“Days and Nights in the Forest” - Satyajit Ray (1970)

Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, 1970) was not a hit in India at the box office when it was first released.  But enthusiastic reviews from international critics soon followed, and the film is now considered one of Ray’s finest works [1,2,3,4].  The contrasting responses to the film stem from differing expectations on the part of filmgoers.  This movie about four yuppie bachelors off on a slumming vacation in a rural region starts out looking like a good old comic buddy film, with stereotypical characters and wacky hijinks.  And some  Indian viewers were probably expecting the film to stay on that key.  But those familiar with Satyajit Ray probably knew there would be more to the film, and that was definitely the case, even if the average Indian moviegoer wasn’t ready for it.  As Ray himself remarked [5]:
"People in India kept saying: What is it about, where is the story, the theme?. . . .  And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands."
In fact the film is, instead of a buddy film, more of an ensemble film, with intertwining narrative threads associated with each of the four male principals.  This is a narrative style more akin to that of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), and Ray had earlier employed it in his Kanchenjungha (1962).  Here in Days and Nights in the Forest, we have four individually different young men, each seeking his own identity within a desired social harmony, a fascinating topic in any context, but particularly so in contemporary Calcutta, which was going through dramatic upheaval in those days.  In fact this combination of existential self-expression within the Indian social context was something that Ray was moving into at this stage of his career.  In this connection we could say that Days and Nights in the Forest is a precursor to what came to be referred to as Ray’s “Calcutta Trilogy” – The Adversary (Pratidwandi, (1970), Company Limited (Seemabaddha, 1971), and The Middleman (Jana Aranya, 1976).

The four young bachelors in Days and Nights in the Forest are all distinct but are believable characters and are probably recognizable from your own experience.  Each is trying to find his own path in the competitive world of social interaction.
  • Ashim (played by Satyajit Ray favorite Soumitra Chatterjee) is the most successful and self-confident of the four. But his ambitious nature pushes him to sometimes emulate those above him and to assume the role of a poseur.
     
  • Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee), like Ashim, is well educated and civilized, but he is also more cautious.  He is inherently a rationalist and a worrier.  He has to think things over carefully before he acts.  Thus he has the longest perspectival horizon of the four.
     
  • Hari (Samit Bhanja) is an athlete and less reflective than the others.  He often tries to get his own way by instinctive physical aggression.  Something of a narcissist, he can be quickly resentful when things don’t go his way.
     
  • Shekhar (Rabi Ghosh) tries to make up for his diminutive stature and other inadequacies by playing the clown. He has a relatively short perspectival horizon and is addicted to gambling.  Interestingly, though, he consumes the least amount of alcohol among the four and avoids getting drunk.
Ashim and Sanjoy, being more sophisticated, tend to pair up.  Similarly, Hari and Shekhar, who are more common, also are often paired.  Like most young men, these guys are interested in “playing the game”, but want to see how far they can bend the rules of the game.  On their trip they have come to a forested area of natural beauty in the neighboring state of Bihar that is inhabited by the indigenous Santhal tribal people.  Now far removed from the relatively restrictive social climate of Calcutta and relishing their social superiority over the free-and-easy Santhal people, our four bachelors are looking to have some fun, particularly if they can find some attractive members of the opposite sex with whom to share it.

A theme that permeates this story is that of dignity and maintaining face.  These young men are trying to move up in the world, and losing face in any situation can be particularly disturbing.  While they are on their trip, they are hoping to free themselves from such concerns, but it doesn’t turn out that way.

So the story of this film actually comprises four interconnected narrative threads, one for each of the four bachelors.  Nevertheless, we can structure the plot into five basic acts.

1.  On the Road
The opening thirty minutes introduce the viewer to the four young men as they travel by car into the forested area of Bihar.  When they arrive at a place they like, they are confident that they can rent a government-owned bungalow, without having first secured the required permit, simply by bribing the local caretakers.  This is the high-handed way that they want to operate among these yokels.

When they walk to the local tribal village, Hari and Shekhar are quickly excited at the sight of a voluptuous local girl, Duli (Simi Garewal), who boldly asks them for money.  In general, though, the men are seeking to get away from it all and seem intent on foregoing usual personal duties such as shaving and getting drunk at the local pub every night.

2.  New Social Opportunities
Although they wanted to go slumming among the tribals, the next day Shekhar sees something that changes things.  He notices from a distance two well-dressed and attractive young ladies who don’t look like local girls.  They are Aparna, aka Mini (Sharmila Tagore), and her widowed sister-in-law Jaya (Kaberi Bose) who are staying in a nearby bungalow with Mini’s father, Sadashiv Tripathi.  Now appearances matter, and the young men return to shaving themselves.

As they become more acquainted with these personable and independent-minded young women,  Sanjoy finds himself talking to Jaya, while Ashim is attracted to the culturally broad-minded  Mini.  Meanwhile Hari and Shekhar are still looking for opportunities with the sensuous village girl Duli.

3.  Losing Face
There now follows a series of encounters between the four men and both the locals and the Tripathi family that challenge the presumed air of superiority affected by the four bachelors.  On one occasion the men are outside bathing themselves at a well and are embarrassed when Mini and Jaya stop by in their car to return Hari’s wallet that he had dropped while visiting their bungalow.  This is a double loss of face: (1) for the men to be caught almost naked by the women and (2) Hari had abusively attacked their servant by mistake and fired him for stealing his wallet.

