Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rabindranath Tagore

If you were going to produce a documentary on Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray would seem like the perfect director. He knew the poet as a student at Shantiniketan, the experimental open-air college to which Tagore devoted his later years. His father and grandfather were intimates of the Tagore circle, through their work as artists and printers and as members of the progressive Brahmo Samaj movement, which was led by Tagore’s father, Debendranath. The Rays and the Tagores occupied the same artsy, cosmopolitan, business-saavy strata of Kolkata high society for whom Shakespeare and Dickens were as Indian as the Upanishads.

So it’s surprising to see Ray turn out such a workmanlike newsreel of Tagore’s career. That any Bengali director could dispense with the reverence in 1961, just twenty years after the Nobel Prize-winner’s death, is hard to imagine. But it’s especially hobbling for Ray, whose movies rely on detachment and a wry critical remove for their emotional effects. Ray mixes historical footage with newly shot scenes in a skillful way, and he moves through an eventful 80 years in a swift 54 minutes. But Tagore never comes to life, except as a stately emblem of Bengal’s history over those tumultuous decades. Pace (sort of) Drew Gardner, good emblems make bad bios.

The film was a centenary commission from the Indian Government, and Ray didn’t make large claims for it. He cautiously offered that “ten or twelve minutes of it are among the most moving and powerful things that I have produced,” and it’s fun to guess which twelve he had in mind. My money’s on the shots with the young Tagore, the last of fourteen talented children, moving down the portico of his family home while his siblings practice their various arts in different rooms. The actor resembles the wide-eyed Subir Banerjee from Pather Panchali, and the clash of musics and genres—tabla through one doorway, Shakespeare recitations from the other—could be an image, even the emblem, of Ray’s eclectic aesthetic as well.

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