Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), a trilogy of three short films, was conceived by Ray as a tribute to mark the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore. Released in 1961, along with a state-commissioned documentary on Tagore (also directed by Ray), the trilogy brings to life three short stories penned by the Nobel laureate – The Postmaster, Monihara (The Lost Jewels) and Samapti (The Conclusion). On its release in Bengal, Teen Kanya was screened in the above order; however, concerns over the length (the films were all nearly an hour long) and inability to complete the subtitles before its international release forced Ray to drop Monihara from the trilogy; The Postmaster and Samapti were screened under the title Two Daughters abroad. Teen Kanya, with all the three films, was later available to the international audience, but only in the DVD format. However, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Archive is currently in the process of restoring the original print of Monihara, a macabre ghost story of a rich wife’s obsession with her jewels, as part of the Ray Preservation Project begun in 1992.
For Ray it was a conscious decision to adapt Tagore’s short stories to screen, and not one of his novels or longer works (Ray would again revisit his literary world in Charulata – The Lonely Wife, which was based on the Tagore novella Nastanirh – The Broken Nest). Tagore’s short stories are infused with an inherent earthiness and humanity that have endeared them to readers, and truly showcase the diversity of his work. In spite of their distinctive characters, the three narratives in Teen Kanya are united in one aspect – the presence of a female character as the center of narrative focus – the village waif in The Postmaster, the childless wife of a rich landlord in Monihara and the tomboyish child-woman in Samapti. Apart from this common thread, the films are quite different in their treatment and tone.
Ray’s personal favorite was undeniably The Postmaster. Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, describes the film as “one of Ray’s best films…It feels faultless in every department of film-making…The Postmaster is humanist cinema of the highest sort.” (Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) But much of the film’s poignant beauty is also courtesy Tagore’s vivid portrayal of the relationship between a village postmaster, Nanda (Anil Chatterjee) and an orphan servant girl, Ratan (Chandana Banerjee). Written in 1891, The Postmaster is one of Tagore’s earlier works, and is loosely based on a postmaster he knew in his rural estate in East Bengal. In Tagore’s story, the postmaster is like “a fish out of water”, a city-bred man from an impoverished lower middle-class background forced to live in a village because of his posting. Frustrated and bored with his lonely existence in the sleepy rural hamlet, he develops a bond with Ratan, the orphan girl working for him – a bond that is only a pastime for him, a distraction from his lonely, insipid existence, but for Ratan, unaccustomed to such attention, it becomes a real relationship, redeeming the drudgery of her daily life. The girl tends and cares for him as if he was a close relative, but for the young postmaster she is merely the orphan servant girl. His decision to finally go back to his familiar milieu, the city, leaves her feeling hurt and betrayed.
Ray who found the ending in Tagore’s original too ‘sentimental’ changes it considerably, and as acclaimed critic Chidananda Das Gupta describes, “with superlative effect”. (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) Instead of pleading with the postmaster to take her with him, Ray makes Ratan turn away from him in wounded pride; his offer of monetary help only accentuating her hurt and betrayal. Ray also introduced new characters: the harmless madman who terrifies the postmaster to read his book upside down, the village elders who gather around him in his dilapidated office for the perfunctory adda (a Bengali term for an informal social gathering) – characters recruited from among the villagers, some of whom who had earlier appeared in the Apu Trilogy. (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) But the film’s highlight is Chandana Banerjee, who in the role of the waif-like Ratan imbibes it with pathos and poignancy. Ray had discovered Banerjee in a Calcutta dancing school, not very different from the way he had ‘discovered’ Sharmila Tagore for Aparna in Apur Sansar. With no previous experience, Chandana “turned out to be an absolutely fantastic actress: ready, no tension at all, and intelligent and observant and obedient – perfect to work with.” (Satyajit Ray; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)
Tagore’s rural Bengal in The Postmaster is not as romantic and idyllic as Bhibhutibhushan’s Nishchindipur in Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). For Nanda, the village is a symbol of the unknown, the unfamiliar – he slips in the mud, shudders on seeing a snake skin, and is terrified by the madman. Ray’s use of long night shots, the shabby interiors, and the camera’s avoidance of large open spaces usually associated with rural areas, all underline the film’s dark, shadowy tone, and the postmaster’s fear and claustrophobia. In contrast, Samapti paints a very different picture of rural Bengal – vast expanses of space, wide, sunny, with the river, the Banyan tree with the swing. As Das Gupta notes, “Even the slushy village paths are wide and have a depth of perspective.” (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) The city-village dyad is again explored and cultural mores of the age is evoked in Amulya’s treasured portrait of Napoleon, his tartan socks, and the Oxford shoes, which slip repeatedly on the slushy village paths.