“The Sound of Music” - Robert Wise (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965) was a culminating film of Hollywood’s Golden Age of musicals and still stands as one of the most popular films ever made.  The film was an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical stage production The Sound of Music (1959) and was the last work of the legendary Rodgers & Hammerstein team – the music composed by Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II (Oklahoma!, 1955; Carousel, 1956; The King and I, 1956; and South Pacific, 1958).  Their music, of course, is a crucial aspect of the work, but there are other interesting elements that also contributed to the film’s great popularity.  In particular, Julie Andrews’s captivating performance in the lead role and Robert Wise’s astute direction are particularly notable.

The story of The Sound of Music concerns a young postulant nun who takes leave from her nunnery to be the governess of a retired navy captain’s seven children.  Set in Austria just prior to and after Nazi Germany’s annexation (Anschluss) of that country in 1938, it is based on the real-life experiences described in Maria von Trapp’s memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1949).  During this account, Maria wins over the hearts of Captain von Trapp’s unruly children and teaches them how to sing.  She also falls in love with and marries the Captain, and together they all manage to escape Austria before the Nazis can conscript the Captain into their military. 

Now in many films there are basically two narrative threads: (1) a primary action thread that relates the principal narrative journey of the protagonist(s) and (2) a romantic thread involving the protagonist(s) that embellishes the primary thread.  In The Sound of Music, though, there are three main threads:
  1. Maria’s evolving relationship with the Captain’s children and her sharing with them of her heartfelt warmth through music;
  2. Maria’s relationship with Captain von Trapp;
  3. Captain von Trapp’s narrow escape from the Nazi clutches.
We might expect the third of these threads to be the main one that carries this story, but that is not the case in this film.  Over the course of development – moving first from Maria von Trapp’s memoir, then to the musical stage play, and finally to the film –  the story was streamlined so that there was an increasing emphasis on the first of the above-listed threads and a de-emphasis on the other two.  Ordinarily such diminution of the action thread would lessen viewer interest, but that is not the case with this film.  Here the main focus is on Maria and how she loves and engages with life.  Indeed, the title song, which opens the film in a breathtaking panoramic scene, is what this film is truly about –
“The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
  My heart wants to sing every song it hears”
It is Maria’s loving engagement with the world through music that dominates this story.  This led to the film’s diminution of other presumably key plot elements of the stage play’s story, such as (a) the contrast between Captain von Trapp’s idealism and his cynical friend Max Detweiler’s willingness to compromise with corruption in order to maximize his own utility and (b) the Captain’s tepid romantic relationship with the wealthy Baroness Elsa von Schraeder.  This shift in focus has its downside, but it is compensated for by the richness in treatment of Maria’s soulful nature through the dynamic presentation of the musical numbers.  In this regard Wise and his team came up with skillfully edited montages for the musical numbers, which released them from the confines of a static stage production and took advantage of cinema’s vastly more expressive possibilities.

In keeping with the Hollywood musical tradition, The Sound of Music’s tale is presented in two acts separated by an intermission, with the first and longer act containing most of the musical numbers and setting the overall mood, and the second act featuring a dramatic turn in the plot.

Act 1
The film opens by introducing the viewer to the vivaciously free-spirited young postulant nun Maria (played by Julie Andrews).  She is first seen outside reveling in nature and bursting into the title song, “The Sound of Music”.  But the sisters in the Salzburg abbey where she is studying dismiss her in their song “Maria” as a flibbertigibbet and a clown.  The Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) recognizes Maria’s insouciant nature and decides that life inside the abbey may be too confining at this stage in the young woman’s life.  So she assigns Maria to be a temporary governess for the seven children of recently widowed Captain Georg von Trapp’s (Christopher Plummer).

When Maria meets the von Trapp family, she sees that the Captain is remote and obsessed with discipline, while his children are unruly and rebellious.  Many of the memorable songs in this act, including “My Favorite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi”, show Maria engaged with the children and winning them over with her loving nature.  She teaches them how to sing as a group, which will become an important plot element in this story.

Meanwhile there is an interlude scene showing 16-year-old Liesl, the oldest von Trapp child, having a secret meeting with her boyfriend Rolf and the two of them singing to each other the song "Sixteen Going on Seventeen". 

After a trip to Vienna, the Captain returns with his romantic interest, Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), and their humorously cynical friend Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn).  Upon seeing his children frolicking with Maria, he fires Maria on the spot. But shortly thereafter when he hears how beautifully his children have learned to sing under Maria’s tutelage, he humbly recants his dismissal. Later the Captain is regaled by the children’s and Maria’s musical  puppet show, “The Lonely Goatherd”, and of the many well presented and time-edited musical numbers in the film this scene stands out as one of the best.  The Captain is then subsequently moved to sing for them, himself, the metaphorically patriotic ballad “Edelweiss”. 

