The character of the 'kabuliwala' swathed in his long loose garments and an intimidating but fanciful turban and carrying a huge mysterious sack slung across his sturdy shoulder that contained god knows what, had an iconic presence in the Bengali mindscape till at least 15 years ago. The advent of globalization has gradually displaced this moneylender whose tales of extracting dues by unfair means from debtors at high rate of interests evoked mostly fear and loathing in the minds of the timid Bengali middle-class. To build a story around such an appalling character and his relationship with a little frolicking girl was a masterly stroke of imagination. The story was already there and it was left to the temerity of a young director to take the risk of translating it into the big screen and bring it to huge commercial success, specially since it did not involve a regular boy meets girl stuff.
Tapan Sinha's Kabuliwala remains a favourite diet of Bengali cinegoers till date. In fact, the charm of the film lies in its simplistic narration, which is actually not so simple if one looked at the original source material, a popular short story by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore's stories have always been difficult to film because they are not plot driven but read more like a narration told in first person in this case by the father of the little girl. Director Tapan Sinha does a commendable job in working up situations and incidents and subplots and threading them together to form a cohesive narrative despite a tad too long 8-minute exposition of Afghanistan at the beginning.
The bulk of the film of course is the relationship between the protagonist and the 6-year old Minnie played absolutely wonderfully by Tinku Thakur, the younger sister of Sharmila Tagore. Undoubtedly, she is the USP of the film and it is a wonder why she was never seen in any other film later. The indomitable Chhabi Biswas who essays the role of the swarthy trader from Afghanistan perfectly catches the nuances and accents of the rugged foreigner despite over done makeup by today's standards. In fact, all the actors deliver commendable performances, be it Radhamohan Bhattacharya as the father of the child who is a writer of romantic adventures or the beautiful Manju Dey as the paranoid and finicky mother who keeps the entire household in tenterhooks with her undue demands on hygiene and imagined tales of child lifting and slavery in a faraway land called Afghanistan. The actress playing the elderly maid servant and fills her mistress's mind against the Afghani stranger and the popular Johor Roy who plays the servant add the right light notes in the film. The whole family represents an old world charm belonging to a bygone era but is identifiable and immensely likable. In fact it is a feel good film with all the correct notes and even the jailors and guards in the jail where the protagonist is lodged come across as nice souls despite their assumed strictness.
The main track of Minnie and Rehmat is well worked out, starting from the moment when Rehmat first spots Minnie amongst a group of kids who teases him on the streets and she runs for her dear life when the tall kabuliwala looks at her. Minnie spots him again few days later from her window and runs to her father in panic and it is left to her refined father to melt the ice between the improbable pair. Rehmat begins to bribe her with nuts and raisins and gradually warms himself into her little heart till she has the big man swirling around her little finger. In perhaps the film's most memorable scene, she even makes him sing and dance to a popular Tagore song but not with much success. Each time they meet it not only sets off sparks between the two characters where the elderly kabuliwala regales her with fanciful stories and raisins, but also gives rise to a whole lot of tensions in the minds of the kid's mother and the elderly maid servant, quite natural reactions in people who have led cloistered lives throughout and suspect people who do not belong to their ilk and language group. It is only the sensitive father who does not bother about this relationship but in fact pampers it; if there is one thing he does not quite like it is the free nuts and raisins that the kabuliwala loads on the little girl and he forces him to take money for it much to the embarrassment of the otherwise no-nonsense trader.
The major turning point comes an hour into film when Rehmat refuses to part with the 5-rupee note that has been personally given to him by Minnie on the eve of his departure to Afghanistan; this leads to a scuffle with the owner of the lodge that culminates in Rehmat stabbing the man. He is packed off to jail for a period of 8 years where his good behaviour earns him the kudos and respect of his jailors. Minnie and his family conveniently forget him over the period and when he comes out of jail after 8 years and goes to meet her, it is the day of her marriage. Rehmat thinks that she is still the little girl and is blissfully unaware of the unrelenting passage of time. Realisation dawns on him as the grown up Minnie, now 14 years old, does not recognize him and after a brief unspoken meeting between the two old friends, she turns and goes back inside her house. It is a heartrending climax; he realizes that his daughter, if she is still alive would also be of Minnie's age. Rehmat also turns back and is about to step out of the courtyard of the house when Minnie's mother has a change of heart; she hands the money saved to put up electric lights on the facade of the house and hire an English band to play at her daughter's wedding to her husband and asks him to give it to Rehmat so that he can take it back to his land and meet his daughter. The two fathers look at each other as Minnie's father hands over the money to Rehmat. It is a very poignant moment in the film; only a father can understand the pain of another father. Rehmat takes the money and embarks on his long journey back.
The few tracks in this otherwise old-fashioned feel-good sentimental tale, which could have been avoided and helped reduce the length, are the subplots of the death of a convict's girl (Kali Banerjee in a cameo role as the convict) and the false charge of theft that is heaped on Rahamat when he is accused of stealing the necklace of a young girl who happens to be the daughter of the jailor's boss. One feels that these are overloaded subplots added primarily to underline the protagonist's pain of separation from his own daughter and Minnie's memories.
Ravi Shankar's score does not impinge on the film and goes with the subject. But a point here. The use of Tagore's songs are more of an obligation since the story belonged to him and perhaps could have been avoided; but then it was prestigious to have a couple of the Nobel laureate's songs for commercial reasons and more importantly also to gain respectability. The art direction is elementary and the city of Calcutta is also not well exploited in this urban tale except the scenes set in the parks. The interior scenes look most set-like and stand out like sore thumbs against the real locations of the city.
Kabuliwala won the President's Gold Medal for the Best Film for the year 1956 and inspired a Hindi remake five years later starring Balraj Sahni and Usha Kiron. The Hindi version was directed by Hemen Gupta and produced by Bimal Roy with music by Salil Choudhury. The Hindi version is a fine film in its own right but die hard Bengali cinema fans still swear by this 1956 film as the definitive version of Tagore's short story. The film also won a special mention for its music at Berlin in 1957.