Mithun Chakraborty with Suman Ghosh
Mithun Chakraborty with Suman Ghosh

'Kabuliwala 3.0' movie review: An unlikely love story

Filmmaker Suman Ghosh recreates Tagore’s iconic story about an Afghan man in 1965 Calcutta

"I can’t stop time Papa. I have to grow up,” five-year-old Leela told her filmmaker father Suman Ghosh a few years ago in response to his ‘please-don’t-grow-up’ request. That precisely is the lesson from Rabindranath Tagore’s 1892 short story The Cabuliwallah about Rahmun who leaves his five-year-old daughter Razia at his home in Afghanistan to seek work in far-off Calcutta. In Calcutta, Rahmun ‘sees’ his own daughter in little Mini. They become unlikely friends—a friendship that begins with Mini’s fear of burly Afghani men but later sparkles with the innocence of silly jokes, dry fruit freebies and tips on how to bash up rascal fathers-in-law.

Ghosh’s Bengali Kabuliwala that released recently with Mithun Chakraborty in the titular role is the third cinematic adaptation of this classic, after the Bengali one in 1957 by Tapan Sinha and the Hindi version in 1961 by Hemen Gupta. That a story written 130 years ago can accommodate a filmmaker in 2023 to interknit his concerns into the core plot is the greatest homage to Tagore.

“There is so much going on in the world and in India around identity politics. Tagore in all his works, and particularly in Cabuliwallah, celebrates the ‘manab dharma’ (religion of humanity). In my film you see two disparate individuals from different countries, different religions, different language and different socio-cultural backgrounds bound by pure, innocent friendship. It is a love story,” says Ghosh.

Unlike the two earlier versions which had no time stamp, Ghosh’s Kabuliwala is set in 1965. It was a time when neighbours crowded around radio sets in Calcutta lanes and danced when Chuni Goswami netted a goal.

It was also a time when India went to war with Pakistan. But deep inside the cauldron of war, suspicion and a generic hatred towards Rahmat’s people, Mini teaches the Afghani how to do namo namo (the way Hindus salute deities, palms joined). Conversely Aurobindo (Mini’s father) and Mini attend the Eid celebrations of the Afghanis. “I thought that this was the time to celebrate an iconic Muslim character. Aurobindo was the carrier of what I felt like and what could be done,” says the 52-year-old filmmaker.

Jaws might drop at the point when there is a mention of Swami Vivekananda eating beef. “Many Bengalis would not know about this. But this was a historically based incident. And there is mention of how Ramkrishna reacted when complaints of Vivekananda eating beef reached him. Those incidents need to recalibrate Vivekananda and Ramkrishna and their liberal aspects. So, you could say that Kabuliwala is my political film as well,” Ghosh states candidly.

In the 1957 version, Rahmat refuses to part with the innkeeper the `5 that Mini had given him. A fierce altercation later, Rahmat stabs him and is jailed for eight years. The 1961 version was consistent with Tagore’s story; Abdul Rehman stabs to death a person who buys a shawl from him, but later denies the exchange and refuses to pay up. In the 2023 version, the debtor accuses Rahmat of being a kidnapper and insinuates that Rahmat had molested Mini. Rahmat bludgeons him to death and is awarded life imprisonment. Yes, crimes have worsened by many degrees. Explains Ghosh, “In my film, I didn’t want the narrative to shift away from Mini and Rahmat because that was the core of the story.

That’s why you hardly see any mention of Razia till the end. I didn’t want to dilute it by bringing in another Mini.”How would the reunion between Rahmat and Raziya be? That is something that has always been left open. “Maybe she would not recognise him. Maybe she has married and gone away. Maybe he would not be able to locate her. But let us hold out hope for Rahmat,” says Ghosh. Hope, they say, springs eternal.

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The New Indian Express