“Abhijan” - Satyajit Ray (1962)


Throughout his filmmaking career Satyajit Ray was interested in expanding his cinematic repertoire and experimenting with different styles.  Nevertheless, there was always a special and recognizable “Ray” feeling in all his works.  So it was with his Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), whose melodramatic flavor contrasted with Ray’s earlier more inward-looking films.  In fact it was probably that melodramatic tenor that made Abhijan Ray’s biggest box-office success in Bengal. Another reason for its success was the presence of Bollywood film star Waheeda Rehman (Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam 1962)) in the film.  Indeed her relatively small role (as far as screen time is concerned) provided the crucial pivot in the narrative.

The story of Abhijanis is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by celebrated writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and concerns the struggles of a taxi driver to get the respect he feels he deserves.  Ray fashioned the screenplay from the novel, which had been introduced to him by his producer friend Bijoy Chatterjee.  Since Ray was occupied with the production of his Kanchenjungha (1962) at the time, it was his original intention to have Chatterjee direct the film with Ray acting as a consultant.  But when shooting was to start, Ray, with the encouragement of Chatterjee, took over the direction himself [1].

Ray’s resulting film has sometimes been compared to Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976), because of some superficial similarities between the two respective loner taxi-cab driver protagonists and also because Scorcese has long been an admirer of Ray.  However, I think the two films follow quite different paths. 

In Abhijan, the protagonist, Nar Singh (played by Ray favorite Soumitra Chatterjee), is obsessed with dignity [2].  He craves admiration and respect from those around him, which he feels is his due, since he is a Rajput and thus a member of the Kshatriya (warrior) caste (varna).  However, Nar Singh has to struggle to eke out a meager existence as a taxi driver.  His only possession of note is his vintage 1930 Chrysler sedan, which tends to attract the eyes of wealthy customers. 

At the outset it is also revealed that Nar Singh’s wife had left him, adding further insult to his self-esteem and leaving him as a thoroughgoing misogynist. This is shown in the film’s curious opening shot, which lasts 2:35 in fixed frame.  It shows a man, who will not be seen in the rest of the film, in closeup talking to the grumpy Nar Singh, who is seen only obscurely in the background through a broken mirror.  Nar Singh expresses his pessimistic view of the world in this shot, but we never learn much about his background.  All we really know him is that he is Kshatriya and that he owns that vintage Chrysler.  Ray’s treatment, in contrast to the novel, which apparently provided considerable background material about the principal characters, simply plunges the viewer straight away into the issues at hand [3].  The story that follows has four sections to it.
1.  Nar Singh’s World

After that opening shot, the rest of the first section shows Nar Singh’s life as a frustrated taxi driver who wants to show off and get some respect. One of the only ways for Nar Singh to boost his ego is by driving his Chrysler at high speeds on back roads, recklessly overtaking slow drivers, and even racing railroad trains following a parallel path.  Eventually, he goes too far, by recklessly overtaking a car carrying a Sub District Officer.  The SDO is incensed by Nar Singh’s audacity and immediately revokes his local taxi license. Nar Singh grumbles to his loyal assistant/mechanic Rama (Robi Ghosh) that he would have groveled for mercy before the hot-headed SDO, but the Kshatriya blood flowing through his veins prevented him from doing something so humiliating. Now without a source of income, Nar Singh is even more depressed, and he glumly decides to drive back to his local district of Giribraja. 


2.  New Acquaintances  
On the way, he encounters a stranded traveler, Sukhanram (Charuprakash Ghosh), who is willing to pay him to take him to another town, Shyamnagar.  Because of his grudge against all women, Nar Singh baulks at taking the man’s maidservant, Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman), but he goes ahead when the traveler offers him extra money for her. When they get to Shyamnagar, Sukhanram says he will help Nar Singh set up a potentially lucrative taxi service between Sukhanram and the nearby town of Panchmati.

Then Nar Singh runs into a man, Josef Rajani Dash (Gyanesh Mukherjee), who turns out to be a distant cousin of his.  Josef is very amiable towards the somewhat sullen Nar Singh and invites him to his modest home, where he meets Josef’s mother and his sister Neeli (Ruma Guha Thakurta).

Caste consciousness is significant here, especially for Nar Singh. Even though he is poor, Nar Singh considers himself above others because of his high caste status. While Sukhanram is evidently rich, he is from the Marwari caste, an ethnic group traditionally involved in trade and often considered by ordinary people to be “shifty”.  Moreover, the local taxi and bus drivers of Shyamnagar, who are lower class, resent the intrusion of this proud stranger and his fancy car into their midst.  In addition, Josef and his family are from a bottom-level caste, and they have fallen even lower in the caste reckoning by dropping out altogether and converting to Christianity.  Despite his caste consciousness, though, Nar Singh is immediately attracted to Neeli and softens his usually surly demeanor whenever he is around her.

