A review of Anurag Basu's 'Stories' on Netflix
One of the biggest recent tributes to Rabindranath Tagore has come from an unlikely place: Netflix.
Companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime have spearheaded what a writer in The Guardian has called "the streaming revolution" that has radically changed the existing rules of cinema production and distribution. They do not rely on traditional distributors; their business operates entirely online. You pay electronically and only then you get to stream and watch content on their websites. Coming under licensing agreements, they buy video/movie contents from studios (Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros etc) and sell them through their streaming services on the internet.
Netflix made a breakthrough in 2013 when it decided to produce its own content. Now its huge success as a production studio is causing a tremor among major studios and their traditional distribution channels.
Netflix's content has consistently stood out so far. Though its list of original movies is growing, highly engaging TV shows continue to be its mainstay, each consisting of several episodes divided into four or five seasons. Setting is what will strike you first: Far away from the maddening crowd, in some remote town where raw, intelligent men and women and children are unlike anything you have seen before. David Hare, famous British playwright, script-writer and director, pointed out during a session at Dhaka Lit Fest 2017 that Netflix writers and directors can exercise creative freedom without compromising their politics and art. Hare expressed his doubt, though, that Netflix would stick to its gun because profit-making in a capital-driven industry, he said, demands that creative freedom be compromised. So far, so good.
Feminist consciousness is another remarkable feature in Netflix productions. Strong female characters are often found to take lead and effect changes integral to resolving the central crisis. They don't sit crying, waiting passively for a male savior: They fight and resolve. Consider the women in Godless. Winona Ryder in Stranger Things is another strong case in point.
It is perhaps this feminist inclination that has made the connection with Tagore's stories.
The first season of Tagore's Stories was released in 2015. It contains 26 episodes adapted from quite a large number of Tagore's very best stories. The selection is done with much care; all the stories are threaded along a feminist line. All of them, in one way or another, unfold to show how helpless women were back in those days against a dowry-based patriarchy that had found its biggest scapegoat in women. Take, for example, the story Musalmanir Galpo in which a compassionate Muslim's house becomes the place where women rejected by conservative Hindu societies find shelter. Albeit painted against a bleak backdrop, Tagore's women are different. They are as strong as men are weak and passive. These stories take you nowhere near the vast body of Tagore's fictional work but they adequately introduce you to Tagore's take on women in early 20th century Bengal. Tagore's strong women seem to have perfectly fit into Netflix’s feminist vision.
Stories and novellas that have been adapted include Chokher Bali, Nosto Neerh, Auparichita, Strir Patra, Detective, Manbhanjan, Shasti, Atithi, Kabuliwala, Dui Bon, Samapti, Chhuti, Daliya and Sampatti Samarpan.
Anurag Basu has deftly scripted and directed the show: Cinematography, lighting, costume, set designing – everything being temperately artistic. He has taken considerable liberty in reshaping stories at times, as in Shasti (Punishment), where the two brothers are shown to be landlords as opposed to day laborers in the original. Basu's anti-colonial spirit shows through in this adaptation, as the crisis begins when the brothers lose their lands to corrupt British officials who use coercive measures to drive them out.
What has struck me particularly is the way characters are sketched; they retain the nuance found in the original. Consider Chokher Bali, which consists of three episodes. The sexual tension playing out at a psychological level between Binodini and Mahendra (who is married to Ashalata) is captured masterfully, and the resultant repression manifests itself through a few outbursts from Mahendra. There is Kabuliwala, an Afghan salesman who becomes a friend with a Bangali minor girl; there is the satiric Detective in which an overly westernized Bangali sleuth makes a fool of himself and learns his lesson at a high price.
After watching two-thirds of the 26 episodes, only once, though, a question about character-sketching arose in my mind. In Punishment, a gap with the original appears a bit too far-fetched. The rage which goads elder brother Dukhiram Rui to bring his wife down with a chopper is essentially tied up with him being a day laborer whose only capital is his labor and whose daily humiliation and exploitation at the hands of his landlords is at the root of this tension. Not only is this dimension absent in Basu's adaptation but also is lost the strength of Chandara, wife of Chhidam Rui, the younger brother. When police arrive after the murder, Chhidam tells police that his wife has killed her sister-in-law in an act of self-defense during a violent fight between the two. In the original, Chandara takes all the blame on herself and withdraws altogether from speaking to her husband or anybody else as her protest against patriarchy. Her last utterance "Ah maran!" (Ah death!) is her final act of a slap over the face of men and their social norms. In Basu's adaptation, however, Chandara is replaced by a vulnerable woman who can only cry and instead of uttering anything, in the final scene when she's awaiting her execution, she seeks some solace in her childhood memories.
All the other remarkable feminist stories i.e. Chokher Bali, Strir Patra, Auparachita give us unforgettable female characters whose bold actions are as dismissive of patriarchy as Nora's slamming of the door at the end of Henrik Ibsen's The Doll's House. In Strir Patra, Mrinal, a housewife, leaves her in-laws' house for Kashi to seek a life of spiritual quest and freedom. In Auparachita, the female protagonist refuses to be "sold" against a hefty dowry and vows not to get married ever; instead, she dedicates her life to a school that takes care of abandoned children. Basu is thoroughly successful in these stories.
I call Stories one of the biggest recent tributes to Tagore because Netflix's streaming revolution has all the potential to ensure a much wider reach of these stories among viewers in Asia and Europe alike. Previously we could think of this kind of contribution only from books in the form of very good English translations. But now we have Netflix which finds gripping stories out of tales that are usually rejected by major American and European studios. In my understanding, Anurag Basu's Stories is a fine work of translation. It translates visually, to be precise, and it does capture the essence of Tagore's art in short fiction.
The language choice is also a political act for Basu, which perhaps explains why he chose Hindi. This choice perfectly matches the anti-colonial spirit ingrained in Tagore's stories.
We'll be eagerly waiting for the next season of Tagore's Stories.
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.