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April 26, 2000


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Tagore on celluloid

Shoma A Chatterji

Chhelebela Satyajit Ray once made a beautiful documentary on Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore. He went on to make a few films based on Tagore's novels and short stories, namely Charulata, Ghare Baire and Teen Kanya.

Other directors, from Tapan Sinha to Tarun Majumdar, have created celluloid interpretations of Tagore's works. Some memorable ones too. Like Kshudita Pashan, Atithi and Nimantran. Wonder why it did not occur to any filmmaker to make a fictionalised documentation on Tagore's own life.

The onus of this responsibility perhaps, had to rest with a low-profile, little-known filmmaker, Sukanta Roy. Roy began researching a film on the childhood days of Tagore. He called it Chhelebela, which means childhood, in 1994.

After a short schedule, which began in 1996, shooting had to stop because Roy ran out of funds. He managed to shoot another brief portion in 1998. But he had to throw his hands up when funds dried up yet again. This, however, hardly put a spoke in his hopes of finishing the film. He went around with the proverbial hat, from one industrialist to another, one friend to another, trying to collect enough to shoot the rest of the film.

Hope arrived finally in the shape of Pradeep Kundalia who wished to see the footage Roy had shot before he committed to help. "When I saw the footage, I liked what I saw and decided to produce the film till completion," says Kundalia, a businessman-turned producer who has come back to film production after 10 years.

Chhelebela is now nearly complete. It has a star-studded cast, good production values and attention to detail, so essential for a period film, a fictionalised documentation of a significant phase in the life of a creative genius.

Roy was inspired to enter films after watching Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Grihajuddha. His first full-length feature, Pitririn, was released in 1992. His second film, Sarbojaya (1997) was selected for the Sydney Film Festival. Kundalia had earlier produced films like Apon Aamar Apon, directed by Tarun Majumdar and Agni Snaan, which was directed by Prabhat Roy.

Chhelebela has a budget touching Rs 35 lakh which includes the film print in the first instance. By the standards of an average Bengali film, this is a lavish budget. Kundalia hopes to release the film internationally in time to coincide with the great poet's death anniversary in August, or a bit earlier, beginning with a London screening.

Set in 1873, the film spans eight years of Tagore as a child, from age 7 to 14. "I am saddened that today, West Bengal, India, the world at large, is indifferent to Rabindranath Tagore, one of the greatest creative minds of the past millennium. I did not wish to lose out on this opportunity to pay a tribute to him. This is precisely why I have shouldered the responsibility of seeing this project through to its finish," says Kundalia.

Roy intrudes to mention the literary sources he drew from to lend authenticity to his script. These include the poet's own reminiscences of his childhood days in Jeebon Smriti and Chhelebela, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay's Rabindrajeebonkatha, Amitabh Choudhury's Rabindranather Maa etc.

Chhelebela The film has been scripted by Sumit Majumdar and will be edited by Dulal Dutta with makeup by Debi Haldar and cinematography by Kanai De. Kartik Bose is doing the production design of the film, which is very significant considering that he has to recreate both time and space in bringing back the history, geography and social environment of the intellectual Brahmo Samaj (to which Tagore belonged) of late 19th Century Bengal.

"Though Tagore's Chhelebela is part of the school syllabus in this state, it is totally lost on children between the ages of seven and 17, the period in Tagore's life I am putting across in the film, because they are wrapped up in their MTV, Cartoon and Kermit channels. Children today hardly know Tagore. I feel sad about it. I would hate my own children to grow up in this ambience of ignorance. This is one reason why I decided to make this film," adds Kundalia.

According to Roy, "Many biographical features have been made in Bengal. But except for the brilliant documentary on Tagore by Satyajit Ray, Tagore's life has been a subject of neglect by the film industry in India. In my own humble way, I wish to fill part of this lacunae."

But won't there be visible gaps in the film, considering it remained in the cans for four years and was then revived for a fresh shoot? Won't this affect the quality of the film? "Not at all," claims Kundalia. "Because, Roy shot the 7-10 year phase and completed it earlier. What he shot now was Tagore as an adolescent. The main characters had grown up. So, he needed a fresh cast for the rest of the film. It is as if he was beginning a new phase of the film."

A beaming Roy puts in his words. "I shot in sections, trying to stick to the chronology of the script and the story. Since the story is not fixed within a static period of time and moves over a period of eight years, the film cannot have a 'dated' look. On the contrary, I got the advantage of the child artistes who had grown simultaneously with the characters they were playing. One example is Moushumi Chatterjee who portrays Tagore's mother. She shot as the seven-year-old Tagore's mother in 1996. Now, Tagore has grown to be 14 and she too, is older by four years."

Chhelebela boasts of an excellent cast comprising some of the best in contemporary Bengali cinema. "You know, when we requested Ranjit Mullick to do the role of Tagore's father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, he said he would not accept any money because he felt privileged with the opportunity of playing this historic personality," reveals Kundalia.

Jishu Sengupta portrays the teenaged Tagore. He is supported by Moushumi Chatterjee (Saradasundari Devi), Debasree Roy (the older Kadambari), Indrani Haldar (Jnanadanandini Devi), Dolon Roy (Soudamini), Arindam Ganguly (Satyendranath), Manash Bhowmick (Jyotirindranath), Subhashish Mukhopadhyay (Gunindranath), apart from Ranjit Mullick and Bodhisattva Majumdar.

The entire courtyard of the Tagore house at Jorasanko, as it existed in 1873, has been beautifully recreated in the studios by Kartik Bose who was inspired by the sketches of old Calcutta designed and executed by the late Desmond Doig.

Chhelebela "Kadambari for me is a challenge," says Debasree Roy who is performing the significant role of Tagore's elder brother Jyotirindranath's wife whose deep influence on Tagore is common knowledge. "I love challenges. But this role is a different challenge. It is a period film based on real life incidents and characters. The role demands that I remain conscious of my makeup, costume, dialogue delivery, body language etc. Yet act naturally. Because I have to pretend that I belong to a Bengal of a bygone era. Kadambari is famous in Bengal's cultural and literary history. I cannot take too many liberties with the external aspects of the character. I am confident that with the hard work I put in and the good wishes of my mentors and fans, I will certainly live up to the expectations of my audience with my enactment of Kadambari."

Music forms an integral part of the film. It has five songs in all, being sung by Ajay Chakravarty, Arun Bhaduri, Sreekanta Acharya and Lopamudra Mitra. Songs penned by Jyotirindranath Tagore have been used in the film. It will underscore the deep influence of his mother Saradasundari, on Tagore. Kadambari Devi too had influenced Tagore deeply and often stepped into his stories and novels unwittingly when Tagore evolved into one of the greatest literateurs of all time. This is another aspect that has found an important place in Chhelebela.

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