’s play and while the visuals were strikingly beautiful, Tasher Desh felt incoherent as a film and a story. It didn’t please purists who found too little of Tagore in the adaptation and neither did it work for those who didn’t know the original. 

Tagore’s writing makes up the canon of Bengali literature, epitomising a classical tradition, and you would expect his works to be a favourite with filmmakers who are interested in lavish works of historical fiction. Yet his stories have shown themselves to be open to reinterpretation and adaptations, which in turn has helped to keep Tagore part of the cultural discourse. The films made by greats like Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh have shown that even a century later, Tagore’s writing has the space and sensitivity to showcase modern ideas and politics.

Related Stories

No stories found.