Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, India (Bengal) 1960)

The classic composition connecting sister, brother, river and railway in Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with the partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.

The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.

A classic noir melodrama composition. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) is seen here through a window into her room, behind lattice-work, with her father and brother in the background representing the pressure on her as bread-winner.
N.B. These screen grabs have been cropped because of technical problems.

Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.

Neeta at the point when she first realises that she might have TB. There are several low-angle compositions in the film and here the camera angle enhances the expression in her eyes and her gestures.

The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).

Neeta and Sanat (Niranjan Ray) meet by the river

Neeta and Sanat by the river with the train in the background

Neeta in this sequence is placed above Sanat in the frame – a signifier of her moral superiority?

Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?

My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.

I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.

Nayak (India 1966)

Andiram and Aditi meet in the dining car.

Andiram and Aditi meet in the dining car.

Nayak (or The Hero) was not released in UK cinemas, a relatively rare occurrence with the films of Satyajit Ray at a time when he was at the peak of his fame. There are various reasons why the film might not have appealed to UK distributors (assuming that it was available). It would be sad if it was because the film seems less ‘realist’ and certainly less concerned with the ‘exoticism’ of India – two traits appreciated by the supporters of Ray’s earlier village-set and ‘historical’ works. Perhaps it seemed inaccessible because despite its modernity it deals with Indian [upper] middle-class mores that were more difficult for the Western audiences of the time to understand. It also feels like one of the most carefully ‘constructed’ of Ray’s films. It shares with Kanchenjunga (1962) an original screenplay by Ray himself (many of his other films are based on Bengali novels) and a range of characters brought together in a controlled space. In Kanchenjunga it is the promenades of Darjeeling and in Nayak it is an express train travelling between Calcutta and Delhi.

Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (revised 2004) writes very well about this shared set-up and he describes it as a “microcosm of Bengali middle-class sanctimoniousness”. But it also seems to me that Ray himself is rather sniffy about his characters (or that’s the impression I get from Robinson) – which is dangerous because the central narrative line explores something close to Ray’s own experience. The ‘Hero’ is Arindam Mukherjee, a major star of Bengali popular cinema who has been invited to Delhi to receive an award. Because he has left his arrangements late he must take the train from Howrah instead of flying. Apart from the opening sequence, the whole narrative is played out on the train, though several earlier parts of the story are revealed through flashbacks. Ray decided to cast a ‘real’ star of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, in the title role, arguing that although he didn’t value ‘commercial cinema’ he did think that certain actors had talent which he could utilise. Robinson’s description of Ray’s feelings about working with Kumar suggest that the director behaved quite badly and indeed he seems to have patronised the actor. In order to pursue his own ideas about cinema and to raise questions about stardom, Ray wrote the second main character as a rather serious young woman who is the editor of a women’s magazine. Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) is pushed by her travelling companions into interviewing Arindam even though she herself is dismissive of popular cinema. Thus Ray is able to raise questions about ‘realism’, ‘conscience’ etc. in relation to cinema, especially since Aditi is sat in a ‘chair’ coach (i.e. the cheaper seats) and the couple meet in the dining car. Aditi is thus the ‘outsider’, commenting indirectly on the privileged world inside the sleeper.

The other passengers in the First Class sleeper include a businessman and his family, a elderly writer and an advertising executive with his younger wife. In the flashbacks we see the actor during incidents in which he has often behaved badly. We also experience two of his nightmares when he tries to doze off. I suspect that it is these scenes that put off distributors in the West. Ironically, Ray is using devices that might have appeared in Hollywood or Hindi cinema films from the 1940s/50s (though in his blog Omar refers instead to Fellini and Bergman).

Robinson tells us that most of the film was shot in a studio in Calcutta, yet there are several shots of the railway. I did feel that the sleeper was much more ‘modern’ and luxurious than the Indian Railways trains that I have ridden – but probably I wasn’t in the ‘best’ carriages! Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought Uttam Kumar was very good, as was Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t mind the flashbacks and although they are ‘traditional’ rather than ‘modernist’, they do signal a shift in Ray’s practice to include more non-realist material and this became a more common feature of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Nayak still qualifies as a ‘humanist film’ in which Arindam has all his weaknesses exposed but emerges at the end as a rounded character with his good and bad points – much like everyone else.

