“Detective”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

“Detective” is the sixth episode of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) that was created and directed by Anurag Basu.  This episode, which is based on the short story “The Detective” [1] that Tagore published in 1898, is played to relative comedic effect, but it has some more serious considerations, too [2].

The story concerns the activities of an ambitious young police detective Mahimchandra, who, like many men, has only two goals in life – to be a hero in his professional life and to be a hero in his love life.  As he tells his adorable and loving wife Neelu (aka Nilakshi),
“I have two goals in my life. To be a detective and reveal the greatest secrets.  And secondly to be the husband of a very beautiful woman.”
On the domestic side of things, Neelu loves Mahimchandra, but she expresses some jealousy over the fact that her husband has an attractive and intelligent female colleague, Harimati, working with him at the police office.  But Mahimchandra assures Neelu that he has no thoughts for Harimati (even though we soon learn that the woman is rather flirtatious).

In Mahimchandra’s professional sphere he wants to achieve glory as a master detective, in the fashion of his detective fiction heroes, Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade [3].  But he is frustrated by the dimwitted and unimaginative lawbreakers he captures.  They never offer him a diabolical scheme for him to unravel and so demonstrate his skills as a master criminologist.  What Mahimchandra is looking for is a villainous miscreant who has spun a false narrative for his criminal activities and which only Mahimchandra has the perspicacity to see through.  But all he finds is thugs who confess to their crimes immediately on being caught.

But one evening Mahimchandra sees a man out on the street outside his apartment window who fires up his suspicious imagination.  The man appears to be lurking there out on a street corner every evening for no apparent reason.  What is he doing there?  What are his intentions?

Mahimchandra, in disguise, approaches the man, whose name turns out to be Manmath, but his brief conversation with him reveals nothing.  Manmath is cordial but evasive.  Mahimchandra  learns that Manmath is a college student; but the college examinations are finished and all the other students have gone to their homes for the student recess.  Why is Manmath still hanging around on the street at night?

Mahimchandra concludes that Manmath must be part of a criminal or revolutionary scheme, and he decides to masquerade as a student and befriend Manmath in order to uncover his evildoings.  So he shaves off his mustache and rents a room in the same building where Manmath is renting.  Now Mahimchandra’s sleuthing mind turns to how he can gain Manmath’s confidence and get him to reveal his secrets.  The way to do that, he concludes, is to confess his own innermost vulnerabilities to Manmath – and that would mean introducing a woman into their discussions.  So Mahimchandra fabricates a tale that he is in unrequited love with Harimati, who willingly agrees to cooperate in Mahimchandra’s ruse. 

By confessing his innermost yearnings to Manmath, Mahimchandra hopes that the young man will reveal his own personal thoughts about his presumably criminal schemes.  So he arranges to have some meetings with himself and Harimati in the company of Manmath so that he can encourage more intimacy.  Things get more complicated and counter to Mahimchandra’s plans, though, when Harimati develops a crush on Manmath.  All the while, Manmath remains surprisingly friendly to them, but he reveals nothing more about himself.

Finally Mahimchandra snoops around in Manmath’s room when his friend is away, and he discovers a note indicating that Manmath will meet someone in his room at 8pm while Mahimchandra is supposed to be out with Harimati.  This, Mahimchandra presumes, must be a clandestine meeting between Manmath and one of his co-conspirators.  So he arranges for himself and Harimati to burst in on this 8pm meeting and discover what these plotters are up to.

In the event, though, there is a big surprise.  When Mahimchandra bursts in on the meeting, he discovers that Manmath is not the kind of criminal he thought him to be.  Everything is finally revealed in a letter that Manmath writes to Nilakshi.  It turns out that Manmath is, himself, a sleuth – and perhaps a different kind of thief, as well.


This filmed version of Tagore’s story is basically faithful to the original, but there are some differences.  In particular, the character of Harimati is expanded in this version, which may slightly alter the viewer’s perception of Mahimchandra’s sincerity.

It is generally true that all of us are continually constructing narratives, about ourselves and about the people we interact with.  These narratives we store in our memories and represent our understanding of the world.  A detective tries to construct, and then demonstrate the veracity of, a narrative about a criminal suspect in which the suspect is the guilty agent.  In this respect both Mahimchandra and Manmath were detectives, but the supposedly guilt-proving narratives they constructed were both false. And what drove both of them to construct these false narratives was overweening pride and selfish desire.  It is best to withhold conclusive judgement until all the facts are in and a more reliable narrative description can be constructed.


Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “Detective”, (1898), (trans. by Saquib Rahman and Rita Bullwinkel, Dhaka Tribune, 5 May 2017).  
  2. Durgas, “Atithi, Maanbhanjan & Detective – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2)”. Writersbrew, (23 July 2015).  
  3. Sam Spade was the protagonist in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930).  See

“Maanbhanjan”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Maanbhanjan” (“Fury Appeased”), the fifth episode of the well-received anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) that was created and directed by Anurag Basu, is based on the short story of the same name that Tagore (1861-1941) published in 1895 [1].  It tells the story of some people consumed by the adulation that can arise from role-playing. 

The story concerns Gopinath (played by Trishaan), a young zamindar who got married to his wife, Giribala (Ranjini Chakraborty), when they were both children.  As they grew up together, they were playmates and had a close relationship.  But as Giribala tells it, when Gopinath’s father died and he took over the zamindar responsibilities, Gopinath’s relationship with Giribala cooled.  Although we can clearly see that Giribala is elegant and beautiful, Gopinath now neglects his wife and spends most of his time, even his evenings, outside their home.  Giribala is left alone in their mansion and idly spends time playing games of chess with herself.

While Giribala is left home in the evenings, Gopinath is out attending theatrical stage shows. There he fixes his gaze on lead actress Latika (Purva Naresh), whose performances he worshipfully applauds.  In fact Gopinath is having an extra-marital affair with Latika, and he sneaks backstage after her performances to spend more intimate time with her. But Gopinath is possessive, and he grudgingly confesses to her that he doesn’t like it when other people gaze at her.

When the viewer sees Latika, he or she is immediately challenged with the question as to what it is about the woman that so attracts Gopinath. Compared to Giribala’s refined beauty, Latika is fleshy and earthy, and from appearances alone she would seem to be no match for the woman.  But Latika’s allure seems to come from the fact that she is performing romantic roles on stage that fire her audience’s imagination.  She is like a media star, and she comports herself with the confidence of a star.  She is used to being admired, and she expects the adulation she receives.

Eventually Giribala sends her woman attendant Shudhomukhi (Natasha Pillai) out to track her husband’s evening activities, and the woman reports back about his watching Latika on stage.  She also remarks that Latika looks like a very unlikely candidate for his affections.  Now more curious than ever, Giribala decides to go out to the theater and see things for herself. When she sees Latika emerge from her dressing room after her show and face her adoring fans, including Gopinath, Giribala cringes with jealousy.

When she starts attending the theatrical shows, though, Giribala quickly becomes rapt with feeling for the characters she is experiencing vicariously.  Soon she is laughing and crying at what she sees being performed before her.  So while Latika revels in being the focus of so much empathy, Giribala is on the other side, immersed in empathic feeling.  They are both enthralled by the potency of shared experiences generated by role-playing.

So Giribala goes home and decides to do some glamorous role-playing for Gopinath.  She dresses up as a legendary princess and tries to seduce her husband.  But he will have none of it.  Instead he rewards her coquettishness by rudely roughing her up and then storming out of the house to  see Latika.

Meanwhile Latika, knowing that her infatuated lover, Gopinath, is a rich zamindar, imperiously commands him to fund a lavish new stage production for her.  This he proceeds to do, and he gets the best director, musicians, and production designers for the task.  However, when rehearsals begin, the production’s new director looks critically at Latika’s skills.   He is not a stage-struck fan, but a hardened professional, and he sees her work as awkward and coarse.  When Gopinath walks in on a rehearsal and sees Latika suffering from the director’s scornful criticism, he angrily whisks her out of the show and proceeds to elope with her out to a remote country residence.  Giribala has now been thoroughly abandoned.

Gopinath and Latika are presumably now living in romantic bliss, but Latika begins longing for the old excitement of performing before an enraptured audience.  She reads in the newspaper that there is a new diva superstar drawing rave reviews for her performance as Miribai, and she presses to go back to Kolkata and see how the woman performs. 

When they go back and attend a show, Gopinath is stunned to see that the new diva is none other than Giribala, whose moving soulful performance tops whatever Latika could do.  Now it is Latika’s turn to humbly watch Giribala emerge after the show to face her own adoring fans.


The ending of “Maanbhanjan” brings to mind the ending of Random Harvest (1942). Sometimes a person long searches for paradise, not realizing that the sought-after heavenly goal was standing there right in front of him or her all the time.  Gopinath had fabricated a romantic narrative out of Latika’s persona that was based on her fantasy role-playing on the stage.  When he sees Giribala in that same kind of role at the end, he can’t take it.  His possessive nature has now been completely overturned.

With respect to the two women in this story, Giribala and Latika, they were both captivated by the lure of performing.  They wanted to play romantic roles that would appeal to their audiences, but perhaps Giribala was more fully and soulfully immersed than was Latika in the romantic roles she was playing. That made her even more alluring.
½

Notes:
  1. Durgas, “Atithi, Maanbhanjan & Detective – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2)”. Writersbrew, (23 July 2015).  

