In the early 1920s, Nobel-winning Bengali poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore wrote the play “Red Oleanders” (a.k.a “Raktokarobi”), a lyrical and allegorical tale about a warm-hearted woman who rallies the working class against a lazily greedy king. Unlike a lot of Tagore’s other work, this piece didn’t translate well abroad and remains relatively obscure outside of the Indian subcontinent.
Writer-director Amitava Bhattacharya’s “Red Oleanders Raktokarobi” isn’t, strictly speaking, an adaptation. It’s about a theater troupe attempting to mount a production of Tagore’s play, and it tracks how the impresario in charge (played by Shantilal Mukherjee) and his opinionated star (Mumtaz Sorcar) begin in their real lives to fall into the patterns of the story they’re trying to tell onstage.
Bhattacharya (who previously made the provocatively gender-bending film “Conditions Apply”) ties his take on Tagore to contemporary politics, in ways that may be hard for American audiences to follow — even though the characters speak bluntly and somewhat stiltedly about subjects like democracy and independence.
Still, Bhattacharya has skill as a visual stylist and ambition as a storyteller. The best scenes in “Red Oleanders Raktokarobi” layer live theater, poetic allusion and Bollywood pop — which makes them exciting to watch, even when their meaning isn’t absolutely clear.
‘Red Oleanders Raktokarobi’
In Bengali with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena