After the withdrawal of troops by the US, which left the country to fend for itself, the Taliban, a violent, religious militant group, has taken over Afghanistan. The immediate future of the country is uncertain, with news and visuals of many Afghans fleeing their homeland for a safer refuge in other countries. Given the events of the past few weeks, it's not unnatural for a Bengali to think of Kabuliwala, Tapan Sinha's 1957 film. Adapted from Tagore's short story written in 1892, it's about the bond between Rahmat, an Afghan migrant (played by Chhabi Biswas) in Calcutta who goes door-to-door selling dry fruits, and a five-year-old girl from a middle class Bengali family called Mini (Tinku Tagore), who reminds him of his own daughter back home — a simple, powerful father-daughter story, but also a story about dispelling xenophobia.
It starts with the title — the word, 'Kabuliwala', a name Tagore came up with. It refers to the community of Afghan men in the city, turbaned and bearded and in Pathan suits — potential bogeyman for children and a source of suspicion and paranoia to the locals, but transformed by the poet into something magical sounding, a mix of childlike curiosity and Bengali romanticism. The fact that the community has since been popularly called 'Kabuliwala' is a testimony to Tagore's centrality in Bengali life and the enduring appeal of the short story. When I was growing up, Kabuliwala was a part of school text, and today there's a chain of biryani outlets in the city by the same name.
This reputation has no doubt been enhanced by Sinha's immensely popular film, starring Chhabi Biswas in the title role. It's easy to forget that Tagore's short story, all of seven pages, is narrated by Mini's father. He is a writer who daydreams about faraway, foreign lands and to him, Kabuliwala is a symbol of the outside world that he craves for. Inspite of Tagore's deft etching of the character, Kabuliwala remains a somewhat distant figure in the short story, save for maybe a paragraph in the end when his backstory about his daughter is revealed.
Sinha's film wholly realises the character — it's his story. The film begins in the rugged, open terrain of Afghanistan (shot in Rajasthan) with a documentary-like voiceover telling us about the land, its place in mythology, history, about its honest and hard working people and their way of life, accompanied by Ravi Shankar's score. From an ethnographic perspective — wide shots of traders on camels on their way to neighbouring countries — we move to individual faces in mid-shots: "There goes Yasir, Afzal and….Rahmat". Rahmat's face tells us he is sad and the voiceover underlines why — he is leaving his five year old daughter, Rabeya, their separation setting up the main conflict of the film.
This opening stretch, invented for the movie, is an example of the skilfulness with which Sinha translated literature to cinema — his adaptation served as a template for the Hindi film in 1961 starring Balraj Sahni. It's also a starting point for the visual landscape of the film, reflective of Rahmat's state of mind. When Rahmat goes to jail for eight years for assaulting a client who cheated him (and therefore is unable to return to Afghanistan to see his ailing daughteri), the sense of claustrophobia in the prison is heightened by contrast.
Sinha noted in an interview that Biswas, with his towering presence, created a sensation with the media and audience at the 7th Berlin film festival, where the film was nominated for Golden Lion and won the Best Score for Shankar (and where Biswas would return a year later with Ray's Jalsaghar).
Rahmat is brought alive by Biswas. His face — empathetic, melancholy — is the defining image of the film. That he is a Bengali actor playing an elderly Pathan never comes in our way of believing in the character, thanks to the physicality he brings to the role and the speech he concocts with broken Hindi and Bangla. Sinha noted in an interview that Biswas, with his towering presence, created a sensation with the media and audience at the 7th Berlin film festival, where the film was nominated for the Golden Lion and won the Best Score for Shankar (and where Biswas would return a year later with Ray's Jalsaghar). In the same interview, Sinha said that there isn't much directing involved when it comes to "great actors like" Biswas. The only thing he asked him to do was to meet real-life Kabuliwalas in the city to prep for the character as they had little information on how they lived etc. Biswas paid a few visits to a group of them who were living in Prince Anwar Shah Road in Calcutta.
Contrary to then, there is a wealth of information about the lives of Kabuliwalas in Kolkata available today. Still around (in small numbers), they have a favourable image in the minds of the people, thanks to Tagore's short story and Sinha's film, which was a huge hit at the time of its release and remains a beloved Bengali staple. Watching the film recently, however, I was struck by something close to home. In the film, Mini's mother becomes a representation of the fear and prejudices of the average citizen. "If there is commotion in the streets, she'd imagine all the drunkards of the world are running towards our very house," is how Tagore describes her character, who expresses her concern that Kabuliwala could well be a child-trafficker. In the film, Sinha shows her as being susceptible to rumour-mongering by the old maid in the house. Archetypal as the character is of the anxious Bengali mother (seen in other works of fiction, too), it felt uncomfortable because of the way it made me think of my own mother.
She'd imagine that going to a cinema hall may not be a good idea because there might be a bomb blast, or a school excursion because a classmate with a grudge might push me from behind. Her paranoia for my younger sister was much worse. She'd be scared that strangers will harm her, particularly grown men — a notion for which I can't entirely blame her. Hypothetically, if Kabuliwala came wandering into our compound one day, I have no doubt that she would behave the same way as Mini's mother does in the story.
The irony is that Kabuliwala happens to be one of my mother's favourite films and stories — so much so that she named my sister after Mini. And ironies are never in short supply in Kabuliwala. Rahmat gets released from his sentence the day Mini, now grown-up, is getting married (thus bringing their little in-joke about 'going to the in-laws' to a full-circle). When she is unable to recognise him, it hits him hard because he imagines that's how his daughter, Rabeya, would react when she sees him after all these years. Restricted to a couple of lines in the short story, however, Sinha gives the mother character a decisive role (played by Manju Dey) in the film's moving climax. Little by little, she had saved up money for the lighting decoration in her daughter's big day. She's the one who urges Mini's father (Radhamohan Bhattacharya) to give away the money to Rahmat so that he can return to Afghanistan and reunite with his daughter. It's a wish-fulfilment real life could hardly compete with.
Kabuliwala is available on Hoichoi and YouTube