Later the four guys are drunk again and walking home when Mini sees them in their grossly inebriated states from her car.  And on another occasion the men are confronted by a governmental official for not having obtained government authorization to rent their bungalow, and they are ordered to leave immediately.   Ashim tries all his presumptive airs of social importance on the man to no avail.  But just then Mini and Jaya pass by and impress on the official to forget the matter.

4.  The Picnic
The four men get together with Mini and Jaya for a picnic on the grass, and this segment is so interesting it stands out in one’s memory.  While seated in a circle, they all play a memory game, which challenges their ability to cite and remember famous names.  The way the game is filmed is exquisitely revelatory of the six personalities involved.  The names they choose, which reflect their social and cultural horizons, and the way they interact with each other juxtaposes the personalities of the figures we have been watching.  A key ingredient to this mix (and, more generally, throughout the film) is the various reaction shots on the participants’ faces to what is being said [6]. 

In the game, it comes down finally to Ashim and Mini as to who will win.  But at this point Mini intentionally defaults in order to preserve Ashim’s sensitive ego.

5.  The Fair
The intensity of the drama now rises to the culminating 26-minute segment of the village fair.  All the four narrative threads of the four bachelors are shown in parallel-action segments, with each featuring the defining elements of the four men of interest.  All of it is punctuated by the pounding rhythms of the village dancers at the fair.
  • Shekhar borrows money from Ashim and immerses himself in his self-destructive passion – gambling. 
     
  • Hari drags Duli out into the woods in order to satisfy his sexual appetites.  This he achieves, but he pays a heavy price when he encounters the previously-fired servant in the woods. 
     
  • The affable Jaya, presumably encumbered by the restrictive social conditions Hindu society places on widows, daringly invites Sanjoy alone to their cottage.  There she doffs her bland widow-style garment and enticingly dons a more glamorous outfit.  But the habitually cautious Sanjoy is too hesitant to be able to respond.
     
  • Ashim and Mini get together for the most interesting of the four encounters.  She chides him for putting on airs and his adolescent interested in rule-breaking.  And she reminds him that life involves more serious concerns.  Ashim, compelled by Mini's authenticity to be more authentic himself, finally confesses that he is in love with Mini and asks to see her again, to which offer she modestly gives him her address where she will be staying in Calcutta.
At the end of the film, the four men, variously chastened or enlightened by their experiences in the forest village, pack up their car and head back to the big city.


Days and Nights in the Forest offers the viewer a rich and believable tapestry of young men hoping to interact successfully in the world around them. Particularly, it gives a realistic and subtle portrayal of young men tentatively forging relationships with young women, which can often be intricate and precarious with no assurances of success.  But the rewards can be enormous.  Ray’s presentation on this score is beautiful and insightful.  Even embedded in the socially complex Indian context, he has evoked feelings of a universal nature.


Notes:
  1. Jamie Russell, “Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri) (1969)”, BBC, (23 July 2002).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Days and Nights in the Forest”, The Guardian, (26 July 2002).   
  3. Ranjan Das, “Aranyer Din Ratri” Upperstall, (2014). 
  4. Steve Vineberg, “Neglected Gem #28: Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)”, Critics At Large, (9 November 2012).  
  5. Philip Kemp, “Aranyer Din Ratri - Film (Movie) Plot and Review”, Film Reference, (n.d.).  
  6. Ben Ewing, “Days and Nights in the Forest”, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, (25 February 2010).

“Parash Pathar” - Satyajit Ray (1958)

Satyajit Ray’s third film, Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), was an unexpected change of pace following the poetic realism of his first two features – Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956).  For this occasion, Ray ventured into lighthearted fantasy. This was something of a deviation from what would become Ray’s usual, more serious, tenor (he did quickly return to the Apu theme and complete the trilogy with Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)).  And as with the Apu trilogy, the cinematography was by Subrata Mitra, the film editing was by Dulal Dutta, and the musical score was written by famous musician-composer Ravi Shankar.

It turns out, in fact, that Parash Pathar is rather unique to Ray’s entire oeuvre.  Although the film is often referred to as a comedy, I wouldn’t call it that. It is not so much a story played for laughs, but is more of a social fable akin to the works Nathanael West and Voltaire, or even De Sica’s and Zavattini’s Miracle in Milan (1951). Thus, like those works, the film’s real contribution lies in the implied commentary it makes on the foibles of modern society. 

The fabular theme of Parash Pathar, as indicated by the title, concerns a modern day discovery of the mythical “philosopher’s stone” – a marvelous substance long obsessively sought by alchemists that could purportedly change base metals such as iron into gold. Medieval alchemists, unaware of the nature of chemical elements, for centuries believed that such a potent substance might exist and to find it meant immeasurable wealth for the discoverer.  In Parash Pathar, a lower middle-class bank clerk in Calcutta stumbles upon such a stone and tries to come to terms with the life-altering consequences.