“Atithi”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Antithi” (“The Guest”) is the fourth episode of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) that was created and directed by Anurag BasuThe episode is based on the short story of the same name that Tagore (1861-1941) published in 1895.  It tells the story of a gentle teenage boy consumed with wanderlust.

At the beginning, the teenage boy Tarapada (played by Rohan Shah) is shown working in the service of a minstrel singer who wanders about the countryside seeking alms for his spiritual songs.  The boy, who has taken his minstrel master to be a spiritual sage, is surprised to hear him talk onetime about mundane concerns. His master responds by saying that the boy must presumably be, like many youngsters, in search of the meaning of life.  But the boy says to himself:
“I simply want to live life.

I don’t want to ask the tall trees how they grew so big. I simply want to watch their vastness and feel delighted.

I don’t want to question the flow of the river.  I simply want to watch it flowing, for miles on end. 

I want to assimilate this unique aspect of nature within myself. I want to lose myself and not find myself. I want to dissolve, as the sun dissolves in water.

I don’t know the meaning of life.  But I want to know what life is.”
It is on this account that Tarapada, perpetually searching for new experiences with life’s wonders, has many times run away from his home and family. So the boy now wanders off on his own and encounters a zamindar, named Motilal, and his family traveling on the river in a budgerow (houseboat).  When the boat docks, the helpful boy makes himself useful to the zamindar’s retinue, and soon he is taken on as an extra helper.

Although Tarapada is at first only a servant, his constantly cheerfully congenial and assistive nature soon endears the boy to the zamindar’s family.  When he is not industriously attending his chores, he charms the family with his singing and flute-playing.  In fact Tarapada’s many soulful vocal serenades charm this viewer, too, and are a feature of this episode.

After awhile the zamindar and his wife invite Tarapada to come to their stately mansion, and they begin treating the boy like a member of their own family.  But not everyone is pleased with this new situation.  The zamindar’s preteen daughter, Charusashi (aka Charu), is spoiled and not used to sharing the spotlight of the family’s attention with someone else. Soon she is petulantly disrupting or spoiling as many of Tarapada’s activities as possible.  When the good-natured boy refuses to take offense at her shenanigans and tries to befriend her, she simply sulks and turns away.

Things only get worse for Charu’s spoiled ego when she learns that her father has begun teaching the inquisitive boy English.  Charu demands to be included in the English instruction, but she doesn’t have the discipline to learn; she only wants to be the center of attention.  When that fails, she insolently spoils Tarapada’s homework by pouring ink all over it.  All during this time, though, Tarapada remains patient and forgiving.  And little by little, Charu slowly warms to Tarapada’s presence, and they start spending more time together.

At this time Motilal and his wife are thinking of choosing a marriage partner for Charu.  Although the girl is very young, the arranged marriage of preteen girls was common in India at this time (Rabindrath Tagore’s own wife was only ten-years-old when she was married to him).  However, when an audience is arranged for a prospective groom’s family, it is spoiled by Charu’s ill-tempered tantrum, and Motilal and his wife realize that it will be difficult to find anyone who can put up with Charu’s petulance. 

They finally come to the conclusion that Tarapada would make an ideal husband for Charu.  Although he comes from a poor family, he is intelligent, cooperative, industrious, and seems to be the only one who could tame Charu’s self-indulgence.  Motilal is so impressed with the boy that he also intends to include him as his partner in managing his landlord estate. Tarapada will become more than a guest, he will become like a step-son, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the boy. But can he resist his eternal urge to hearken to and follow the song of the open road?  You will find out at the conclusion of this story.


Overall, “Atithi” is a tale that is exquisitely told.  It displays a poetic lyricism featuring an almost  perfect blend of soulful music and atmospheric imagery.  In fact for the expression of its narrative theme, it stands as a cinematic “tone poem”.

“Chokher Bali”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Anurag Basu (2015)

“Chokher Bali” (“Speck in the Eye”, 1901) is a novel by Rabindranath Tagore that was adapted by Anurag Basu for his Indian television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015 – Episodes 1, 2, and 3).  This story revolves around four characters and their evolving amorous relationships, which are complicated by the machinations of arranged marriage:
  • Binodini (played by Radhika Apte) is an educated young woman who becomes the object of the affections of the other two men in this story.
     
  • Mahendra (Bhanu Uday) is a young man studying to be a doctor.
     
  • Ashalata (Tara-Alisha Berry) is a beautiful, but uneducated, young woman who marries Mahendra.
     
