The four young men from Calcutta (from the left: Hari, Ashim, Sanjoy and Shekhar)
In any reappraisal of Satyajit Ray, this should be a crucial film. It is one of the best-known of Ray’s films in the West and often quoted as his ‘masterpiece’. I’m not sure that this is the case in India. Its Western success isn’t difficult to understand as it mirrors similar European and American films which place a small group of middle-class city dwellers in an alien landscape, exploring their interaction with ‘local’ people and, of course, falling out with each other. The film most often quoted is Renoir’s blissful Une partie de campagne (1936), partly because of Ray’s relationship with Renoir during the shooting of The River in 1950. However, there are other similar films and the fact that the four young men share a common background also links to the structure of Hollywood films that came later such as the Big Chill (1983) and Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Either way, the film clearly distinguishes itself from much of Indian Cinema in terms of its narrative strategies.
In the West the film is usually seen as a comedy – one in which some of the young men have their ideas challenged and learn something about themselves. Though I do find several scenes amusing, much of the time I also find myself getting angry at the behaviour of the young men and I think I prefer the readings that place the film in relation to Ray’s changing perspective at this time. It seems to me quite a critical film, preparing the way for the early 1970s films.
The outline is straightforward. The four young men drive out from Calcutta over the West Bengal border into Bihar state, heading for the forests of the Palamau region. The area is now in Jharkhand the state created out of part of Southern Bihar in 2000. The group get lost and decide on a whim to look for somewhere to stay. They reach a village and learn that there is a forest bungalow nearby. These bungalows are owned by the Forestry Service and can be booked in advance through the local ‘Conservator’ – as a sign clearly says. They are not for casual use. The men ignore this and bribe the caretaker to accommodate them. Over the next few days they visit the village to drink and also meet another middle-class family group who own a summer house nearby. This family comprises an older man with his unmarried daughter, his widowed daughter-in-law and her small boy.
The four men are identified by various characteristcs. Ashim is the wealthiest and most confident, Sanjoy is the most studious and reserved, Hari is a rather stupid sportsman and Shekhar is the butt of the other’s jokes. He is short and round and eager to impress – he also has to borrow money and razors etc. The men misbehave in several ways, abusing the caretaker, whose wife is sick, and a local man they hire as a servant. They get drunk and fail to turn up for a breakfast invitation.
The local people whom they offend and treat badly are Santals – a so-called tribal people who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different. These people do not have a caste system, but they are treated as ‘low caste’ by the young Brahmins and the young Santal women in particular attract the men. The attitude of the Calcutta men is similar to the attitude of the British during the Raj – something flagged up by the references towards Western culture made by the young men.
The men also ‘fail’ in their attempts to build relationships with the young widow and her sister-in-law. In both cases, the women prove more mature and socially adept. Ironically, of the four young men, Shekhar who is the most ‘vulgar’ of the four is also in some ways the most honest of them. He is most open about what he does and although he treats the local women as creatures who can be ‘bought’, he does at least attempt to pay them and treat them fairly. There is clear class commentary here as Ashim and Sanjoy effect a superiority of status and intellect over Shekhar. I found Hari to be without any redeeming features and Ashim and Sanjoy to be both weak and indecisive. (I realise that I’m probably applying my general aversion to boorish behaviour by rich kids in a UK or US context to a different setting.) Perhaps I’m being too harsh but the genius of Ray is in presenting these characters in ways that expose their attitudes but then seduce us back into following the narrative in an almost seamless fashion.
In the introduction to the film when it was shown on Channel 4, Sharmila Tagore who plays Aparna, the unmarried young woman who attracts Ashim, comments on what she felt was the strong characterisation of the women in the film:
“In Ray’s films the women are of superior moral sensibilities and the men are like helpless children. The women understand the men better and the men are still trying to find themselves.”
This certainly seems to be the case in this film. There are actually four young women in the film and they all to some extent have the upper hand in one way or another. (The fourth is the tiny role offered to Aparna Sen who appears in a flashback as the young woman who ditches Hari in Calcutta and thus perhaps sets up his behaviour on the trip.) My slight concern here is that Ray’s concern might be simply to use the women in order to explore the alienation and unease felt by the men in the changing cultural and political climate of Calcutta. As Sharmila Tagore points out, Ray is the urban Calcutta man using this trip to the country to explore issues in Calcutta. The most famous scene in the film is a picnic during which the the six young middle class Calcutta urbanites play a high culture party game requiring both memory skills and a play on literary and political/cultural knowledge. Aparna lets Ashim win the game almost to underline the narrative’s gender strategies.
It will be interesting to compare how I feel about these scenes in comparison with Ray’s other narrative about Calcutta types on holiday in Kanchenjunga (thanks to Omar’s discovery of the film on YouTube), but I’m already struck by the differences in the forest bungalow scene depicted in Aparna Sen’s own film, Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001). Here the Bengali man is well-adjusted and in control and ‘Mrs Iyer’ is the character who must learn to adapt to her situation.
The other interesting aspect of Days and Nights In the Forest is its relationship to Bengali literary culture. The film is based on a novel by Sunil Ganguly (aka Gangopadhyay) the celebrated novelist and poet who also provided the source novel for Satyajit Ray’s next film The Adversary (1970). According to Andrew Robinson in his biography of Ray, Satyajit Ray: the inner eye (new edition 2003), the major literary reference in the film is to an account of Palamau written by Sanjiv Chatterjee in the late 19th century and described by Robinson as an important cultural document for Bengalis – representing a cultural experience akin to that of East Coast Americans in the 19th century and the romantic lure of the ‘Wild West’. Sanjoy reads aloud from this account as the car heads for Palamau at the beginning of the film, focusing on the attraction of the Santhal women. Robinson goes on to point out that Ray adapted Ganguly’s novel but retained only the outline narrative structure and importantly changed the four Calcutta men from unemployed youths making a train trip to the alienated urban middle class. The Palamau references don’t appear in Ganguly’s novel. Robinson suggests that some of the actors involved in the film (Soumitra Chatterjee as Ashim) and in The Adversary (Dhritiman Chatterjee who plays the lead) were uncomfortable with the middle class characters created by Ray and thought that Ganguly’s characters, though cruder were more complex. Though admiring of Ray’s skill in creating his narrative, the actors perhaps thought the characters were ‘letting down’ the true Bengali culture. Here then is Robinson’s exploration of the Bengali/Western divide over how the film works. I’m intrigued now by Ganguly’s work and I am tempted to see this as an example of Ray’s skill in taking a narrative outline that works and using it for his own purposes. There is a suggestion that Ray is mostly interested in characters and not narrative as such and that he succeeds when someone else provides the outline.
I’m going to save discussion of the camera style of the film until later, only remarking here that it serves the narrative’s purpose very well and effectively represents the environment. I was also struck by the number of low angle medium long shots of characters entering the frame.
I think my conclusion is that the praise by Western critics for this seeming comedy of middle class mores rather misses the point (all those references to Renoir and Chekhov). Ray thought that this was “the most contemporary of my films in feeling” (Seton, revised ed. 2003: 283) and it strikes me that the film is indeed primarily about Bengali society in 1969. I enjoyed the film and I confess to a frisson of nostalgia in the scene when Ashim leafs through the LP covers in Aparna’s room and the Beatles LP ‘Rubber Soul’ pops up between Mozart and Segovia, ‘Indo-Jazz’ and traditional Bengali music. I was mentally calculating the time-lag from changing UK middle class musical choices to those in Calcutta in 1969 – contemporary indeed.