Cast: Victor Banerjee, Raima Sen, Eleonora Wexler, Héctor Bordoni
Director: Pablo Cesar
Rating: Three stars (out of 5)
Pablo Cesar has built a career around telling diverse stories of cross-cultural encounters that erase distances and differences and explore the likenesses that unite the world. Thinking of Him, an Indo-Argentine co-production, furthers his pursuit.
The Spanish and English-language film brings to the screen the nuances of a fascinating relationship that developed between philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore and writer and patron of letters Victoria Ocampo when the former spent nearly two months recuperating in San Isidro on the outskirts of Bueno Aires under the latter's care in 1924-25.
Tagore was in his 60s when the two met. Ocampo was 34. Their platonic friendship spanned across the last 17 years of the poet's life. It left a deep imprint not only on Ocampo's mind and heart - he was "Gurudev" to her in the truest sense of the term - but also on the poet's imagination. "Latin American ladies have a special way of showing affection," Tagore was to write. It enthused him to write a series of poems dedicated to Victoria, his 'Bijoya".
Thinking of Him, produced by Pablo Cesar and New Delhi-based Suraj Kumar, was in gestation for a decade and a bit, a story crying out to be told. The film, now out in theatres in many Indian cities, may be somewhat patchy, but its intrinsically lyrical and timorous quality does complete justice to a relationship that combined the tenderness of an instant emotional union and the depth of a spiritual bonding that went way beyond the confines of the temporal and the physically tangible.
Written by Jeronimo Toubes, who also plays an important onscreen role, Thinking of Him is essentially exploratory in nature. It is more an examination of a great mind and the ethos that it represented than a definitive last word on the subject. Coming from Pablo Cesar, that is hardly surprising.
The two key Argentine actors in the cast - Eleonora Wexler as Victoria Ocampo and Hector Bordoni playing a present-day Buenos Aires geography teacher who travels to Santiniketan in search of inspiration - reflect both a longing and an immersion. Their demeanour and language conceal a plethora of questions even as they are aimed at finding answers.
In a career spanning over 30 years, the Argentine director has been as much a storyteller as an explorer of mores and philosophies that he forays into in the manner of a committed, inquisitive student. He has made numerous films on the African continent in countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Mali and Namibia.
Thinking of Him isn't the first film that Cesar has shot in India. In 1996, he made Unicorn - The Garden of Fruits, a film set in Rajasthan and centred on aspects of the subcontinent's Sufi traditions.Steeped in a filmmaking culture that has produced Fernando Solanas and Lucrecia Martel, Cesar, like Tagore, is at home in the world. Thinking of Him mirrors just that.
The film alternates between the 1920s and the present era. The scenes between Tagore, played superbly by Victor Banerjee, and Ocampo (Wexler), are shot in black and white by cinematographer Carlos Essmann. The contemporary story, which foregrounds the fictional geography teacher Felix Mazzola (Bordoni) who travels to Santiniketan in search of healing and renewal, is rendered in lush colour.
The Tagore-Ocampo segments of Thinking of Him are imbued with emotion and insight and provide the film's high points. The present-day bit of the film is far less convincing in dramatic terms, but it is no less germane to what the filmmaker is striving to convey.
Felix the teacher is at a loose end personally and professionally and his Santiniketan sojourn (sparked by a book written by Ocampo on the two months that Tagore spent in San Isidro when he took ill on a voyage to Peru) exposes the disturbed man to a place, a culture and a set of people who think markedly differently about life and education.
Among the individuals Felix meets in Santiniketan and on his way there are Kamali (Raima Sen) and Prakash (Bratin Bandopadhyay). Kamali impresses upon him the importance of letting go. "Fear isolates us," she says to Felix.
Prakash, Felix's co-passenger on the train from Kolkata to Bolpur before they get to know each other, is unimpressed with the Argentine teacher's mastery over geography. After Felix has detailed the exact location of India on the map, Prakash asserts that "you know nothing about my country". You are lost, he says.
Parts of Thinking of Him might feel somewhat ponderous and pedantic, but Cesar has a way of weaving elements into his cinematic tapestry that wondrous, wise and wistful. "This love between you and me is as simple as a song," Tagore wrote to Ocampo, addressing her as Bijoya, in one of the many letters that he exchanged with her after.
While it tries to capture that simplicity, Thinking of Him straddles a wide gamut of creative impulses. Its unhurried, unshowy rhythms have space for silences, for the sounds of nature, the strains of music (it blends Tagore's own compositions with Baul-inspired sounds and words) and lunges towards harmony.
A few of its sleights are spot on, others not quite so, yet on the whole this is a film that does a fine job of capturing a remarkable mind. Tagore's creative universe pivoted around the combination of the individual and the universal and around the purpose of putting "our life in harmony with all existence". That, of course, is a tall order for a film to achieve. That Thinking of Him even tries is itself no mean feat.
Thinking of Him is also about Victoria Ocampo, a remarkably gifted woman about town, strong-willed, highly intelligent and uncannily ease with a famed poet whose towering personality and profound poetry she is inexorably drawn to.
Victor Banerjee and Eleonora Wexler are perfect in the guru-acolyte duet at the heart of the film. The former exudes the firm certitude and the gnawing loneliness of a man grappling with the burden of fame and first intimations of age-related infirmity. Wexler, on her part, brings to the table a spirit of supple receptivity and confidence of a woman of substance. Raima Sen, in a significant supporting role, delivers the right notes.
Thinking of Him may seem a tad stilted at first flush, but as the film progresses, the tentativeness of the characters and the daring leaps they make across boundaries lend the watchable narrative a logical ring