  • Bihari (Sumeet Vyas) is another young man studying to be a doctor and is Mahendra’s close friend.  Since he and Mahendra have been very close since boyhood, they consider themselves to be “brothers”. 
The story is told nonlinearly, beginning when Binodini and Bihari accidentally meet six years after the tale’s main events, which are then recounted in various flashbacks.  The major narrative events of this earlier period can be pieced together from this as follows:
  1. Binodini is offered in marriage by her mother to Mahendra, who declines the opportunity of even meeting the girl because he feels he is not ready to marry.  She is then offered to Bihari, who also declines because he was the second choice.
     
  2. Binodini is then married to another man (not seen in this story) who dies in the first year of their marriage, leaving Binodini as a young widow.  Widows in traditional Indian culture were expected always to wear white saris, signifying their perpetual state of mourning, and were essentially sidelined from participating in social society.
     
  3. Ashalata is later offered in marriage to Bihari, but when Mahendra chances a glimpse of the beautiful girl, he changes his mind about marriage and importunes on his friend to let him marry her instead.  Bihari accepts his friend’s request, and Mahendra and Ashalata are married.  The newly married couple then fall passionately in love with each other and spend all of their time in the conjugal bedroom.
     
  4. Binodini happens to encounter Mahendra’s mother, who is also a widow, and the young widow is invited to come live with her and her son.  When Binodini arrives, she sees the man who spurned her and vengefully sets herself the task of luring Mahendra away from Ashalata.
     
  5. Binodini seduces Mahendra, and they commence an affair under the nose of the innocent Ashalata.  The more introverted Bihari is also around, and he also falls in love with Binodini, but from a distance.
     
  6. But when Binodini finally does decide that Bihari is the one she really likes, he has already moved away and is out of touch.
Within the context of this matrix of events, Basu tells this tale in the form of a sequence of passionate excerpts from an existing, presumably known but only dimly articulated, narrative.  There is no real character development or progressive psychological motivation expressed in this story telling.  Instead it reels from one passionate, moody situation to another, without the narrative development needed for motivation.  Tagore’s novel, which I haven’t read, presumably has this more in-depth character development that I am looking for, as well more subtle allusions to the cultural prejudices concerning widowhood that pervaded in Indian society. Since these are missing from the episodes under discussion, it would probably be helpful to be already familiar with the main story sequence before watching these episodes.

In addition to the obscurity of the narrative progression, there are also some other weaknesses in this presentation.  There are some confusing shifts of context between the “final” meeting between Binodini and Bihari and the six-years-earlier events recounted in flashback.  This is because Binodini is always wearing a white sari in both contexts, so cuts back to the six-years-later context are often unsignaled.  Director Basu tried to solve this problem by showing Bihari sporting a beard and wearing glasses in the six-years-later context (he is clean-shaven and not bespectacled in the earlier segments).  But this doesn’t always work, because the focus of attention is usually on Binodini.  There are also a number of scenes littered with shaky hand-held camera shots and jump-cuts that can be disrupting to the viewer.  In addition, the acting performance of Bhanu Uday as Mahendra, though emphatic, is weak and artificial.

But there are some compensating virtues to Basu’s presentation, too.  As mentioned, there are a number of emotive, atmospheric sequences conveying passion, longing, and melancholy that are very affecting. These are conveyed by breathtakingly artistic visual compositions with carefully shaded chiaroscuro and character orchestration.  And they are all complemented by the stirring music of series composer Anurag Saikia.  In addition, the moving performance of Radhika Apte as Binodini in many of these scenes is particularly effective.  Her expressive features suggesting suppressed passions are what will linger in your memory.  They remind us that love is a many splendored thing and often the driving force behind our most earnest aspirations.

“Stories by Rabindranath Tagore” - Anurag Basu (2015)

Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) is an Indian television series and covers novels and stories by the great Indian writer and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).  Although Tagore wrote his works in his native Bengali language, the series presentation language is Hindi.  (For more commentary on Tagore, see my review of Satyajit Ray's documentary Rabindranath Tagore (1961) [1]).

The series was created and directed by well-known film director Anurag Basu, who adapted Tagore’s stories in accordance with his own aesthetic schemes and rhythms.  The series features a number of songs written by Tagore, and the overall series music was composed by Anurag Saikia.  

Because of the hour-long format of the series, some of Tagore’s stories are spread over more than one episode.  The series when presented was well receive by the Indian press and the public [2].

The Tagore stories depicted in this series are linked, so that at the conclusion of one story, background characters of the story just concluded are seen to be significant characters of a story about to be told.  Thus at the end of each story, there is a direct lead-in to the next story.  Sometimes, however, these end-of-episode lead-ins to the next story are distractingly too lengthy and contain some significant narrative information that is not repeated when the succeeding episode is presented.  In addition, these episode linkages mean that all of them take place in this series during the same period – apparently some time in the 1930s – even though the original Tagore stories were published over many years, ranging from 1891 to 1941.
½

Episodes from Stories by Rabindranath Tagore:
  • “Chokher Bali”Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episodes 1, 2, & 3 – Anurag Basu (2015)
  • "Atithi"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 4 – Anurag Basu (2015)
  • "Maanbhanjan"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 5 – Anurag Basu (2015)
  • "Detective"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 6 – Debatma Mandal (2015)
  • "Kabuliwala"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 7 – Tani Basu (2015)
  • "Punishment"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 8 – Debatma Mandal (2015)
  • "The Broken Nest"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episodes 9 & 10 – Tani Basu (2015)
Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, "'Rabindranath Tagore' - Satyajit Ray (1961)", The Film Sufi, (15 November 2017).
  2. Sankhayan Ghosh, “Tagore’s stories have a strange sense of gender equality: Anurag Basu”, The Indian Express, (3 July 2015).    

Anurag Basu

Films of Anurag Basu:

“Kanchenjungha” - Satyajit Ray (1962)

Kanchenjungha (1962) was a novel and innovative film for Satyajit Ray in several respects.  It was his first color film, and it was the first time he fashioned a film from his own original screenplay. The structure of the screenplay was, itself, innovative, since it involved multiple, parallel narrative threads involving a number of separately focalized characters.  This kind of narrative structure, which has been featured in such classics as Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Altman’s Nashville (1975), has sometimes been referred to as a hyperlink film; but it was then unknown to Bengali film, and it confused some critics at the time. 

The story of Kanchenjungha features a group of wealthy people from Calcutta who are vacationing in the remote northern Bengal hill station of Darjeeling, which lies at the foot of Kanchenjungha, the third highest mountain peak in the world.  The vacationers in this story have come to this outlying natural locale to “get away from it all”, and they seek to both revel in nature’s wonders and hopefully catch glimpses of Kanchenjungha’s majesty, which is often obscured in clouds and mist. In fact the ever-shifting mists in Darjeeling presented production problems for Ray, since they could interfere with shot continuity.  But Ray put up with and even exploited this situation – the shifting mists offered a visual metaphor for the evolving psychological moods and understandings in the story.
                       
Another distinctive feature of this film is that it was shot entirely on location in Darjeeling.  Under such conditions it meant that Ray and his small production crew did not have access to artificial lighting equipment.  Instead, they used bounce-lighting reflectors, a technique that had been pioneered by Ray’s innovative young cinematographer, Subrata Mitra [1,2,3].

Ray had chosen the Darjeeling location, because his grandfather, the writer and eminent intellectual Upendrakishore Ray, used to sometimes retreat there for inspiration.  So Ray went to Darjeeling for a ten-day visit and wrote a detailed scenario for the film while there.  Ray was a meticulous production planner, and he came up with a detailed scheme as to how he could incorporate elements of Darjeeling’s natural surroundings into his film. As a result and despite the unpredictable weather conditions that had to be accommodated to, Ray completed the film with a low shooting ratio of three-to-one. These and other interesting production details – including how Ray, who had no musical training, scored all the music for the film –  are related by Ray’s biographer, Marie Seton, who was at Ray’s side during the entire location shoot and post-production [4].

Note that the idea of educated urbanites leaving their customary trappings and going off into natural surroundings leading to new perspectives was something that Ray would cover again in his superlative Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, 1970).
  
In this story of Kanchenjungha, a family from Calcutta is on the last day of their visit to Darjeeling.  The key issue for them is the semi-arranged and impending marriage proposal that will presumably be proffered to one of the family’s daughters that afternoon.  There are a number of individuals, nearly all of whom are given some narrative focalization (i.e. we see things from their perspectives) along the way:
  • Indranath Roy (played by Chhabi Biswas, who had appeared in Ray’s earlier Jalshaghar (The Music Room, 1958) and Devi (The Goddess, 1960)) is the imperious Anglophilic patriarch of the family visiting Darjeeling. He is the chairman of five companies and is accustomed to getting his own way.  He and his wife have three children – Anima, Monisha, and Anil.
     
  • Labanya (Karuna Banerjee, who was featured in Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956)) is Indranath’s long-suppressed wife.
                 
  • Jagadish (Pahari Sanyal) is Labanya’s widowed brother and an avid bird-watcher.  He is more or less a sympathetic onlooker to what transpires.
     
  • Monisha (Alaknanda Roy) is the Roy’s unmarried nineteen-year-old daughter who is currently in college and is now targeted for a marriage proposal.
     
