Rabindranath Tagore wrote Postmaster in the final years of 1800, when he was leading a lonely life in what was then East Bengal – now Bangladesh. The poet’s state of mind and his restlessness find an echo in the story – which Satyajit Ray adapted most poignantly to film in his 1961 Teen Kanya. It had three short stories, one of them was The Postmaster. The young Bengali director, Srijon Bardhan, has revisited Tagore’s tale of The Postmaster in his debut work. Called Postmaster without the article, it was screened on Sunday at the ongoing 14th Chennai International Film Festival.
As Bardhan told this writer soon after the screening, “I have modified Tagore’s story to make it more contemporary. My plot is set in Plassey or Palashi (as it now called, and which is 150 km from Kolkata), and the year is 1971.” Lucky for Bardhan, for the village on the banks of the Bhaghirati has really not changed at all since the 1970s, and he found it relatively easy to shoot there. “But we still did build a set at Palashi, and the villagers have left it untouched as a memorial to the movie.”
If one were to compare Tagore’s The Postmaster and Ray’s film with Bardhan’s Postmaster, the essential difference lies in the relationship between the postmaster, Nanda Sen (played by Ishan Mazumdar), and the young maid, an orphan, Ratna (Pujarini Ghosh). While the original maid was barely 12 or 13 and some kind of an outcast in times when girls had to be married by age nine, Bardhan’s Ratna is around 16. Sen and Ratna in Bardhan’s edition have a sexual relationship that culminates in marriage – a union that his aristocratic family in Kolkata strongly disapproves of, mainly because the girl belongs to a lower caste.
Bardhan avers that although Tagore was a rebel of sorts, he knew that a narrative about sexual love between an older man and a very young girl, a child in fact, would have been criticised by the society of his day. “But today, romantic love between a man and a much younger woman is common and accepted.”
The director says that as a lover of Tagore’s prose and poetry, he was fascinated by The Postmaster -- which “I kept reading and re-reading for years and years, till I found a common thread running through what I visualising for my script and the original story. It was the innocence of love. The girl was really very innocent, and the love she had for the postmaster was divine and pure. My Postmaster is also strong on this.” Ratna’s love may have been sexual and passionate, but there was something very naive about it.
Bardhan’s work – as he himself admits -- “may be placed somewhere between rank commercial fare and arthouse stuff”. It is quite melodramatic, and has the ingredients that go to make a masala movie. “If I make something very arty, I do not think the present-day audience will like it. Certainly, not men and women of my generation (Bardhan is 26). So, I had to make it peppy. But I have retained the essence of Tagore’s version.”
Apart from introducing sexual love between Sen and Ratna (it was platonic in the original), Bardhan steers his story away from Tagore’s by adding new segments -- marriage between the postmaster and Ratna, and his subsequent dilemma at having to abandon her and their child on the insistence of his father who on his death bed, forces a promise out of his son. Although, Sen makes sure that Ratna and the baby are taken care of (with sufficient money), he, while playing an obedient son, behaves like a cad to a teenage girl, whom he marries and bestows motherhood upon her! He leaves her with just a letter.
Tagore did not fall into this trap. His postmaster was never in love with his maid, called Ratan, and he had never encouraged her. He never had any romantic notions about the relationship. It is quite possible that the girl being alone and lonely might have developed some sort of affection towards the postmaster. But the love was brotherly, absolutely platonic. In fact, she talks about this in Tagore’s tale.
Bardhan – who has also composed music for his film – offers some haunting numbers, and uses the Palashi landscape to give his Postmaster a feel of poetry. There is Tagore in this, all right.
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