By Taruni Kumar
The posters of Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala, with their front and center images of Danny Dengzongpa playing the role of the titular Rehmat Khan, are rather misleading. The movie is led from beginning to end by the adult Minnie, played by Geetanjali Thapa and her 5-year-old self, played by Miraya Suri. Her experiences string the entire story together for us.
Set in Kolkata, Bioscopewala is the contemporary adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s iconic Kabuliwala, which happens to be one of my favourite stories from childhood yet one that often left me confused. How was it that a five-year-old girl from a reasonably well-to-do family was able to befriend a man the age of her father who walked the streets selling dry fruits? My young brain couldn’t fathom the breaking of class barriers and most certainly couldn’t understand how such a thing would be allowed when my own interactions were modulated so heavily by my family. And this, despite the fact that Kabuliwala was written in 1892 and I was growing up in the 1990’s. Strange men were still most certainly off-limits. In fact, it was always confusing to me as to why Mini’s mother in the story was shown in such bad light for being suspicious of this intimacy. Why did the author write her in a manner that made her seem timid, small-minded and scared for worrying about something as obvious as this? Only when I grew up did it occur to me that, with all his literary genius, Rabindranath Tagore was, after all, only a man. With the privilege to be “open-minded” and adventurous. So, of course, Mini’s mother had to be the worrywart.
In Bioscopewala, Minnie’s mother has died long ago and her father, Robi Basu (Adil Hussain), is the sole parent in the picture. But he’s also a photographer who takes his work very seriously. As Minnie states much later in the film, she could only remember half his face because the other seemed permanently obscured by his camera. So, enters the Bioscopewala when Minnie, a man from Afghanistan about the same age as her father, with a traumatic backstory and a child of his own back home the same age as Minnie. He has travelled to India to earn a living and carries his bioscope, a box that shows moving pictures when one looks through a lens, across the city to the delight of little kids who pay to see the films. All this takes place in the late 80’s or 90’s and the Bioscopewala takes over the role of the father figure to the five-year-old girl.
Bioscopewala takes the story forward from where Tagore left it. It uses several flashback sequences to go back and forth between the young Minnie’s relationship with Khan and her father as it continues to tell the story of the adult Minnie who is perhaps in her late 20s or early 30s.
We’re introduced to adult Minnie as she is trying to track down several different threads. The reason why her father was flying to Afghanistan when his plane crashed, killing him. The family of the Bioscopewala who has suddenly reappeared in her life because of a petition her father had filed to become his guardian and get him out jail. And figuring out how her beloved, gentle Bioscopewala could possibly have been convicted of murder, sending him to an Indian jail for many years.
Thapa’s Minnie seems to perpetually be in a state of deep distress which marks most of her acting throughout the film. But not once does Minnie seem to dissolve into tears or helplessness waiting for someone else to pull her out of the situation which is a very refreshing take on the entire story and on the ways that women are portrayed in movies. This is very strongly a woman-led film.
Another update that Bioscopewala does to the old Kabuliwala story is the day when Khan returns to see Minnie. He hasn’t been released from jail at the time, like in the original, but has actually escaped. He also doesn’t arrive on her wedding day as in Tagore’s story but on the day that she’s set to fly off to France to begin film school. All in all, a nice, much more modern take on Minnie’s life.
It is also during this scene that the film presents a refreshing take on the concern about the child- man relationship that seemed to be missing from the original story. Though there’s no mother to show suspicion in Bioscopewala, Minnie’s father, who appears in several flashbacks, is deeply discomfited by Khan’s return and his insistence on meeting Minnie. After all, on the face of it, here is an escaped convict who looks like he may not be entirely stable, crying and saying that he must see Robi’s daughter, Minnie, who has just stepped out of the house. Sure enough, Basu calls Minnie and tells her to not come home till he says she can and then calls the cops. This is at odds with the relationship Basu and Khan have been shown to have had in the past. One that was based on their mutual love of the world of cameras and cinema. The entire scene was a satisfying juxtaposition to the dismissal of Minnie’s mother’s concern in the original story.
Despite the strength of the women characters in the story like Ghazala (Maya Sarao) and Wahida (Tisca Chopra), the story does place Khan on a pedestal. He’s painted as an unbelievably benevolent man whose every decision is made not keeping himself in mind but the interests of those around him. And most of those who benefit seem to be women who eventually see him as the epitome of all that is good. But while it’s nearly impossible to believe that here is a man without any flaws whatsoever, it is also worth pointing out that most of Khan’s scenes happen in the memory of several different characters. So, it isn’t a holistic picture of Khan’s life that is presented to us but the fondest or strongest positive memories from those who wish to help him out now that he is sick and nearing the end of his life. But at times, one does feel the need to ask, “No, really, kaun hai yeh super-aadmi?”
While the first half of the movie revolves around Minnie’s discovery of the Bioscopewala’s story of escape from Afghanistan and the murder that led to his incarceration, the second half transforms into a commentary on the Taliban and the state of Afghanistan both in the ‘90s and in the present day. At one point in the second half, Minnie travels to Afghanistan and the visuals presented are stark and evocative: Of buildings turned to rubble, men with amputated legs, young boys carrying guns and a woman with her nose cut off (a punishment used against women for moral “transgressions”). What’s most impressive is that none of this is accompanied by dialogue or voiceovers that overexplain the circumstances. Much of it is left for the viewer to take in and understand.
Bioscopewala is a film about memories. At least half of the movie takes place in the piecing together of old memories of childhood, riots and filial love. And all through the eyes of Minnie. It is disconcerting to see Minnie’s dead father smiling at her at the airport and in a plane when she decides to fly to Afghanistan to find Khan’s family, a task Basu had left unfinished. Because, really, it seems less like a memory and more a moment to scream, “Bhoot!” and run away. Thankfully, the other recollections don’t have the same half-satirical, half-creepy feeling to them.
Unlike Tagore’s original story, which centred on Minnie’s father’s narration and the Kabuliwala’s experiences, this movie takes the same material but focuses instead on how Minnie sees her own life and relationships with both these men. This, by itself, is a strong shift of perspective and makes a valuable addition to our literature and art based on young friendships and loss.
Co-published with Firstpost.