Writing on the Screen: Satyajit Ray’s Adaptation of Tagore


Moinak Biswas

Jadacpur University - Calcutá - Índia



As we think of the models of adaptation we are forced to work with formal definitions of literature or film. It is necessary to recognise the modes and limits of transaction, and that demands positing stable entities between which the transaction takes place. Nevertheless, we also know that it is not a medium but a practice that one has to think of as literary or film texts are produced, practice being itself always adaptive, always redefining the borders between what falls within the medium and what does not. To place adaptation in a historical context could mean considering practice itself as something that conditions the medium rather than the other way round. Besides social and historical contexts one has to also consider here the contexts of the media in question, their own levels of historical development. I would like to illustrate the point with the help of a modern classic from India, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964).

Soon after the release of Charulata, Ray became involved in an intense debate over the changes he made in the original text, ‘Nastaneer’ (‘The Broken Nest’), a 1901 story written by Rabindranath Tagore (Ray 1982). An eminent critic called into question the very necessity of presenting the film as an adaptation of Tagore, whatever the merits of the film were, after such changes as those that Ray brought into ‘both the theme and the plot’ of the film (Rudra 1996). The story has the structure of a novelette; it is divided into twenty short chapters posing a challenge to a filmmaker who is looking for a tightly integrated narrative. The critic pointed out how Ray has virtually done away with the material of the last seven chapters and added several new elements, to mark a definite break with Tagore. Can departure itself be a mode of adaptation? Ray’s reply came up with the most extensive analysis he ever wrote of his own films. He defended the deviations from the original in terms of the treatment of time, causality and character delineation, and in the process explained the primary imperatives of storytelling in cinema.

The story is set in the late nineteenth century Bengal. Bhupati, a well-meaning member of the nationalist gentry, spends most of his time on the political magazine he brings out in English. His young wife Charulata, following the custom, is confined to the inner quarters of the house, spends lonely hours reading novels and doing embroidery. She finds a companion in Bhupati’s cousin Amal, a university student of her age. They exchange knowledge of novels, share enthusiasm for literary periodicals, they help each other grow into creative writers. All this happens with encouragement from Bhupati. For Amal, the realisation will come too late that the relationship has grown into love; and he will be in a position to break away from the bond, he will leave the house. For Charu, this organic aspect of growing up, of articulating herself into the world, will not be as easy to disown. She creates a new secret interior within the interior she inhabits as she learns to live with the new reality. Bhupati will come to know about all this after Charu has built that secret chamber, after she returns to him as a wife, so to speak. This discovery of the truth of the home also comes for Bhupati after his public enterprise, the magazine, fails, when he comes back to the inner quarters seeking his wife’s company for the first time (see Tagore 1992).

In his essay, Ray explains the basic rules of screenwriting and direction in order to point out the specificity of his medium. The debate took place in the pages of one of the most prestigious literary periodicals of the time, Parichay, the readers and contributors of which might have been intellectually advanced in other ways but seemed to require a lesson in film language. The film society movement was still in its early phase, and it is Ray the film society activist speaking here, still engaged in some kind of awareness raising exercise, making audiences familiar with arguments about the autonomy of film. The struggle for autonomy is launched here against a ‘literary’ perception of cinema.

Ray was one of the founders of the Calcutta Film Society, the first of its kind in India, established in 1947. The critical discourse that he and his colleagues at the Film Society launched can be seen in many ways as a preamble to the realist break that Ray’s debut film, Pather Panchali, brought about in 1955. But serious discussion of cinema began before this cineaste intervention, it goes back at least to the late 1920s. A spate of film magazines followed the arrival of sound in 1931. The new sound studios employed a large number of writers. Sound redefined Indian cinema in terms of regional practices, regions being linguistically divided in India. A language - cinema- literature correspondence was established in critical discourse which also set into relief the categories of realism, authenticity and authorship. Writings on cinema from the 1930s and 40s, often by the writers and critics who had joined the industry, present a more or less consistent argument for a regionally grounded contemporary cinema that should mould itself into a novelistic discourse1. The Mythological film, often thought to be characteristic of Indian popular cinema, became a minor genre in the sound cinema of the Studio Era (1931-55), giving way to the Social film as the dominant mode. The Social was the mainstream middle-class cinema negotiating the theme of social reform that has informed the novel in all Indian languages since the nineteenth century. The mutations set in motion in the Social in the 1940s will finally give rise to two formations, the realist art film launched with Pather Panchali, and the classic melodrama that came into being around the same time that Pather Panchali appeared.