The more I think about the film, the more interesting it gets. A man and a woman meeting on a train, especially in a dining car, is a feature of several classic romances and thrillers – Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest for instance and the opening of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Ray subverts our expectations. The couple do not develop the kind of romantic relationship we might expect, instead we get a much more (intellectually) interesting relationship that develops as Aditi learns more about Arindam. In the same way, although we learn about Arindam’s life, this isn’t a critique of the film business as such. Marie Seton, in her Portrait of a Director (1971), writes very well about the meanings of Nayak. She suggests that the film tells us a great deal about the people in the sleeper compartment and also explores several aspects of Bengali society. For instance, she comments on Arindam’s handling of cash and his fears about losing his successful box office position, pointing out that the prevalence of so-called ‘black money’ in the financing of popular films in India at the time generated insecurity. Arindam’s background includes references to the Bengali theatre tradition and to left-wing politics – again ‘local’ factors in Bengali life in the 1960s. I was intrigued that the advertising man’s wife is called ‘Molly’. I wondered if this was an Anglo-Indian name? Or is it simply a corruption of a Bengali name? As Seton suggests it is these touches that make the film so rich in meanings.

This website offers a very detailed reading of the film (and is obviously full of spoilers):

http://filmandbookclub.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/satyajit-rays-nayak-scene-by-scene.html

Agantuk (The Stranger, India 1991)

Utpal Dutt as the stranger (Uncle Mitra)

Utpal Dutt as the stranger (Uncle Mitra)

Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.

The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)

Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).

The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.

BIFF 2013 #14: The Sound of Old Rooms (Kokkho-Poth, India 2011)

Sarthak's son looks up at the old house

Sarthak’s son looks up at the old house

BIFF19logoKolkata is a city steeped in memory and cultural history. The principal city of British India, it has over the last fifty years fallen behind Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai in terms of economic development. But it won’t give up its self-image of ‘cultural capital’. 2011 marked 150 years since the birth of perhaps the greatest cultural icon in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore – the Nobel Prizewinning writer of poetry and prose and the great polymath of Bengali culture. The Sound of Old Rooms is both a celebration of Tagore’s influence and cultural legacy and an attempt to look forward to the future. Sandeep Ray’s film focuses on teacher-poet Sarthak Roychowdhury. The filmmaker made an earlier film about the poet’s family and here he uses some of the earlier footage to trace the life of his ‘character ‘ from his college days through to the publication of a book of his poetry and up to fatherhood in his early forties. The 72 mins film uses a variety of formats from 8mm film to contemporary digital video footage.

For anyone who became interested in the world of Bengali students and aspiring intellectuals as seen in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fascinating film. (But Sandeep Ray is not to be confused with Sandip Ray, the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.) But even without that background, audiences should quickly warm to the central character. Two of my favourite scenes concern the visits Sarthak makes to his literary agent/publishing broker. This wily character does a quick calculation on the margin of a newspaper page and agrees to find a publisher for Sarthak’s poems, confident that he will make a profit. Years later he appears to be hoarding the last few copies of the book which has nearly sold out its 500 copy print run and he tells Sarthak that Tagore didn’t have that level of success with his first publication. These are the kinds of scenes you don’t normally get in an arts documentary – the agent trying to open the bottle of booze that Sarthak has brought as a gift, Sarthak grilling the agent’s assistant to find out if there are secret copies. I like the reality of the writer’s life that the film presents. On the one hand, Sarthak has used up all his creative energy in producing this first book and faces the usual problem of how to follow it up. In the meantime he has to earn money giving home tuition and taking teaching jobs outside Kolkata. At one point he has to take empty beer bottles back to a shop and is dismayed that the return deposit rate has dropped. At other times he chides taxi drivers for trying to overcharge him by a rupee (a rupee is worth not much more than 1p in UK money).

But the film is also about Sarthak’s family and the old three-storey building in which they have always lived. We meet his parents and eventually his wife Ritu who Sarthak met at university. Sarthak’s father is mostly in the background but his mother and Ritu feature strongly. Sarthak’s relationships with the two women in his life are structured around tradition and modernity. At one point he reminds Ritu that she has come to live in Sarthak’s parents’ house just like his mother and his grandmother before her, but at another point he says “we got our Masters in friendship, now we’re working on our PhD in relationships”. Ritu and Sarthak’s mother are both strong characters and very likeable. The film is full of fascinating juxtapositions. In the cluttered old house with little more than a bed and some bookshelves, Sarthak and Ritu happily slurp bowls of Maggi instant noodles and in an old bar they discuss Gayatri Spivak (and Jacques Derrida in a taxi). At other times we see them taking train trips in much the same way as those characters in the earlier Bengali movies. Ritu teaches full-time up until the birth of her son. The birth changes the lives of Sarthak and Ritu and this is the film looking forward – even if the whole family will still be listening to the sounds of old rooms. Sarthak wants his son to be aware of the memories in the house even as he looks to the future.

This documentary has been very successful around the world and there is a useful Facebook page detailing its progress through various festivals. The filmmaker also has a website.

Here’s the trailer:

I found the film fascinating and hugely enjoyable. Sarthak is the filmmaker’s cousin and he participated in the production as well as being the subject. This relationship is only evident in the ease in which Sandeep Ray is able to present the events of Sarhak’s life on screen. There is never a moment when we feel that we are voyeurs or that the scenes are being manipulated for the camera. There are snatches of his poetry throughout and a music score by Sion Dey. I’d like to see the film again to get a full appreciation of both the poetry and the music. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.

LFF 2012 #7: Mahanagar (India 1963)

The young women recruited by ‘Autonit’ listen to the manager explaining the work. Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) is 2nd from the left and Edith (Vicky Redwood) is on the far right.

It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.

At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.

The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.

The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.

The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few year’s after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.

Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.

Pratidwandi (The Adversary, India 1970)

Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee, second from right) receives his queuing slip as one of the many candidates for an interview.

This may be the Satyajit Ray film that speaks most directly to me – possibly because I first saw it when I was roughly the age of the protagonist and I can still relate directly to how he might be feeling.

The Adversary is usually quoted as the first film in Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ but I would place it as the second of the four contemporary Calcutta films (I notice that Ray’s biographer Marie Seton does this as well) or even the third of the more modernist films dealing with contemporary Bengali urban life beginning with Nayak, (The Hero) in 1966.

The Adversary begins with a negative sequence showing a funeral. Then we meet Siddhartha, a young man of 25 who is seeking work in an endless round of interviews. His father’s death led to the abandonment of his medical training after two years. Siddhartha’s younger brother Tunu is still a student but has now become a supporter of the Naxalites (the Marxist revolutionaries in West Bengal who are beginning to disrupt everyday life in Calcutta). The only breadwinner in the family is Sutapa, Siddhartha’s sister. She is a successful secretary angling to become the PA of the boss. Siddhartha ‘fails’ an interview because, in an often-quoted scene, he gives the ‘wrong’ answer to a question about the most significant event of the last few years when he suggests the courage of the ordinary people in the Vietnam War rather than the moon-landing. He then finds himself moping about the streets of Calcutta and sponging off his friends who are happier sampling the fleshpots of the city. The only opening appears to be via an old contact from his time in student politics.

At home, Siddhartha also faces the responsibilities of being the eldest male in the household and he feels that he must put pressure on his sister to give up her job when gossip about her and her boss reaches their mother. At the same time he is torn between admiring his younger brother’s political convictions and feeling that he should advise him to take a more conventional path. All around him Calcutta is on edge but one night he meets a young neighbour, Keya, and begins a relationship. Of course, she has her problems as well. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen the film, but I found it satisfying in one sense at least. Much as though I would have liked to be Tunu, I know that I couldn’t be. On the other hand Siddhartha is more or less exactly how I was at that age (including giving ‘wrong’ answers at interviews).

