AGANTUK / THE STRANGER (Satyajit Ray, 1991, India/France) – Anthropological Articulations

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.

References

Satyajit Ray Interviews, Edited by Bert Cardullo, University Press of Mississippi, 2007

SHABDO / SOUND (Dir. Kaushik Ganguly, 2013, India)

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The mechanics of sound have been coldly explored in films before such as The Conversation, Blow Out and most recently Berberian Sound Studio. Shabdo (Sound, 2013), a Bengali film written and directed by Kaushik Ganguly navigates a similar world of film sound with a story about a Foley Artist who loses his grip on reality because of an unhealthy obsession with Foley sounds. This is a psychological drama that offers a compelling view of the Bengali film industry, taking you behind the scenes and detailing the painstaking processes that a Foley Artist goes through to reproduce and record the soundtrack for a film. Unsurprisingly, what I enjoyed most about Shabdo was the rich sound design, used brilliantly as an extension of the psychological disintegration of the Foley Artist.

GOYNAR BAKSHO / THE JEWELLERY BOX (Dir. Aparna Sen, 2013, India) – Ghost Stories

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Aparna Sen is a key figure in Bengali cinema, having started as an actress then later becoming a director. Her latest feature, Goynar Baksho (The Jewellery Box) is a supernatural ghost story set after partition. Sen has said that this is a film she has dreamed of making for a long time but rights to adapt the novel prevented her from doing so in the past. Much of the narrative unfolds in the ancestral home of a prestigious Bengali family which is evocatively recreated and anchored in the figures of a recently deceased widow and a dutiful housewife (Konkana Sen). The supernatural element which sees the ghost of the dead widow communicating with the housewife is both comical and poignantly depicted. In addition to the comic register, Sen is less successful when it comes to bringing to the mix a premature tale of repression in the character of the housewife. Although, this idea of two people who love each other but are kept apart by social norms is given a generational sweep, such a narrative strand is added much too late for it to develop fully. Nonetheless, Goynar Baksho features terrific performances and is certainly one of Aparna Sen’s most idiosyncratic films.