Ray’s screenplay for the film was based on a short story of the same name by “Parasuram”, the pen name of Rajsekhar Bose, whose brother happened to be the Rays’ family doctor [1].  There are some curious aspects as to the way this story is told, however.  In particular, pivotal events in the narrative, such as the discovery of the stone and the main character’s accumulation of wealth, are passed over quickly and barely covered.  Instead, Ray presents the viewer with extended relatively static situations that show the main character’s state of mind at various stages in the story.  This may have been an effort on Ray’s part to accentuate the mouth-agape and bug-eyed  theatrics of his lead actor, Tulsi Chakraborty, whose onscreen personal dominates the film’s flavor and tone.

The film’s narrative passes through three basic phases.

1.  A Life-changing Discovery
Paresh Chandra Dutta (played by Tulsi Chakraborty) is a middle-aged bank clerk who is facing an impending layoff and is generally bored with his humdrum life.  On the way home from work one day, he gets caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in a public park, where he happens upon a small marble stone which he apparently pockets and gives to the small boy Poltu who lives next door to him.  The boy soon discovers the marble’s miraculous powers and demonstrates them to Paresh – just bringing the stone into contact with another metal object will instantly transform that object into one of pure gold.  Paresh now bribes the lad with a ton of sweets in order to buy back the invaluable nugget. 

Paresh is now excited, but his traditional cultural upbringing makes him fearful that the gods will punish him for having such a powerful instrument and that he should discard the stone.  However, his wife Giribala (Ranibala Devi), being of a more modest practical bent, convinces him that he should at least first turn all her kitchen utensils into gold and then exchange them for cash at the gold bullion merchant bazaar. This Paresh does, and on the way back from the market he takes an extended taxi ride (which he can now easily afford) along the way of which he lapses into Walter-Mitty-like dreams about his newly acquired wealth.

This taxi ride, which occupies six minutes of screen time, is a memorable sequence in the film. As the taxi passes the steel frame of a multistory building under construction, Paresh stares at  it and presumably imagines it being touched by the stone in his pocket.  Other passing sites stir his imagination, and he dreams of being a high military commander and becoming so famous that a city statue of him is erected in his honor.  When he passes by a metal junkyard, the temptation is too great, and he orders the taxi to stop.  After browsing around in the yard, he packs up two iron cannonball to take home with him.

2.   Paresh Dutta, the Wealthy Patron
After the taxi ride, the action jumps forward, and Paresh is now a wealthy man.  He and his wife live in a mansion, they own a limousine, and Paresh has his own personal secretary, Priyotosh Biswas (Kali Banerjee).  Paresh has become a noted pillar of society and is sponsoring charity shows, bestowing prizes, and laying cornerstones to buildings he has commissioned.  And Priyotosh reminds him that he has recently been the Chief Guest at 26 functions.  All in all Paresh is now a bigwig.

Finally Paresh gets invited to an upscale cocktail party, and Ray’s nine-minute depiction of this event is another one of the film’s extended situational characterizations (and an opportunity for Tulsi Chakraborty’s histrionics).  The party is swamped with a sea of mindless platitudes and pseudo-intellectual chitchat, and Paresh is clearly out of his element.  Not used to alcohol, he gets drunk and frustrated at being ignored.  So before departing the scene, he decides to show the assembled guests just how great he is by dramatically demonstrating the prowess of his magical stone.

3.  The Collapse
The last third of the film is the most interesting part, because it expands on the social element of this story. The morning after the cocktail party, a sobering-up Paresh realizes he foolishly let the cat out of the bag regarding the secret to his wealth.  In no time, the cocktail party host, assuming that Paresh must have some secret formula for making gold, comes over to blackmail him about it.  When he fails to get satisfaction, the man exposes to the press what happened at his party.  Paresh’s mysterious wealth becomes front-page news.

Paresh is sure that the gods are finally punishing him and that the police will assume he is a smuggler or criminal.  After all, how could a lowly bank clerk have come up with so much gold?  He and Giribala decide to make a getaway.  Before leaving, he gives his mansion, his belongings, and his special stone to Priyotosh.  Then they escape with the police hot on their tail.
 
Meanwhile the news about Paresh and his magic stone lead to a general economic collapse, which is depicted in a five-minute sequence that offers the film’s best social satire.  People with gold belongings now figure that if Paresh can generate gold so easily, there will soon be a gold surplus and its value will plummet.  So there is a rush to sell gold on the market, which quickly does generate the feared devaluation.  Since many businesses have investments in the presumed safety of gold reserves, this leads to an overall stock market collapse.  Paresh’s boon has led to a nationwide panic and a possible ruination of the whole society.

The police eventually capture Paresh and accuse him of smuggling.  However, other elements of the police, believing in the stone’s magical powers, raid Paresh’s mansion, where they discover that Priyotosh, frustrated over his failing relationship with his girlfriend, is ill from having swallowed the stone. With the whole country swirling in turmoil, these police want to have doctors operate on Priyotosh and extract the stone from his stomach.  

But the doctors inform the police that X-rays reveal that the stone is rapidly dissolving in Priyotosh’s intestines.  When the stone finally completely dissolves, all the gold objects in the city that had been converted from base metals return to their original base-metal states. 

With the world returned to normal, Paresh, Giribala, and Priyotosh are released from custody and can cheerfully get on with life; and they take off together in a humble carriage as the film ends.


