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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

3 comments:

Kanye East said...

nice to see the blog going strong, been following you since 2015. Do you have a letterboxd account by chance?

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great film... brilliant analysis!

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks for your comments. And no, I don't have a Letterboxd account. Do you recommend it?