The Captain is finally persuaded to host a lavish party at the von Trapp mansion, during which
Maria and the Captain briefly dance together and exchange instinctively tender glances.  This rush of feeling makes Maria blush, and she backs away.  Later, after the children say good night by singing the coordinated “So Long, Farewell”, Baroness Elsa, who suspects something is brewing between The Captain and Maria, goes to Maria’s room and convinces her to return to  the chaste world of the abbey.

Act 2
With Maria now back at the abbey in seclusion, The Captain announces to his family his plans to marry Baroness Elsa.  The children, missing their dear tutor and companion Maria, are underwhelmed by this news. 

Meanwhile at the abbey, Maria confesses to the Mother Abbess her confused feelings that caused her to flee the von Trapp household.  The understanding Mother Abbess tells Maria that she must follow where her pure heart leads her and that she should return to the von Trapp family.  Underscoring her advice, the kindly woman then sings the inspirational “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.

When Maria returns to the von Trapp estate, the children are delighted, but she is disappointed to hear that The Captain is now engaged to Elsa.  However, The Captain is now realizing his mounting feelings for Maria, and he breaks off his engagement with Elsa.  In the evening he finds Maria in the garden and expresses his love for her.  There in beautifully shadowed and silhouetted shots, they sing the enchanting song “Something Good”.
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth
For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
This beautiful song was written specifically for this film by Richard Rodgers alone, Oscar Hammerstein II having passed away in 1960, and it stands out as one of the film’s finest moments.

In short order Maria and The Captain are married and off on their honeymoon.  While they are away, the German government annexes Austria (the Anschluss), and Max enters the children in a musical contest for the Salzburg Festival to be held on the evening that the honeymoon couple returns.  When The Captain does return with Maria, he is informed that he has been conscripted into the German Third Reich’s navy, and he must report for duty immediately.

Unwilling to collude with the Nazis, The Captain organizes his family to leave Austria immediately.  However, when trying to escape in their car, their plans are foiled by Nazi Brownshirts following them, so they head for the Salzburg Festival to perform there. 

At the festival, they reprise some of their earlier songs, including a stirring rendition of “Edelweiss” by The Captain and Maria.   Afterwards during the awards ceremony, the family manages to sneak away to the abbey, where the Mother Abbess and the nuns place them in hiding.  But the Brownshirts, who now include Leisl’s former boyfriend Rolf among their members, are looking for their missing quarry, and they come to the abbey to snoop around.  But with the help of some canny nuns, the family gets away and heads on foot over the mountains to freedom in Switzerland as the film ends.

When The Sound of Music was first released, the US East Coast critical reaction was mixed, at best, but the film soon proved popular with the wider public.  It received 10 nominations for US Academy Awards (Oscars), and it won five of them, including for Best Picture and Best Director.  By the following year, the film had become the highest grossing film of all time, surpassing Gone with the Wind (1939). 

Despite the film’s great popularity, though, we can identify some weaknesses in the storytelling.
  • In the course of streamlining the stage play for the film, one of my favorite songs from the musical play was deleted, “No Way to Stop It”.  This was sung mainly by Max and Elsa in the early part of Act 2, and its removal was part of the diminution of those characters in the film. 
  • Some liberties were taken with historical reality.  Since this is a story about a real person, some caution should be exercised in making these alterations.  For example the film’s narrative collapses into a single year events that were spread over at least twelve years in Maria von Trapp’s account.  Their departure from Austria was also different from what was depicted in the film.
  • We are not shown enough of Captain von Trapp’s persona and charm to justify Maria’s falling in love with him.
  • The acting of the von Trapp children is rather artificial, even for a musical play.
  • Captain von Trapp’s breakup with Baroness Elsa is artificial and seems too easily accepted by her.
Nevertheless, the film‘s strengths make up for these deficiencies.  Julie Andrews’s sincerity, warmth, and charm carry the story’s main message concerning loving engagement with the world.  And Christopher Plummer, who has a rather subdued presence in this story, is extremely good at conveying inner feelings through his facial expressions.  This became more evident to me upon repeated viewings of the film. 

But it is the beautifully crafted musical numbers, with their cinematic choreography (which was completely new for the film from the stage play in order to take advantage of cinema’s wider aesthetic latitude) that carry this film.  They are what make this film still worthy of a four-star rating.

