In an ambience where one-night stands are common, where no one raises an eyebrow at fly-by-night marriages or divorces, where live-together relationships have acquired legitimacy, a romantic love story like Rabindranath Tagore’s Shesher Kobita might appear to be a naïve simplification of love on the one hand, and an Utopian articulation on platonic romance on the other. In either case, for the youth of today, especially for those who are not familiar with Tagore, Shesher Kobita could appear to be passé. This makes it all the more challenging to place it on film.
Tagore wrote Sesher Kobita in 1928 while holidaying in South India. It was published serially in Pravasi from August-September 1928 to March-April 1929. The revised version appeared in book form in August 1929, when literary modernism had begun to influence poets and writers from Bengal, some of who were openly critical of Tagore’s works. Tagore uses this very critique as a finger pointing at himself in this story of love that is still discussed, debated, questioned and critiqued over time.
Director Suman Mukhopadhyay has remained almost obsessively loyal to Tagore’s original story including the time, the spaces, the characterisations, the landscapes, even the costumes and the settings. The episodic 17 chapter-wise expositions are also followed to the letter, and the film smoothly telescopes into the past to seamlessly come back to the present placing the two lead characters Amit and Labanya in perspective. The minor segments he has kept away from such as Labanya’s father’s remarriage to a young widow were perhaps necessary to intensify the core of the story of love and loss and understanding. Writes Arindam Saha, “The novel illustrates Tagore’s remarkable powers of assimilating and integrating the modernist temper, especially its capacity for self-criticism and self-ridicule into his own aesthetic world.” (Tagore and Modernity, ed: Krishna Sen and Tapati Guha, Dasgupta & Co.Pvt.Ltd.2006, p.179)
The film follows the novel almost to the letter revealing layer by slow layer, the multiple sub-plots that unfold the character of Amit Ray and the mutations he undergoes after he decides to visit Shillong leaving his extremely Westernised friends – Mr. Mitra and Katy Mitter and sisters Lissy and Sissy to go off to another hill station. Amit’s love for Labanya who he meets in a carefully designed car accident happens almost at first sight though for Labanya, it takes a while to warm up to these feelings. Amit is central to the film as he is in the literary source. His love leaves behind his Oxford-acquired behavior, language, friends and he gives his Oxford friend Katy the royal ditch, forgetting all about the diamond ring he presented her with.
Shirsa Ray’s cinematography captures the beautiful landscape of Shillong with its fogs, its rains, its greens and its blue skies till Amit’s perspective on this change within him makes one question whether he has fallen more in love with Nature around him than with Labanya. This inner conflict makes Amit go where he finally does – back home to Calcutta, to his old friends and to Ketaki who he marries because Labanya convinces him that monotony of marriage might destroy their love forever. She walks away from his life forever and chooses to marry her old classmate Sovanlal she had once thrown out of the house because she was secretly jealous of his brilliance.
Debajyoti Misra’s musical score, dotted with a couple of beautifully rendered Tagore songs almost without accompanying music moves on to notes from Austrian Composer Johann Strauss II’s unforgettable The Blue Danube Waltz moving full circle from the background score on the credit titles opening up the frame on Oxford from where Amit took seven years to finish his Barrister’s exam. Misra has created an unique musical score that offers a counterpoint to Tagore whose music is known for its Euro-classical leanings. Misra uses the opening lines of Auld Lang Sine as a whistle in Amit’s lips like a metaphor that perhaps represents his soul vacillating in the uncertainty of a future he feels insecure about. Lines from this song, in the Bengali version by Tagore, are also interspersed into the film text at a significant moment. This can be called an ‘alternative musical score’ where the opening frames are a deconstructed blend of the Jazz, the Blues, some notes from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and the frequent use of the classical and the electric guitar. This underscores that the music design of any film, including one adapted from a Tagore story need not necessarily be contextual but can evolve its own character with stands apart from the film and yet can be taken together depending on how the audience perceives/interprets it.
The characterizations are sharp and concrete, loyal to Tagore’s original fleshing out, marking out the remarkable differences between and among the characters and their cultural leanings. The Westernised young women Ketaki, Sissy and Lissy are heavily made-up, overdressed, smoke cigarettes from holders, sometimes as a fashion statement and sometimes as a way of insulting while the men are suited and booted and pepper their lines with accented English, play golf and do everything to reinforce their Western image. Jogomaya Debi is a picture of old aristocracy in her widow’s weeds while Labanya sticks to white and pastel shaded saris, a simple plait falling down her back and gracefully folded shawls for the wintry chill of Shillong. Amit Ray’s image, costumes, manner and demeanour change constantly, surprising his old friends and sisters till he comes home to roost. The low-key, subdued relationship between Lavanya and Sovanlal run like an undercurrent in the film in one flashback and then again in the end, in a moving shot showing Lavanya and Sovanlal travelling inside a bus and suddenly, Lavanya resting her head on his shoulder.
So far as acting goes, Debdoot Ghosh as the wanderlust-crazy Sovanlal is brilliant in his control over his character, keeping his academic brilliance always under wraps. Tulika Basu as Jogomaya excels in her classic dignity and one rues her reduction to terrible roles in television soaps. Swastika as Katy, first naïve and simple and in love with Amit, then overly made-up and costumed, then hurt by Amit’s summary rejection of her love in preference for Labanya, darkish, ordinary and a ‘governness’ is beautifully essayed despite its marginalization. She takes the cake when she returns the ring and walks back to the waiting car, tears streaking down her made-up face. Konkona as Labanya is soft, tender, graceful and utterly feminine but lacks the strength and determination present in Tagore’s original Labanya who he described once as ‘a blend of the masculine and the feminine.’
The breaking of the rhythm of the film is in Rahul Bose miscasting as Amit Ray. He simply does not fit into the mould of the thick-haired young man back from Oxford because his Bengali lacks the diction it demands though his English is above par. He is thoroughly unconvincing as Amit and looks much older than the character he portrays. Whether he is living in that deserted, dilapidated little hut on the hill, or in the beautifully decorated Calcutta mansion, whether he is in Bengali attire or suited and booted with a cap to cap it all, he jars right across the film not just with his acting but also with his image and his appearance. In some scenes, he is distinctly ill at ease.
The other feature that might keep a large section of the audience away is the extreme verbosity of the film in the beginning where Amit delivers speeches on poetry and criticizes Tagore and the constant dropping of names few youngsters among the audience will be able to identify with such as Grote, Gilbert, Gibbon, including Bernard Shaw and John Donne though they are an integral part of the original novel.
If noticed closely, one might read into the two rings Amit gifts the two women in his life with. The ring he gifts to Ketaki is of diamond and she gives it back to him when she realizes she has lost the ‘bet’ she had made with herself. The pearl-encrusted ring he gifts Labanya with is returned by her and she says, “our relationship does not need any sign to remember it by.” From Nabarun Bhattacharya to Tagore is a long and hard journey. With one major casting hiccup, and a few needless verbose loyalties, filmmaker Suman Mukhopadhyay still lived up to the challenge he set for himself.
Bengali, Drama, Color