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From Kolkata to Dublin via Kabul: Tagore’s Internationalism And Cinema

December 29, 2011 | By

The most successful adaptation of a Tagore story outside Bengal was of course, Hemen Gupta’s Kabuliwala, produced by Bimal Roy, starring the veteran actor Balraj Sahni.

The most successful adaptation of a Tagore story outside Bengal was of course, Hemen Gupta’s Kabuliwala (1961), produced by Bimal Roy, starring the veteran actor Balraj Sahni.

At a symposium organised to mark the 150th birth year of Rabindranath Tagore in Dublin last month, the organising team – a small group of five academics with an interest in South Asia, working across universities and disciplines in Ireland – decided to screen Kabuliwala (Hemen Gupta/Bimal Roy, 1961) as part of the programme.

The symposium was inherently interdisciplinary, touching upon Tagore’s internationalism, his perception of East-West relations, and his contribution to literature, political thought, theatre, cinema, and poetry.

Tagore’s tremendous influence on the Indian imagination is evident in the enthusiastic response the philosopher’s 150th birth year has invited in the shape of renewed engagements with his ideas irrespective of regional, linguistic or national affiliations both within and outside India. If Tagore was rooted in the language and culture of Bengal, shaping it for the generations to follow, his intellectual and imaginative explorations abided by no linguistic, regional or cultural boundaries, freely embracing the world for inspiration, content and idiom.

The larger human drama that many Tagore stories explore transcends national boundaries, and even while being located in the specific historical context of colonial India, speaks to concerns and anxieties that are positively trans-national, and possibly universal.  This is perhaps one of the reasons why Tagore’s stories have been so attractive to filmmakers as they lend themselves to the visual depiction of concerns, values, and sentiments that cut across boundaries, inviting identification from a diverse audience.

The screening of the Hindi version of Kabuliwala and the fact that the symposium was happening in Ireland were both significant in their own way. Ireland merits a special place in Tagore’s life by way of his long and intense correspondence with the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who was so taken by Tagore’s poetry that he writes in his 1912 introduction to the English translation of Gitanjali that ‘I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me’.[1]

In 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on the recommendation of Yeats, four years younger than Tagore, who himself had to wait until 1923 to join the list of Nobel Laureates. In many ways, it was Yeats who drew the world’s attention to Tagore, who then subsequently in years to come, developed long-standing associations with writers, artists, and thinkers from different parts of the world, sustaining lengthy correspondences and strong friendships with several of them.

It is not surprising, given Tagore’s modernist leanings, his visionary thinking, his belief in the value of the arts and his ability to look ahead to the future, that he would nurture a genuine fascination for the cinema, going on to proclaim it as the primary medium of art expression for the 20th century.

Tagore’s interest in cinema was international, and he keenly watched silent films made in Europe and the Soviet Union, during his travels abroad to raise funds for his university at Shantiniketan. Closer to home in Calcutta, he worked closely with B.N. Sircar, the founder of the New Theatres, whose idea it was to film Tagore’s dance-drama Natir Puja on Tagore’s seventieth birthday. The twenty-minute film includes archival footage of Rabindranath Tagore, and was directed by the poet-philosopher himself in four days with the help of students from Shantiniketan.

Kabuliwala 1957 (Bengali) is available on Flipkart

Tapan Sinha’s 1957 Bengali version of the film, adds and modifies details to render the narrative cinematically while holding on to the larger idea of humanism foregrounded through the original story.

Sangeeta Datta, director of the English-Bengali film Life Goes on (2010) and author of the BFI-commissioned book on Shyam Benegal points out that the association with Tagore suited New Theatres particularly well as cinema was still considered a taboo line of work, especially for women, and an association with Tagore enabled for New Theatres to carve out a distinctively upper caste respectability that found favour with the Bengali bhadralok.[2]

In 2011, the NFDC released a compilation of Tagore Stories on Film, which include Natir Puja, Satyajit Ray’s 1961 English documentary on Tagore, Tapan Sinha’s 1960 Bangla film Khudito Pashan (Hungry Stones), Satyajit Ray’s 1961 Bangla film Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) as well as his 1984 film Ghare Baire (Home and the World), along with Hemen Gupta’s 1961 Hindi film Kabuliwala, which was previously made in Bengali by Tapan Sinha in 1957, and Kumar Shahani’s Hindi film Char Adhyay (1997).

However, this is only a small selection of films inspired by, or adapted from Tagore’s stories, novels, plays and songs and film critic and writer Satyen Bordoloi states that ‘over the years, more than a 100 films, more than half in Bengali, have been made on Tagore’s works, making him one of the most adapted writers of all times’.[3]

Unfortunately for film enthusiasts and historians, many of these films have been lost to negligence and time, including films like Manbhanjan (1923), Bisarjan (1929), Bicharak (1929), Giribala (1930), Dalia 91930), and Noukadoubi (1932) from the silent era, as well as films like Gora (1938), Choker Bali (1938), Sodh Bodh (1942) and the later version of Naukadoubi (1947) from the pre-independence era. A third version of Noukadoubi has recently been made by Rituparno Ghosh, who also previously made Choker Bali with the Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai in 2003.

The interest in adapting Tagore’s stories to film was not restricted just to New Theatres and Bengali cinema. In 1947 Nitin Bose made Milan starring the superstar Dilip Kumar; in 1972 Sudhendu Roy adapted Samapti into Malyalam with Upaharam; and Kumar Sahani made Char Adhyaya in Hindi in 1997.

