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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Shesher Kobita: Rabindranath Tagore’s novel and the challenges of turning it into film

Suman Mukhopadhyay’s 2013 film Shesher Kobita starred Rahul Bose as Amit Ray, Konkona Sensharma as Labanya and Swastika Mukherjee as Ketaki

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Calcutta Published 07.08.23, 04:23 PM
Rahul Bose and Konkona Sensharma in Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Shesher Kobita.

Rahul Bose and Konkona Sensharma in Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Shesher Kobita. TT archive

Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore took to the medium of cinema wholeheartedly. He observed with an uncanny understanding that remains the touchstone for anyone aspiring to make a film even close to a century later: ‘As in politics, so in art the aim is independence… that cinema has so long been subservient to literature is due to the fact that no artiste has been able to redeem it from this slavery by dint of his genius. If some other language is needed to explain its own, it amounts to incompetence.’

Tagore’s stories, novels and poems have inspired filmmakers right from the early days of cinema in India. His songs find their way into Bengali films with unfailing regularity even today. Kshudita Pashan, Kabuliwala, Nastanirh, Postmaster, Monihara, Samapti, Ghare Baire, Chokher Bali, Naukadubi, Char Adhyay – these stories and novels have seen countless film adaptations over the years.

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Shesher Kobita, however, has been largely ignored. For the uninitiated, Shesher Kobita is the tale of Amit Ray, who returns from Oxford after qualifying for the bar. Erudite, intellectual and an impossible romantic at heart, he arrives in Shillong on a holiday where he meets Labanya, a local governess. He is immediately enamoured of her. What follows is a passionate love affair in the idyllic surroundings of Shillong, with Amit’s sophisticated past (in the form of Katy or Ketaki, who loves him, and his anglicised sisters, Cissy and Lissy) looming over their relationship like clouds over the Shillong landscape.

On the face of it, it is surprising that one of Tagore’s most loved works has not found takers among filmmakers. By common consensus, it is the most realised long-form fiction by the author. It is also recognised as his most lyrical work of fiction, and has been credited with ‘reinventing the Bengali novel, blurring the lines between prose and poetry and creating an effervescent blend of romance and satire’.

Radha Chakravarty, translator of Farewell Song, the definitive English version of the novel, says, “The literary preoccupations central to Shesher Kobita give it a unique quality that sets this text apart. The issue of ‘style’, both social and literary, is foregrounded in a way that makes it distinctly different from the other Tagore texts that have been filmed.” In the words of author, historian and Tagore scholar Reba Som, “It is also path-breaking in terms of explaining Tagore’s own views on relationships where he invariably sees the woman’s angle. Labanya’s ‘Hey bondhu biday’ is the measured mature response of a woman to the impractical dreamer, and her decision to go for a marriage that is grounded and not airy-fairy shows her intelligence.”

The very strengths of the novel render a visualisation difficult

It is by far the one work by Tagore that is most quotable, brimming over as it does with unforgettable meditations on love, holding on, letting go, and the impossibility of love surviving the mundanity of everyday chores. That final poem, the last poem of the title, remains an eternal favourite in poetry recitation competitions and get-togethers. And in Amit and Labanya — the literary, intellectual equivalent to Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen — Tagore created two iconic characters who have excited the romantic imagination for a whole generation of young Bengalis in love.

However, it is probably these very strengths of the novel that render a visualisation difficult. How do you bring out the lyrical nature of the narrative cinematically, incorporate the passages of poetry, the ‘verbosity’ that marks Amit’s articulation of love and Labanya’s responses, without rendering the film no more than a staged play. (Which is why the radio play of the novel, voiced by Soumitra Chatterjee and Lily Chakraborty, is so popular.) And if you excise the poetry and the dialogues, you run the risk of losing out on the essence of the novel.

Radha Chakravarty says, ‘The toughest challenge I think would be to find a way to make the literary debates come alive on screen. Also to capture the unique combination of the lyrical and the satirical. I would never begin from the assumption that a narrative is not filmable. Some things have to change when you move a text from the written to the audio-visual medium. The audience too will be different, hence the filmmaker would also have to keep that factor in mind.’ According to Reba Som, ‘The primary difficulty I see is in the dialogue. Amit’s poetry, the self-disparaging comments on Tagore, which were a response to the critics he faced who were brutal in criticizing him. The nuanced conversation in poetry between Labanya and Amit which have profound meaning.’

How do you bring these out cinematically, and be true to the medium? How do you reconcile the visual and the aural in the light of Tagore’s own statement that, ‘The principal element of the motion picture is the flux of image. The beauty and grandeur of this form in motion has to be developed in such a way that it becomes self-sufficient without the use of words.’

Given these considerations it isn’t surprising that Suman Mukhopadhyay’s 2013 work remains the only film adaptation of this novel. The director himself wasn’t quite convinced of the subject. As he says over a conversation with Soujannya Das, ‘Shesher Kobita was never a favourite novel of mine. I would have never made it into a film. I never liked reading it and didn’t even complete it. But when I was commissioned to do it for Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, I gave it a try. I had my own interpretation. Tagore had a lot of other reasons to write the novel. He wanted to prove that he could write modern poetry. That he could be contemporary in his language. This was not my focus at all. I wanted to bring out Amit Ray as a superficial person who is only bombastic, full of himself. He is in love with the idea of love. His love for Labanya is only a figment of his overactive imagination, his wish-fulfilment. Labanya realised this and hence her response. That is what I wanted to portray in the film.’