The question of autonomy figured prominently in the new criticism that arrived in the wake of the Calcutta Film Society. Informed by an exposure to world cinema this criticism came to posit the idea of a national modern cinema, a cinema that would fashion a rational, democratic language free of the pre-modern, non-secular compulsions of the popular film. The arguments for textual autonomy and for rational form were of necessity interrelated. The heteronomous address of Indian popular cinema, where blocks of spectacle are often combined through a logic of interruption, was the target of this critical discourse; but initially, there was also an older practice of the Studio- Social that had to be confronted. This was a kind of ‘cinema du papa’ - dominated by literary practitioners, where screenplays and films were often judged on the basis of the literary value of dialogue and characters. Major novelists such as Premendra Mitra and Sailajananda Mukhopadhyay were seen to have failed to break into a cinematic language because of their inability to conceive such language in its autonomy. Ray’s defence of his adaptation is pitched against the lingering resistance to perceiving the film text in its own terms, the challenge being all the more serious here because of the Tagore factor.



Can we judge Charulata on the basis of its independence of literary procedures, of the generic protocols of the original story? As we watch the film adaptation itself becomes an object of scrutiny. We relish the transformation that Tagore’s rich prose has undergone in the wordless passages of Charulata, enjoy the method that translates spaces between the words into volume and movement. But there is a second level of contact between the two texts where the whole question of word and image transaction has to be re-considered. At this level, the film takes its distance in time from the original text as a material basis of adaptation; it begins to look at a past of which the literary text itself has become a constitutive element. Hence it was not only the camera penetrating the world captured in the story in order to transform it into another language, it was also a question of framing the story itself as part of a fabric of the past.

‘Broken Nest’ reads more like a compressed novel than a short story, it moves through extended passages and gaps in time, through episodes and broad developments in characters and situations. The long introductory sequence of Charulata is probably the best example of the masterly technique of compression and telescoping Ray uses to translate descriptive passages. Almost without any dialogue the sequence establishes a typical afternoon in Charu’s life, her loneliness, her affinity to novels, the spatial limits of her movements. It brings to life an object-world that embodies time – the wallpaper, the furniture, the items of daily use, but also the street sounds and the street images. These images are glimpsed by Charu through an opera glass: as she opens one blind after another on the wall to peek at the comically graphic characters moving in the street, her socially restricted movement momentarily turns into a playful choreography. And then Charu frames the figure of her husband Bhupati with the opera glass - passing down the corridor not noticing her, lost in his book. Ray conjures up this interior with a dexterity that reminds us of the image of Charu’s embroidery in the title sequence, A texture of words is dissolved into a weave of images effortlessly before our eyes.

But the world that is conjured up is also a world of texts in Charulata. And at this level, the cinematic moves are negotiated through literature rather than in terms of separation from it. The alphabet that Charu embroiders on the handkerchief signals the insistence of the letter in the film. The written word will take on a particular luminosity as the film progresses, and the world of writing that is invoked in the opening sequence will form the very basis of the re-created time and place. Charu hums the name of her favourite novelist, Bankim, as she browses idly through the bookshelf. Bankimchandra Chatterjee was a pioneer of the novel form in India and a crucial ideologue of nationalism. The film constantly refers to his novels; through a shared knowledge of these novels Charu and Amal come close to each other. Bhupati, and Charu’s sister-in-law, Manda, fall outside this domain of exchange because of their lack of appreciation of Bankim. The name of Bankim will end up in a play of alliteration between Charu and Amal in their last extended conversation.

At a more discursive level, the whole film can be seen to be engaged in a dialogue with one of Bankim’s essays, ‘Women, Old and New’, a major statement on what is known as the ‘Women’s Question’ in the nineteenth century. All this is added to Tagore’s original text which finds itself embedded in a tapestry of literary signs. Writers people the world - Taraknath Gangopadhyay, Rammohun Roy, Shakespeare, Byron, Addison, Steele, Emerson. The image of writing, the written word, forms a major visual motif – we closely watch Amal writing, Charu writing, Bhupati getting intoxicated with the printed word. The alphabet shining on the embroidery over the titles signals a process which will lead us to the very last image of the film: the hands of Charu and Bhupati freeze before they could meet, the title of Tagore’s story appears on the screen in calligraphic design. This would appear as merely explanatory and redundant (to say ‘Broken Nest’ here is to be literal) unless we follow the logic of appearance of the written word in the film. It is a final gesture of receding from the original story, of turning the work itself into an object of the film’s gaze. The scene in which Bhupati comes to know about Charu’s feelings for his cousin the camera makes a gesture very unusual for Ray: it climbs up the leg of a marble table slowly to reveal a letter lying on it while Charu and Bhupati are heard talking off-screen. The letter is from Amal and it will bring about an emotional outburst in Charu giving her feelings away. The very tendentious movement of the camera, drawing attention to the letter as the dramatic agent, would look odd in a work of concealed narration unless one remembers the role of the letter as such in the film.