The most successful adaptation of a Tagore story outside Bengal was of course, Hemen Gupta’s Kabuliwala, produced by Bimal Roy, starring the veteran actor Balraj Sahni. The simple story of Kabuliwala is about the affection between Rehman Khan (Balraj Sahni), an Afghani immigrant dry-fruit-seller in Calcutta and Mini (Sonu), a young girl who he imagines as his child-figure in memory of his daughter, Amina (baby Farida), left behind in Kabul.

This story, unlike many other Tagore-inspired-films that are more strongly rooted in context and period, offers a more classical perspective on humanism, identify and difference. Tagore’s Kabuliwala was published as a short story in Sadhana, a Bangla literary magazine he edited through the 1890s and the early decades of the twentieth century. The story was translated from Bangla into English by the Irish woman Margaret Elizabeth Noble, more popularly known to the world as Sister Nivedita, and published in the Modern Review.

It was this story of Tagore’s that the English painter William Rothenstein read and was moved enough by to make enquiries about Rabindranath through his painter brother Abanindranath Tagore, who arranged to send him translations of some of Tagore’s poems. It was Rotheinstein who subsequently wrote to W. B. Yeats about Tagore, bringing the Irish connection full circle.

Kabuliwala is a reflective account narrated by Mini’s father/author of his own journey towards understanding humanism as overriding the historical and contextual differences that divide people.

In the short story, the reader, and indeed Mini’s father, do not know that Abdur Rehman’s friendship with the five-year-old Mini is built upon his yearning for his own little daughter in Kabul (whose name and image Mini’s father casts in familiar modes as the mountain-resident Parbati) until after Rehman returns from having served a long prison sentence for the murder of a man who had refused to pay him for his wares.

The narrative of the short story is constructed so as to first allow the reader to encounter difference fully – as a reflective rendition of the unlikely bonds between an Afghan dry-fruit seller, a returning immigrant in Calcutta, belonging to another history and nation and a young girl from a progressive middle-class Bengali family at the turn of the 20th century – before destabilising its basis as a mere construction that camouflages a more universal bond of humanity.

The bond, in this instance that between father and daughter, shared across time and cultures, is made manifest through the imprints of Abdur Rehman’s daughter’s small hands on a creased and dirty piece of paper: ‘Not a photograph. Not a drawing. The impression of an ink-smeared hand laid flat on the paper. This touch of his own little daughter had always been on his heart as he came year after year to sell his wares in Calcutta. Tears came to my eyes. I forgot that he was a poor Kabuli fruit-seller, while I was—but no, what was I more than he? He was also a father.’[4]

Kharo Bayu Boye Beghe (Kabuliwallah, 1957, Bengali)

Tapan Sinha’s 1957 Bengali version of the film, adds and modifies details to render the narrative cinematically while holding on to the larger idea of humanism foregrounded through the original story. Hemen Gupta’s 1961 Hindi version does the same with further modifications.

For example, instead of a returning seasonal migrant, the film portrays Rehman Khan (note the choice of Khan as a generic Pathan name!) almost as a refugee in Calcutta, living in a crowded ghetto with fellow Afghanis, pining nostalgically for Kabul and unable to return until the end of the film, when many years have passed since his arrival in Calcutta.

Screening a film in a different linguistic, cultural, and historic context always throws up exciting new responses demonstrative of a fresh and contextually relevant mode of engagement with the film’s text. The response to the screening of Kabuliwala in Dublin was divided between an admiration for the tremendous talent of the Balraj Sahni – Bimal Roy duo and the stirring lyrics and visualisation of ‘Aye Mere Pyare Watan’ and ‘Ganga aaye kahaan se’, but also a sense of alienation from the all-too-naive figure of the Pathan, whose unconditional and instant love for a stranger-child appeared constructed to the extent of eliciting disbelief.

Aye Mere Pyare Watan (Kabuliwallah, 1961, Hindi)

The figure of the Kabuliwala possibly challenges the belief systems of a spectator watching the film in 2011, in the context of necessarily rendering our engagement with the Pathan through the modern history of Afghanistan, and the familiar television images of helpless refugees and a destroyed social fabric.

In the Irish context, one must add that depicting adult-child relationships is particularly difficult, especially given the history of child abuse by the church that has now openly emerged into the public sphere and imprinted popular consciousness.

But it is perhaps precisely such conditioned baggage that Tagore’s internationalism and humanisim attempts to destabilise, asking the spectator/reader/audience to believe where any such possibilities have been ravaged by history.

Ganga Aaye Kahaan Se (Kabuliwallah, 1961, Hindi)

It is perhaps the sustained challenge his characters set up across time periods and cultures to the dominant readings determined by social and historical contexts – whether in India or elsewhere – that make them classical.

In this sense, Tagore’s Kabuliwala, and films inspired by the story are located in the present as much as in the past, modernist precisely because what appears as the naivety of the humanist vision is in fact its very offering of progress.


[1] ‘Introduction’ by W.B. Yeats in Rabindranath Tagore (1912[1996]) Gitanjali; Wellsley: Branden Books

[2]  Sangeeta Datta ‘Tagore and Indian Cinema’, talk presented at the Tagore Symposium, Dublin 21st October 2011

[3]  Satyen Bordoloi (2011) in Catalogue of Tagore Stories on Film; Mumbai: NFDC

[4] ‘The Cabuliwallah’ trans. Sister Nivedita (1912 [2008]) in The Hungary Stones and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore. Project Gutenberg  online edition.

More to read

Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet Prophet

Chokher Bāli: Unleashing Forbidden Passions


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Rashmi Sawhney is Lecturer in Visual Cultural Studies at the Dublin Institute of Technology where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in international journals and edited book collections and will be joining India Foundation for the Arts in 2012 as Programme Executive, Extending Arts Practice and Curatorship.
All Posts of Rashmi Sawhney

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