India

Argentine film to spotlight poet Tagore and his muse

Rabindranath Tagore
Image caption Tagore exchanged a series of letters with Ocampo

Argentine director Pablo Cesar's new film project is about the iconic Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore's "intimate but platonic" relationship with Argentine feminist writer, literary magazine editor and cultural activist, Victoria Ocampo.

The crux of the film, Thinking of Him, hinges on Tagore's 1924 Argentine sojourn during which he forged a deep emotional bond with Ocampo.

"The film will be set partly in present times and partly in the 1920s," says Cesar.

"The idea is to emphasise the continuing relevance of Tagore.

"I began pre-production in 2008 following a suggestion made by India's ambassador to Argentina. But I could not wrap up the film in time for Tagore's 150th birth anniversary as the research and funding process took longer than expected," says Cesar.

Huge influence

Cesar hopes to have Thinking of Him ready for global distribution in 2012.

"The resonance of Tagore's poetry and world view is still very fresh and absolutely relevant. So it really doesn't matter that the film won't hit the screens in the 150th year of his birth," says the director.

Ocampo idolised Tagore ever since she read Andre Gide's French translation of Gitanjali in 1914, a year after Tagore won the Nobel Prize.

The illustrious poet had a huge influence on the Argentine writer, who was then in her mid-30s and lived to be 88.

For his part, Tagore, who was 63 years old in 1924, not only dedicated his 1925 book of poems, Purabi, to his Argentine muse but was also inspired by her to take up painting.

In 1930, Ocampo organised the poet's first art exhibition in Paris, where they met in person for the second and last time.

However, until he passed away in 1941, Tagore exchanged a series of letters with Ocampo.

Ocampo was legally separated from her husband - divorce wasn't possible in Catholic Argentina of the day - in the wake of an affair with his cousin but she never remarried.

Image caption Cesar's association with India goes back to 1996

Tagore's stay in Argentina was unscheduled. He was on the way from Europe to Peru when he was forced by illness to disembark in Buenos Aires.

He went on to spend two months recuperating in a garden villa overlooking the River Plate in San Isidro, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires.

Ocampo, whom Tagore addressed in his letters as Bijoya, looked after the poet with the diligence of a devoted admirer.

Tagore recovered and wrote as many as 30 poems while in San Isidro.

One of them - Atithi (The Guest) - opens with the lines, "The days of my sojourn overseas, you filled to the fullest, woman, with the nectar of your sweetness".

Thinking of Him will be an English-Bengali-Spanish film to be shot on location in Santiniketan, Bolpur, Buenos Aires and Paris.

Cesar's association with India goes back to 1996, when he shot Unicornio - Garden of Fruits, the first-ever Indo-Argentine co-production, in Rajasthan.

"I filmed in and around Jaisalmer and Jodhpur," he recalls. "On the soundtrack, we used poems of Kabir and Omar Khayyam as well as traditional qawwalis and Sufi songs."

'Prisoner'

Cesar returned to India in November 2007 as a jury member of the International Film Festival of India in Panjim, Goa. He also had a film, Hunabku, in the festival line-up that year.

It was Rengaraj Viswanathan, a career diplomat and an authority on Latin American affairs who had taken over as India's ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, who suggested to Cesar that he should turn the Tagore-Ocampo story into a film.

Cesar says he hopes Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan will play Tagore.

The film, Cesar reveals, will open in a detention centre for minors in Buenos Aires and focus on a 30-something geography teacher, Silvestre, who works in the jail school.

Disenchanted with his life, Silvestre stumbles upon an old book left behind on a desk at the back of the classroom. It is a book of poems and essays by Tagore.

Fascinated by the poet's words, the teacher is led to another tome in a bookstore. It is called Tagore in the Ravines of San Isidro. It is Ocampo's account of her interaction with the poet.

Silvestre spends the night reading the book and discovers "two characters that fought bravely for the liberation of the human soul". As the screenplay spells out, "it makes him feel even more like a prisoner in his own life".

The next morning, Silvestre decides to fly to India, carrying the two life-transforming books in his possession.

"My film will throw light on Tagore's ideas about education, rural reconstruction and humanity," says Cesar. "He was at least a century ahead of his time."

Historian Ketaki Kushari Dyson, translator of Tagore's poetry and official editor of the correspondence between the Bengali bard and Ocampo, has helped Cesar with research on the subject.

Saibal Chatterjee is a Delhi-based film writer

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