Suman Mukhopadhyay’s film is a straightforward rendering of the novel

The film is more or less a straightforward rendering of the novel, with few cinematic flourishes. The filmmaker makes two primary changes from the novel. One, he begins the narrative with Amit in London, passing the bar exams. We are introduced to Ketaki (Katy) and it is apparent that she is quite taken up with Amit. Amit too seems to be involved (even putting on a ring on her finger while reciting John Donne’s ‘I scarce believe my love so pure’). The way he courts Ketaki should put to rest any speculation about his intentions, though with his bohemian nature you never quite know where you stand with him.

Two, the Katy of Suman’s version is not as obnoxious as that in Tagore’s novel. In the latter, one can’t help feel that Katy gets a rather hard deal. Before going on to be ‘reformed’ in the way Amit wants her to be. Radha Chakravarty agrees: “I do feel that Katy’s character in the novel is two-dimensional, not fully fleshed out, more of a device to throw the Amit-Labanya relationship into relief. She belongs more to the satirical strand in the text, though in the later chapters we feel more sympathy for her. Maybe it’s Tagore, not Amit, who is unfair to Katy.”

Suman gives us a more sympathetic Katy. In fact, the major takeaway from the film that makes it different from the novel is the fleshing out of the relationship between Labanya and her suitor Sovanlal (Debdut Ghosh), who was given the short shrift by Tagore in the novel. There is more chemistry in Suman’s film in the relationship between Labanya and Sovanlal than between Amit and Labanya (whose relationship, despite the evocative poetry and intellectual engagements between the two, is marked by just the faint bit of distrust on the part of Labanya and Amit’s romanticism bordering on self-obsession).

For the most part, the rest of the screenplay follows the novel’s narrative arc faithfully. It is Sirsha Ray’s lush cinematography capturing Shillong in all its resplendent beauty, the mist rolling over its valleys, the interplay of the clouds and rain, and Debojyoti Mishra’s evocative western-themed background score that rescue it from oppressive wordiness.

Finding an actor who can convey the essence of Amit’s character

But these are not enough to offset the film’s one almost fatal flaw: Rahul Bose as Amit. In Amit, Tagore created a character that’s almost impossible to realise on screen. In the words of Radha Chakravarty, Amit is “self-absorbed, indeed, and vain about his own ‘style’. But treated with indulgent satiric humour by the narrator of the novel. We shouldn’t try to read Amit’s character separately from his relationship with Labanya, though. Because it is their interaction that forms the spine of the text and that is where the novel’s core statements can be sought.”

Reba Som adds, “Amit is an idealist, a poet, a dreamer, an impractical aspirant of multiple needs he expects from a partner. He fancies he can get the best of both worlds from an idealised partner who can cater to his steady domestic needs as well as charge his romantic aspirations. A mix of Labanya and Katy may be his dream but utterly unrealisable.” These readings make an impossible demand on any actor essaying Amit.

Then there are the long passages of poetry that call for perfection of diction. The kind Soumitra Chatterjee brings to the poems he recites in the film. Ill at ease in the Bengali passages, Rahul Bose in Suman’s film is a far cry from the Amit rendered by the mind’s eye while reading the novel. Amit is way beyond Rahul’s comfort zone and is enough to more or less sink whatever chances the film has with Swastika Mukherjee’s and Konkona Sensharma’s nuanced takes on Ketaki and Labanya, respectively. Till a filmmaker finds a way out of these conundrums — the tyranny of the beautiful words which need to metamorphose into images, and an actor who can convey the essence of Amit’s character — any film adaptation of Shesher Kobita will falter.

Which brings us to the other attempts at adaptation and references to the novel in cinema. Is the story contemporary enough for a modern-day adaptation? When it was first written in 1928-29, some of its themes — the way women, particularly Labanya and Jogamaya, are given agency, for example — was revolutionary (though Ketaki has to mould herself in Amit’s image). Suman Mukhopadhyay provides an interesting addition to the film that is not there in the novel: Jogmaya’s backstory which provides a foundation for her educated background and marriage to a conservative family, without which her contention that women of an earlier generation were merely ‘khelar putul’ (play dolls) does not hold.

There’s also the rather convenient take, from the male perspective, Amit has about his relationship with Ketaki and Labanya, likening his love for the former ‘to water in a pitcher to be collected daily and used up every day’ while that for Labanya ‘remains a lake, its waters not to be carried home but meant for my consciousness to swim in’ (translation from Farewell Song). When asked whether that’s feasible and one needs to choose between the two, he says, rather loftily, ‘That may apply to others, not to me.’ A classic case of having one’s cake and eating it too that may be anathema to the modern woman. But Radha Chakravarty opines, “As for his statement about two kinds of love and having space in his heart for both women, I feel the text is making a psychological point rather than a moral judgement.”

Reba Som mentions the film’s contemporary nature: “Tagore’s exploration of man-woman relationship was very mature and far advanced of his times. He gives Labanya the courage and conviction to call off the marriage to the dreamy and idealist Amit. This in itself is novel and makes it still relevant and not dated.”

Then there are the very relevant debates on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing, the influence of Western culture on our society, the nature of love and conjugality (one review of the novel actually mentions Amit’s approach to relationships as beatnik), all of which can provide an interesting contemporary update to the novel. Radha Chakravarty adds: “The specific literary debates and social issues belong to a specific time and place. But the core themes related to human relationships, the nature of love, and the place of the creative imagination in our lives, continue to haunt us in altered forms, in our altered world.”

(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer)

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