KANCHENJUNGHA (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962, India) – ‘Why accept a life of endless submission?’

k

The title to Ray’s first film in colour shares its name with the third highest mountain in the world. It is perhaps the least seen of his films and the original negative has unfortunately been damaged beyond repair. However, in 2008, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the digital restoration of the film from the copy of the master negative which were recently discovered in the US and UK. Sandip Ray (Ray’s son) who is also a film maker has said that 95 percent of the black and white films directed by his father have been restored by the Academy. It is encouraging that film preservation does not solely limit itself to great American classics, extending its reach to film makers like Ray. Film preservation and restoration of this kind is also likely to allow scholars, academics and fans to reappraise the work of Ray, with a much more concerted aesthetic consideration. Andrew Robinson’s definitive work on Ray offers one of the best explanations for the film’s relative obscurity:

‘Kanchenjungha’s distribution abroad suffered from its difficulties at home. In the US Edward Harrison released it in 1966 to mixed reviews. In Europe it went unseen, bar one festival, because, it appears, its producers failed to make available a subtitled print. Those critics who did manage to see it with subtitles, felt it would have run well in Britain; it shares much of the appeal of the later Days and Nights in the Forest. That view was confirmed by the appreciative response to its British television premiere in 1988.’

Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, pg 136.

Indian cinema scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha notes that ‘the film is remarkable for its use of pastel colours’ but ‘existing prints do not always reproduce Ray and Mitra’s intended colour schemes’. Ray did not experiment with colour again until the early seventies when he directed ‘Ashani Sanket’ (Distant Thunder) in 1973. Similarly like Kurosawa, Ray’s minor films are just as fascinating and accomplished as the major films championed by the critics and academia.

A multi narrative family melodrama, the film was also significant for marking Ray’s first original screenplay and perhaps it is of little surprise that he chose to focus on the lives of an upper class Bengali family, dominated by the arrogant figure of a wealthy industrialist and staunchly conservative patriarch, Indranath Roy Choudhury. I would argue that this film firmly belongs in the company of Ray’s female melodramas including ‘Devi’, ‘Mahanagar’, and most strikingly ‘Charulata’ with which it shares a sympathetic feminist concern. However, Ray’s experimental use of an ensemble cast, several overlapping story lines and real time narrative signalled a shift away from the rural context of his previous films. The subtle and understated manner with which Ray deals with human relationships is complemented by the shifting weather patterns, providing a concern with how nature determines mood.

The narrative largely focuses on the self determination of Indranath’s daughter, Monisha. The family excursion to the hill station at Darjeeling is organised so that Monisha can meet a possible suitor (an engineer who has just returned from England) her father has chosen. It is an arranged marriage and one that the mother secretly disapproves because she does not want her daughter to face a similar life of unhappiness. The mother is played by Ray regular Karuna Bannerjee (Apu’s mother) and her relative silence (until the final moments of the film) articulates her submissive position within the family. However, this being a family melodrama, disruption emerges in the form of Ashoke, a young student who strikes up an unexpected friendship with Monisha. In addition to the emerging relationship between Monisha and Ashoke, Ray also interweaves the stories of the elder daughter, Anima and the spoilt son, Anil. Anil (played effortlessly by Ghatak regular Anil Chatterjee) is represented as the mischievous playboy who models himself on popular Indian film stars. Ray seems to critique the superficiality of the movie business with Anil’s boisterous and impulsive character. Whilst Anil’s character is arguably utilised for light comic relief and to probe the eccentricities of the family structure, Amina’s disintegrating relationship with her alcoholic husband provides an embittered contrast to the innocent relationship between Monisha and Ashoke.

‘The underlying psychology of the film derives in large part from the setting. In order to understand the effect of that on the characters we have to appreciate what Darjeeling means to Bengalis. In 1912 Sukumar Ray compared it to Bournemouth in a letter from Britain, mainly because of the steep roads they share, but the analogy could be taken just a little further: people visit both places to escape the big city, and they behave differently in them from the way they do at home. ‘Darjeeling is something very special for Bengalis,’ said Ray, ‘because you have the sea at one end of Bengal and the snow-peaks at the other. In that narrow waist of India you get the full range of landscapes.’

Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, Pg 137

Melodrama proves to be the perfect vehicle for Ray to probe the contradictions, despair and false hubris that dictates the lives of the upper class Bengali family. Unlike Ghatak who regularly used the family as a metaphor for partition, Ray’s study of family is more conventionally related to class, the representation of gender and especially tradition. What does stand out in terms of aesthetic considerations in regards to framing and composition when comparing the film to his earlier films is the illuminating and modern use of negative space – at times the empty silences, awkward glances and isolation of characters within the landscape reminded me of Antonioni and in particular ‘Red Desert’, (1964) which was also embraced for its expressionistic and inventive use of colour.

‘The father, Indranath Roy Chowdhury, played to perfection by Chhabi Biswas, is a bully of a type that no longer quite exists in Bengal with the passing of the generation that served the British Raj, but his general outline remains only too familiar. Ray shows very little sympathy with him – not because he assisted the Raj and made himself rich, but because he is a philistine who has suppressed his wife and regards his own daughter as a marketable commodity.’

Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989,Pg 138

It is Indranath who is finally viewed as the underlining cause of the unhappiness and anxiety experienced by mother and daughter. His sense of class superiority is attacked by Ashoke, a symbol of the Bengali middle class, when the downtrodden graduate bluntly rejects Indranath’s grudging and despicable offer for employment. In many ways, Indranath and Monisha are two very familiar archetypes; the patriarchal bully and the repressed daughter, which reoccur throughout the family melodrama. It is unfortunate that Ray never made more films in colour yet his cinema is one that has become synonymous with realism when in fact the gentle tone and naturalistic rhythm of a film like ‘Kanchenjungha’ is more in line with the work of Ozu.

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