Darbaan movie review: Rabindranath Tagore revisited in Bollywood to bitter-sweet albeit insubstantial effect
Darbaan works up to a point, but does not have the depth and social insights of the Bengali film starring Uttam Kumar that was also adapted from Tagore's Khokababur Pratyabartan.
castSharib Hashmi, Rasika Dugal, Sharad Kelkar, Flora Saini, Harsh Chhaya, Suneeta Sengupta, Veer Sujeet Jangid, Narrator: Annu Kapoor
A National Award-winning Marathi director making a Hindi language film based on a short story by a Nobel Prize-winning Bengali litterateur – this is the sort of cultural co-mingling that India needs in these troubled times. Darbaan (Guard) is an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Khokababur Pratyabartan (Little Master’s Return) that was turned into an acclaimed 1960 Bengali film of the same name starring Uttam Kumar and Sumita Sanyal.
Taking on Kumar’s role of a faithful household worker is Sharib Hashmi in Darbaan.
In 1971, the Indian government nationalised all coal mines. Hashmi plays Raicharan, who works as an attendant to Anukul, the only son of a mining magnate called Naren Tripathi (Harsh Chhaya) in Jharia in then-Bihar-now-Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district.
Raicharan grew up with Naren and is considered one of the family. With the mines gone, Naren falls on hard days and one by one has to let go of all his domestic help. Raicharan returns to his village and is leading a peaceful life with his wife Bhuri (Rasika Dugal) who he loves when Anukul, now a financially well-off adult, seeks him out. Raicharan soon meets Anukul’s wife (Flora Saini) and little child. A tragedy follows that changes their lives forever and ultimately affects Raicharan’s mental stability.
Darbaan is a bitter-sweet film. Nadkarni has chosen a fine cast to back his vision of Tagore’s tale of extreme loyalty, identity, class and loss, human psychology and health in ‘normal’ times and after a calamity. Hashmi, who was memorable in Filmistaan and Nakkash, is on point here as a man who is at sea when he loses the job from which he derives his entire sense of self-worth. Dugal (Qissa, Manto) is one of contemporary Indian cinema’s best young talents, and in a far smaller role manages to pull at the heart strings. Aided by their acting, a good supporting cast and Amartya Bobo Rahut’s agreeable music, Nadkarni makes Darbaan work to a considerable extent up to the half-way mark. His screenplay co-written with Rakesh Jadhav is, however, a pared-down version of the original text that was further enriched by the comprehensive characterisation in Agradoot’s Bengali film. So though I enjoyed aspects of Darbaan, I could not shake off the dissatisfaction with its insubstantialness as the narrative progressed.
Among other things, there is just too much voiceover in the film. What Khokababur Pratyabartan conveyed through conversations, multiple interactions among characters and events, Darbaan tells us with Annu Kapoor’s narration.
Almost half that film was spent on establishing Raicharan’s obsessive devotion to his job and his warmth with Anukul Babu as a child and thereafter – they were around the same age. The bond between the two is dealt with in Darbaan through the course of a single opening song that plays in the background along with the credits as the visuals show us their playfulness with each other during a drive through the countryside – here, Anukul is a school student and Raicharan a man – and that phase is completely wrapped up in less than 25 minutes.
Nothing in particular is achieved by making Raicharan an older man in the Hindi film or by adding his relationship with a whole new generation, Naren’s, to the mix. Much is lost though by writing Raicharan’s marriage with Bhuri as a happy one. Tagore made a passing mention of the protagonist’s wife, but one of the best things about the Bengali film, one of the clearest illustrations of Raicharan’s almost maniacal fixation on Anukul Babu’s family was rendered through his horrific neglect of his spouse who was given screen time and space by the storyteller.
One grouse I have with Tagore’s otherwise beautiful short story is that he made Raicharan and Anukul Babu members of the same caste, thus removing what could potentially have been an entire important layer in their equation. Be that as it may, Tagore’s writing and the Bengali film did not airbrush the two men’s awareness of their differing classes — despite the friendliness and fondness between them they were, without question, servant and master.
In Darbaan though, the VO at the start is at pains to stress that Naren, Anukul and Raicharan view each other as equals. “Naren never considered Raicharan his servant, Raicharan never considered Naren his master. How does one explain this relationship?” says Kapoor’s voice, adding that Naren’s house was a body and Raicharan its soul, that it would be futile to try to figure out whether Raicharan was Anukul’s servant, friend, brother or guru. This is the sort of idyllic connection across class divides that one encounters in idealistic fiction but almost never in real life in India’s caste and class-ridden society.
For the record, even if you have not read or watched Khokababur Pratyabartan, these flaws count because they end up robbing Darbaan of substance and considerable sociological commentary.
That said, I watched Darbaan while in an undemanding mood, and found it pleasant and moving up to a point. Nadkarni has a naturalistic directorial style and the songs are easy on the ears. Hashmi and Dugal are effective despite the drawbacks in the written material. And cinematographer Amalendu Chaudhary delivers so many striking shots across several locations but especially in Jharia and Gangtok that I could almost – almost – forgive the use of tacky, glaringly obvious digital work on the visuals in places. All this adds up to a film in which I could almost – almost – forgive the limitations in the writing (and even the typo in the text plate in the beginning quoting Franz “Hafka”). Almost.
Darbaan is nice enough, but it lacks depth and width.
Darbaan is streaming on ZEE5.
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