“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.

  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).   

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