Parash Pathar has a pleasant feel to it, but I wonder if Ray had more extended plans for it or if there were significant narrative elements missing from the version I saw [2]. The character of Priyotosh has some attention devoted to it: he appears to be an Anglo-Indian who has a mad crush on a Hindu girl whom we never see. But nothing much comes of this character development, and the narrative effect of his presence is minimal. Similarly Paresh and Giribala have a family servant, Brajahari (Jahar Roy), on whom there is also some focalization, but his presence in the film, which is presumably for humorous effect, also seems to be truncated.

Overall, Parash Pathar’s best moments come in the three extended situation scenes (one in each act)  – the taxi ride, the cocktail party, and the gold panic – in which Ray can satirically portray various aspects of modern society.  We are reminded in these scenes that often what people value (such as gold or a famous Rembrandt painting) is rather artificial and dependent on the “crowd’s” opinions.  People are frequently shown to value something highly simply because everyone else does.  We should not forget that the truly important elements in life, such as love, have their intrinsic value.


Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 301-305.
  2. The listed running time for Parash Pathar at SatyajitRay.org, IMDb, and Wikipedia is 111 minutes, but the version of the film that I saw had a running time of 90 minutes.

“Rabindranath Tagore” - Satyajit Ray (1961)

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was one of the world’s remarkable cultural polymaths – he ranks right up at the top with the likes of Da Vinci and Al-Biruni.   In producing so many novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, dramas, poems, paintings, and more than two thousand songs, Tagore reshaped the entire landscape of Indian literature, music, and art. And enthusiasm for Tagore’s work was not just limited to his native Bengal: Tagore’s songs were used for the national anthems of India (Jana Gana Mana) and Bangladesh (Amar Shonar Bangla), and the Sri Lankan national anthem was inspired by his work.

So to celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s birth, the Indian government, at the insistence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, commissioned Satyajit Ray to make an hour-long documentary in English on the great poet [1].  Ray was a particularly apt choice.  Not only was Ray a consummate film artist, but his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, was personally acquainted with Tagore and his illustrious family.  And Ray, himself, had been schooled at the special academy, Santiniketan, that Tagore had founded.  Ray would proceed to make several films that were based on Tagore’s stories, including one that he was working on contemporaneously with this documentary film – Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), and The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984).

Making a documentary on Tagore may seem like a straightforward enterprise, but the remarkable subject’s range of expression presented challenges for Ray.  How could one capture in an hour-long film the full spectrum and magnificence of Tagore’s poetry, fiction, music, and art?  In particular, there was an issue with Tagore’s poetry.  Although he was justly famous in India, Tagore’s poetry was not known internationally until he traveled to England in 1912 and showed some of his own translations of his Gitanjali [2] collection of poems to English colleagues there.  These were enthusiastically received and came to the attention of famous poet William Butler Yeats, who praised Tagore’s poetry emphatically.  For a taste, here are some sample verses in English from Tagore’s Gitanjali [2]:
Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full. Thus it is that thou hast come down to me. O thou lord of all heavens, where would be thy love if I were not?
   
Thou hast taken me as thy partner of all this wealth. In my heart is the endless play of thy delight. In my life thy will is ever taking shape.
   

And for this, thou who art the King of kings hast decked thyself in beauty to captivate my heart. And for this thy love loses itself in the love of thy lover, and there art thou seen in the perfect union of two.    
. . .
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?

Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones.

He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put of thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!
In short order Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-European to be so honored.  However, a number of Indian critics have felt that the magic of Tagore’s Bengali verse has never been adequately captured in English.  For example, Amartya Sen remarked [3],
“Anyone who knows Tagore's poems in their original Bengali cannot feel satisfied with any of the translations (made with or without Yeats's help). Even the translations of his prose works suffer, to some extent, from distortion.”
Evidently Ray was of the same opinion, and he decided not to include any quotations or recitations of Tagore’s poetry in his documentary [4].  Ray also took the uncommon step of eschewing any interviews in his film   Ray did not want to just document Tagore’s achievements; instead he made the effort to evoke the inner spirit of his subject.   As he remarked [5],
“I put in as much work on it as on three feature films.  My approach to the biography was to stress Tagore as a human being and patriot.”
This involved staging some dramatized re-enactments from Tagore’s youth and surrounding circumstances.  But Ray avoided presenting any dramatized events showing the adult Tagore, because he knew that Tagore’s authentic visage was too familiar to many members of his intended audience.  So in the second half of the film he had to work with a lot of static photographic images and somehow make them more dynamic by employing subtle camera movements.  In the end,
“he came to the conclusion that the Tagore film would require more camera movement than any three of his feature films; that there would have to hundreds of opticals each worked out with mathematical exactitude.“ [6].
The result of all of Ray’s efforts was a moving and thoughtful evocation of an enlightened soul, the visual portrayal of which was graced by Ray’s own eloquent narration. 

The film opens with historical footage of the massive crowd that assembled in Calcutta for Tagore’s funeral in 1941.  Then it jumps back in time to cover the background of the wealthy and  prominent Tagore family, who were Bengali Brahmins and important social figures.  His grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore (1794–1846) and his father Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) were both important cultural personages who participated in the 19th century Bengali Renaissance and were actively involved with the Brahmo Samaj (Brahmoism) movement, a progressive monotheistic Hindu reform movement.  Rabindranath Tagore was the youngest of Debendranath’s fourteen children, many of whom became prominent writers and musicians.  Indeed, one of his sisters, Swarnakumari Devi (1855–1932), became the first published Indian woman novelist.

