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Tagore’s Afghan, post-Afghan war

Mini’s father sips his cup of morning tea, eyes riveted on the screen as the US soldiers raise dust and debri in Taliban-run Afghanistan. A far cry from Tagore’s words or times, but that is what happens in director Probhat Roy’s Ajker Kabuliwala.

Forty-seven years after Tapan Sinha served up the landmark film based on Tagore’s story of an Afghan (enacted by the unforgettable Chhabi Biswas) who becomes attached to a five-year-old (Tinku, Sharmila Tagore’s sister), 2003 is seeing two versions of the short story. While the one by Subir Chandra has recently been beamed on Akash Bangla, Roy’s venture has been set a June 8 telecast date.

The successful filmmaker will call the shots from Thursday, directing the telefilm for ETV. “I have set the story in contemporary times. My kabuliwala’s daughter goes missing in the US war against the Taliban. Tagore too mentions a conflict on the Afghan borders. But my audience will find it easier to identify with a war that has taken place in the third millennium than in the nineteenth century.”

Roy explains that a father’s emotion for a lost daughter is timeless. “So it should not matter even if a Zen zooms by the kabuliwala as he walks down to Mini’s house. Or if the girl’s father is a journalist, typing out his reports on a computer keyboard.”

The Afghan’s profession too is no more the sale of dry fruits as they are easily available these days. Victor Banerjee (who plays the role) will concentrate on his usury business instead. “Sensibilities have changed. A modern-day kabuliwala is an enigmatic non-entity in contemporary society. A 111 years after the story was written, its sentiment may survive but its interpretation can get clouded in confusion. In fact, I think it will,” says Victor.

Chandra, for instance, stressed more on religious amity. “My focus was on the two fathers, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, while Sinha kept the spotlight on the girl.” But Chandra, too, stuck to Tagore’s times.

Roy admits that budgetary constraint is a factor behind the decision of not making a period piece.

For both Chandra and Roy, a great relief is the removal of the copyright yoke. “I use Rabindrasangeet in most of my films. In Lathi, there was a scene where Victor teaches the song Aguner Poroshmoni to his students. At the eleventh hour, I was informed (by the Visva Bharati music board) that the volume of the solo voice (Indranil) had to be raised. That was not the effect I wanted, but there was no way out. They wouldn’t have given permission otherwise.”

Tapan Sinha, whose film ran for a record 60 weeks in city halls in 1956, however, is unimpressed with the post-copyright era experimentations with Tagore. “If I were to make my film today, I would still stay true to the author. The time has not come for experiments yet. This instability will continue for another 15-20 years. Then only will we have adaptations like West Side Story where the deviations from Shakespeare are psychologically justified.”

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