For Tapan, money was never the motivation or a deterrent. The opportunity to work on a Tagore story was his primary inspiration. Since his childhood, Tagore had been a singular source of sustenance for him. That apart, the film appealed to him because it had many outdoor scenes (set against the backdrop of Afghanistan) and also a ‘non-Bengali’ protagonist, a first in Bengali cinema. Tapan would also get to work with a child actor, another first in his career.

However, the project was far from a cakewalk. Tapan said: “Mr. Charuchandra Bhattacharya was an influential member of the Visva-Bharati Music Board. He was a very conservative Tagore expert. I sent the script of Kabuliwala to him and he returned it with a ‘no’. I was young then and this infuriated me a lot. I wanted to have a meeting with him to discuss it … It was a rainy day and I could just save my script from being drenched as I reached his place … He told me, ‘What do I need to discuss? You have messed it up completely and deviated from Tagore’s path.’ I insisted that I would read 15-20 minutes of the script and then he could comment. I started reading. After about 15 minutes, I could see tears trickling down the old man’s cheeks. He wailed: ‘Very good, very good.’ I told him, ‘Please write this “very good” on the script and sign it.’ After this, I returned along with the necessary permissions.”

This sorted out the initial hassle but the problem resurfaced on the first day of the shoot: “Charu-da entered the shooting floor and shouted at me: ‘You have emotionally blackmailed me … Tagore had written that the money was given to Rahmat by Mini’s father. You have changed it to Mini’s mother. This is reason enough for getting the script cancelled.’ They used to act in such an extreme manner. Fortunately, the problem didn’t persist for long. In my experience, the trouble was that they didn’t probe deeper into the meanings and created unnecessary controversies.”

Tapan Sinha. Courtesy Anindya Sinha.

For the central character of Rahmat, the Afghan trader on the streets of Calcutta, Tapan approached legendary Bengali actor Chhabi Biswas. Biswas had more than a hundred films to his name and commanded a measure of public adulation second to none, not even the romantic stars of the time. He had played a minor role in Tapan’s Upahar, but Rahmat remains one of his finest performances alongside those in Ray’s Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), Devi (The Goddess, 1960) and Kanchenjunga (1962).

To Biswas’s credit, his Rahmat “remained the epitome of the Kabuliwalas on the streets of Calcutta to generations of film-goers so much so that they were often collectively referred to as ‘Rahmat’. The flow of Afghan migrants to Calcutta in the early part of the last century (to mostly trade in dry fruits) has dwindled over the last few decades. However, the endearing bond that develops between an aged Afghan and a little Bengali girl in the film, transcending the barriers of language, caste and creed, appeals to us even today. And the last representatives of the Kabuliwalas in Calcutta continue to take pride in the personal reference to the iconic character.”

Getting Biswas to play an Afghan was not an easy task for Tapan. Primarily because Tapan was relatively new and young as opposed to the seasoned Biswas – less a director’s actor and more a follower of his own time-tested mannerisms. In his memoir, Bioscoper Banke Banke (A Journey with the Bioscope), Tapan reminisces about how Biswas tried to convince him that he was an authority on the Kabuliwalas. “I earnestly told him: ‘Okay, then you must be familiar with the Pashto language as well. I am thinking of keeping some parts of the dialogue in Pashto.’

He became a bit concerned: ‘Oh, why did you bring Pashto in the dialogues? Who will understand it?’ I replied, ‘It’s fine if people here don’t understand it. But this may add to the dimension of acting.’ He agreed and confirmed that he would learn it from a Kabuliwala he already knew: ‘Leave it to me, the dress, make-up, physical gestures – this is a worthy role after a really long time and I am up for it.’ I told him about a flat in Prince Anwar Shah Road where a number of Kabuliwalas stayed together. I actually asked one of them to visit Chhabi-da from time to time.”

Chhabi Biswas in Kabuliwala (1957). Courtesy Charuchitra.

The interaction with the real-life Kabuliwalas proved futile as Tapan discovered on the first day of the shoot with Biswas: “I was surprised. Who am I seeing before my eyes? Instead of a poor Kabuliwala trading dry fruits on the streets of Calcutta, here is someone who seems to rise up from the tomb of Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, wearing a turban with zari work, an expensive silk dress with zari embroidery accompanied by nagra shoes with golden zari on them. At that time, I was truly an inconsequential director and he was one of the most significant names in Bengali cinema. I kept thinking ignorance is bliss. Producer Asit Choudhury visited the set in the afternoon and was quite taken aback by the make-up. This went on for a few days of shooting and then, one day, Asit Choudhury told me about his unhappiness with the make-up. He insisted I forego the shots that had already been done and start afresh with Chhabi-da in proper make-up …

‘The two of us went up to Chhabi-da and told him that we had to discard the shots done till that time. He was stunned and argued that a poor Kabuliwala might also have some luxury habits. I told him that Rabindranath’s Rahmat was not like that. This finally settled the matter. A new set of tattered clothes were tailored for him and the legendary Chhabi Biswas had to accept it though without much joy.’

Courtesy Sounak Gupta.

Biswas, however, got his way a number of times during the shoot. He did not allow the make-up person to apply spirit gum to fix his beard and insisted on having theatrical make-up done (this remains in the film). Tapan’s memoir mentions a hilarious incident, which reveals how Biswas used to exercise his influence and control on young, new directors. The team was shooting at a locale in Kashmir where the landscape resembled the terrain of Afghanistan.

Tapan was not feeling well and wanted to finish work quickly. Chhabi Biswas was supposed to reach the spot after getting his make-up done. “We were waiting for them. Finally they arrived in a jeep. I could see Rahmat from a distance. But who was the person wearing a suit who alighted from the jeep after Chhabi Biswas? When the group got closer, I was startled. The suited person was Chhabi Biswas himself. Then who was the person with Rahmat’s make-up? The moment Chhabi-da came up to me, he praised the location and said, ‘This is such an exotic landscape. Will you waste the film by taking my close-up in such a beautiful landscape? That is why I asked your assistant Balai (Sen) to put on the make-up. In a longshot no one will be able to make out the difference.’ Needless to say, in the scenes depicting Kabul in Kabuliwala, people actually watch Balai Sen instead of Chhabi Biswas!”

Kabuliwala became a runaway hit. It placed Tapan in the pantheon of Bengal’s (and India’s) greatest film-makers. The impact of Kabuliwala’s popularity was so strong that Hemen Gupta whose Bhuli Nai (The Unforgotten, 1948), ’42 (1951) and Anandamath (The House of Happiness, 1952) were influential films in their own right – opted to make a Hindi version of it in 1961, the birth centenary year of Tagore. However, the Hindi version produced by the legendary Bimal Roy and starring one of Indian cinema’s finest actors, Balraj Sahni, could not match the eloquence of Tapan’s version.

Excerpted with permission from The Cinema of Tapan Sinha – An Introduction, Amitava Nag, Om Books International.