Surrounded by older, highly intellectual, siblings, Rabindranath, known as “Rabi”, couldn’t tolerate formal classroom instruction, and was instead largely home-schooled within the Tagore household.   Soon, even as a teenager, Rabi was writing poetry and stage plays and was inspired to take up Brahmoism.   This section of the film showing Rabi’s upbringing and his rigorous absorption of Indian, Persian, and Western culture includes a number of dramatized depictions of Rabi’s family environment that is effectively suffused with moody Indian music on the soundtrack [7]. 

Tagore quickly established himself as a leading Bengali intellectual, but in addition to his prolific authorial output (he would publish more than two hundred books over his lifetime), we also see other sides and interests of the man.  In 1901 Tagore founded an ashram and progressive school based on Upanishad principles at a Tagore family-owned estate at Santiniketan.  Over the next thirty years he would spend much of his time and energy to nurturing this school, which Tagore wanted to offer as a creative alternative to the robotic pedantry that infects most schools the world over. Later, in 1921, Tagore established Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan. Among those who later received schooling at Santiniketan were Satyajit Ray, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and later Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Tagore was also actively interested in politics, too, and he became fervently involved in the opposition to British governor Lord Curzon’s “divide-and-rule” intention to partition Bengal into Hindu and Muslim sectors that would fuel internecine communalism. (The idea of fanning the flames of identity politics in order to create mayhem and weaken the broader social order is, of course, a complex and recurring issue.  For other films touching on this subject in the Indian context, see my reviews of Viceroy’s House (2017) as well as Ray's  adaptation of another Tagore story, The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984).)

By 1912 Tagore was fifty-one and although famous in India, he was still relatively little known internationally.  The film now covers his trip to England and the publication of the English translation of some of his Gitanjali poems.  The resulting explosive popularity of this work led to Tagore receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 and a British knighthood in 1915. 

But Tagore still held true to his principles.  Europe was now engulfed in the self-destructive Great War, and Tagore in 1916 denounced the notion of nationalism as an underlying cause of this catastrophe.   Tagore was further disturbed by the cruel Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar massacre) undertaken by British troops firing on unarmed protestors, which led him to renounce his knighthood in 1919.

All the while, Tagore was continuing to express his spiritually influenced notions of rational humanism and  expand the range of his artistic output.  Remarkably, in his late sixties, he took up painting for the first time and demonstrated a marvelous flair for abstract surreal and expressionistic imagery.
 
In his latter years Tagore was also engaged in meeting up with and exchanging ideas with many famous intellectuals and cultural leaders from all over the world, including, of course, his longtime friend and, for the most part, ally, Mohandas Gandhi.  One such intellectual exchange was the interesting encounter that Tagore had with Alfred Einstein in 1930, which has been recounted by Amartya Sen [3]:
"The report of his conversation with Einstein, published in The New York Times in 1930, shows how insistent Tagore was on interpreting truth through observation and reflective concepts. To assert that something is true or untrue in the absence of anyone to observe or perceive its truth, or to form a conception of what it is, appeared to Tagore to be deeply questionable. When Einstein remarked, 'If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?' Tagore simply replied, 'No.' Going further - and into much more interesting territory - Einstein said, 'I agree with regard to this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.' Tagore's response was: 'Why not? Truth is realized through men.'"
From my perspective, Tagore’s Interactionist view expressed here is much richer and more profound than Einstein’s apparent Objectivist view [8].

At the very end of his life, Tagore saw that Europe, from whose admired rational-humanist principles he had been inspired to incorporate into his own thinking, was once again engaged in a self-annihilating conflagration.  And again he could see how closed-minded self-identity politics and nationalism could ruin even the greatest of civilizations. So on the occasion of his 80th birthday and now severely ill, he turned his critical eye one more time to the external culture from which he had drawn so much inspiration and which he most admired, but in which he also saw fatal weaknesses – England.  This resulted in one of his last public statements, Crisis in Civilization [9], and Ray eloquently summarizes Tagore’s feelings on these matters in this film’s closing section. 

As mentioned, Satyajit Ray’s film here focuses on Tagore, the enlightened spirit, rather than on the specifics of Tagore’s many artistic creations.  To a certain extend Amartya Sen’s essay on Tagore [3] has a similar focus, but Ray’s film is more eloquent and directly engaging.  Overall, Ray does seem to capture and evoke the spirit of Tagore, and for this reason this is an outstanding documentary film.

Note that Tagore's enlightened spirit included a social humanistic perspective that was in accord with the four fundamental principles requisite of a beneficial society, which I have labeled with the acronym RMDL [10]. 
  • R – Human Rights
  • M – Free and equitable exchange of goods and services, i.e. open Markets
  • DDemocratic governance
  • L – Rule of Law
But in recent times there have arisen populist rulers (think of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, et al.) who have gained support from significant sectors of society by evoking feelings of resentment, pride (masked as “dignity”), and suppression of alternative views [11,12].  These rulers have expressed contempt for RMDL and the principles it stands for.  What is needed now is widespread advocacy of the principles of RMDL in concise terms that people can understand and appreciate.  (“RMDL” is itself an attempt at such a concise expression.) Thus Rabindranath Tagore’s civilized and spiritually inspired messages are needed now more than ever. 

