Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kadambari directed by Suman Ghosh

India (Bengali), 2015
90 min, biopic, history, period drama
Directed by Suman Ghosh
Starring Konkana Sen Sharma and Parambrata Chattopadhyay 

Read my exclusive interview with the director, Suman Ghosh

In 1868, the ten year old Kadambari was married into the famous Tagore household of North Kolkata, a wealthy, learned, progressive family at the forefront of Bengali society. Her husband, Jyotindranath Tagore, is nine years older than her; with no friends her age, she has a hard time acculturating to her strange new life in the Tagore household. That is, until she begins to play with Robi, as the then-8-year-old future Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature Rabindranath Tagore is called.

Growing up together, Kadambari and Robi become close confidants. She is highly educated, and provides critiques and encouragement that stimulate Robi's budding interest in poetry. Over time, Kadambari's already-distant relationship with her husband becomes more strained, especially after hearing rumors of her husband's affairs. Having never quite felt like a part of the family, she finds herself even more isolated from the other women after the accidental death of a niece while in her care.

All of this comes to a head when the family learns about speculation that Robi and Kadambari's relationship is more than brother-and-sister-in-law. While it is unclear whether their friendship actually flourished into a romance, it seems that Kadambari did have feelings for her brother-in-law. Their scandalized relatives hurriedly arrange Robi's wedding, driving a wedge between Kadambari and her last source of emotional support. This proves to be too much when she finally obtains proof of her husband's extramarital activities.

Kadambari committed suicide in 1884, four months after Rabindranath's wedding. In order to prevent further scandal, the family covered up the suicide, saying that she died of natural causes. For this reason, it has been very difficult to find concrete information about how and why she died.

In this biopic on Kadambari's life, director Suman Ghosh finally has the opportunity to explore the events leading up to her death. Using established facts and historical sources (especially Rabindranath's writings), he has created a tight narrative that hints at what may have been without sensationalizing the possibilities. The result is a beautiful glimpse of the occasionally satisfying, more often frustrating life of a woman married into the first family of Bengali society during the Bengali Renaissance.

The culture of the Tagore family

One of the most important aspects of this film is its beautiful, historically accurate depiction of the upper-class Calcuttan society of the time. As the most influential family of the period, the Tagores were both typical of upper-class Bengali society and significantly different. The family was extremely wealthy and well educated; as part of the leisure classes, each member of the family could focus on their own interests. This is why the family produced so many talented people with an enormous variety of skills. The women of the household were not exempted from this; they were also highly educated and encouraged to engage with society in ways that was usually prohibited for other upper-class women. This is evident in the literary success of Rabindranath's elder sister Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932), who was the first prominent female writer in the Bengali language; and in the activities of another of Rabindranath's sisters-in-law, Jnanadanandini Devi (1850-1941), challenging the practice of purdah and redesigning the style of dress worn by Bengali women (by adding a blouse and changing the drape to allow women to go out in public).

But at the same time, there is a stark contrast between many of the family's values and the way women were actually treated in the household. The most blatant example is the practice of child marriage. This practice of marrying a pre-pubescent child to a much older young man (usually late teens-early 20s) was a target of criticism at the time. Rabindranath even wrote in protest of this practice, while at the same time arranging for his two daughters to be married at a young age (the elder age 15 and the younger age 10). Kadambari's marriage at the age of 10 is yet another example of this family tradition.

Despite being raised in a relatively free environment and having access to education, it is clear that Kadambari was not free in many ways. Most significantly, Kadambari's place in the Tagore household meant that she was unable to satisfy many of her emotional needs. 

Emotional needs

One of the main themes of this movie is that women's emotional needs were generally not met by the upper-class Bengali culture of this period. The lonely Kadambari just wants a friend and companion, one that is her intellectual equal and whom she can engage with on a higher level. She cannot get this kind of attention from the servants (who seem to like her more than the other women of the family), or from her husband, who is so busy with his multitude of projects (from theater to starting a shipping company) that he has no time for her.

She can engage with Robi on this level. But he is always busy writing and becoming famous. And then the family arranges his marriage in order to separate them, because Kadambari's relationship with him is not considered appropriate.

So then she is left by herself.

In many ways, Kadambari is trapped in this house, this relationship, and this family. She is not having her need for friendship or companionship met, but she can't leave or do anything to alleviate her isolation. Her life becomes meaningless to her, and that, this movie asserts, is the reason she commits suicide.

"Kadambari" is a wonderful biopic about a complicated, lonely woman in mid-1800s Calcuttan society. Konkana Sen Sharma's acting powerfully conveys Kadambari's strength, fear, and emotional conflict, providing a sense of deeply felt humanity to the historical figure. The rest of the cast also performs admirably, conveying the normalcy of this impressively talented family. This film is an instant classic.

Recommended for anyone who is interested in learning more about Calcuttan society during the Bengali Renaissance, about women in Indian history, or about the Tagore family. Or anyone who likes a good biopic.

Further Reading: 

"The Owl's Gaze- Everyday life in early Calcutta" by Anu Kumar (review of The Observant Owl by Kaliprasanna Sinha)
"Kadambari to Shesher Kabita, a look at films based on Tagore stories" by Anindita Acharya, The Hindustan Times
Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal by Rochona Majumdar (Google Books)
Also watch Satyajit Ray's 1964 film Charulata, based on Rabindranath Tagore's novella Nastanirh

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  1. The gradual breaking of the Kadambari's heart is so well presented. First, tragedy of Urmila, then marriage of Robi, then final shock when Kadambari finds love letter..., and many small heart-breaking details...The last complete Kadambari's breakdown when she pulls of bracelets, she is totaly ruined... just hard to see those scenes, it is so painful. But it seems to me that even if Kadambari hadn't found that love letter, she would anyway sooner or later die because her sorrow was just too deep even without this. Such a heavy and painful destiny. But let us hope that she and Robi met already, perhaps in some other more beautiful world...

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