"Mahapurush” - Satyajit Ray (1965)

Mahapurush (The Holy Man,1965) is a comedy film written, directed, and scored by Satyajit Ray.  Because of its relatively short length (65 minutes), Ray released the film along with his similarly short drama Kapurush, (The Coward, 1965) as a double feature. Actually, those two films are not at all thematically related to each other: Kapurush is a romantic drama, while Mahapurush is an emphatic and unsubtle comedy. Mahapurush was based closely on a short story  “Birinchibaba” by Rajshekhar Basu (pen name, Parashuram; 1880-1960), whose short story “Parash Pathar” (“The Philosopher's Stone”) had earlier served as the basis of Ray’s third feature, Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone, 1958).

Comedy doesn’t always transfer smoothly across cultural boundaries, unless it is presented in relatively broad and simple terms, like slapstick; and in India’s multicultural society this problem could perhaps be amplified.  So it is not surprising that Ray’s comedies have not achieved as much international success as his dramas [1].  And with Mahapurush, in particular, there could be a further concern, since the film is about religious quackery, which is probably a more sensitive issue in a country with such a strong tradition of religious sentiments.  In this film in fact, the main character, the “holy man”, is an outrageous, holy mountebank who serves up to his followers a massive soufflé of pious nonsense.  So Ray probably had to follow a fairly narrow path (between farce and cultural sensitivity) in order to ensure that his comic offering hit the right notes.  It is a matter for you to decide whether or not he succeeded, but I would say this is one of Ray’s lesser works.

One slant in this story that did interest me was the way the holy man attracts a more mature and educated following than would normally be expected. You would think that the more educated people in his audience would recognize the man for the charlatan that he is, but this is not what happens.  Instead, while addressing his rapt listeners, the man routinely drops the names of various gods, prophets, saints, and rishis and even claims personally intimate acquaintanceship with them.  Those in his audience with some education and having only a vague familiarity with these names light up with recognition when hearing the names.  They presumably feel proud to have recognized the esoteric (to the uneducated) holy names mentioned and thereby feel themselves to be closer to and more sympathetic with the man addressing them.  Thus they attribute great erudition to a man who knows nothing beyond the sacral names he is reciting.  This is an example of what Alexander Pope (1688–1744) meant when he said,
"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
Those with only a superficial familiarity with some knowledge area can often be suckered into serious misjudgements by someone who knows how to manipulate their flimsy ideas.

Anyway, the story of Mahapurush moves through three phases.

1.  The Guru Arrives
In the beginning, the guru Birinchi Baba (played by Charuprakash Ghosh) and his devoted assistant (Rabi Ghosh) are shown surrounded by devoted followers as they board a train departing from Varanasi.  As he gets onboard, Birinchi Baba tosses a few blessed cookies to the eagerly beseeching crowd. Even an officious train conductor scrambles to pick up one of the tossed cookies.  Then the Baba settles into his train compartment where he meets a wealthy and recently widowed man, Gurupada Mittir (Prasad Mukherjee), traveling with his grownup daughter Buchki (Geetali Roy).  Immediately Gurupada falls under the spell of the holy man and his presumed miraculous powers, and he invites him to his estate.

The scene now moves to a bachelors’ flat, where a visitor, Nitai, discusses the virtues of devoting oneself to a saint.  Two other men, one of whom is Nitai’s brother Nibaran (Somen Bose), claim to be modernist intellectuals and dismiss the idea.  Then another young man, Satya (Satindra Bhattacharya), enters and worriedly reports that the girl he loves and wants to marry, Buchki Mittir, is now unavailable because a guru has moved into her father’s house and enlisted her as a disciple.  In a dramatized flashback, we see that the bumbling suitor Satya annoyed Buchki by sending her a love letter full of borrowed poetic quotations, and she doesn’t even want to talk to him.

2.  Investigating the Guru
So Nibaran, who sees himself as a rational empiricist, decides to help out by talking to Kushuambhini (Santosh Dutta), who is the husband of Buchki’s sister and is a well-known modern scientist. Kushuambhini, who has already seen Birinchi Baba, scoffingly reports that the holy man claims to be as old as time and to know everything.  The Baba claims to have personally known Buddha, Jesus, and Leonardo Da Vinci; and he further claims to have taught Einstein about E = mc^2 [2].  The Baba also promotes his curious and provocative ideas about the nature of time, over which he claims to have had arguments with an uncomprehending Plato, no less.

So far, almost halfway through the film, it has been all talking about and with few interactions.  This is a serious weakness of the film, even though it’s overall duration is relatively short.  The film needs more direct interactions.

Then we move to a session of Baba Birinchi regaling his followers. When the Baba mentions  Plato, one of the more Westernized people in the audience whispers to a friend that Plato was a great Roman astrologer – further evidence of a dangerously little learning.  Finally Nibaran and Satya arrive to watch the session, and they witness the Baba’s further discourses on time.  They also learn that at precisely 7pm every evening the Baba falls into a spiritual trance and has to be carried out of the room, thereby terminating his devotional session.

3.  Taking Action
Back at the mens flat, Satya reports, as shown in a dramatized flashback, that he went to visit Buchki’s estate again and saw that the girl was completely spellbound by the charlatan holy man. So Nibaran, who is now convinced that Baba Birinchi is a fraud, hatches a plan to expose the trickster and save Buchki.

The action now briefly shifts to Baba Birinchi and his assistant in their room at the Mittir estate, where, in private, they can be seen as complete fraudsters (in case anyone was wondering).

Then we move to another session with the Baba, and among the audience is Nibaran, Nitai, and Satya ready to carry out their plan.  At 7pm Baba Birinchi goes into his mystical swoon, but also precisely at that moment, Nibaran and his team start a fake fire in the building.  The Baba immediately opens his eyes with alarm and exposes himself as a fake.  In the ensuing chaos, Nibaran orders the Baba and his assistant to leave the area and never come back.  This they timidly agree to do, but not without first surreptitiously stealing as many women’s purses and handbags as they can grab before hitting the road.  Also, Satya “rescues” Birinchi from the fake fire and presumably will get another chance with her.


The production values of Mahapurush bear the usual fine Satyajit Ray stamp, with excellent cinematography and film editing from Ray’s at-the-time customary collaborators Soumendu Roy and Dulal Dutta.  And I always like Ray’s unobtrusive but atmospheric background music.  The comic acting is what you might expect in a farce, and Charuprakash Ghosh as Birinchi Baba has a demonic laugh and expression that did effectively add to the proceedings.  But some of the roles did not play particularly well, such as Satindra Bhattacharya as Satya

Overall, the most interesting thing about Mahapurush is its depiction of how the lightly educated can become seduced and won over by cultural name-dropping. This phenomenon is becoming more serious in today’s social-networking environment, where so much pseudoscientific claptrap gets passed around and is constantly found to be “trending”. And with today’s limited attention spans, people don’t have the time or energy to examine refutations of what superficially passes for “scientific”.  In any case people looking for spiritual enlightenment too often fall prey to explanations in terms of scientific mechanisms and invocations of religious authorities.  But in my view mechanisms and authorities do not point the way towards enlightenment.   The real,  authentic path towards enlightenment lies along the road of heartfelt love and compassion towards the people with whom we engage.  And that is a path that is open to everybody.

In any case, there is still a problem with Mahapurush as a comedy.  A friend of mine once told me that he didn’t like a particular comic film, because “it broke the number one rule of comedy”.  When I asked him what was that rule, he answered, “not funny”.
★★½

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, p. 298.
  2. Many literate people have heard of this formula, but few know what it means.

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