The Discreet Charms of Tea Gardens: Or Sublimated Desire and Cowardly Love in the Himalayan Foothills
Something about the business of men and women plays out differently in the mountains. Estranged lovers meet by accident (brought about by automobile trouble) in Ray’s Kapurush (1965) and Rituparno’s Titli (2002). Both male protagonists leave Calcutta for Bombay to pursue a career in film. Both female protagonists got married to wealthy teaplanters and settled in the environs of tea-plantation foothills in north Bengal. In Titli, the Urmila (played by Aparna Sen) has a high-school daughter Titli (Konkona Sensharma) whose teen-crush is Rohit Roy (played by Mithun) the film personality. Titli does not know that her dream-boyfriend is her mother’s lover from her youth. Their history is not spelt out in clear terms. Rituparno switches to black-and-white to depict the estrangement caused by his film ambitions and her betrothal to a groom of appropriate prospects. Ray spends a good part of the first half of the film cinematically in their youth. Madhabi plays Karuna, an art student and Soumitro plays Amitabha - the restless, young man and aspiring actor. They are estranged in an exactly similar fashion. The desolation, desperation, affluence and agony of teagardens form the backdrop of both episodic narratives. A chance encounter. Estranged loves sharing glances of burnt desire guilt bitterness. Unfinished stories tend to sublimate and leave residues on the material environment. Such a layer of dust of sublimated desire is seen across the melancholic hills. The hills surround the collision of wounds. This collision is brought to sharp relief in Titli with a young girl’s adolescent fantasy.
The winding mountainous road to Ghum designed by monasteries, pine trees, hill cultures and languages (presumably Lepcha, Khasi and/or Nepali) makes Titli also a story of life on the frontiers of hill and plain, elite and subaltern, nature and culture. The romance associated with the drive from Bagdogra to Darjeeling is a familiar one in upper-middle-class Bengali society. But the drive, the car-breakdown and the sudden implosions of locked-away-baggage disturb the romance, tranquility and equilibrium of the mountains.
In Kapurush, the life of a teagarden manager manifests in deliberate indulgence and lonely habitation of power. One presumes some adultery must have occurred. For that is the story that runs between British owners and native women laborers, and later their brown-sahib legatees. But what of our Bengali-in-Bombay hero Soumitro? One who seeks shelter in his ex-girlfriend’s marital home for a night, when he is stranded on his drive downhill. One who beseeches her by the end of the night to join him in his glorious current life, an offer that he lacked the conviction to make, many years ago, when she had asked. She is insulted at this offer now.
In Titli, the mother-daughter dyad implodes as the innocent teenager senses something is up between her mother and Rohit Roy. Or else why would she recite poetry to him amidst the woods. In her romantic vocabulary, reciting poetry is not a romantic act. But she senses the romance therein. She checks with her friend later on their walk from school, asking her, if she recited poetry to her boyfriend when they went on walks. The friend dismisses her saying ‘…he is my English teacher of what?!’ The mist floats away as a girl gives up her fantasy. The films stand as mountainous tales of men who loved but did not dare, and women who found the strength to hold on and pull away.