In particular, Tagore’s amalgamation of Western rational humanism and Eastern spirituality may well be what we need to save our increasingly interdependent but, on a human level, disconnected world. As he, himself, said in his Crisis in Civilization, perhaps a new dawn can arise from the East [8]:
“As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. “
Satyajit Ray’s Rabindranath Tagore is an eloquent introduction to a man who can help us bring about that new dawn.  Unfortunately, the visual condition of available copies of this film is atrocious, but it is still good enough for you to absorb its poetic and inspiring content.  I recommend that everyone have a look at this film and draw inspiration from this message from the East.
½

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 167-173.
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore”, (1 January 1992).   
  3. Amartya Sen, "Tagore and His India", The New York Review of Books (26 June 1997).   
  4. Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, I. B. Tauris, (1989, 2004), p. 278.   
  5. Marie Seton, op. cit., p. 169.
  6. Ibid., p. 170.
  7. Although Ray is not credited music composition for the film, his biographer Marie Seton said that he devised some of the film’s music (see ref. [1], p. 171).
  8. For further discussion on Interactionism, see my essay and the following reviews:
  9. Rabindranath Tagore, Crisis in Civilization, Indian Society for Cultural Co-operation and Friendship, (14 April 1941).   
  10. For further reflections on RMDL, see my reviews of 
  11. Roger Cohen, “Moral Emptiness: Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Greatness  Moral Emptiness Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Greatness”, Der Spiegel, (6 November 2017).  
  12. Anne Applebaum, “100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.”, The Washington Post, (6 November 2017).  

“Teen Kanya” - Satyajit Ray (1961)

Teen Kanya (Three Girls or Three Daughters, 1961) is a three-part anthology film by Satyajit Ray based on three early short stories of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – “The Postmaster” (1891), “Monihara” (“The Lost Jewels”, 1898), and “Samapti” (“The Conclusion”, 1893).  Tagore was a towering Bengali cultural figure and Nobel Laureate who also had been a  friend of Ray’s distinguished family.  Both Teen Kanya and Ray’s subsequent film, the documentary Rabindranath Tagore (1961), commemorated the centenary of Tagore’s birth. 

Because of the length of the collected segments, the film was released internationally without the second of the three stories, “Monihara”, included, and its English title was Two Daughters [1].  So most English-speaking viewers have only seen this truncated version.  In this review, however, I will refer to all three segments.

Given the monumental esteem in which Tagore was held in India, it took great self-assurance on the part of any filmmaker to modify Tagore’s stories when using them as a basis for making a film. However, Ray’s embellishments to Tagore’s stories in Teen Kanya, which were considerable with respect to “The Postmaster” and “Samapti” and which were criticized in India at the time, offered, in my view, significant enhancements [2].  Ray could do this, because he, like Tagore, was himself an artistic polymath.  He not only wrote, directed, and produced the film; here he also for the first time scored the film music. 

Earlier Ray had relied on famous Indian musician-composers for his musical scores – Ravi Shankar (for the Apu Trilogy [3] and Paras Pathar), Ustad Vilayat Khan (for Jalsaghar), and Ali Akbar Khan (for Devi).  Ray, himself, had no formal musical training and was not a musician, but he had an intense and lifelong intuitive passion for music.  And Teen Kanya marked the opening assertion of his musical prowess.  From here on, except for the documentary Rabindranath Tagore, Ray would score all of his films.  Note that, in general, sound is a very important feature of Ray’s films.  The ambient sounds included in these stories significantly helps create an atmosphere of contextual immersion and evokes the narrative mood of the participants in the tales.
 
Teen Kanya also marked another new feature in the Ray production team repertoire with the introduction of cinematographer Soumendu Roy, who took over for the ailing Subrata Mitra.  And in fact it is probably no coincidence that a notable feature of Teen Kanya’s visual presentation is its excellent use of deep-focus cinematography.  Hereafter, Roy would frequently be the cinematographer for Ray’s films.  A constant element of Ray’s production team, though, was  Dulal Dutta, who handled the film editing duties for all of Ray’s films.
  
Even though the three individual stories of Teen Kanya each focus on a young woman, they appear to have contrasting flavors and themes, and to many people they may seem quite distinct.  I would say, in retrospect however, that they do feature a common thread – the eternal inscrutability of womanhood before the male gaze.  All three stories feature a young girl whose personal scope vastly exceeds the conventional roles to which she has been assigned.  And in each case there is a narrative perspective from a male observer (in alignment with the unseen narrative witness of you, the viewer) who is baffled and ultimately bewitched by the girl.

Let us look at these stories individually. 

The Postmaster
In the first story Nandal (played by Anil Chatterjee), an educated young man from Calcutta, arrives in the small rural village of Ulapur to take on the job as the local postmaster.  The pre-teen orphan girl Ratan (Chandana Banerjee [4]) is assigned to be his cook and housekeeper.  From the outset it is clear there is a disconnect between Nandal and the life in the village.  This is exemplified by Nandal’s terror at the sight of a village lunatic, whom the diminutive Ratan shoos away as just a harmless pest.  At his postoffice, Nandal’s everyday work includes  constant spectators – the idle old men of the village who are fascinated by the exotic newcomer.  But again the disconnect is evident. 

Meanwhile Nandal and Ratan get to know each other a little.  She sings a charming song for him, and he offers to spend some of his idle time teaching her a little how to read and write.  But finally Nandal comes down with a serious case of malaria (a common ailment in India in those days).  In response, Ratan devotedly spends the whole night applying cold compresses to his feverish forehead, and she dedicates herself to nursing him back to health.  Throughout this period of the story, we get the feeling that Ratan sees Nandal as the wished-for replacement of her father, who died so early in her life that she can’t even remember him.

Nandal recovers and writes a simple poem about Ratan, one that she is now able to read aloud.  She is so delighted.  But Nandal is fed up with the boring village and decides to resign from his post and go back to Calcutta.  The news of his impending departure crushes Ratan, and she petulantly refuses even to acknowledge him when he approaches her for the last time to say goodbye.  It is only then that Nandal seems to realize that he and Ratan shared a special relationship – a form of love – that he has abandoned and is now lost.  It is that poignant last shot showing Nandal’s final anguish that long lingers in the mind of the viewer. 

One can get a feeling for how Ray enhanced Tagore’s work by having a read of Tagore’s original story [5,6].  The local color of the village, such as the depictions of the lunatic and the village elders are not present in Tagore’s text.  In addition the tentative, growing relationship between Nandal and Ratan is much more developed in Ray’s film than in Tagore’s dry description.  Tagore’s story, while interesting, is basically reflective and contemplative.  Ray’s rendition fleshes out the characters of Nandal and Ratan, and it captures the emotive feelings that more effectively stir the heart.

Monihara (The Lost Jewels)
The second segment is a dramatized ghost story that is read to the viewer by its supposed author on the footsteps of a ghat in front of the thought-to-be haunted Saha mansion.  The narrator, who is a local schoolmaster, has an audience of one – a hooded figure sitting at the base of the ghat.  The ghost story itself is rather simple.  What makes it interesting is the atmospheric way it is told, featuring Soumendu Roy’s expressionistic cinematography.

At the start of the narrator’s story, which he says begins many years ago, Phanibhushan Saha (Kali Banerjee) and his wife Monimalika  (Kanika Majumdar) have just inherited a large mansion and associated jute plantation in Manikpur.  Phanibhushan is hopelessly and timidly in love with his wife, who is self-indulgently obsessed with her own glamor.  One day while her husband is out, Monimalika is visited by an obscure “relative”, Madhusudhan (Kumar Roy), who refers to himself as her distant “brother” and who has come looking for a job.  It is clear from the photography and eerie music of this scene that there is something sinister about this visitor.  He apparently has some shady connections with Monimalika ‘s cloudy past, and she wants to have no part of him. 
Afterwards she sings alone by the window a beautifully melancholic song that shows off her mysterious ethereal beauty.  But the scene also further underlines her self-absorption.  Her primary concern is her large collection of jewelry. 

But then disaster strikes.  A huge fire burns up their jute plantation, and Phanibhushan tells Monimalika that they have run up a large debt.  He has to rush back to Calcutta to secure some funds, while Monimalika chooses to stay behind in Malikpur.  

Monimalika wants to stay behind, because she is terrified that her husband will try to pay their debts by pawning her jewelry collection.  So she decides to flee with all her jewels back to her own family up the river, and she summons Madhusudhan to take her there on a boat.  When we see the unsavory Madhusudhan again, it becomes clear to the viewer that some sort of mayhem is going to happen to Monimalika on the way.

Later when Phanibhushan returns from Calcutta with money and new jewels for his wife, he finds Monimalika missing and the mansion empty except for an elderly servant.  We now move into the ghostly imagery of a haunted house.  In the evening he keeps hearing footsteps in the hallway, and he thinks it is his beloved Monimalika returning.  But it turns out to be a ghost instead.  All of this part of the story is shot with expressionistic, spooky effects leading up to the final encounter between Phanibhushan and the bejeweled, skeletal ghost.

When the narrator finishes his tale on the steps of the ghat, he looks over at his hooded listener, who has so far only been seen from behind.  Now the figure stands up and says the narrator’s story contains some inaccuracies, and then he reveals himself to be Phanibhushan, himself.  Then to the narrator’s astonished horror, the figure magically disappears, indicating that he, too, is a ghost.  So the inner-narrative ghost story ultimately recoils back up to the outer narrative of the local schoolmaster.

This Monihara segment has thinner characterizations than the other two, and its primary virtue is its atmospheric evocation of mystery.

Samapti (The Conclusion)
The final segment of Teen Kanya, Samapti, is the most light-hearted of the three offerings,  and in this case it closes on a happier note.  Again there is a young woman who baffles the man who is interested in her.  But the real feature of this segment is the magnetic characterizations of the two principals, thanks to the energetic performances of two young Indian movie stars – Soumitra Chatterjee (a Satyajit Ray favorite) and Aparna Sen (her debut performance at the age of 16).  Also worth noting is the emotive performance of Sita Mukherjee, who plays the doting mother of Soumitra Chatterjee’s character.

This story begins with Amulya (played by Soumitra Chatterjee), having successfully passed his college exams, returning by river boat to his home village to visit his widowed mother.  When he gets off the boat, he slips and falls on the muddy shore, much to the mirthful delight of an onlooking tomboyish teenage girl, Mrinmoyee (Aparna Sen).   Amulya takes note of the source of this giggling mockery before she runs away.