“First They Killed My Father” - Angelina Jolie (2017)

First They Killed My Father (2017) depicts the harrowing experiences of a small child trying to survive the democide inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge during 1975-79. It is based on the real-life experiences of co-scriptwriter Loung Ung, as recounted in her bestselling memoir First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000). 
The film was directed and co-scripted by famous American screen siren Angelina Jolie, who has her own significant personal connections with Cambodia. She adopted Cambodian infant Maddox Chivan in 2002, and she has since been active in humanitarian causes in the country, which have led her to being granted Cambodian citizenship in 2005.  So it was not surprising that Jolie would strive for maximal authenticity by having the film shot in Cambodia with an all-Cambodian cast and crew. 

What Jolie has achieved is an intense first-person account of what life was like in the hell created by the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields” [1].  There is no real attempt to show an objective context of what happens.  The viewer is only offered Loung Ung’s ever-changing chaotic circumstances and limited horizon.  And there are no voiceovers telling the viewer what Loung may be thinking.  In fact apart from a few nightmarish dreams and visions, there is no coverage of Loung’s internal state. Instead the viewer sees the horrific world right in front of Loung as she sees it.

The effort to provide first-person experiential authenticity does run into some cinematic difficulties, though.  Throughout especially the earlier parts of the film, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) camera work subjects the viewer to unsteady handheld moving-camera shots using wide-angle lenses, frequently connected by jump-cuts.  This is presumably done to convey a feeling of even more dynamic immediacy, but the net effect is disorienting and disconcerting – it only serves the opposite effect of distancing the viewer from what is shown.  Nevertheless, Jolie’s overall effort in the film to present Loung’s violence-fraught immediacy is laudable; and over the course of the film, it does generally bring the viewer into her world of experience.  The resulting account that Jolie and her production team fashioned deserves comparison with the great films showing innocent children in war settings, such as Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits, 1952).

Note that although the film’s narrative does confine itself to Loung Lu’s immediate circumstances and eschews coverage of an objective context, the film opens with a brief context-setting prologue that does make a worthy point.  To the blaring soundtrack music of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, the viewer is shown a montage of (a) documentary newsreel footage showing the US government’s early-1970s bombing of eastern Cambodia, which was a neutral country in the Viet Nam conflict and (b) intercut statements from President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger denying that such action was taking place.  Although the circumstances surrounding the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power are complex and cannot be attributed to a single direct action, this opening prologue points to a basic problem with interventionist American military activities.

It is a conceit among American liberal interventionists, and more recently “East Coast” neoconservatives [2], that when the American military intervenes and overthrows a corrupt dictator, then the “disrupted” society, now freed from the dictator and his family, will magically self-organize into a liberal democracy.  They believe that liberal democratic order will naturally arise from disruption, and so disruption, by itself, is deemed a virtue.  But this view runs counter to what historians have observed over the centuries [3,4,5].  When human societies first become more organized into larger units, there are three general stages through which they must pass in sequence (and thus they are not ordinarily skipped over):
  1. Warlords.  The first stage is one of coercive rule by brute force on the part of gangsters.  There is very little in the way of accepted normative behavior or activities in accordance with human institutions. Warlords are often consumed in mutually destructive internecine wars against each other.
  2. Monarchy or Dictatorship. In this stage there is an organized ruling hierarchy topped by a sovereign. The succession of rule after a sovereign’s death is formally specified. There is also normally a privileged class that has formally authorized powers over the rest of society and also possesses a disproportionate share of the wealth.  However, there are also some written laws (often established by decree) and some institutions that help curb low-level violence and maintain order.
  3. Democratic Republic.  At this stage, social rule is a public matter and managed by elected officials.  There is a general rule of law, with laws established by elected representatives.  There are also inclusive, norm-based institutions that help maintain a fully integrated and productive social fabric.
A foreign military intervention intended to overthrow a Stage 2 dictatorship and pave the way for a Stage 3 republic often backfires, because it destroys whatever existing institutional infrastructure may be in place.  With the existing institutional infrastructure, imperfect though it may have been, now in ruins, the invaded state reverts to a Stage 1 warlord society  – it is now further away from Stage 3 than before.  This is what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this is what transpired in Cambodia, too.   Jolie’s prologue reminds us that US destructive intervention in the area and subsequent abrupt withdrawal facilitated the collapse of the Stage 2 Lon Nol government and opened the door to the Stage 1 Khmer Rouge warlords.

After the prologue’s thematic montage, the film’s narrative account of Loung Ung’s experiences opens in 1975 when the US military pulled out of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.  Lon Nol’s government troops were no match for the oncoming Khmer Rouge forces, who quickly invaded the city and took charge.  The city people did not know much about the cryptic Khmer Rouge, who called themselves the “Angkar” (“The Organization”), but many were ready to accept them as liberators. 

Among these city people was Loung Ung’s upper-middle-class family, comprising her father, Seng Im (“Pa”) Ung (played by Phoeung Kompheak), her mother Ay (“Ma”) Ung (Sveng Socheata), and their seven children, among whom was five-year-old Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch).  Pa Ung had been a mid-level officer in the government’s military police, and he knew that if the conquering Khmer Rouge were to become aware of his background, he would be executed on the spot.  So when the Khmer Rouge ordered an immediate and complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, Pa Ung had no choice to but to meekly acquiesce and pretend to be a common laborer.

But everything here is seen through the eyes, not of Pa Ung, but of the young and precocious Loung Ung.  Since Loung’s  parents are trying to soothe their children and conceal their desperate circumstances, this gives an overall haunting, almost surreal, mood to the film [1].  The viewer sees the parents’ assumed placidity, knowing that it is a parental mask, and at the same time the viewer empathizes with Loung from her more naive and circumscribed perspective.  The overall effect is to heighten the viewer’s concern for the innocent young girl.  Thus, for example, everyone was immediately compelled to give up all their private possessions, since all private property was now abolished by the new Cultural-Revolution-inspired forces. When this happens to them, Pa and Ma Ung calmly surrender everything they have, but their children are distressed to part with some of their favorite toys and dresses. 

Like all the others, the Ung family is herded out of the city and into scattered rural work camps, where they are ordered to work like slaves.  These are the fabled “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge, but we don’t see much dramatized violence.  Instead we see the grim, impoverished circumstances that the real Loung Ung experienced in her early youth.  When we watch her and her mates rejoice at the chance of roasting and eating a snake or to consume roasted beetles, we get a more encompassing feeling for the low state to which they have been brought. 

Step by step their desperate situation becomes ever more desperate, and Loung struggles to adapt.  Some of her older siblings are taken away to be conscripted into the Khmer Rouge fighting forces.  Her father is seized and taken away by Khmer Rouge agents for some remote assignment. He is never to be seen again, although Loung has a nightmarish vision of her father being executed by the agents.  She and her remaining siblings are urged by her now almost hysterically anxious mother to escape individually from their dysfunctional and starved work camp and to try to find haven in some other work camps.  Loung does so, posing to her new work camp seniors as an orphan.  By the time she is seven years old, she is being trained to be a soldier and kill the enemy, which by now has become the Vietnamese, with a lance.  She has become a trained killer.  Later Loung wanders into her old work camp out from which her mother had sent her and her other remaining siblings, and she finds it completely deserted – her mother has vanished.  Still later Loung has another nightmarish vision of her mother having died of starvation or disease.

All the while, Loung is managing to survive, but her once innocent smile has gradually transformed into an anxious scowl.  We see on the contours of her youthful face the grim outline of what is happening to her and others like her.  Child actress Sareum Srey Moch is remarkably effective in the role here of Loung Ung.  She doesn’t overdramatize things and at all times maintains a countenance that is realistic, convincing, and emotionally moving.  We see reflected in her face the struggles of an innocent youth trying to live with and comprehend the incomprehensible – the inhumanity of ruthless oppression and war.

With respect to the rest of the all-Cambodian cast, the acting is also quite good.  This is particularly so of the low-key performances of Loung’s parents, Phoeung Kompheak (Pa Ung) and Sveng Socheata (Ma Ung), who try to evoke an aura of soothing parental calm in front of their children in the face of increasingly desperate circumstances.
First They Killed My Father does manage to end on something of a positive note – Loung ultimately survives.  But this was not a matter of human triumph, but merely the fortunate outcome of one person in a lottery with devastatingly negative odds.

  1. Matt Zoller Seitz, “First They Killed My Father”, RogerEbert.com, 15 September 2017).    
  2. Jacob Heilbrunn, “Donald Trump’s Brains”, The New York Review of Books, (21 December 2017).
  3. Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social  Orders, Cambridge University Press (2009).
  4. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, Crown Business (2012).
  5. Andrew J. Bacevich, “What Will It Take for America to Wake Up to the Horrifying Reality of US Warfare?”, The Nation, (11 December 2017).   

Angelina Jolie

Films of Angelina Jolie:

“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.

  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 persona 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.

  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.

  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).