I will take you to
the city plays with you
They have made
I will not bear that pain anymore.
You will enjoy yourself
We are dark skinned people
We have our nice
I plead you…
We will not let you
The film Nobel Thief starts with this folk song while casting the names. The language in the song is a dialect of Bengali, spoken in Birbhum where Santiniketan is located. The song goes on to say how Rabindranath Tagore is revered by the common village people and it pains them to see the way the people of the city exploit him. Hence these dark skinned village people will take Tagore to their village where they are sure he will enjoy himself, living among them. The song at once sets the tone of the film. The film's focus is on the local, with the global universal figure of Tagore at the background. The focus is on the difference between the local, natural and marginalized on the one hand, and the metropolis, modern and the mainstream on the other. Tagore, the great poet, with his sage-like appearance is revered like a god by the common people, and in real life too he had a paternalistic relationship with his own subjects.
Incidentally, Thakur which is the Bengali word for Tagore is also the Bengali word for God. The figure of Tagore with his ideals, philosophy and principles is a constant presence in the film. But, though the film starts with Tagore's Nobel prize being stolen from his residence turned museum, Uttarayan, in Santiniketan, it indeed is about Bhanu (played by Mithun Chakraborty), a poor, illiterate peasant, who by some curious twist of fate, finds the medal near his well, perhaps dropped by the burglars while fleeing from the scene. The film works at many levels, but the most important is Tagore as perceived by the common people and Bhanu is their representative in the film. In that context, it must be mentioned that Bengali 'parallel cinema' has come a long way. As against films made by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Tapan Sinha, to name a few stalwarts, who once made it with an aura of stark realism and were generally known as neo-realists, today parallel cinema and mainstream cinema have somewhat merged, with attractive films being churned out by younger filmmakers like Gautam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh, Sriit Mukherjee or even Aparna Sen, whose films emphasize on realism and at the same time appeal to a larger viewership. Today, the contemporary filmmakers have struck a middle path, one can say.
Suman Ghosh's Nobel Chor falls in that category, for the film uses a lot of humor to sketch the naivety and nervousness of the village simpleton, Bhanu, and at least in the beginning there is not much sentimentality. Moreover, the folk songs give a different flavour to the film. However, where Suman Ghosh's film really stands out is in its effort in reconstructing the local, in the sense of the rural roots, whereas most of the recently made Bangla films have only concentrated on the urban middle class, their problems and complexities. This film brings about, as it were, a confrontation between the urban in the sense of the metropolitan and the local in the sense of our rural cultural hinterland and in that it is a departure and difference.
To go back to the storyline, Bhanu, the simple-hearted peasant, who finds the medal, fails to understand the implications of what he has got. It is of course only after his extraordinary experiences in the city that he will really comprehend the real value of both the medal and Tagore and there, too, is a difference. His understanding will emerge rather from his own heart than from knowledge that comes merely from information. On finding the medal, Bhanu goes to the village schoolmaster, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, for advice and guidance regarding the curious thing which has come to his hands. Mastermoshai (school master) tries to explain to the simple-hearted fellow all about the Nobel prize and Tagore, but to no avail. A Panchayat meeting is called to decide on what is to be done regarding the national heritage, which is in the possession of this poor man. The Panchayat head, a man angry with the way the country has treated the common people, suggests that Tagore's Nobel will come to right use when it is sold off and the money used for the uplift of the village. However, it is decided that Bhanu should go to Kolkata, with a letter from Mastermoshai and return the medal to the chief minister himself. It is expected that he will be given a reward and that will be used for the well-being of the village. Moreover, it is also expected that this will make both Bhanu and the village famous. So Bhanu embarks on the journey with the medal, a letter from Mastermoshai and a framed photo of Tagore, to protect him from all dangers, for it is His deed that he is going to do. Here perhaps for the first time Thakur (as Tagore is called in Bengali) becomes Thakur (god is also called Thakur in Bengali).
In Kolkata, Bhanu is to stay with Hari (Saswata Chatterjee), a boy from the same village, who has made it 'big' in the Kolkata city. Kolkata city and the people are all represented in stark contrast to the simple-minded villagers. For safety purposes, as advised by Hari and his wife (Sudipta Chakraborty), Bhanu buries the medal under the earth at a place known only to him. Bhanu goes to meet the Chief Minister only to be harassed and ridiculed at the office by the subordinates. In despair Bhanu goes out of the office and sits under a statue of Tagore. This particular shot is very poignant showing the simple villager sitting under a huge statue of Tagore. The shot has been taken from above to make the difference in stature of the two people in question much more pronounced, to make Bhanu's smallness big. How will this insignificant man deal with one who is so big in stature? Perhaps it is he who is the only one who will be able to truly realize Tagore for what he is.
Hari explains to Bhanu the difficulty of meeting such big people, like the chief minister and persuades him that the best way out is to sell off the medal. Bhanu too feels that perhaps selling off the medal will help him buy a cycle and tiles for his roof, and the rest of the money can be used for the well being of the village. It is arranged through Hari's boss, whose friend, Raj (Harsh Chaaya) organizes it to be sold to a Mexican businessman. Meanwhile, the real robbers, searches Hari's home and threatens to kill his wife if the medal is not found. Bhanu realizes the impending threat to Hari's family and leaves immediately to only be followed by the bad people. At one point confident that Thakur (both Tagore and god) will save him, he even challenges them. His life is saved accidentally, but his faith in Rabindranath Thakur deepens. After this a phone call at home tells him of the plight his wife (Soma Chakraborty) and kid are in. The police has threatened both of them with dire consequences and the whole village wants to burn down Bhanu's house for insulting Thakur (god and Tagore). They have almost been ostracized from the community. Bhanu weeps in front of the framed photo of Rabindranath and seeks forgiveness. He decides that he can't sell Rabi Thakur. He will return it to Uttarayan. Raj, meanwhile, in anger at not being able to make money out of the medal, informs the police about Bhanu's whereabouts. Bhanu is killed on his way to recover the medal from where he had buried it under the earth. He, in fact, dies exactly at the spot where he had hidden it.
The film throws considerable light on the postcolonial nation state. On the one hand is the projection of the Indian village, where the people are poor and naïve. Poverty, backwardness and lack of education have reached such a level that even the people living near Santiniketan are not aware of Tagore or even the Nobel prize. Then, as is usually the case, there is the poor, but idealistic school teacher, who is making his best efforts to bring in some changes through education. In stark contrast to this on the other hand stands the huge metropolis making the unequal social, economic and cultural development absolutely clear. The people are shown to be manipulative city-bred people who lack ideals. Here the people are ready to make use of every little situation to their own benefit. Again, there is a third category of people that the film introduces us to. They are people like Hari, who have got the taste of city life and are adapting to it. They are go-betweens for the two worlds. They are smarter than the likes of Bhanu, ideologically confused and only desire the swanky life of the city. Yet they too are powerless. Hari has even changed his name to a more stylish Jeet. He, in fact, explains to Bhanu that rich people only make big bungalows in Santiniketan, for it adds to style and status to have a house in the country side. They visit their houses only during Poush Mela (the annual fair in Santiniketan). Since Santiniketan is only 200 Km from Kolkata, it is difficult to understand whether the likes of Bhanu are as naïve as shown in the film, yet it serves the director's ironic purpose to portray him that way. Bhanu's is still in the prelapsarian state pitted against the scenario of lapse without a limit and any qualms whatsoever.
In a great twist of irony again, when Bhanu, disillusioned and hurt by the world, is determined to return the medal to Tagore's home in Uttarayan, he is killed. The whole police force gathers to kill an illiterate villager, while the real bad ones are still at large. However, even if at the end, this apparently ignorant man who till now had been doing everything according to the advice of other people, acts ultimately totally on his own and in doing so creates a distinct identity and agency for himself. Bhanu categorically tells Raj that as long as he is alive, he will not allow the medal to be sold. It is not something that can be sold. It has to be kept in the heart, and an illiterate farmer like him has realized that. In dying at the exact spot where the medal is buried, the film makes the irony of the whole situation more poignant. But since with his death the knowledge about the medal too is lost, he becomes one with Tagore at some level, the only one who knows where the great man's medal is kept or its real worth. However, Bhanu's death will make no difference to the world and life will continue in the same quotidian way. Bhanu a subaltern remains one even in death, only now the tag of Nobel Chor is attached as an embellishment to his name. But the pun (Nobel/Noble) intended in the title rightly satirizes the society.
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