Why is it that I want to give a good kick up the backside to most of Ray’s middle class young men, but not Siddhartha? (I’m quite sympathetic to the young man in The Middleman, but he is rather naive and easily led.) Partly, I think it is the playing/direction, but also the location in a clearly adumbrated family situation and the portrayal of a recognisable urban milieu. It struck me that Ray captures something about Calcutta in 1970 that echoes Paris, London and North American cities – this film seems both the most rooted of Ray’s films in the modern India and the most universal (i.e. applicable to all great urban centres). If this sounds odd, remember that over a period of four or five years from 1968 to 1973, UK cities experienced mass demonstrations, strikes and power cuts, bombs planted by the IRA etc. Siddhartha is struggling to work out what to do with his life with everything around him disintegrating. He doesn’t just turn away from it, but tries to do something – to find a moral code to live by. Satyajit Ray himself gives the clue to his own motivation in making the film:

“There is no doubt that the elder brother admires the younger brother for his bravery and convictions. The film is not ambiguous about that. As a filmmaker, however, I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. as a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The younger brother has already identified himself with a cause. That makes him part of a total attitude and makes him unimportant. The Naxalite movement takes over. He, as a person, becomes insignificant.” (from an interview in Cineaste Vol 13 and reprinted in Art, Politics Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, Dan Georgakas & Lenny Rubenstein (1985) London: Pluto Press)

Here, I think is Ray’s stance in one neat statement.He goes on to say that you could make an ‘Eisensteinian’ film about the Naxalites, but to do so you’d have to focus on the leaders – the people who make the decisions. This is where I disagree with Ray – or at least I would hope that he is wrong as I respect his view of what is possible for a filmmaker. Why isn’t he interested in what motivates Tunu as well as Siddhartha? I haven’t seen his post 1975 films, so perhaps he does attempt to find out what happened to the revolutionaries later on? He’s right that Siddhartha is an interesting character and he does use his story to raise what is happening in the social/political world, but his refusal to deal with the reality of people with even harder decisions to make is disappointing.

The feel of the film is also down to the adoption of several devices used to explore the inside of Siddhartha’s head as well as the tensions in the environment. So, as well as the opening sequence, the film also moves into negative on a couple of other occasions and there are several dream sequences with expressionist imagery (Siddhartha sees his sister ‘exposing herself’ to the cameras of fashion photographers and his brother facing a firing squad), sudden flashbacks to a childhood with rural sequences and also to lectures that the young medical student would have attended. These latter come when Siddhartha is looking at a variety of women and add a comic tone to the otherwise grim round of despondency. (These inserts are similar to those in Dusan Makaveyev’s glorious satire Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1969)). Noticeable too are the backdrops to scenes. In one, huge and noisy crowds spill across the Maidan as Siddhartha and Keya meet on the roof of a new office block on Chowringhee.

I’ve seen these devices referred to as inspired by the French New Wave, but the dreams follow much older conventions and negative sequences were there in German Expressionist films of the 1920s. It’s more I think that the mix of stylistic devices is translated through the editing style – the transitions to flashbacks are quite abrupt – to create a disturbed and disorientated sense of time and place, compounded by the explosions and crowds on the street. Many of the scenes also take place at night and with the power cuts and failing lights the image is decidedly noirish. Unfortunately, I was watching the UK DVD distributed by Mr. Bongo and it isn’t very good. It looks like a poor copy of an American print with barely readable subs, a juddery image in the action scenes and very little tonal range overall.

In any consideration of Ray’s treatment of the characters and setting we should also remember that this is another adaptation, following Days and Nights in the Forest, from a Sunil Ganguly novel. Much of the novel is available in English via Google Books. Scanning through a few pages, it looks as if Ray has changed the structure and streamlined the cast of characters, but the tone seems closer to the novel than in the case of Days and Nights.

On a final personal note, I’m amazed to recall that during my first teaching job in 1976 I hired this film on 16mm (VHS cassettes were still to be introduced) and played it to several classes of 17 year-olds during a week. These were not film students but vocational students (e.g. science technicians, telecomms workers etc.) coming to me for General Studies. I don’t remember an uproar and they weren’t all asleep. Similar students watched Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and some of Joris Ivens’ documentaries made in China. Nowadays I know some university teachers who would hesitate to show a film like The Adversary to undergraduates. Is it teachers who have changed – or students or film culture?

Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, India 1969)

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.