How ‘Film Director’ Rabindranath Tagore directed his first film Natir Puja
We all know Rabindranath Tagore as a poet. But how many of us know him as a film director? In the autumn years of his life, Tagore donned many caps. At 67, he took up painting, followed by directing films at the age of 70. And the film was his self-written dance drama, Natir Puja. Many of his stories were also adapted for films while he was alive, but Natir Puja was the only film where Tagore turned a director. In the sub-continent’s history of films, this movie is considered to be a milestone, as it is a creative example of the direct and intimate involvement of Tagore with the rise of the film industry of 1930s.
Tagore also acted in films based on his stories. One such drama was Tapati, that was later transformed into a film by the British Dominion Films Limited in 1929. Tapati was shot at Santiniketan. The poet played a leading role in this film. His thoughts about the possibility of this new form of artistry and its characteristics are found in one of his letters where he says: “The main thing in the film is the motion of the scene. The beauty or majesty of this moving face should be exposed as such, which can make you successful without the help of any sentence. In the current trend of music, as the music can gain its glory without any meaning, why cannot the current flow of form be exposed?”
Film Natir Puja was based on Tagore’s narrative voice-story, that of the Buddhist era and the ‘Pujarini.’ The original idea was to compose a dance drama. The storyline was historical where followers of Dharmadebishi Devdatta, with the help of Emperor Ajatshatru, is out to destroy Buddhist temples and stupas. While the temple dancer is ready to worship Buddha and pay homage at the stupa despite the ban. Students of Santiniketan were roped in to play the actors. Tagore played his role in just two hours, but within that time frame he revealed the intimate mystery of the psychoanalyst in different forms of conflict through various characters and artistic skills. The movie that had lots of drama and music was appreciated by critics and the audience. Gauri Basu, daughter of Nandalal Basu, earned a special mention in her role as Srimati.
This was also a time when Tagore was undergoing financial constraints as he was building Viswa Bharati University of Santiniketan. So, he decided to stage the play as a night drama in Kolkata, thinking it would raise some funds. His fame and high-quality performance also encouraged him in this regard. However, in the conservative society of that era, there was a considerable adverse effect as girls performed on stage. Realising these social implications, Tagore himself descended on stage in the role of a monk. Criticism of the conservatives could somehow be controlled thus. Later, the poet used to sit on one side of the stage in order to legitimize the performance of high and middle-class family girls in public. As a result, his presence imposed a special status for the performers on stage. The Statesman welcomed Rabindranath’s efforts and remarked: “He has honored the stage with a human form and the winners of the winners - transformed into a dancer.”
New Theaters owner B.N. Sarkar was impressed with the performance and wished to turn the dance drama into a film. Tagore was happy with this offer as it meant money would come that would help the Sriniketan Project. The shooting started at the New Theaters Studio’s number one floor. Countless visitors gathered at the studio to see their favorite poet. Even Kazi Nazrul Islam, Premendra Mitra, Shailajaranjan Mukherjee, Premanandur Atheri and Buddhadeb Basu were present. Tagore was also keen to take Natir Puja to Europe, that would fetch him more money for his Sriniketan.
For the convenience of shooting, six huts were made overnight. The film was shot in summer. Because there was no air condition on the floor, everyone had to work around the floor to prevent the fire. Fans could not be run during the shooting. Sometimes the poet could not bear the heat and would come out of the floor occasionally. So, a room was built in the shade of mango trees. The poet was touched by this gesture and said: “This is my second Santiniketan.”
Pinaki Chakraborty in his book mentions: “Tea was regularly served in between shooting. Canteen-in-charge Nani Babu used to serve tea, along with his assistant in a cloth bucket. One day Tagore and Kshitimohan Sen were present at the studio and they were served tea in a beautiful tray separately. But Tagore was hell-bent to have tea in a cup just like his students were having.” The movie was released on September 22, 1932 at Chitra Cinema. Rabindranath himself was present at the theatre. On 4th December 1932, the film was again screened at Shri Rupa Cinema Hall. Despite good reports in newspapers, the film was not successful at the box office.