Picture a high school civics teacher with a great love for Ken Burns and access to people like Prince Charles and the Dalai Lama — but no ability to ask them interesting questions — making his first documentary on a laptop’s built-in software.
That should give you some sense of what Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet of Eternity is like. Often credited as the father of modern Indian literature, Tagore was also a songwriter, statesman, and educator. This film struggles to do justice to his many accomplishments, shortchanging his artistry. He may be best known to American cinephiles for the two Satyajit Ray films based on his novels, Charulata and The Home and The World. But Tagore’s fiction is barely mentioned in this documentary, which is far more concerned with his humanist philosophy. Bhattacharya talks to and quotes a wide range of famous people on the subject of Tagore, but few get beyond generalities and platitudes.
The film’s structure is haphazard. In terms of cinematic form, it’s a mess. It runs text on-screen at the exact moment that a narrator reads it in voice-over. Like Burns’s, Bhattacharya’s style is based on zooming in and out of still photos, although he also uses archival footage of Tagore where available. UNESCO gets so many positive mentions that one suspects it secretly funded the film. As a film about a poet and songwriter, Rabindranath Tagore‘s sensibility is disappointingly prosaic: Performances of his songs and poems are always cut off after 30 seconds.
Ultimately, this is pure hagiography — if Tagore ever did anything less than totally noble, or even controversial by today’s standards, it’s on the cutting-room floor.