Monday, February 22, 2016

Kadambari


Note the ship keeling in front of a cloudy sky in the painting behind them. This is not a subtle film.
Mostly because of Konkona Sen Sharma, but also out of my deep love of films with historical people being scandalous and making bad decisions among interesting and/or sumptuous settings, I've been very eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see Kadambari, a 2015 film about the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and his sister-in-law and her struggle to have a life of her own within the Jorasanko Thakurbari. However, I know little of either contemporary Bengali movies or Tagore, so my bar was not high, having previously made my peace with the fact that Koko can be fantastic in stuff that is well beneath her. "Ignorant but forgiving" is not a bad frame of mind for this film (and many others), and as a visually beautiful story about empathetic people crashing into social conventions—especially ones that we, smug in the future, know will eventually begin to give way—it is a satisfying timepass indeed.

Kadambari is a very complicated and sad story, but I love how dedicated it is to staying centered on such a smart, big-hearted, relatable woman who struggles to figure out what she can do and what her life can mean.
She's winning.
This is not a film about Rabindranath Tagore, either as a person or as a Great Man, primarily; it touches on how Kadambari functions as his muse and support, and there are moments that I worried it was going to change gears into a manual on "Loving Your Genius Bengali Man," but the film really remains about Kadambari, the options she has, and the choices she can't make. My usually fairly accurate radar that starts pinging (RabTagging) whenever Bengali actors shift into that determined but misty-eyed facial expression and reverent voice that signify Tagore's words are imminent is rendered useless by the general subject matter, and I didn't even bother to look up most of the songs to see who wrote them. However, there is at least one song that sets another historical poet's words to a Tagore melody, a nice touch reflecting the characters' avid reading. Do watch that link for the 19th century Bengali version of the SRK romantic hero arm fling. And despite my general uninterestedness in poetry, big tears plopped down my cheeks during "Tomarei Koriyachhi Jibanero" during the end credits, thinking about these two people who probably both felt they'd lost their guiding stars but were never able to say so to each other.

What Kadambari does do well for this segment of the Tagore dynasty is quietly express how talented and involved so many of them are. Kadambari may feel largely trapped in just one house, but it's an intellectually giant world in there, probably much vaster and more interesting than any other in the country at the time. There are ways in which Kadambari (at least she of this film) is lucky to be where she is, given the givens, and she knows it, which lifts the story out of pure misery and gives her hope. Of course, that contrast also heightens the pity of her unnecessary suffering: this is a family that values some freedoms and endeavors by women but not the specific ones, and not enough, to free her—or their young son, for that matter. This is a complicated world, in part because of all these different involvements and freedoms.
In the scene above, none of these very intelligent people can look at each other because they're all trying to simultaneously act on and obscure their true motives. The amazing-in-her-own-right Gyanodanandini (left; Titas Bhowmik), Rabi, and Kadambari's husband, Jyotirindranath (right; Koushik Sen), all want to spend this night with people they're not supposed to, but no one can admit it frankly or figure out a tidy way to get what they want. The film loves these moments of tension between manners and uneasiness, and so do I.  This blog post compares one aspect of the film to a saas-bahu serial; for me, this isn't a bad thing, because even when the film's love of foreshadowing and symbolism gets a little out of control, it's still pretty and effective. I would love to watch a Tagore family soapy miniseries à la Downton Abbey, that's for sure.

Parambrata Chatterjee, whom I still haven't liked in anything as much as in Kahaani, probably wouldn't have been my first choice to play Tagore, at least on paper, because I just don't find him to have much of a presence. Fortunately, Rabi's emotions and acts are so secondary to Kadambari's that playing him calmly and without pulling much attention is a good scaffold for the very able Koko to do the heavy lifting of showing how much they inspire and love each other. The film tells us nothing of the effect of Kadambari's death on Rabi, which, according to other things I've read, was profoundly distressing, underscoring that this is her story, not his or the dynasty's.

Of course, not every important event in Kadambari's life has to do with Rabi; at least in this fictionalized version, there are equally important (though less emphasized) dramas over her childlessness, her husband's adultery, the ways she fits in (and doesn't) with the other women of the house, and an exceptionally heartbreaking relationship with one of her nieces. Konkona pulls us into all of these so thoroughly with her eyes and face that we hardly even need the dialogues. Watch this unaccompanied version of "Kacher Sure" to see what I mean: the gorgeous solo voice adds to the impact of Kadambari's broken heart, but Koko is such a good actor that Kadambari's emotional states throughout this are perfectly clear without it.

Three other movies kept coming to mind as I watched (and re-watched) this: Edith Wharton/Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence, probably my favorite masterpiece of passion among restraint and "if only" (and very close in time period to this, interestingly); Saheb Bibi Golam, where a wife in the big house withers under her husband's neglect; and of course Charulata, which derives from essentially the same source material. What I can't figure out is whether the many, many visual similarities to Charulata are because Kadambari's crew loves Charulata as much as I do or because both draw from an agreed-upon historical visual vocabulary. The ingredients that Ray uses in tender humanism are amped up in Kadambari to the afore-mentioned soap-opera effect. Barred windows and opera glasses appear as symbols of confinement and spectatorship (both as observer and the observed); Bankim is invoked; well-dressed women discuss literature and gossip on balconies; dark wooden furniture anchors us, preventing egress and flight; improper couples linger in garden grounds ("flowers=sex" is at play in Kadambari as much as in any 60s Hindi film); and ubiquitous portraits of European ladies watch over proceedings*.
This one is particularly striking: even as a boy, Rabi represents movement and joy to Kadambari, and Amal's very arrival at Charu's house is heralded by a gale.

Charulata is better than Kadambari at expressing the complexity and tragedy of the heroine's story (and even that of young Rabi, I would propose), which is not saying anything bad about Kadambari because Ray is better than almost everyone and Charulata is one of the greatest films made anywhere. What differentiates Kadambari is death, making it maybe even sadder and narratively simpler—though if you read about how members of the Tagore family responded to her death, Rabi and Jyoti in particular, there's nothing simple about it. Charulata closes with the characters frozen in mid-decision and us with a breath caught in our throats, wondering about their future as emotionally as we responded to everything else in the film, but Kadambari immediately states that strange sort of miserable triumph when someone decides they've had enough and chooses to exit rather than suffer.

I rented Kadambari with English subtitles through Amazon instant video, and a quick search shows that it's on YouTube and Google Play as well (at least in the US...anyone care to report for your country?).

* I've always wondered about these in Charulata—are they evidence of sophisticated/westernized tastes or are they symbols of the colonizers, acting as yet another layer of constriction?
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