“The Stranger” - Satyajit Ray (1991)

Satyajit Ray’s last film, The Stranger (Agantuk, 1991), was completed only months before the ailing writer/director passed away, and the film has a solemn, valedictory air to it that suggests the great filmmaker knew this would be his last work.  Indeed the film at times has the feeling of a philosophical treatise that summarizes some of Ray’s closing thoughts about the “civilized” worlds that have been fashioned over time and who we are that live in them [1,2,3,4,5].  As critic Bhaskar Chattopadhyay remarked [4]:
“At its very core, ‘Agantuk’ is a philosophical film. It raises more questions than answers, and each of those questions makes us wonder about ourselves.”
In this connection the very nature of human identity and the defining features of civilization are explicit topics of the several conversations that permeate the film [3].

As usual with Ray films and despite his frail condition at that time, Ray assumed the major production responsibilities for The Stranger.  He produced and directed the film, and he wrote the screenplay based on his own earlier published story “Atithi” (“The Guest”, 1981).  In addition and also as usual, Ray composed the music for the film, too.  The cinematography was handled by Barun Raha, who had also done similarly for Ray’s immediately preceding An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) and Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1990). And the film editing was carried out by Ray’s longtime collaborator Dulal Dutta.  The result was another customarily professional production, and The Stranger wound up winning the awards for Best Feature Film and Best Directing at the 1992 Indian National Film Awards.

The story of The Stranger concerns what happens when an upper-middle-class married couple in Calcutta, Sudhindra and Anila Bose, receive an unexpected visit from an elderly man who claims to be a long-lost uncle of the housewife, Anila.  The visitor, Manomohan Mitra, disappeared from Anila’s household to travel abroad 35 years ago, when Anila was only two years-old, but he now wants to pay a visit to his only surviving relative. 

Naturally given these circumstances, neither Manomohan nor Anila has any recollection of the other, so Anila has no straightforward way of establishing the identity of her visitor.  To her, Manomohan is something of a mysterious stranger.  And indeed Anila’s husband, Sudhindra, is suspicious that the visitor may be actually an imposter, perhaps seeking to steal something from their well-appointed home during his intended one-week stay.  But given their adherence to traditional Indian standards of gracious hospitality even to strangers, Anila welcomes Manomohan on his arrival and opens their home for his visit. 

So a key narrative issue is established from the outset of this story – how can the true identity of Manomohan be established with certitude?  And along the way, this notion is extended further to the consideration of just what it is that constitutes the identity of anyone.

The story of this film unfolds over four basic segments.

1.  The Stranger Comes to Visit
Manomohan Mitra (played by Utpal Dutt) comes to visit the Bose family in Calcutta during the Durga Puja festival.  Immediately, Sudhindra Bose (Deepankar De) is suspicious about the identity of their visitor, and he tells Anila (Mamata Shankar) that he wants to somehow find a polite way to see Manomohan’s passport in order to be sure the visitor is the person he claims to be.  This problem seems to be solved when Sudhindra later meets their guest alone and Manomohan goes ahead and voluntarily shows Sudhindra his passport.  But then the visitor quizzically points out that nowadays passports can always be faked, anyway.  So Sudhindra is still in the dark.

However, Manomohan soon charms the Boses and their pre-teen son, Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya), with his account of why he ran away 35 years ago, immediately after receiving his bachelor’s degree. Most of those intervening years he spent out of India, in the West.  He did it, he says, to satisfy his fundamental wanderlust and also to discover what was the essence of being civilized.  Although Manomohan was always a top student, he was inspired in this direction by seeing a 2,000-year-old painting by a caveman that was superior to anything that so-called classic artists of later  “civilizations” ever produced.  This quest for what it means to be civilized is the second major theme, after the nature of true identity, in this film.

2.  The Actor Friend’s Visit
In the second, somewhat comic, act, the Boses are visited by their actor friend, Ranjan Rakshit (Rabi Ghosh), who wants to probe Manomohan’s true identity.  Of course, actors are always dealing in fabricated identities, and Ranjan’s questioning of Manomohan turns out to be very superficial and along these lines.  When Ranjan asks Manomohan if, after not having seen Calcutta for 35 years, he is impressed with the big-city advances and whether it reflects the utmost in civilization, Manomohan responds affirmatively.  But he tells Ranjan that is because Calcutta’s persistent inequality, then and now, is similar to other world metropolises and is a sign of its “civilization”.