Bankim’s ‘Women Old and New’ was published in 1879 (Ray gives an exact time for the events, 1879, as we know from the dateline on the copy of the magazine that Bhupati shows Amal) where he argues for a new woman who would be modern in the traditional way. She would embody the resolution of the conflict between tradition and modernity by finding her place in a re-invented patriarchy. She would learn to be the new old woman. As the film launches a dialogue with this essay it maps Tagore’s story onto a historical grid, the political drama is brought out into the open. The story tells us of the formation of the colonial subject, male and female, and of the inevitable irony and pain that attend the process. Tagore begins his story by an ironic description of the domains his characters occupy. The idealistic, English educated Bhupati is worried about the expansion of British territories beyond the Afghan borders, but hasn’t had the time to notice how his child bride has bloomed into womanhood; Charu’s idleness is of a different kind, reminding one of a fruitless tree. As she develops an expressive selfhood, through her love and through her writing, the challenge of the demarcation of domains comes to face her, it demands a heavy price. Tagore, writing more or less from within the social reality that he portrays, was not in a position to uncover the historical dynamics of this matrix. Ray casts a historical gaze at the story at this level too; he creates a design with characters and spaces and distributes the story along discursive lines of divide. The dichotomy of literature and politics suggested in the story is developed into a strong motif in the film. The first is associated with the woman, the second belongs to the man. Bhupati entrusts Amal with Charu’s literary education admitting that he has no taste for such things, busy as he is with the ‘real world’ of politics. Ray also makes him say to Amal that this politics, critical though it is of the colonial government’s policies, is not meant to be disloyal to the masters. And from Bhupati we also learn that how worried he and friends are about the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Britain; one of his friends has vowed to sacrifice a goat at the Kali temple if the liberals win.

Bhupati writes politics in English, Amal and Charu write literature in Bengali. And then we come to a further division: Amal writes for public circulation, in an ornate register, Charu would like to write for a strictly private exchange, in an unadorned style through which she can evoke personal experiences. Towards the end, after Amal has left the house and Bhupati’s magazine has failed, Charu and Bhupati go on a visit to the seaside and plan a poignantly illusory reconciliation between the poles of opposition – between the public and the private, home and the world, politics and culture. Why not bring out another magazine, they propose, which will have politics in English and literature in Bengali.

One can see Charu never believing in this. She is coming to a harder knowledge, she has had to grow up paying a dreadful price. The film brings out this irony of growing up in its most acute historical-political dimensions. It does away with a whole lot of events present in the original story not so much to bring out its essence but the political essence of the predicament that it deals with. Growing into modernity, into citizenship, into subjectivity of a nameable kind - all this, marked indelibly with the reality of living through colonialism, would not have been so strongly captured without the grand design of polarities that the film is grounded in. In devising his language Ray moves in and out of the field of literature, it would be difficult to recognise this aspect of his craft if we conceived of literature or film in their pure autonomy.




Bandyopadhyay, Samik ed. (1993). Indian Cinema, Contemporary Perceptions from the Thirties. Jamshedpur: Celluloid Chapter.

Ghosh, Debiprasad ed. ( 1990). Bangla Bhashay Chalachhitra Charcha 1923-33. Calcutta: Cine Club of Calcutta.

Ray, Satyajit (1982). Bishay Chalachchitra. Calcutta: Ananda Publishers Private Limited.

Rudra, Ashok, ‘Shilpir Swadhinata’ in Rudra, Subrata ed. (1996). Satyajit, Jiban ar Shilpa. Calcutta: Pratibhash.

Tagore, Rabindranath (1992), ‘The Broken Nest’, in Selected Short Stories, translated by Krishna Dutta and Mary Lago. Calcutta: Rupa & Co.


1 For a selection of such writings see Bandyopadhyay 1993, and Ghosh 1990.