Looking into universality

  • The film, ‘Thinking of Him’, is based on the encounter and deep spiritual, platonic friendship between Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine high-society lady

    Rarely one comes across a biographical cinematic production which explores both the personal life story and explores the meaning and power of ‘ideas’ of the ‘subject’ or the ‘individual. Case of the recent movie, Thinking of Him, an Indo-Argentine production, seamlessly slides between the foreground of a contemporary setting about the search for Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas about education by an Argentine school teacher and the historical background of an episode from his personal life of an encounter with Victoria Ocampo. According to film director Pablo Cesar, this alternating parallel tracks method was to emphasise the universality and timelessness of Tagore and his relationship with Victoria Ocampo.

    Thinking of Him is based on the encounter and deep spiritual, platonic friendship between Tagore and Argentine high-society lady Victoria Ocampo. Tagore was the first Asian Nobel laureate, India’s most famous poet, music composer, thinker and philosopher and one of the most revered figures of his time. On the other hand, Ocampo, born in the highest strata of Argentine society, was a dashing, glamorous, intelligent, sensitive, strong-willed Socialite who strode tall amongst the crème de la crème of the Argentine bourgeoisie society. Victoria was known for ruffling feathers of the conservative elites of Buenos Aires with her unconventional, unfeminine and daring mannerisms and was widely scorned and ridiculed at large. There are scenes in the movie where passers-by in the streets of Buenos Aires are admonishing her while she is driving in her vehicle and the personal chambermaid warning her of the consequences in her family life of her conduct.

    At a certain stage while living this ‘high’ life, Ocampo discovers Tagore’s poetry and is inexorably drawn toward the magic and mystique of both the person and his poems. This attraction to Tagore’s poetry leads her to yearn for a meeting with the colossus ‘sage philosopher’ himself.

    Victor Banerjee plays the role of Tagore in the film and Ocampo is played by Argentine actress Eleonara Wexler. The film is directed by the Argentine film director Pablo Cesar with Suraj Kumar as the co-director/producer from the Indian side with the script being written by Jeronimo Toubes.

    The hallowed encounter, as I would call it, finally happened in 1924 in Buenos Aires while Tagore was visiting Latin America and was fatigued from his extensive travels accompanied by his secretary, Elmhurst. At that point in time, Tagore was 63 years old and Ocampo just 34 years, which lent an interesting esoteric dimension to her fascination with the poet. Tagore had christened Victoria as his ‘Bijoya’ since he met her in the twilight era of his life and would address her by this name in his letters and verbal communication. Ocampo very generously arranged for a small retreat in a magnificent splendid villa located on the banks of River Plate in San Isidro with the enchanting view of the river and in a verdant landscape with lots of trees. This is a perfect setting for Tagore who is a lover and worshipper of nature and there is a wonderful scene where he starts admiring the flowers and trees on his arrival at the villa.

    The background part of the movie is shot in black-and-white with a genteel, unrushed pace along with a wonderful blend of music composed by Tagore (known as Rabindrasangeet) and a few other soulful melodious tracks. The most poignant of the interplay of music and setting being the scene where the tragic news of Tagore’s demise is announced over the car radio while Ocampo is driving along the bayfront. She has her eyes moist with sorrow, stops her car and lights up a cigarette and contemplates her memories of friendship with Tagore against the backdrop of the vast ocean with the rapturous tunes of a ‘Rabindrasangeet’ being played in the background titled ‘Amar Hrid Majhare…’, which roughly meant: ‘Shall keep you in my heart forever, I shall leave you never…’ — and indeed she kept Tagore in her heart.

    In the end, their relationship was mystical and spiritual and as Tagore himself defined in a letter to Ocampo, “this love between you and me is as simple as a song”. I am, however, of the opinion that the music of the film could have been much more eclectic and appealing given the wide repertoire of Tagore’s songs. For instance, there were dramatic scenes like the first highly anticipated meeting between Ocampo and Tagore where the heart-throbbing anxiety could have been better captured through a soul-stirring ‘Rabindrasangeet’.

    Victor Banerjee in his role captures the very raison d’etre of the aging, sagacious poet very beautifully and strikingly. The personality of Tagore comes alive through his acting and his role really evokes the charisma of the poet-philosopher of India. Victor is the quintessential Bengali bhadralok (gentleman) actor with his charm, chivalry and elegance along with a deep tenor voice which lends a certain soothing gravitas. He speaks in this movie with his trademark crisp, clear and genteel English accent. Elenora Wexler played a very measured role with understated elegance and sophistication since there was the possibility of exuberance being a glamorous Socialite but her dialogues and expressions remain rather scripted. In my opinion, this lent a certain dignity to her role as a high society patron of arts and culture in Buenos Aires. Her dealing with emotional moments in life with regard to her bond with Tagore was nuanced like hearing the death of her hero.

    The film derives its name from a letter Ocampo sent to Tagore’s son after his death where she just wrote, “I am thinking of him”, which again reinforces this moderate style of communication.

    While the audience is indulged with all the romantic richness of the Tagore-Ocampo friendship, the foreground is a more prosaic tale of an Argentine teacher, Felix, played by actor Hector Bordoni, travelling to Shantiniketan in India in his quest for answers to a dysfunctional educational system. Shantiniketan was the abode of Tagore and his experimental educational institution which attempted to forge a new sensitive and moral human being deeply rooted in the nature and traditions of India.

    Felix is disoriented by the suicide of one of his school students and decides to embark on a personalised journey to find meaning and understanding of education and life. His interest in Tagore is triggered by reading a book on Tagore and his sojourn in San Isidro during his meeting with Ocampo. On his arrival at Shantiniketan, Felix encounters two very competent and smart individuals — Kamali and Prakash — both residents of Shantiniketan and active practitioners of Tagorean ideals and philosophy. In the movie, Felix learns a lot about Tagore’s metaphysics and philosophy through his interactions with both of them.

    The roles of Kamali are played by Raima Sen and that of Prakash by Bratin Bandhopadhyay. With Kamali, Felix strikes up a friendship which assists him in his personal journey and in absorbing Tagore’s ideals of life and education. Kamali cajoles Felix to abandon fear and live life ‘full size’ dropping his old inhibitions and fear. There are scenes in the movie where Felix is healed through rituals facilitated by both Kamali and Prakash.

    The contemporary part has a certain subtlety and sophistication of emotions at play by Raima Sen, who really strikes out in this section. In her part, she brings forth her sophisticated yet assertive Bengali style while speaking her dialogues. Having watched several of her films, I find this blend interesting. Finally, the movie is a worthwhile watch and an enriching rendition of a glorious episode in the lives of two passionate and aesthetic individuals.

     

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