In the end Manomohan exposes Ranjan as something of a fraud, but Ranjan gets nowhere in his attempt to uncover any fraudulence in Manomohan.

3.  The Lawyer Friend’s Visit
The next evening, another Bose family friend, the attorney Prithwish Sengupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee), comes to visit.  Sudhindra knows that Prithwish is very analytical, and he believes that Prithwish will be able to uncover the ultimate intent of Manomohan.  The ensuing 20-minute conversation between Prithwish and Manomohan proves to be the most interesting portion of the film. 

But this telling conversation is first preceded by a beautiful musical sequence showing Anila singing the Rabindranath Tagore song, “Whose Veena is it that Rings Out?”, while she plays the tamboura.  This is certainly an affective rendering of 'civilized' that effectively transcends the analytical perspective.

Then the conversation, which is something of a cross-examination, begins with Prithwish asking Manomohan whether he believes in religion, which leads to the following exchange:. 
Manomohan: “I cannot believe in something that creates a divide between men.”
   
Prithwish: “What about God?”
   
Manomohan: “In this day and age it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe
in a benevolent God.”
Their exchanges continue along these lines, with Manomohan dryly expressing further skepticism about the benefits of modern civilization.  Finally, Prithwish asks him a key question.
Prithwish: “If you despise modern technology, why have you lived so long in the West?  Why haven’t you gone to live with the aboriginals in the jungle?”
At this question Manomohan finally lights up with some enthusiasm and tells Prithwish that that is exactly what he did do.  After college, he says, he spent five years living with the principal aboriginal groups in India.  Then after bumming around Europe for a few years, he studied for an anthropology degree and thereafter went to the USA where he was commissioned to study the Native Americans there.  He goes on to say that he has since then spent his time studying and reporting on 43 different Native American tribes in North and South America.  This work has included examining wondrous historical sites, such as Machu Picchu in Peru.  And as a result of all these studies, Manomohan says, he has come to admire the science and technology of these people.

But Prithwish is still skeptical and challenges Manomohan about a practice of some aboriginals – cannibalism.  How can that practice be considered to be civilized?, he asks.  To that Manomohan has a ready rejoinder:
Manomohan: “‘Civilized’ is that man who uses one finger to press one button and release an atomic weapon which obliterates an entire city . . . ”
With that, the frustrated Prithwish gives up on his querying and rudely leaves.  The Boses are left still in the dark about Manomohan, but they are impressed with the erudition he has shown during the semi-accusatory conversation he had gone through with Prithwish.  As Sudhindra remarks later that evening to Anila, “so much knowledge has certainly opened his [Manomohan’s] mind, but his heart has perhaps not opened up so much.”  So Manomohan’s hunger for the essence of civilization remains unabated.

4.  The Gift
When the Boses wake up the next morning, they discover that Manomohan, perhaps feeling that he has worn out his welcome, has packed up and left their home.  Anila suspects that Manomohan is seeking to find out whether he is entitled to some inheritance that may have been left to him in her wealthy grandfather’s will, and they head out to a remote town about 150 km north of Calcutta where the executor of the grandfather’s will lives.  There they do find Manomohan, and they learn that, yes, he is entitled to inherit a huge sum of money from that will.  

Now convinced that Manomohan is really Anila’s uncle, the couple are apologetic and want him to return and stay with them before his scheduled departure to Australia (where he intends to study more aboriginals).  But Manomohan insists that they first must all stay and watch some dancing by local natives of the Kol tribe that is about to take place.  This they do, and the viewer is treated to five minutes of magical music and dancing on the part of the natives.  In fact their dancing is so rhythmically enticing that Anila is moved to join in and dance with them.  Her  intuitive embrace of the hypnotic music moves the onlooking Manomohan to comment to Sudhindra, “I was very suspicious about whether she’s really my niece . . . not anymore.”

When Manomohan finally departs for the airport, he hands Sudhindra an envelope which he asks them not to open until after he has gone.  And at the close of the film when they do open the envelope, they discover that Manomohan has signed over to them his entire, vast inheritance.

So by the end of this film, we have learned more about Manomohan, but he is still something of a mystery.  We know that he is frustrated with what modern “civilization” has to offer and that he thinks earlier societies may have made more profound discoveries.  As far as modern society is concerned, Manomohan is profoundly alienated, and he is eternally seeking a way to resolve his alienation.
  
In this regard, another fictional “stranger” comes to mind  – the protagonist, Meursault, in Albert Camus’s famous Existentialist novel, L’Etranger (The Stranger, 1942) [6]).  Manomohan was alienated from the emptiness he found in modern society, whereas Meursault was fundamentally alienated from everything he encountered in the world.  But neither Meursault nor Manomohan was ready to completely give up on this score.  For example critic Peter Rainer wrote of Manomohan [3]:
“And, although there is a blasted weariness to him, he still seems more deeply, mysteriously content than anyone else in the movie.”
Nevertheless, these two tales have fundamental differences in their perspectival stances.  In the Camus story, as with all existential narratives, everything is seen from the inside of the main character – the reader is shared a view of Meursault’s consciousness.  But in Ray’s story, Agantuk, the main character, Manomohan, is mostly seen from the outside [5].  The viewer is shown a number of additional characters who are all externally struggling to ascertain the true identity of Manomohan.  But each is viewing Manomohan from the perspective of his or her own personal narratives:
  • The two Boses initially see Manomohan as a threat, and they are concerned about the potential harm he could bring to them.
     
  • The friend Ranjan is a stage actor, and so much of his life is concerned with his own dissimulation.  He looks at Manomohan somewhat sympathetically from the perspective of a fellow-dissimulator who admires his craftiness.
     
  • The attorney Prithwish is an analyst and wants to know about Manomohan’s basic beliefs.  He feels that by this route he can uncover the true nature of Manomohan.  Although this way of looking at things is supposedly objective, it still overlooks the crucial aspect of inner experiences.
Of course, we all see new people from the perspective of our own personal narratives, and the way this is exemplified in the story is a fundamental part of what makes this film fascinating.  But finding out what is going on inside Manomohan proves to be an elusive task.  

Overall, Ray’s The Stranger is a polished production, but there are some limitations.  The film has a static feel to it, because it is mostly composed of a few extended conversations.  Although there are several somewhat lengthy camera-panning sequences, these don’t manage to alleviate the general lack of dynamism. 

In addition, for a film that is concerned with one’s deepest feelings about life, I am surprised that there is no consideration of love in the story.  Love truly does make the world go round, and it would have been natural for love to have made appearances at some points over the course of Manomohan’s worldwide quest for meaningful civilized life.

So what, in the end, do we come to know about Manomohan?  We do know that he has been to many indigenous societies in the world and has found a number of interesting practices that they have come up with.  And many of these fascinating practices, by the way, seem to be inspired by thinking that is not expressible in terms that are compatible with the logical, Turing computable text and formulae characteristic of our modern scientific “civilized” societies [7].  So we could guess that even though the power of Turing computability has fuelled the digital information explosion of our modern world, Manomohan wants to search beyond its boundaries (even if he doesn’t think about things or articulate his ideas in these terms) and find something more quintessential to the wonders of human existence. 

Manomohan still hasn’t found that something at the end of the film.  But when he and Anila rapturously immerse themselves in the mesmeric dancing of the Kol women, we can believe that he is looking in the right direction.  Satyajit Ray spent his whole life on a quest looking in that direction, too, and he well-expressed the philosophical underpinnings of that quest in this, his final film.
★★★½    

Notes:
  1. Acquarello, “Satyajit Ray”, Strictly Film School, (2001).   
  2. Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, “Agantuk: Through Utpal Dutt's character, Satyajit Ray articulated his views on civilisation's illusory nature”, Firstpost, (18 March 2018).   
  3. Peter Rainer, “MOVIE REVIEW : Ray’s ‘Stranger’: Bare-Bones Filmmaking From a Master”, “Los Angeles Times”, (30 June 1995).   
  4. Alison Macor, “The Stranger”, Austin Chronicle, (1 September 1995).   
  5. James S. Rich, “LATE RAY - ECLIPSE SERIES 40", Criterion Confessions, (12 January 2014).  
  6. It is ranked by Le Monde as the greatest book of the 20th century:
  7. Algis Valiunas, “Turing and the Uncomputable”, The New Atlantis, Number 61, (Winter 2020).   

“Mr. & Mrs. ‘55” - Guru Dutt (1955)

Guru Dutt’s meteoric career as a celebrated actor and director in Indian cinema was tragically cut short by his untimely death at the age of thirty-nine in 1964.  Even so, over his relatively brief productive life, Dutt was a principal ingredient of a number of cinematic masterpieces, including Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962).  Less well-known, though, than those acclaimed dramatic works, but one that is still very much deserving of your consideration, is Dutt’s earlier Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 (1955), a romantic comedy directed by and starring Dutt [1,2]. 

Since Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 is a comedy, you might be tempted at first to dismiss the film as some sort of lightweight fluff and assume it was made in accordance with the typical cliched production values of that genre.  After all, this film was made well before the advent of television in India, and typical films at that time were expected to appeal to a very broad spectrum of the Indian public.  But Dutt was not typical.  He had already assembled for this film most of his top-grade production team that would feature in his subsequent masterpieces, with scriptwriting by Abrar Alvi, cinematography by V. K. Murthy, and film editing by Y. G. Chawhan.  So it is not surprising that Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 featured some of the characteristic high-grade cinematic stylistics that made all of Dutt’s films unique and so memorable:
  • moody, shadow-laden set lighting
  • multi-plane image compositions with fluid camera movements
  • emotive closeups – often as unspoken reaction shots of the principal characters
  • narratively embedded songs that directly contribute to the unfolding of the story
And in addition, although we might expect a romantic comedy like this to just focus on personal relationships, Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 also features interesting reflections on larger social issues that prevail in India and other parts of the world.  Many of these issues were brought to the fore and/or accentuated in India by values from Western civilization that were introduced mostly via British colonialism [3].  When Westerners, fueled by ideas from the Enlightenment (17th to19th centuries), arrived in India, they emphasized objectively obtained scientific truths and the idea of universal human rights.  These notions sometimes conflicted with India’s rich, but tradition-oriented, culture.

Some of the particular issues that were at least implicitly referred to in this film are:
  • Social Status (i.e. class and wealth distinctions)
    Distinctions in class, caste, and wealth have always been significant in India.  And the upper-classes usually maintain that only they adhere to the proper moral values.
     
  • Aping the British 
    When the British increasingly imposed their rule over India in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Indians over this time, seeking to curry favour from their British overlords, attempted to imitate their masters in all respects and mannerisms.  And naturally, this led to a large backlash against all the bootlickers who would choose to “ape the British”.  This contempt for those who would ape the British continues in India to this day.
     
  • “Objective” Truth (and lies) 
    There are always concerns everywhere about truth – both literal truth and underlying truth.  And modernists place a particular emphasis on objective truth, which they feel underpins modern scientific societies.
     
  • Women’s Rights 
    It is only relatively recently that women have been accorded to have rights equal to those of men.  The idea of fundamental human rights, irrespective of race, color, creed, or gender, is a modernist notion that has taken some time to receive acceptance in traditional societies like India.  In particular, there are clear-cut distinctions between men and women; so some people question whether they should have identical legal rights.
     
  • Spousehood
    Apart from basic issues of gender equality before the law, there are still acknowledged distinctions concerning spousal obligations and expectations.  And these distinctions vary greatly across all manner of gender and social groupings.  The questions asked under this category are: just what, precisely, is expected, demanded, or permitted of a spouse?
These various issues had complicated interpretations and ramifications during the earlier part of the 20th century when Indians seeking sovereignty were looking for ways to unify their forces.  This was complicated, given the varying communities within India – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis, etc.  The practical approach adopted seems to have been to seek agreement among the various constituents concerning secular laws and to allow the individual communities to manage their own personal laws, among which were varying standards on spousehood.  In fact, even within Hinduism, given its complex nature and evolution, there is considerable variation around India concerning the understanding and application of personal laws.  So this general approach towards a common legal framework (i.e. that of distinguishing secular laws from personal laws) was deemed more likely to achieve a common buy-in across all sectors.  Thus the general movement towards modernism and universal rights seems to have been reflected more in the secular laws, while the personal laws were left to the traditional social managers and showed less progress towards modern, universal rights. 

As film scholar Jyotika Virdi has commented [3]:
“The Indian Republic inaugurated secular principles in criminal and commercial laws and all aspects of property — except inheritance. Inviolate personal laws would govern the private sphere, varying according to each community's dictates. However, these laws, requiring contemporary interpretations of medieval and ancient scriptures, fail the acid test of delivering gender justice.”
However, a major progressive breakthrough in the area of personal laws concerning gender equality was achieved in 1955 with the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act [4] that was to apply to all Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs.  This law applied more modern standards to the act of marriage, and, in particular it gave these women, for the first time, the right to sue for divorce.  For this reason it was popularly known as the “Divorce Bill”.  (As a point of comparison, we note that the right for a woman to get a divorce in Iran was not established until 1967 [5], and this law stimulated an enormous conservative backlash that helped fuel the later revolution there.)  Of course, more conservative elements of Indian society opposed the new divorce bill, so the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act was a major topic of discussion at the time.

In fact this law still represents a major milestone in Indian legal history, as noted by Jyotika Virdi [3]:
“. . .  the momentous passing of this Act [The Hindu Marriage Act] in the middle of this century still resonates powerfully with the current stalemate in Indian politics over the issue of replacing community-based, religious, personal laws with a secular, uniform civil code.  Briefly, personal laws enshrine Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious laws governing "family" matters (marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption etc.) in the Indian Constitution. The Uniform Civil Code, though ill-defined, is the unrealized ideal of secular laws meant to displace personal laws and transect all communities.”
. . .
“The struggle for a secular uniform civil code cutting across all religious communities to ensure gender justice remains an unrealized ideal.“
The romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 is set with these women’s lib issues clearly as a backdrop, and that is what helps make the film special.  Interestingly, though, the film doesn’t adopt a staunchly pro-women’s lib stance; nevertheless, the film has its charm.

There are four principal characters in the story:
  • Anita Verma (played by Madhubala, the stage name for Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi) is a beautiful young woman from a well-to-do family.  She has just reached her 21st birthday, and it is now time for her to choose a husband.
     
  • Sita Devi (Lalita Pawar) is Anita's middle-aged aunt and the girl’s guardian  (Anita lives in Sita’s home).  Sita is a committed advocate of women’s rights and a strong supporter of the Hindu Marriage Act.
     
  • Preetam Kumar (Guru Dutt, the stage name for Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone) is an unemployed and virtually homeless cartoonist who falls in love with Anita.
     
  • Johnny (Johnny Walker, the stage name for Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi) is a photojournalist and Preetam’s close friend.  He is present here mostly for lightweight comic relief, but his acquaintanceships provide important connecting linkages in the story.
These characters all have their own principles that guide their actions in the story, which proceeds through four stages.

1.  Anita’s Situation 
The opening sequences show Anita’s aunt, Sita Devi, to be an energetic feminist activist and a strong opponent of the traditional way of treating women in Indian society.  In contrast, Anita’s nanny, representing a more traditional view, is seen mumbling under her breath that Sita is just aping the British.  Meanwhile Sita’s frivolous niece, Anita, is shown having a crush on a well-known tennis player, Ramesh.  One day while sneaking out of her house to watch one of Ramesh’s tennis matches, Anita stumbles into Preetam, who has been sleeping under the grandstand.  Although their encounter is only very brief, Preetam falls in love with Anita and later sings about her beauty to his friend Johnny.

Later Anita is shown attending her 21st birthday party, where her late father’s will is read to her.  She is informed that she will inherit all of her father’s vast fortune, but only if she is married within one month of her 21st birthday.  Now, Anita dreamily wants to quickly marry the indifferent-to-her Ramesh,  but her aunt Sita concocts a different plan.  Sita’s idea is to find some man who can be hired to agree to a sham marriage with Anita, which, by a prearranged contract, will be terminated by a quick divorce, thereby leaving the full inheritance to Anita (and Sita).

2.  Arranging a Marriage
Pursuing her own goal, Anita sends one of two reserved seats she had purchased at a cinema to Ramesh, at which event she hopes to meet Ramesh and cement a marriage agreement.  But Ramesh isn’t interested and gives the ticket to his friend Johnny, who in turn passes it on to Preetam.  This sets up a humorous surprise at the cinema when Anita is shocked to discover herself sitting next to the fellow she had briefly seen under the tennis grandstand.

Meanwhile, Sita pursues her own plan.  She calls up a newspaper editor she knows and asks him if he could recommend a young man who would agree to the sham marriage deal she wants to arrange.  The newspaper editor does know a good candidate who could use the extra money, Preetam, who has previously drawn cartoons for the newspaper but who is now out of work.  So Sita arranges to meet Preetam and proposes the deal.  Preetam initially rejects such a scam, but when he discovers that his attended bride will be the girl he loves, Anita, he accepts and signs the contract.

At the registrar, Preetam signs the marriage document and sees Anita there.  Although Anita seems to be attracted to Preetam, she rejects any man who would marry for money.  In any case, their contract stipulates that they are now not to have any contact.

3.  Married, But Apart
After some weeks, the newspaper editor offers Preetam a job as the paper’s cartoonist, and now Preetam has full-time employment.  But in this third act, although Preetam and Anita have some occasional accidental and pleasantly sociable encounters, they are still apart, much to Preetam’s dissatisfaction.  At one point Preetam draws a political cartoon that condemns Sita Devi’s dictatorial attitudes towards her underlings.  In response, the angered Sita comes over to Preetam and demands that the divorce that they had contracted be carried out immediately.  But Preetam refuses; he still wants a chance with Anita.

Eventually, Preetam masquerades as a taxi driver and kidnaps Anita, driving her out into the countryside.  It is Preetam’s hope that along the way the two of them can have the chance to get to know each other better and that he can warm up their relationship.  And this is what happens.  He drives her out to his brother’s traditional home, where his bhabhi (sister-in-law) greets them because her husband is away at the time.  This occasion gives Anita the chance to converse with  and see up close the life of a traditional Indian housewife.  As they talk, Preetam’s bhabhi, who after four years of marriage already has four children, sings the praises of the wife’s role to Anita.  And, for example, she even passionately tells Anita that “a housewife finds peace in housework”.

Anita seems moved by the bhabhi’s words, but at this point Sita Devi arrives on the scene, having tracked Anita and Preetam down.  Sita offers Preetam a cheque of 10,000 rupees to buy him off, and she shows him a telegram that Anita had sent to her asking her aunt to come rescue her and to proceed with the divorce.  Crestfallen, Preetam now finally gives up on his quest for Anita’s heart and orders Anita to return to her home with Sita.  Before she departs, though, Anita gets one last piece of advice from Preetam’s bhabhi – listen to your heart.

4.  Departure?
Anita is now confused and seems to have developed some feelings for Preetam.  But Preetam is now convinced from having read Anita’s telegram that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.  So he decides that the best thing he can do for her is to facilitate a speedy divorce.  He arranges for Johnny to take some phony photos of him carousing with several flirtatious young women.  Then he goes to Sita Devi and returns the money she had given him and gives her the damning photo of him, which are soon published in the newspaper.  When Anita sees the disturbing photo of Preetam and the girls, she is shocked. 

So now Preetam has produced false, incriminating evidence which will not only expedite his upcoming device, but will also further alienate Anita from caring about him.  At this point there are now so many things separating Preetam and Anita – class, social expectations, conflicting perceptions of their true feelings for each other, and Sita’s enmity towards Preetam – that the chances of their getting together seem hopeless.  And Preetam, on his part, has given up all hope – he has booked an air ticket to permanently leave Bombay as soon as the divorce case is finished.  It seems that the only person who can save the day is the hitherto unsteady Anita.

You can watch the film, yourself, to see how things turn out in the dramatic finish.


Overall, there are many things to like about Mr. & Mrs. '55.  The production values, as are characteristic of mature Guru Dutt films, are excellent throughout.  I particularly liked the songs of OP Nayyar, which are pleasing on their own but are also very well integrated into the narrative.  Also, Madhubala has an appealing allure that seems to hearken back to an earlier era.  

And as I mentioned, the narrative itself is not just a frivolous pastry, but has some meaningful connections to a contemporary domestic issue.  In this connection, though, some critics have condemned what they see as the film’s ultimate support of a reactionary, antifeminist stance [1].  They seem to think that because of Sita Devi’s stubbornness, the film must have only accepted traditional, backward roles for women.  I don’t agree.  The film actually presents multiple perspectives on womanhood, and its ultimate endorsement is for that which can make one happy no matter what the circumstances – true love.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Karan Bali, “Mr and Mrs 55", Upperstall, (2004).   
  2. Jai Arjun Singh, “FC Flashback: Why You Should Watch Guru Dutt’s Mr And Mrs 55", Film Companion, (27 March 2019).  
  3. Jyotika Virdi, “Mr. and Mrs. 55, Comedy of gender, law, and nation”, Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 75-85.   
  4. “The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955", Wikipedia, (30 June 2020).  
  5. “Iran's Family Protection Law”, Wikipedia, (25 January 2020).   

“For Sama” - Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts (2019)

Documentary films about war-torn areas of the world are likely to draw attention, for awhile, but oftentimes their popularity is only temporary.  The situation on the ground soon changes, and people move on to watching other news.  However, For Sama (2019), a documentary of a young woman describing her experiences during the Battle of Aleppo [1] during the Syrian Civil War [2], is different and likely to experience sustained interest.  This film is so personal and offers such an immediate, closeup view of people and what is happening to them that the viewer is likely to feel personal involvement in what is shown.

Anyway, the Syrian Civil War (2011-now) has been so turbulent and complicated that a simple summary of what has transpired seems hardly possible.  With perhaps 500,000 people killed and millions of refugees, this conflict has been a never-ending nightmare for those living in the region [3].  And the numerous identities of the various shifting warring factions have been difficult to trace and keep up with over this time.  These include
  • The Syrian Government, supported by
    • Hezbollah
    • Shia militias 
    • Iranian agents
    • the Russian military
  • The Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army
    • other Sunni groups, such as the Levant Front 
  • Other groups, with their own separate agendas
    • the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front
    • the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units
    • the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army
    • . . .
The film For Sama doesn’t cover that wider perspective of this conflict and instead follows the personal experiences of a young woman, Waad Al-Kateab [4], who moved to Aleppo in 2009 to study economics at the university there and ultimately found herself immersed in the tumultuous Battle of Aleppo (2012-2016) [1] that soon emerged.  Over this period Waad took hundreds of hours of film footage, first with her mobile-phone camera and later with a digital camera.  After she and her family managed to escape with their lives from Syria and flee first to Turkey and then to England, Waad hooked up with documentary filmmaker Edward Watts to work on editing her accumulated footage into a feature-length documentary.  The resulting film was very well received [5,6,7,8,9], and it wound up winning the British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) for Best Documentary (it also received BAFTA nominations in three other categories) and also earning a U.S. Academy Award (Oscar) nomination for Best Documentary Feature. 

Certainly Waad Al-Kateab was in a special position to observe what was going on in Aleppo.  In connection with the “Arab Spring” of that time, she became a student activist in 2011, joining those opposed to the corruption of Assad family, which has ruthlessly ruled Syria for decades.  This was when she began recording events going on around her with her mobile-phone camera.  She soon refers to and photographs a friend, Hamza Al-Kateab, who is a medical doctor and also a dedicated activist member of the Syrian opposition.  Hamza is married at the time, but when his wife desperately wants to flee the rising violence in Aleppo, Hamza insists in staying to fight for his cause.  So the two of them separate, and Hamza remains alone in Aleppo.

Not long afterwards, Hamza and Waad fall in love and eventually get married in 2014.  Both Hamza and Waad want to stay in Aleppo and help the poor people who are suffering there.  Hamza’s heroic efforts to treat and help people who suffer from the effects of the Assad government’s chlorine gas, cluster bombs and barrel bombs attacks become a principal focus of the film.

During the period of this film, the Al-Kateabs are shown living in the rebel-held eastern portion of  Aleppo, which is continually under siege and facing attacks from government forces and their Russian allies.  As a result, the besieged rebel-held area is continually shrinking and suffering from basic shortages.  But thanks to the personal nature of Waad’s filming, we see happier moments, too.  There is the joyful wedding and reception of Waad and Hamza.  There are also scenes of kids attending school and of neighbour friends fondly playing with their young children.  And most importantly, there is the joyous footage showing the birth of Waad’s daughter, Sama, in 2016 and to whom this film is dedicated.

Now, the most straightforward way of presenting the events of this film would have been to do so along a linear chronological timescale.  But as the filmmakers were assembling their material, they could see that the narrative they were constructing was one showing continuous decline, as the besieging government forces closed in on the rebel-held area.   But even so, the life of the Al Kateabs was not one of relentless doom.  They were working continuously to save lives and hold out for freedom.  So the filmmakers chose to build something of a cinematic poem dedicated to Sama, featuring many flashbacks, even though Sama only appears chronologically late in the piece.  Thus Sama is shown at the beginning of the film, and the various flashbacks ensue.  Waad Al Kateab states in the film voiceover that she wanted to make this film for Sama so that when the child grew up, she could see it and understand why her mother chose to stay in Aleppo and help people during those harrowing times.  Nevertheless, I would say that this flashback-studded structure of the film has serious problems and often leaves the viewer even more disoriented than necessary.

There are some truly memorable events shown in the film, though, and I have already mentioned some of the happier ones, such as the wedding of Waad and Hamza.  Sadly memorable, too, is coverage of the deaths of young kids who were playing during a government air-strike.  And perhaps the most gripping moments are shots of a cesarean-section delivery of an apparently stillborn baby.  Frantic efforts at resuscitation appear to be fruitless, but finally, after hope has been all but abandoned, the baby lets out a cry of life.  And Waad captured it all with her camera.  

Eventually, in increasing efforts to demoralize the people and crush the will of the resistance, the Russian air force starts bombing hospitals and ambulances.  Finally, eight of the nine hospitals in east Aleppo are destroyed, and only Hamza’s hospital is still operating.  Then, when Hamza and Waad are momentarily away from their hospital, it, too, is destroyed in an air-strike that kills 53 people.  But that doesn’t stop Hamza.  He goes out and finds another building and sets up a makeshift hospital there so that he can keep carrying out his lifesaving medical care.  In this connection, Hamza mentions in the film that in their last twenty days in Aleppo in 2016, they received 6,000 wounded people and performed 890 operations. 

Finally, at the end of 2016, a coerced surrender was shabbily negotiated by the U N, and the Hamza and Waad  –  along with her hundreds of hours of camera footage and her daughter Sama – made their way out of Syria and eventually to England.

The story that Waad Al-Kateab tells in For Sama is unique and personal.  What we see are people we can relate to who are just trying to get on with their lives.  And the film also offers  a fresh perspective on the Syrian Civil War.  Western reportage has tended to oversimplify things by portraying the two combatting sides as equally flawed – a corrupt regime against extremist Islamic terrorists.  This superficial view has frustrated the Al-Kateabs, who acknowledge that although Islamic extremists did briefly try unsuccessfully try to take over the rebellion, nevertheless, the Al-Kateabs assert, the atrocities committed by their opponents, the ruthless Assad regime and their allies, have been far worse and more brutal [10,11].

Overall, we can only be impressed by the dedication and heroic self-sacrifice of Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab.  But the film For Sama has some weaknesses that must be recognized.  For one thing, and as I mentioned earlier, the flashback time structure to the film is confusing and basically doesn’t work.  We often don’t know where we are in terms of the basic sequence of events.  Nor is the basic time sequence of events replaced by some other clear-cut narrative structure to which we could relate.  Instead, we just seem to have a random sequence of scenes.  The many fade-outs and fade-ins help a little, but only so much.

Another problem concerns the chaotic camera work of Waad Al-Kateab.  There are too many wildly-shaky moving-camera shots down random corridors, and these shots are disorienting and contribute little to the story – other than to suggest hysteria.  But even if the filmmakers want to evoke hysteria, this is overdone in this film.

So in the end, even though I would give four stars to Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab for their heroic efforts, I can’t quite do that for this film.  Still, I think you will find it of interest.
★★★

Notes:
  1. “Battle of Aleppo (2012–2016)”, Wikipedia, (5 July 2020).   
  2. “Syrian civil war”, Wikipedia, (7 July 2020).   
  3. “Casualties of the Syrian Civil War”, Wikipedia, (3 July 2020).    
  4. “Waad Al-Kateab” is a pseudonym.
  5. Tomris Laffly, “For Sama”, RogerEbert.com, (25 July 2019).   
  6. Emily Zemler, “‘For Sama’ filmmaker captures the pain and destruction of war in Syria”, Los Angeles Times, (24 January 2020).   
  7. Eleanor Stanford, “After ‘For Sama,’ a Syrian Family Finds Refuge in London”, The New York Times, (20 November 2019).   
  8. Mark Kermode, “For Sama review – affecting chronicle of life in war-torn Aleppo”, The Guardian(15 September 2019).   
  9. Kate Kellaway, “‘My daughter was raised during the siege of Aleppo. I had to make a film for her’”, The Guardian, (11 December 2019).   
  10. Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, “‘It Is Not Just War. It Is Life’: Acclaimed Doc ‘For Sama’ Offers Rare Glimpse into War-Torn Syria”, Democracy Now!, (18 July 2019).   
  11. Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, “‘For Sama’ Documentary Compiles Five Years of Footage from Aleppo by Syrian Citizen Journalist”, Democracy Now!, (19 July 2019).   

Waad Al-Kateab

Films of Waad Al-Kateab:
  •  For Sama - Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts (2019)

Edward Watts

Films of Edward Watts:
  • For Sama - Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts (2019)