Tagore biopic ‘Thinking of Him’ revisits the writer’s life-altering encounter with Victoria Ocampo

Pablo Cesar’s account is the closing title at the International Film Festival of Goa.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s writings have inspired numerous film adaptations, but accounts of his life have rarely made it to the screen. Among the films out there are the ones that explore his romantic side. Chiroshakha He (2007) and Kadambari (2015) explore Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi. An upcoming production by Priyanka Chopra’s production company Purple Pebble Pictures and directed by Ujjwal Chatterjee is based on Tagore and Annapurna Turkhud, from whom he took English lessons in the 1870s.

Thinking of Him looks at another one of Tagore’s well-documented relationships, this time with the Argentinean writer and activist Victoria Ocampo. Pablo Cesar’s English-language production will be the closing title at the 48th International Film Festival of India in Goa (November 20-28). Victor Banerjee plays the Bengali multi-hyphenate, while Eleonora Wexler plays Ocampo.

The bond between the two writers was spiritual rather than romantic, Cesar told “As I am Argentinean, I wanted to show the people of Argentina and Latin America the spirit, philosophy and the art of Tagore through his visit to Argentina in 1920s and also through the relationship with Ocampo,” he said.

Thinking of Him (2017).

The project took shape in 2008, when the Indian ambassador to Argentina suggested to Cesar that there was a movie to be made about Tagore’s time in Argentina in 1924. During a visit to Peru, 63-year-old Tagore fell ill and recuperated in Buenos Aires at 34-year-old Ocampo’s villa. Ocampo had read a translation of the poetry collection Gitanjali and was an admirer of the Bengali writer.

“In the story of Tagore and Ocampo, the armchair she gave him occupies a special niche,” writes Ketaki Kushari Dyson, who authored a historical novel on the encounter. “This was a chair that Ocampo lent to Tagore during his stay in Argentina for his convalescence and which she insisted that he take back with him. It would not get through the door of the ship’s cabin. She had the captain of the ship get a workman to remove the door from its hinges so that the chair could go in. The process had to be repeated to get the chair out at the other end in Italy. This chair, which then accompanied Tagore from Italy to India, is preserved at the Rabindra Bhavana in Santiniketan.”

Ocampo also organised Tagore’s first show of paintings in France in 1930. “After 1924, Victoria met Tagore again in 1930 in France and discovered new doodles made by him, and she was the one who first exhibited his works,” Cesar said. Tagore dedicated some of the poems in his 1925 book Purabi to Ocampo, and they communicated through letters until his death in 1941.

Ocampo died in 1979 after totting up numerous achievements, including being the first woman to be admitted to the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1977. “She was a progressive lady, she was among the first women to vote, marry a man of another nationality and to drive a car,” said Cesar, who has previously directed Unicorn, The Garden of Fruits (1996), an exploration of Indian philosophy.

Pablo Cesar. Photo by Arti Das.
Pablo Cesar. Photo by Arti Das.

Thinking of Him is set in the 1920s and the present and has been shot in black-and-white and colour. The framing device is provided by a geography teacher who becomes fascinated with Tagore’s writings and the Argentina episode and travels to Santiniketan, where he meets Kamali (Raima Sen).

Cesar initially wanted to cast Naseeruddin Shah as Tagore, and even considered approaching Amitabh Bachchan. Victor Banerjee, whose credits include Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), Kalyug (1981), A Passage to India (1984), Ghare Bhaire (1984) and Bow Barracks Forever (2004), eventually landed the role. “I went to Mussoorie to meet Victor and he presented me with a hand-written copy of Gitanjali,” Cesar said. “We spent that watching the sunset together. He even made paratha for me. Also his interest in Argentinean literature was another key factor in casting him.”

Apart from referring to published accounts and the letters exchanged between the writer and Ocampo, Cesar also studied Rabindra Sangeet, the songs composed by Tagore. “I believe that one life is not enough to study Tagore,” Cesar said. His interpretation sticks to the recorded facts, and he said he has not taken any liberties in portraying the characters. “I prefer to explore reality through books and letters between them,” Cesar said. “Both these people are important symbols in their respective countries, and I don’t want to put anything that has no proof or does not exist.”

The Indo-Argentinean production also explores Tagore’s views on education and the formation of the Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan. Cesar visited Santiniketan in 2015 and met its students and resident Tagore experts. Some portions of the movie have been shot in the Bengali town. “Santiniketan was created in 1901, to create another world of education,” Cesar observed. “We must practise this advanced side of education that he taught, such as respect towards nature. Also, the concept of freedom. We need the spirit of freedom that I find in his poetry.”

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