Ray’s final period as a director was effected by his ill health and while some critics have remarked on the predominance of sequences shot indoors in his final films, I’m not sure of the validity of such a statement considering Ray’s best films, Charulata and The Music Room, unfold in a similar contextual space. Agantuk, released in 1991, was Ray’s final film and although it is not as masterful as some of his best works, it is still impressively directed. The story of a long lost uncle coming to stay with his niece in Calcutta leads to an investigation about identity, personal prejudices and urban values that continue an interest with characters out of sync with mainstream contemporary India. Disappearance and re-appearance is an abiding theme in Mrinal Sen’s Absence trilogy and the arrival of Uncle Mitra (Utpal Dutt) sets up a fascinating ideological conflict between two generations reminiscent of Sen’s bravura dissection of middle class anxieties. Thematically, the philosophical debate between Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee) and Mitra on the fine line between the civilised lifestyles of the urban middle class and the so called barbarism of rural Indian tribes reiterates an invaluable discourse that has marked Ray’s greatest works; the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy. In an interview conducted in 1992 by Kerstin Andersson, Ray refers to his last three films, Ganasatru, Branches of the Tree and Agantuk as ‘political films‘ (Cardullo, 2007: 205). What makes this a significant admission by Ray is that whereas academics and critics alike criticised Ray for his apolitical cinema, his final films, perhaps even a loose trilogy about urban civilisation, are relatively unexplored in their explicitly stated political content.
What Agantuk tells us about Ray as an individual at the end of his life is a fundamental and absolute rejection of modernity ‘I don’t believe in modern life. I am disappointed, disillusioned‘ (Cardullo, 2007: 211). Ray’s disillusionment with modern life is underlined in the final sequence of Agantuk. Having claimed a substantial financial inheritance, Mitra leaves his entire share to his niece then departs to continue his anthropological studies abroad. The political symbolism of such an act of good will should not be overlooked since Mitra’s rejection of capitalist wealth can be interpreted as an extension of Ray’s disillusionment with modern life and all its materialist trappings. Mitra’s preference for the simplicity of rural life is shared by the director. Given this was Ray’s last film it is not surprising that Mitra feels most content and in his element amongst the tribes of India as illustrated in the penultimate sequence that sees his niece, a reluctant dancer, join in with the Santals as they perform a traditional dance. This moment is significant, returning to a journey Ray commenced in the rural with Pather Panchali. Although the urban intersected on many occasions, it was the rural that Ray seemed to offer the most consistently articulate observations on India and particularly Bengal. This may not be a masterwork but it does tell us a lot about Ray’s outlook on life at a time when his was sadly drawing to a close.
Satyajit Ray Interviews, Edited by Bert Cardullo, University Press of Mississippi, 2007