“Bioscopewala”… This update of ‘Kabuliwala’ is a love letter to Tagore as well as cinema

Posted on May 29, 2018


Spoilers ahead…

Tagore’s short story, Kabuliwala, is a meditation on memory – its retention, and its loss. The titular seller of dry fruits and spices, in India, remembers his hometown in Afghanistan. He also remembers Mini, the girl he used to play with, but she’s all grown-up now, and she’s forgotten him. The nuts and bolts of this narrative have been transferred to the Hindi screen twice – in a faithful adaptation by Hemen Gupta (with a hauntingly tormented Balraj Sahni,  and a jewel box of a Salil Chowdhury soundtrack that yielded treasures like Aye mere pyaare watan and Ganga aaye kahaan se), and in a looser sense by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Aashirwad). All of which is to say I wasn’t looking forward to a straightforward adaptation of this much-read schoolbook staple. (I wonder if it’s still taught in schools, though.)

Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala (written by the director, with inputs by Radhika Anand; story by Sunil Doshi) is both a reimagining and a many-years-later sequel – and it does something fascinating. It remembers Kabuliwala but, as though sensing our long-festering anguish at the man’s plight, chooses to forget a lot of the original story and provides a satisfying sense of closure. The man (Rehmat Khan, beautifully played by Danny Denzongpa in a manner that highlights the character’s vulnerability as well as his hucksterish brashness) is now a movie exhibitor. It’s an inspired touch, and it courses through the film. Movies, like memories, make us laugh and cry – but unlike memories, movies do not fade. Movies enable others to see exactly what we see, without the Chinese-whispers dilution that’s inevitable in an oral narration. And movies are so powerful that they can bring back memories, even those destroyed by the onset of Alzheimer’s – the way damaged prints are resuscitated into pristine Criterion Collection DVDs.  Bioscopewala is as much a love letter to Tagore as to cinema.

Everyone in this version is connected to cinema – or at least, its component frames. Mini (Geetanjali Thapa, very convincing as a woman wound so tight, she’s practically a knot) is a filmmaker in Paris. Her father (Adil Hussain) – named Robi Basu, in an affectionate nod to the original author – is a work-obsessed fashion photographer. (I loved Mini’s little speech about how she only remembers half her father’s face, because the other half was always hidden behind a camera.) And Rehmat Khan used to screen Hindi films in his hometown, until the Taliban declared that cinema was haraam and burnt down his dinky little theatre. Tagore’s romantic Afghanistan is transformed into a modern-day hell, spawning refugees and horror stories – but through Mini’s skilful movie-making, it becomes a paradise again. Mini tells her French boyfriend (or maybe he’s just a very affectionate co-worker; Mini’s lack of PDA skills makes it hard to tell) that Rehmat Khan taught her how to make up stories. In the end, she makes one up for him.

Bioscopewala proceeds in a genteel way that reminded me of a 1950s Hollywood prestige production – but without the inflated sense of self-importance. It turns into a sort of investigation that uses clues and (yes) memories, and this is the weakest part – there are no major surprises. But you leave with a pleasant aftertaste. Where Tagore’s story was driven by its male figures, Bioscopewala is taken forward by its women. The places Mini visits are filled with mothers or mothers-to-be. The bond between Mini’s father and the father from Afghanistan is still the glue, but the women in the background – Mini, (the equivalent of) her mother – step out with strong personalities. It’s through their memories that we see these men. The scene I took away was one with a sex worker (Tisca Chopra, excellent in a small part) who visits Rehmat Khan in the hospital. You expect tears; you get grace.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi