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In the valley of death and art, Jeevan Smriti film

Director Rituparno Ghosh’s film on Rabindranath Tagore, shown at the BFI London Film Festival, carries a huge weight of expectation…

DEATH is a bummer – okay, so that is a rather flippant and disrespectful way of putting it and carries none of the intense sadness we feel when someone we love – even know, only through their work perhaps  – passes on.

But how does that inform our lives – does it make what we do here (and now) precious and more urgent?

These questions seem to inhabit one particular film more than any other of the Indian/Asian offerings at this year’s recently concluded British Film Institute London Film Festival (BFI #LFF) – and it is Rituparno Ghosh’s, ‘Jeevan Smriti’.

All this is given added poignancy by the fact that Ghosh himself passed away earlier this year, and one of his close friends and collaborators, the London-based filmmaker Sangeeta Datta introduced the film and talked about its compilation, afterwards with LFF programmer Cary Rajinder Sawhney at a screening at the BFI Southbank on Sunday, October 20.

Titled after 1913 Nobel Literature Prizewinning author Rabindranath Tagore’s own biography, and translated as ‘Selected Memories’, Ghosh, a much-celebrated Indian director, makes a film on one of his own – and one of India’s most enduring – icons.

Commissioned by the Indian government to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore last year, it’s a film probably like no other Ghosh ever made.

Datta said the film was something of a labour of love for the filmmaker and that through making it, he came to understand something else about his own fate. Datta said he had been quite ill while making it and an editing facility had to be set up in his own house so he could complete the film.

He told Datta, who helped him with the film, that: “I am forging a new adventure with death.”

Over a 20-year career, Datta said he made 19 films – almost one every year – his final one is in the process of being edited by a close professional colleague.

“He had never taken so long with a script as with this (Jeevan Smriti),” she revealed.

It’s no mean task of course to detail the life, loves and passions that drove Tagore into becoming the first ever Asian recipient of the Nobel and developing into such a colossal figure in the arts and culture of the subcontinent.

For Tagore was Bengali, as was Ghosh, and the links between the two Bengalis are yet further accentuated and calibrated by another genius artist and son of Bengal, Satyajit Ray.

Many consider Ghosh the rightful heir to Ray in a film sense; he made artistic, finely crafted films with a deep sense of aesthetic and understanding of the medium.

But unlike Ray, Ghosh welcomed several leading lights of Bollywood to star in his creations: among them Amitabh Bachchan (‘The Last Lear’, 2007) and Aishwarya Rai (‘Raincoat’, 2004), before she became Bachchan’s daughter in law.

This film, a form of documentary with dramatised scenes covers Tagore’s life and explores his relationships, art and philosophy.

An all-star Bengali cast including Raima Sen lend weight and purpose to the drama and these are among the best parts of ‘Jeevan Smriti’.

Poignant too are Ghosh’s appearances in the documentary, scouring locations and discussing technicalities with his crew.

And yet for all its grace, endeavour and poise, the format never quite allows Tagore to breathe as a fully functional, living, breathing, human being. There are glimpses in the drama, but the exposition can be dry and slightly too observed.

As Datta said before the screening: “Tagore was always able to enjoy love and life, despite the many tragedies in his life.”

Many members of his own family perished long before – some in their youth or middle age –  his own at 80, and Tagore was prone to depression, retreating from normal life into a virtual cocoon of contemplation and exclusion.

Yet, he also battled these demons, to travel the world, converse with figures such as Albert Einstein and commune with Mahatma Gandhi, as the independence struggle took shape.

These are among the most fascinating parts of Tagore’s story, not least because there was an amiable tension between these figures and the great philosopher and poet himself.

Perhaps, Ghosh was trying to say too much and wanted to say it as elegantly and deeply as possible (and in 78 minutes) and the sheer weight of his own self-expectations burdened this film like none of his others.

Nevertheless, Ghosh is too good a filmmaker for ‘Jeevan Smriti’ not to have appeal and for anyone thirsty for knowledge about Tagore and only vaguely aware of his impact, it is a useful pictorial account.

Datta gave a sense of Ghosh’s own ambition, when she said: “It is one artist in reach of another.”

Picture: Jeevan Smriti, a drama scene, featuring Tagore’s father and the young Tagore

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture