Rabindranath Tagore wrote the short story ‘Kabuliwala’ in 1892. Tapan Sinha, one of the most successful directors in Bengali cinema, turned it into a Black-and-White film in 1957. This won the National Award for the Best Feature film in Bengali.

The film also bagged the Silver Bear, the Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the 7th International Berlin Film Festival. It remains archived as a classic in the history of Indian cinema till this day.

Bimal Roy asked his friend Hemen Gupta to direct a Hindi version of the story with Balraj Sahni playing the title role. And now, after more than a century since Tagore penned this beautiful story, Suman Ghosh, who teaches Economics at the Florida Atlantic University in the United States, has made his version of the film ‘Kabuliwala’ with Mithun Chakraborty playing the title role.

Around May 2018, a Hindi film called ‘Bioscopewala’ was released in Indian theatres loosely adapted from the Tagore story. The lead role of Rahmat Ali was portrayed by Danny Denzongpa, and his profession was changed from dry-fruit and shawl seller to a ‘bioscopewala’.

The time-frame of the story was brought forward to somewhere in the 1980s, during the Taliban regime and Ali’s profession was changed, from a dry fruit seller to a man who goes around showing films to children on his bioscope, a folk art that faded with the advent of television and the flooding of cinema. The film was directed by Deb Medhekar, and produced by Sunil Doshi.

Suman Ghosh is not new to filmmaking. He stepped into filmmaking with the film ‘Padakkhep’ (Footsteps) with Soumtira Chatterjee and Nandita Das, playing father and daughter, which won two National Awards the following year. Critics have panned his second film ‘Dwando’ as having been ‘inspired’ by Kristof Kieslowksi’s ‘Decalogue-II’.

Others say it carries a hangover of Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil’ which Hollywood has filmed thrice over several decades. ‘Dwando’, however, is a contemporary, typically Bengali-Indian conflict.

Since then, Ghosh has made nearly half a dozen feature films and one long documentary on Amartya Sen. ‘Kabuliwala’ is his first exploration into a Tagore short story which Bengalis across three generations are familiar with.

The story narrates the unusual bond between an elderly Ali, who arrives in Kolkata to earn money enough to repay the loans he took from the men in his village. He sells dry fruits and asafetida and shawls across the streets of an old lane in Kolkata.

During one of these sojourns, he meets a seven-year-old girl called Mini, the only child of affluent parents. Her father is a writer. Mini’s mother is quite sceptical about the little girl making friends with a foreigner of a different community but the father does not mind.

Ali sees in little Mini, the little daughter he left behind in Afghanistan, not realising that over time, his little girl will grow into a young girl just like Mini will. But before Mini grows up, Ali is given life imprisonment for having hit a street grocer in anger, who dies.

Ali is set free much before his prison term ends because of his good behaviour. What happens when he comes to visit Mini, is the sad climax of a beautiful story.

Ghosh has brought forward the time setting of the story to the 60s, roughly around the second Indo-Pakistan war. This was when feelings between the two communities had turned sensitive and people did not take kindly to Ali’s close bonding with Mini.

The scenes of this growing distrust for each other, shot in sets that recreated the setting of an old neighbourhood in Kolkata, is realistically structured. The middle-class family scenes in Mini’s home are also quite convincing.

The small Afghani ghetto in the neighbourhood is quite warm and helpful and celebrates Eid with song and dance. But they too, do not take kindly to Ali’s friendship with the little Mini, and warn him against the dangers of getting too close to a Hindu-Bengali family.

The recreation of the time, setting and space is shown in several layers. The accent of the housemaid in Mini’s home is quite different from the rest as she seems to be from Bangladesh. Ali speaks in pidgin Bengali mixed with Hindi words with his typically Afghani throw of voice and diction. Mini and her parents speak in ordinary Bangla.

Ghosh has taken very little liberties with the original Tagore story. Nor has he tried to imitate either Tapan Sinha or Hemen Gupta’s version. What makes his Kabuliwalla distinctly his own is the class performance of Mithun Chakraborty in the title role and little Anumegha Kahali as the naïve, naughty and very innocent Mini.

This is saying something about Mithun being one of the most outstanding and versatile actors Indian cinema has produced. He has adapted Kabuliwala's body language, wearing the big turban, long kurta, loose pyjamas and the jhola (sling bag) in which he carries his wares.

His face registers the pain of missing his motherland, old mother and little daughter. But his face lights up in innocent joy the minute he sees Mini. He sits in the park just to watch Mini playing with her friends and delights in her little joys.

Abir Chatterjee and Sohini as Mini’s parents have given excellent support to the others. The brief cameos have also fared quite well. The camera closes up on Ali’s face again and again.

One touching scene is when Mini tries to teach him how to dance to a Bengali song and he stumbles. The film does justice to Suman Ghosh’s choice of the Tagore story.

He needs to be complimented on his judicious and challenging selection of a story already turned into a classic by other eminent names. So, without bringing in unfair comparisons with Tapan Sinha and Hemen Gupta, Suman Ghosh’s Kabuliwala stands on its own.

The only feature that brings the film down by quite some rungs, in the otherwise quite vertical ladder, is the loud musical score and some songs which appear to be superfluous, such as the boatman’s song in a given scene.

There is hardly a silent moment in the film which could have turned it into a classic. The very loud and needless background score disturbs the seamless flow of the narrative. It dilutes the richness of the family story and the sweet bonding between an elderly Kabuliwalla who sells dry fruits and shawls for a living, and little Mini, the only daughter of a middle-class Bengali family in Calcutta (as it was named then.)

The power of silence in this film is evident through the performance and characterisation of the silent street beggar (Nimai Ghosh), who just observes and understands but does not utter a single word. This enriches the treatment and portrayal of the characters.

The song-dance routine during Eid where Mini’s father joins the little girl is quite entertaining, with a suggestion of communal harmony during a sensitive political ambience in the time-frame of the film.

There is no common element that could bond them as they differ in terms of age, background, social status, language and even country but their relationship does two things that are very real in this world.

One, that friendship knows no barriers and crosses all boundaries of time, space, language, culture, gender, age and everything else; and two, that time is fluid and can easily push a knife of anonymity into that same relationship where the grown up little girl does not recognise the Kabuliwalla who would tell her that he was carrying an elephant in his bag!