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At Tokyo Film Fest, Tagore's Kabuliwala Transforms into Bioscopewala

In 'Bioscopewala', Danny Denzongpa – whom we have for years associated with villainy in Hindi movies – essays the title character, a Kabuliwala who comes to Kolkata in the early 1990s.

Gautaman Bhaskaran |

Updated:October 29, 2017, 10:04 AM IST
At Tokyo Film Fest, Tagore's Kabuliwala Transforms into Bioscopewala
In 'Bioscopewala', Danny Denzongpa – whom we have for years associated with villainy in Hindi movies – essays the title character, a Kabuliwala who comes to Kolkata in the early 1990s.
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The sight of a tall, well-built man in a baggy Pathan suit was a common feature in the Calcutta of the 1960s, where I grew up. Hailing from Afghanistan, he was usually called Kabuliwala, and I have always wondered why he was never described as an Afghan. The Kabuliwalas of Calcutta had notorious reputation. Though they brought nuts and other kinds of dry fruit from Afghanistan and sold them in Calcutta, the men also lent money on punishing rates of interest, and if one failed to pay the interest or return the capital, the Kabuliwala could be worse than Shylock the Jew in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice who bays for the flesh of a wealthy businessman, Antonio.

A captivating short story, Kabuliwala, written in 1892 by Bengal's eternal icon, Rabindranath Tagore, captures all this and more. Tagore's hero, Kabuliwala, desperate to go home after he hears about his little daughter's illness, murders a man in a fit of rage when he refuses to pay the Afghan his dues.

But this is not quite about all that Tagore's wanted to say in his little tale. We are drawn into a world of beautiful friendship between the Kabuliwala and a cute Bengali girl called Minnie – who gradually warms up to him after getting rid of the ghosts in her head. Like Minnie, I remember as a boy I was terrified of the imposing looking man who strutted about on the streets of what was once the Second City of the Empire lending money and selling Afghan produce. I was mortified because the popular myth in those days averred that the Kabuliwala kidnapped children, put them inside the huge bag he carried and sold them in Kabul. But like Minnie who realises after a few meetings with the Kabuliwala in Tagore's magically simple narrative that the man is great human being, I outgrew my fear, though I had no Afghan for a friend.

The Bard of Bengal's Kabuliwala apart from being an incredible part of great folklore -- that has weathered the storms of time to get firmly embedded in the average man's psyche -- has been an attractive subject for filmmakers like Tapan Sinha (who had Chhabi Biswas essaying the title character of Kabuliwala in 1957) and Hemen Gupta (who had Balraj Sahani as his hero in a 1961 edition) among others.

And it is this Kabuliwala that producer Sunil Doshi and director Deb Medhekar have reworked into yet another movie, titling it Bioscopewala – which screened the other day at the ongoing Tokyo International Film Festival. Doshi and Medhekar have added to Tagore's late 19th century version, and their embellishments certainly pep up the narrative to make it delightfully contemporary. Of course, a Tagore story never dates.

In Bioscopewala, Danny Denzongpa – whom we have for years associated with villainy in Hindi movies – essays the title character, a Kabuliwala who comes to Kolkata in the early 1990s – driven as he was out of Afghanistan by a rapidly fundamental regime, his little cinema theatre burnt down. And in Kolkata, he does not sell dry fruits or lend money, but entertains children with his bioscope, giving them hours of entertainment by allowing them to fly across continents and peep into the world of Indian movies. One of them who is mesmerised by all this imagery is Minnie – who, like in Tagore's story, gets fond of the Kabuliwala, sorry Bioscopewala.

However, things take a horrible turn when the Bioscopewala is jailed for murder and cast away for many years. And when he comes out, Minnie is a young woman (Geetanjali Thapa), a documentary filmmaker living in France. When her estranged, father Robi Basu (Adil Hussain), dies in a plane crash while he is on his way to Afghanistan, the daughter returns home wondering why he was making that trip. It is then that she meets Bioscopewala, who is by then bedridden and afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

Minnie undertakes that unfinished trip of her father's to Kabul, where she discovers that the Bioscopewala had a daughter, and the man's extraordinary affection for Minnie stemmed from his ties with his own daughter. He had looked upon Minnie as his own little lass.

In many ways, Medhekar's work is hauntingly poignant tracing the lovely relationship between Minnie and the Bioscopewala – for whom the Kolkata girl brought back beautiful memories of his daughter back home.

Bioscopewala may be a little heavy on sentiment, a trifle too emotional, but the film has the power to pull you into its arms – much like how the Afghan draws little Minnie into his fold, a Minnie who serves as a proxy daughter for Denzongpa's Rehmat Khan or Bioscopewala -- forced out of his home and hearth and pushed far away from his little girl on the mountains.

In a chat with me at the Festival, Medhekar says that Doshi wrote a short story based on Tagore's Kabuliwala that was excitingly contemporary. “But I still wanted to add something of my own to Doshi's work. I wanted to create an additional link between Minnie and the Bioscopewala, wanted to establish that the girl's passion for documentaries grew out of the shows she had watched in the man's bioscope, a kind of mobile cinema” which was very common even in bigger cities like Calcutta once upon a time. I am sure a bioscope can still be seen in India's rural regions, and I remember Mumtaz's Phoolmati carries such a contraption in the Rajesh-Khanna starer, Dushman – where she provides hours of entertainment for kids.

“Minnie and the Bioscopewala have another bond. It is a plot which talks about a daughter who loses her father at the beginning of the movie, and a father, Khan, who loses his daughter. Medhekar's Bioscopewala builds a moving narrative around this relationship.

Enriching the screenplay is a wonderfully melodious song written by Gulzar, and music composed by Sandesh Shandilya (with Resul Pookutty's sound design). Shot partly in the Bowbazar area of North Kolkata and in a big Mumbai bungalow (seen in the film as a haveli in Kolkata) , Bioscopewala does not end the way Tagore's or the earlier movies did. Medhekar's work offers something more modern, but for those who swear by Tagore, his Kabuliwala (which Sinha and Gupta followed in their celluloid interpretations) has a certain sweetness, a certain romanticism, a certain feeling of simplicity, which are so sacred that any attempt to tinker with the original would merely rob the soul of the story.

Undoubtedly, Medhekar and Doshi have been gutsy enough to add on to Tagore's almost ethereal classic. But for those who may have not read Kabuliwala, Medhekar's debut directorial effort is a pleasing piece of work – well acted out by Thapa and Denzongpa.
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