With Sukhanram’s lucrative offer in mind, Nar Singh decides to hang around Shyamnagar for awhile.  He spends the night in Sukhanram’s work shed, where he is soon visited by the beautiful maidservant Gulabi.  It turns out that Gulabi is kept around by Sukhanram to serve as a prostitute, and she is seeking shelter for the night from Sukhanram’s client predators.  Nar Singh is indifferent to her situation, but he passively allows her to spend the night in the corner of his shed.

3.  Moral Concerns
There are now three different spheres of interaction for Nar Singh, and they offer different moral perspectives.  Although Nar Singh looks down at Gulabi as too low for his high-caste status, she takes his reluctance to ask her for sexual favors for the evening as a sign of almost heavenly virtue on his part.  She offers to be his mistress, if he is willing.

But Nar Singh’s romantic interests are directed towards Neeli, and he asks her about sin and punishment from the Christian perspective.  She tells him that whether one is “lowly” (as Nar Singh considers the status of Josef and Neeli to be) is solely determined by one’s inner nature, not by one’s caste. Her words seem to have an effect on Nar Singh.

As for Sukhanram’s proposition, it doesn’t take Nar Singh long to figure out that Sukhanram wants Nar Singh to serve as a transporter of illegal opium.   As Sukhanram reminds him,
“Business means some straight work and some illegal.  Any businessman who says he does only legal stuff is lying.”
4. Choices to be Made
To Nar Singh’s shock, Neeli approaches him after a ride and asks him to help her elope with a crippled Christian boy, Ajay, that she loves. To Nar Singh, Ajay is at the bottom of the dignity scale, with no chance to earn a decent living or command respect. And yet Neeli has chosen him!

After reluctantly helping them escape, Nar Singh returns that night to his shed drunk and tells Rama to summon Gulabi for him for the night. The next morning Gulabi lovingly tells him that she is his, and she sings a song for him. Immediately afterwards, she relates to him how she was raped (which apparently had caused her family to sell her into prostitution) and had almost committed suicide afterwards. Her  last-minute decision not to do so, was because she still felt life had something magical in store for her. Then she proposes that the two of them run away together and get married. This extended scene displaying Waheeda Rehman’s charm is the most charming sequence in the film.

But Nar Singh is still indifferent. He tells her that he wants to stay around and exploit his chance to make money and heighten his dignity. He goes to Sukhanram to sign a contract for his part in the illegal opium trade.


When first Gulabi, whom Sukhanram is about to be sell off as a concubine, and then Josef learn what Nar Singh has done, they reject him. Nar Singh’s response is only anger – these are the two people who had shown him the most respect up til now, and now they are evidently disrespecting him. He strikes Josef down and is about to walk away, when he has a last-minute change of heart. Perhaps the words of Neeli come to his mind about who he really is. In the final scenes he rejects his opium delivery mission and rescues Gulabi from Sukhanram. As he drives away, he calls to Josef at the side of the road that they should soon rendezvous in his home town of Giribraja.
 
Though Abhijan was a big success for Ray, it does have some noticeable weaknesses. 

Weaknesses:
  • Although the film’s box-office success was significantly due to its being a melodrama, the two most melodramatic scenes in the film are ineptly staged, shot. and edited. This despite the fact that Ray apparently spent much time shooting and editing these scenes [3]. 
    • The first one is a fight that takes place between Nar Singh and the hostile bus/taxi drivers of Shyamnagar.  The entire sequence is confused and chaotic, without any discernable progression to what is happening. 
    • The second melodramatic misfire concerns the confrontation that Josef and Nar Singh have at the end.  Again it seems awkward and confused.
  • Another weakness is the sudden turnaround that Nar Singh makes at the end of the film.  This is too abrupt and not well motivated.
Evidently action sequences were not, at this point in his career at least, Ray's forte.  Nevertheless, there are strong points, of course, to the film as well.

Strengths:

  • Ray’s usual humanistic tone is mostly evident throughout.  This is enhanced by the musical score that was composed by Ray.
     
  • The casting of Soumitra Chatterjee in the role  Nar Singh, the decision for which I understand was originally made by Bijoy Chatterjee [3], was an apt choice. Soumitra Chatterjee always brought a reflective tone to the roles he played, and this provided a useful rounding to the otherwise overly self-obsessed  character of Nar Singh.
     
  • Waheeda Rehman added a delightful element to the film in her role as the embodiment of unconditional love.  She provided the light that Nar Singh eventually found inside himself.
★★★

Notes:
  1. "Abhijan”, SatyajitRay.org.
  2. I have commented elsewhere about the pseudo concept of “dignity”.  See for example my reviews of The Last Command (1928), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Pyaasa (1957).
  3. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 213-229, 251-260.

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