Amulya’s mother, Jogmaya (Sita Mukherjee), is delighted to see her son, but she quickly tells him that it is now time for him to get married and that she has already chosen an auspicious wedding day and a girl from a “good family” (most important concerns for Indian arranged marriages).  Amulya reluctantly but dutifully goes through the motions of formally meeting the family of the proposed girl and hearing about the shy and taciturn girl’s virtues.  But the whole event is disrupted by the again onlooking and mischievous Mrinmoyee, who releases her pet squirrel into the room through the window, which causes chaos.  Then she steals Amulya’s shoes that he had taken off and placed by the door upon entering the home of the proposed bride.

All of this tomfoolery on the part of Mrinmoyee annoys, but tellingly, fascinates Amulya.  He learns that she is an impish tomboy who plays all the time with the younger boys of the neighborhood and has acquired the nickname “Pagli” (crazy girl).  The naughty, and pretty, girl captivates his heart.  When he returns to his mother, he tells her that he is not interested in the proposed bride, but is interested in Mrinmoyee.

Jogmaya is at first horrified, but she ultimate gives in to her beloved only son, and a wedding is duly arranged for Amulya and Mrinmoyee.  Mrinmoyee is very reluctant to give up her gay, carefree life and take on the duties of being a wife, but she is unable to withstand family pressures.  The wedding goes ahead.

On their wedding night, though, Mrinmoyee tells Amulya that she was forced into the marriage and that she doesn’t want to get into bed with him.  She still wants her freedom and doesn’t want to get locked into matrimonial restrictions. At this point the viewer’s sympathies are likely to lie with Mrinmoyee.  Why should a teenage girl be coerced into a union not of her own choosing?

After they argue and he dozes off, she sneaks out of his house by using her tree-climbing skills and goes out to spend the night swinging on her favorite swing hung from a tree.  The image of a girl swinging on a swing seems to have held a special place for Tagore (and Ray), representing perhaps the joyous nature of free-spirited femininity.  We see similar girl-on-a-swing imagery representing the same theme in Ray’s later Charulata (1964), which was also based on a tale by Tagore.

In this story, though, the still rebellious Mrinmoyee is captured and locked in Amulya’s room.  His relatives urge Amulya to be tough on the girl and exercise his manly rights, but Amulya is too civilized to do that.  He tells Mrinmoyee that he is leaving her in the care of her mother and that he is going back to Calcutta.  If and when she finally accepts him, he tells her, he will return to her.

Mrinmoyee is now more or less a prisoner in her own home, and she takes to perpetually sulking.  After six months of separation have passed, though, Jogmaya, missing her son and feeling something has to be done, summons him to return to their village on the pretext of her being ill.  Amulya dutifully returns, and his mother convinces him to go to Mrinmoyee and inquire after her.

The last few minutes of this segment are lyrical.   Mrinmoyee is at first delighted to hear that Amulya has returned, but when she learns that the reason for his return is to see his supposedly ill mother, she frowns.  Her feelings seem now to be torn.  When Amulya comes to her home, he learns that she has run off into the woods.  Now in the pouring rain, Amulya searches the woods for her, calling out her name.  Still hiding in the brush, the pouting Mrinmoyee hears Amulya’s call and cannot suppress a smile.

Soaked to the skin from the rain, Amulya finally gives up his search and returns to his room, where he discovers a note on his bed from “your Pagli”.  Mrinmoyee has used her tree-climbing ability to sneak back into Amulya’s room.  When he sees her, she smiles meekly and promises never to run away from him again.  They have finally been united in true love.


All three stories of Teen Kanya are about the captivating feminine element in male-female interaction.  In the Tagore-Ray account of things here, the feminine alchemy is spontaneous and utterly unselfconscious, but there is something special about it. 
  • In The Postmaster, the relationship between the postmaster and the young chipmunk-like Ratan encompasses something more than just paternal/filial attachment.  Nonsexual though their relationship is, it still involves the special magic that only the feminine presence can conjure.
     
  • In Monihara, the feminine element becomes overtly supernatural, but, interestingly, this story is the least evocative of feminine mystery.
     
  • In Samapti, the mystical feminine element is not only spontaneously projected, but also internalized – Mrinmoyee ultimately responds, herself, to her own feminine impulses.
In all three stories, the male principal is helplessly captivated by an innocent girl, whose charm is guileless.  She is not trying to seduce the man; she is just being her naturally enigmatic self.  It took the brilliance and artistry of both Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore to capture the mystical and wonderful subtlety of these feelings and render them into the cinematic jewel that Teen Kanya is.


Notes:
  1. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: India's Poetry by Satyajit Ray: He Echoes His Trilogy in 'Two Daughters'”, The New York Times,  (1 May 1963).   
  2. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 160-4, 173-180.
  3. Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959).
  4. It is unclear what is Chandana Banerjee’s age in the film.  The Wikipedia entry on her says she was born in 1953, making her only eight years old.  But Marie Seton (see ref. [2], p. 175) says the girl was eleven years old, which looks about right to me.  
  5. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Postmaster”, The Literature Network, (2015).
  6. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Postmaster”, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stories from Tagore, by Rabindranath Tagore, (24 August 2010).   

Hannes Holm

Films of Hannes Holm: