The Postmaster, one of the three stories from Satyajit Ray's delightful film "Teen Kanya", is based on Tagore's heart-wrenching story about a little orphaned girl called Ratan (Chandana Banerjee)
Nandalal (Anil Chaterjee) arrives in the sleepy village of Ulapur to replace the outgoing postmaster. Even as he takes charge, his mind is still in Calcutta..amidst his folks back home. Here, he finds his maid servant Ratan as his only companion - the sole visible perk of his insipid job.
As he orders her around on errands every day, an elusive bond develops between the two. While he takes it upon himself to teach her Bengali alphabets, she vows to mend her shabby appearance to win his approval. His empathy stems from sheer boredom and loneliness but her affinity is deep-rooted. To him, she's an engaging pastime to keep disturbing thoughts at bay but she's chasing myriad rainbows of hope and aspiration, enthused by the sparing attention that he's paid her. He's probably the only postmaster who's treated her like a human and his word is now her command by choice.
Thanks to Ratan's reassuring presence, Nandalal is just about beginning to feel at home in Ulapur. But one fateful day, he contracts Malaria. Ratan nurses him with the caring diligence of a mother to get him back on his feet. As the next milestone in her learning voyage, she's now ready to grasp compound letters. She's also travelled good distance in the relationship where she now misinterprets his company as her support system.
Nandalal clearly has other plans. He's recovered from the dreaded disease but the deadly delusions have left him well and truly shaken. Precisely why he resigns from his post as soon as his plea for transfer is rejected. Ratan wakes up from her innocent stupor with a thud when she sees the new postmaster taking guard. Busy handing over the baton to the new guy, Nandalal requests him to teach compound letters to Ratan. In doing so, he's also distanced himself from any compound expectations emanating from his bond with the child.
She undergoes mixed emotions of anger and dejection that Nandalal is clueless about, both knowingly and unknowingly. He realises the gravity of her feelings on his way back home. When he offers her money as a token of his 'appreciation', she looks elsewhere. In one single gesture, she has exposed his moral betrayal...More important, in one gesture, she has off-loaded all the emotional baggage of her hopeful times. With the detached poise of a karm-yogin, she now gets ready to tend to the new postmaster. As Nandalal proceeds on his way ahead, she's allowed him to bury his remorse in the debris of his departure.
Tagore's moving story is of such beauty that even a mechanical cinematic adaptation would have won accolades on its strength. But Ray is not the one to rest on easy laurels. He delivers Tagore's soulful post in a soul-searching dispatch.
Ray's deft touches make the screenplay as enduring as the original. Every object of every frame underlines the pathos - whether Nandalal's trunk full of household memories, his damp, dusty dwelling-cum-office, the stagnant waters of the adjacent pond, the naive, amused villagers or even the poor old madman (Nripati Chaterjee)... disowned by the world, nevertheless a faithful companion to Ratan.
In fact, the madman is one of the film's integral metaphors. In an earlier scene, when Nandalal is unnerved by his crazy gestures, it's little Ratan who rescues Nandalal from an horrifying panic attack. Her caution to the madman is as ironic as it's humourous. "Haven't you seen how strong my master is?" We recollect that she's parroting what the earlier postmaster had remarked when Nandalal was introduced to her.
In the last frame, the same insane guy is lying dishevelled in the middle of the path ...On one end is Nandalal on his way home, on the other is Ratan, with a bucketful of water for the new post master. At the centre is the so-called madman, mute witness of their parting ways.