The story of Kadambari Devi and her relationship with her husband’s youngest brother Rabindranath Tagore has been written about, speculated upon, discussed, critiqued, analysed and decoded endlessly over the years. Out-of-the-box filmmaker Suman Ghosh has the courage of his convictions to place this very controversial story in Kadambari.
Kadambari was married to Jyotirindranath Tagore at the tender age of nine. She was the daughter of the Tagore family’s accountant and therefore, somewhat looked down upon by the other women in the Tagore home except her husband’s sister Swarnakumari Devi. She found a like-minded friend in Robi, a little younger than she was. They played together, read together and grew up together creating a strange bond that defied definition or description and reached beyond relationships created through marriage. She loved her husband Jyotirindranath who, busy with his ambitious but bound-to-fail business projects and involvement in theatre, had little time for his much younger wife.
Robi in the meantime, was slowly but surely growing up into a poet and in Kadambari, he found his creative muse, dedicating most of his creative writing to his notun bouthan (Kadambari). The film evolves over time. The depth of the relationship unfolds itself, layer by little layer, from Kadambari’s perspective and the story is often intercut with Kadambari’s voice-over narrating the story in a first person monologue. The narrative is based partly on sources like Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Prothom Alo and Mallika Sengupta’s Kobir Bouthan and partly on hypothetical projections based on ‘what might have been.’ Though Kadambari gradually falls in love with Robi, for Robi, she is little more than the poet’s muse and inspiration. He understands her better than others do but he is so sucked into his creative world that falling in love does not wall within that orbit. Kadambari’s childhood scenes – the one when she keeps questioning the tailor about what zari he uses for which embroidery, playing hide-and-seek with Robi are sweet and memorable.
The film follows a somewhat circular structure beginning with Kadambari’s infamous suicide and coming back to her suicide in the end. It is a ‘period’ film dating back to Kadambari stepping into the Tagore home as a bride, catching a boy of her age peeping out from behind a pillar to take a peak at the little bride. That little boy is Robi. It is like looking at a distanced world beyond the world we are familiar with, filled with garden tea services poured out of dainty little cups and English biscuits while the members of the tea service are engaged in sophisticated conversations. We are offered a vision of what the Tagore family was like, living a life where luxury was a necessity and sailing on luxury boats was an everyday affair. We cannot ever identify with the characters but we learn what they are like, including the ‘politically discreet’ Maharshi Devendranath Tagore who strictly commands everyone to hush up every bit of news about Kadambini’s suicide and keep it from media exposure at all costs.
The film exposes how Kadambari, in a manner of speaking, wittingly or unwittingly, became the agency that exposed the double standards of the Tagore home. No one understood her inner needs except Robi. She also became the victim of the same double standards because why she poisoned herself remains a mystery till this day. Did she kill herself because Robi, who we understand she had fallen in love with, had got married and was preparing to take on his new role as husband? Did she commit suicide because she discovers that another woman is expecting her husband Jyotirindanath’s baby created through an illicit relationship? Or did she take poison because within her barren marriage, she felt guilty about the sudden and accidental death of little Urmila, who, her mother Swarnakumari, had placed on Kadambari’s lap to be brought up as if she was her own?
An important feature that enhances the celluloid authenticity of this period film is the solidity created, brick by small brick, sustained and developed by the entire creative team such as the reconstruction of the Tagore home, the lush greens of the gardens, spots of expanses of a blue sky, that moment when Kadambari describes how Robi made her see her first sunrise, and so on. Tanmoy Chakraborty’s art direction and Barun Mukherjee’s magic light effects through his restrained cinematography which could easily have gone overboard, add to the texture of the film. There is no attempt whatsoever to use over determined chiaroscuro lighting, or use oppressive settings, or exaggerated perspectives and yet one can almost tangibly feel the intensity of the compositional tension. The film literally basks in the wondrous beauty of Nature in all its finery – placing the characters as an integral part of that Nature with its mystique, its sadness, its thrills and its joys.
Add to this Bickam Ghosh’s brilliant musical score with special commendation reserved for the Vidyapati song E Bhara Badara with its music composed by Tagore himself sung by Ustad Rashid Khan to the accompaniment of traditional instruments like the pakhawaj, the sur bahar and the sarangi. The visualization and picturisation of this scene is one of the highest points of the film. The film’s use of the locations of the Jorasanko Thakurbari recreated somewhere else transports the audience into a heightened, unreal double world – that of the distant past – in the film, and that of the present – in the auditorium.
Konkona Sen Sharma in the title role and the little girl who played her younger version are very good except that Konkona appears a bit self-conscious in certain scenes when she is placed with Robi. The only ‘intimate’ scene of the two, if one can call it that, is when Robi leaves his nephew Suren Tagore’s birthday party to go back to Kadambari in Chandannagar because he had promised that he would return and also because he had not forgotten that it was her birthday. The director has shown little Urmila’s death only through suggestion and that understatement was deserving in a film like this, soaked in literature and poetry and music as it is.
The two negative qualities that bring down the film a bit are (a) the birthday party scene which looks a bit superfluous and (b) the loud theatrical insertion of a stage performance of Noti Binodini that Kadambari has gone with her maid to watch and finds her husband in another box. This scene stands out like a sore in an otherwise poetic film.
Parambrato as a young Tagore is quite convincing, masterfully expressing his confusion over his feelings for his notun bouthan – is she his childhood mate? Or, is she the poet’s muse? Or, is she the woman he truly loves but cannot express it even to himself? The actress who plays Kadambari’s maid is understated and good. In retrospect, one discovers with surprise that the women in the Tagore home, including the maids, were stronger than all the men put together. Teetash Bhowmik as Gnanadanandini, Sreekanto Acharya has her husband Satyendranath, Koushik Sen as Jyotirindranath and the noted theatre actress who plays Swarnakumari Debi are all very good. They come across as strong women subject to human failings which make them much more mainstream than they are as history as constructed them.
In keeping with the period it belongs to and the people who lived within the period, Kadambari might appear very slow but it is also very subtle and understated carried ably on the strong pair of shoulders of an actress called Konkona Sen Sharma.
Bengali, Drama, Color