As Jeebon Smriti , a documentary on Rabindranath Tagore, premiered recently, one person sorely missed was Rituparno Ghosh, its director, due to his sudden death. Shoma A. Chatterji examines Ghosh's only full-length documentary in his oeuvre. IBNS | 2 years ago

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister had asked Satyajit Ray to make a documentary on Tagore in celebration of the Nobel Laureate's centenary. It was called Rabindranath Tagore (1961). Fifty years later, the PMO's office invited filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh to make another documentary on Tagore in commemoration of 150 years of his birth. Ghosh passed away before the film, Jeebon Smriti, produced by the ministry of information and broadcasting, was premiered as part of the tribute to Tagore. How has Ghosh captured his favourite icon's life on celluloid?

Jeebon Smriti is Rituparno Ghosh's first full-length documentary in his 20-year span of making feature films. Sandwiched between Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore, Ghosh had a tough task placing Tagore in perspective for himself and his audience today. But, expectedly, his approach was different.

"I didn't want the film to be limited within the achievements of the Nobel Laureate. My primary aim was to project the real personality of Tagore as a human being. My main focus has been on Tagore's international spirit. He was a global citizen much before the term 'globalisation' came into being. He believed that loving one's homeland didn't translate into hating other nations. For me, he remains the one and only global icon," he had said while making the film.

Late Rituparno Ghosh

"I have steered clear of Ray's interpretation of the poet's life. My emphasis, treatment and approach are different and they are my own. Ray made it biographical. My attraction is the flesh-and-blood persona of Tagore rather than the larger-than-life figure of a great creative talent. He was a person with the instincts of a normal person, yet was way ahead of the others. The inconsistency in Tagore will be a point I will try and highlight," he had said.

Has he, really been able to mark Jeebon Smriti with his distinct, individual signature the way he did his feature films? Does Jeebon Smriti tell a different story? The 'story' cannot be 'different' because the subject - Tagore - is the same. His universal status of being one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century makes it a challenge to create an individualistic statement on Tagore even for Rituparno Ghosh. But Ghosh was never afraid of challenges. His three films adapted from the writer's works, sometimes closer to the text and sometimes as an 'inspiration' - Chokher Bali, Noukadubi and Chitrangada - The Crowning Wish have proved it.

However, Jeebon Smriti falls short of expectations for a director who has created his own standards of excellence. It begins well with the director's signature presence. For the first 27 years of the poet's life, he ingenuously creates a string of brilliant images that are visualisations of lines picked from Tagore's autobiography Jeebon Smriti (1913), a rambling, unconventional and free-flowing reminiscencings of the poet's life till he was 27. The images are intercut with sepia-toned and black-and-white photographs drawn from the archives with a voice-over, often Ghosh himself, reading out the lines from the text as the visuals strike us in their aesthetic richness.

After the poet crossed 27, direct readings from Jeebon Smriti end and narrations unspool the slow and steady evolution of Tagore by voice-overs from different persons including Ghosh himself. The Nobel Prize is overshadowed by other important nuggets from the poet's sad life at one stage riddled with the quick deaths of his wife, two children and father Debendranath. His struggles to sustain harmony between two communities, his persuasive voice that protested violence of all kinds are essayed very well.

Actor Samadarshi as Tagore

Dotting the narrative are his varied relationships with different women - Annapurna in whose father's house in Mumbai he lived for four months; his elder sister-in-law Kadambari with whom he had a beautiful relationship, and his wife Mrinalini with whom he shared a close bonding. The film ends with millions of Bengalis crowding the streets of Kolkata when his hearse leaves the Jorasanko home of the Tagores. Prabuddha Banerjee's musical score including the rich theme track melds into the narrative as does Saumik Haldar's magic camera.

Vikram Gaekwad, a gifted make-up artist of Mumbai, did the difficult make-up of Tagore in different stages of his life. Four actors were picked of which the handsome Samadarshi plays the young Rabindranath from around 18 to 27 and Sanjoy Nag takes up after that. Raima Sen plays Kadambari but there is very little of dramatisation of their deep empathy through dialogue and the action is confined to the images.

"Tagore's look changed over age and time. He sometimes wore a turban-like wrapping around his head. He sometimes kept long hair and sometimes did not. His beard changed in thickness and colour. The skin texture also changed over time. I am not competent to execute this job, Gaekwad is. So, I decided to rely on Gaekwad to work on the detailing for these different 'looks' to make the film as spotless as possible," said Ghosh.

However, for all its artistic sets, good music, and sensitivity, Jeebon Smriti has one big spot that mars its execution. Ghosh's decision to be the anchor of the film and intercut the main script with his own entry into the frame along with his unit members as the film is being made, or when they are on a trip to Bolpur the second time to visit Santiniketan, or praying in front of Tagore's garlanded portrait in the end were absolutely unwarranted. As the voice-over narrates lines from Tagore's life, the continuity breaks jarringly as Ghosh steps into the setting with his crew and interacts with them silently or reads out to them from his laptop while they listen like school students. This demeans the subject of the film, the scintillating personality of Rabindranath Tagore.

A director assuming responsibility of being the narrative thread and the voice-over is one thing but to appear suddenly on screen with elaborate costume, make-up and jewellery, barging into a narrative about the iconic writer is another and takes the film a few notches down.

(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award-winning film critic)

(Posted on 17-08-2013)