  • Anima (Anubha Gupta) is the Roy’s elder, married daughter, who was pushed (i.e. coerced) by her father into an arranged marriage ten years earlier.
     
  • Shankar (Subrata Sen) is Anima’s dissatisfied husband.  Shankar and Anima have a young daughter who has accompanied them on this trip.
     
  • Anil Roy (Anil Chatterjee), the Roys' son, fancies himself to be a hip, modernist playboy.
     
  • Bannerjee (N. Viswanathan) is a mannered and self-satisfied engineer who has been selected by Indranath to propose to Monisha.
     
  • Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee) is a young man from Calcutta who meets Monisha on a scenic walking path.  To some extent Ashoke shares with Jagadish the quality of being a free spirit seeking inspiration from nature.
The film opens with brief sequences introducing the principal characters and then settles into the coverage, more or less in real time, of several parallel and interleaved conversations that make up the core of the film. 
  • Monisha and Bannerjee.  The driving conversation in the film is the artificially arranged stroll of Monisha and Bannerjee, during which Bannerjee is expected to politely lodge his marriage proposal.  Bannerjee is gentlemanly but has a quietly pompous demeanor.  Monisha appears to be sensitive and not ready to commit herself to an arranged marriage organized by her father and based on social status.  This conversation, which keeps getting interrupted and makes little progress towards its goal is shown in five separate segments that are interleaved with other conversations.
     
  • Anima and Shankar.  Another key conversation is that between Anima and her husband Shankar.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to be alone together, Shankar tells Anima that their ten-year marriage is a failure, and he indicates that he knows she has long been having an affair with another man.  They both acknowledge that their arranged marriage, similar to what Indranath has proposed for Monisha, was a bad idea from the beginning.  Shankar now says he is willing to give Anima her freedom and offers her a divorce.  But there is an innocent child to be considered.  Is reconciliation possible?
     
  • Ashoke and Indranath.  Ashoke is from a family well below the upper-class status of the Roys.  He is a recent college graduate looking for a full-time job, and when he incidentally meets and converses with Indranath, the idea of Indranath offering Ashoke a job becomes a topic of discussion.  From their discussion the viewer can see the contrast between Indranath’s haughty presumptuousness and Ashoke’s more natural and spontaneous style of relating to others.  When Indranath imperiously offers the young man a job, Ashoke has the courage to stand up to him and say that he himself can manage by his own efforts.
     
  • Monisha and Ashoke.  During these walks Monisha and Ashoke meet by happenstance and have a few brief conversations.  Despite the obstructions of social class, family demands, and impending obligations, it is clear that they share a natural affinity for each other.  In particular, Monisha is attracted to Ashoke’s free-spirited optimism about finding future opportunities.  At one point Ashoke waxes rhapsodic about hoe the natural surroundings they are now in inspired him to look inside himself and stand up to Indranath’s job offer.
    “Maybe this place did it. . . . here I’ve never seen such scenery. The majestic Himalayas, these silent pine trees. This sudden sunlight, sudden clouds, sudden mist!  It’s so unreal, like a dream world. My head was in a whirl.  Everything changed inside.  As if I was somebody. . . A hero, a giant.  I was full of courage.  I was reckless, undaunted. Tell me, a place like this fills one with strength, doesn’t it?”
    Ashoke’s revelation of personal authenticity in turn inspires Monisha about what she should do about her own situation.   
By the end of the film, some important decisions have been made, and they imbue their affected parties with hope about  the future.  Indranath’s smug assumption of control, and, by association, the assumed general acquiescence to the way things have always been, has been challenged.  New doors of opportunity have been opened up.  Getting off into nature, away from the artificial confinement of human conventions, enabled some people to get in touch with their authentic selves.  This was the key theme of the film.


Kanchenjungha was not a big hit at the box office or with critics when it was first released.  But it has since come to be more appreciated, despite neglect of the original color negative, which  has limited modern viewers to watching digital restorations that cannot recapture the original splendor of Ray’s original color cinematography [5]. 

In some ways we could compare this film to The Rules of the Game, because there are multiple  social issues and outlooks on life portrayed.  I don’t think Kanchenjungha quite measures up to that level, but there were some moments in the film that I very much liked and that resonate in my memory.  In particular there was the exquisite moment when Bannerjee was in the process of popping the marital question to Monisha but was interrupted by the appearance of a herd of bell-laden donkeys that were shepherded past them on their path.  The clamor of the donkeys’ bells stopped Bannerjee short, and Monisha seized the opportunity to break away.  This sudden appearance of the donkey herd was actually an interruption to Ray’s shooting of this scene and was entirely unplanned. Ray improvisationally decided to incorporate it into the scene, to heightened aesthetic effect [4].  Thus this scene shows by example how Ray could be both a meticulous planner, with everything worked out beforehand, and also a flexible improviser who could take advantage of opportunities when they arose.
½

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 118-9.
  2. “Reflector (photography)”, Wikipedia, (6 December 2017).   
  3. “‘The World of Apu’ - Satyajit Ray (1959)”, The Film Sufi, (4 September 2013).   
  4. Marie Seton, op. cit., (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 230-250, 270-281.
  5. Omar Ahmed, “KANCHENJUNGHA (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962, India) – ‘Why accept a life of endless submission?’”, Movie Mahal, (20 October 2014).   

“Power of Attorney”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 24 - Harvey Hart (1965)

“Power of Attorney” (1965) was an episode (Season 3, Episode 24) of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65) TV anthology series.  It was directed by Harvey Hart and scripted by James Bridges based on a story by well-known British mystery author Selwyn Jepson.  Bridges is famous, in my mind, as the scriptwriter of the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode “An Unlocked Window”  (Season 3, Episode 17).

This episode here under discussion starred three veterans of stage and screen – Richard Johnson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Fay Bainter.  The story concerns an unctuous swindler, Jarvis Smith (played by British stage veteran Richard Johnson), who preys on lonely older women who are charmed (or seduced) by his emotionally forthcoming and solicitous advances into believing him to be their dear friend.  He poses as a financial investor who is investing his own money in promising selected ventures and urges his new woman companion to take advantage of his expertise and invest her own money, too.  But of course it is all a scam, and the money soon disappears along with Jarvis Smith.

In the opening sequence we see an example of how Smith operates, as he swindles a woman who thinks she is his beloved out of her savings and then vanishes.  From the outset he evinces such an oily and phony manner that one would think his fraudulent nature would be evident to anyone he meets.  This is a weakness of this episode, and the obviousness of Smith’s phoniness seems laughably artificial.

Next Smith is shown introducing himself to two fellow airplane passengers seated across the aisle – the widow Mary Caulfield (Fay Bainter) and her spinster companion Agatha Tomlin (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Mary quickly succumbs to Smith’s entreaties for friendship, but Agatha is resolutely standoffish. 

Smith soon sets his sights on seducing Agatha, and for much of the rest of the episode we see his strenuous (and persistently fake) efforts to insinuate himself into her affections.  The viewer’s sympathies will clearly be on the side of Agatha’s skepticism, so it becomes disturbing when Agatha is shown slowly beginning to soften her resistance to Smith.

Smith eventually does manage to swindle Mary out of her considerable life savings, and Agatha seems to be now of two minds about him.  But it is not evident that Smith has broken any laws, so how can justice prevail?  In the concluding scenes we see that Agatha was tougher and more mindful than we had been giving her credit for being.  She comes up with a lawful way to exact her own “justice”.

This episode, like many in this series, sets up a vain and reprehensible villain for the viewer, and tortuously winds its way towards a supposedly satisfying revenge.  The pleasure you take in this will depend on your sensitivities on this score.  The presentation is marred by Richard Johnson’s grossly over-the-top characterization of the slimy Jarvis Smith.  But it does also feature the redeeming performance of Geraldine Fitzgerald as the continually pondering Agatha.  She is the one who sustains our interest.

“Random Harvest” - Mervyn LeRoy (1942)

Random Harvest (1942) is a romantic drama directed by Mervyn LeRoy that was a hit at the box office and received seven Oscar (US Academy Award) nominations (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Art Direction).  The film was based on the best-selling 1941 novel of the same name by James Hilton, two earlier best-selling novels of whose had also been made into highly popular films – Lost Horizon (novel - 1933, film version - 1937) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (novel - 1934, film version - 1939).  A common feature of Hilton’s romantic stories is the depiction of a protagonist in search of sustained bliss who allows mundane concerns to distract him from recognizing that the path to his goal has been right there in front of him all the time.  This is the poignant theme of Random Harvest, too.

The story of this film concerns a shell-shocked soldier from World War I who is suffering from amnesia.  He is physically okay, but he doesn’t know who he is.  There are some implausible elements to this narrative, but it does concern a basic truth about all of us: our self-conceptions are built out of the narratives we construct about ourselves and that are held in our memories.

If you don’t know anything about the story of Random Harvest and are thinking of reading the novel, I suggest you stop reading this review after this paragraph and read the novel first (as I happened to do).  This is because the novel contains a major plot element that leads to a dramatic twist at the end of the story, which is key to the novel’s special appeal.  Although the film is enjoyable, its narrative presentation doesn’t have this twist and suffers accordingly.

The film’s protagonist (played by Ronald Colman) embodies two separate persona at different times in the story:
  • Charles Ranier is the scion of a wealthy and well-connected English family with major business interests.  He goes off to fight the Germans in World War I, suffers a traumatic injury in 1917 that causes him to lose his memory, and winds up in a mental institution not knowing who he is.
     
  • “John Smith”, aka “Smithy”, is the name given to the amnesiac in the mental hospital.  Upon the occasion of the armistice in 1918, the chaotic celebrations of the hospital staff enable Smithy to walk out of the front gate unnoticed and start a new life.  He is befriended by a musical-hall dancer known as Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson), who shields him from the authorities.  They run off to the anonymity of the countryside, fall in love, and get married.  Smithy doesn’t know anything about his past prior to 1917.
Smithy and Paula are enjoying a blissful life and madly in love.  Smithy gradually evinces a talent for writing and in 1920 gets an offer from a newspaper publisher in Liverpool to come there to be interviewed for a position.  He travels to Liverpool alone, because Paula is looking after their newborn child.  When he arrives in Liverpool, though, he is hit by a taxi on the street and suffers another traumatic head injury.

When Smithy wakes up in a hospital, he has recovered his memory of being Charles Ranier, but has forgotten all about his existence as Smithy, including his memory and awareness of his beloved Paula.  The romantic Smithy has disappeared. He is now Charles Ranier once again, but with a three-year gap in his memory.

The now-rehabilitated Charles returns to the Ranier estate and learns that his father has just died and that he is to come into a substantial inheritance.  Although Charles had wanted to resume his academic pursuits, he discovers that the family estate’s business assets are in disarray, and he takes over their management. After a few years, Charles’s business activities are so successful that newspapers are touting him as the “Industrial Prince of England”.  Although his teenage step-niece Kitty (Susan Peters) develops a crush on him, Charles’s business activities take up all his time, and he doesn’t seem interested in romance. 

The many businesses that he has to deal with require a competent support staff, though, and over the years Charles has come to increasingly rely on his executive assistant, Margaret Hanson.  When Margaret finally appears on screen, we see that she is his Paula (“Paula Ridgeway” had been her stage name), though Charles doesn’t recognize her.  She had been searching for Smithy since he had disappeared, and when she saw Ranier’s picture in the newspaper, she had applied to become his secretary.  But partly on the advice of a doctor friend, she didn’t want to inform the still-amnesic Charles about her being his wife, thinking he would reject her.  She is still hoping that Charles will eventually recognize her as his lost love.

But Charles doesn’t seem to have a trace of memory of her.  He does often have a distracted look in his eye, though, as if he looking for something that he can’t find.  The still-enamored Kitty notices his distracted demeanor, and she finally gives up on her long quest to marry Charles.  Margaret hasn’t given up though, and when one time Charles goes to Liverpool to learn what he was doing there when he suffered the head injury, she joins him.  But it all comes to nothing; Charles cannot remember anything of that day.

Charles becomes increasingly successful in the outer world, and he even wins a seat in Parliament.  Now more in the public eye, he decides he should have a wife, and he proposes to Margaret that they have a passionless marriage of convenience.  Still keeping her secret, Margaret sorrowfully accepts.

After three years of this lifeless marriage, Margaret despairs of ever regaining her Smithy, and she tells Ranier that she is going to go off on an extended trip abroad.  Just before she can leave, though, some events transpire to turn things around.  A labor dispute involving one of his companies, causes Ranier to visit the town where he had been confined in a mental institution.  Trace recollections start occurring for him, and as he follows their lead, he eventually finds himself coming upon the countryside cottage where he had lived with Paula.  A chance remark from an innkeeper also leads Margaret to return to the same cottage.  When they see each other and she calls him Smithy, Ranier’s full memory of Paula returns.  They passionately embrace as the film ends.


Hilton’s story in Random Harvest of paradise lost and paradise regained can be told in more than one way, and the novel and the film take different perspectives and unwind according to different temporal patterns (using flashbacks, for example). The novel takes the perspective mostly of Smithy/Ranier, and the reader follows his search for fulfillment.  The reader only learns that Ranier’s wife is actually Paula on the last page of the novel, and this delivers a concluding dramatic wallop.  That narrative avenue would have been extremely difficult to follow for the filmmakers, so they chose a different scheme.  For much of the film, the viewer sees things more from the perspective of Paula/Margaret, and this has its own virtues.  In particular, the glowing performance of Greer Garson in that role is what carries the film.  In fact I found the performance of Ronald Colman, who can often be fascinating, to be on this occasion too laid-back and sometimes almost wooden.  It is left to Greer Garson to inject warmth and romantic longing into this tale.  Even her glances at Colman carry an authentic aura of true love.
½

Mervyn LeRoy

Films of Mervyn LeRoy: