“Branches of the Tree” - Satyajit Ray (1990)

Satyajit Ray’s penultimate film, Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1990), coming just after his An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) and just before Agantuk (The Stranger 1991), was one of the loose trilogy of films that he made after suffering a debilitating heart attack in 1983.  What unites the three films, the last two of which were based on Ray’s own stories [1], seems to be a somewhat sombre concern for the revelation of the true state of affairs among people, something that may have preoccupied Ray’s mind during his final years before his death in 1992 due to heart failure.  Looking over our lives over a long time, we all may tend to ask in the end what we stood for, who we were.  This perhaps was what was on Ray’s mind.
   
Branches of the Tree is a rather sophisticated concoction of these concerns, since they are spread across a number of principal characters who inquisitively interact with each other to cautiously reveal and discover themselves.  As such, the film does not involve so much some people changing over the course of the story in response to external events, but instead relatively unchanging personages discovering things about each other.  This revelatory structure, as well as the film’s not having the focus of a single protagonist (or team of protagonists), makes for a unique and thought-provoking kind of drama; and for these reasons Branches of the Tree has not been ranked very high among Ray’s films by critics and viewers.  Nevertheless, I would say that the film is a nuanced and well-crafted production, featuring excellent ensemble acting on the part of its cast members, and it well reflects Ray’s masterful cinematic talents.

The story of the film concerns a wealthy and now retired industrialist, Ananda Majumdar, and his four grownup sons, each of whom is a unique character and focus of attention.  One of the strengths of this film is that Ray fashions five distinctly different characters here, and the actors consistently remain true to these respective disparate characterizations throughout the story.

Early on in the film, Ananda suffers a serious heart attack during a civic ceremony celebrating his 70th birthday.  Three of Ananda’s sons are businessmen who live in towns some distance (several hours by train) away, and they dutifully rush to their now bedridden father’s home in order to express their filial concern.  The other son is mentally handicapped and has been living with the father, so now all four sons are in attendance at the paternal home.  The ensuing story mainly concerns the interactions of these people as they hopefully await for promising signs concerning Ananda’s health condition.

Because so much revolves around the characterizations of the four sons and their families, I will  first give brief outlines of them.
  • Ananda Majumdar (played by Ajit Banerjee) is the wealthy 70-year-old industrialist and father of four sons.  He is the principled and highly honoured pillar of his community – in fact, his community has been renamed after him – and he is a steadfast upholder of the virtues of honesty and diligence.  His wife passed away about twenty years ago, and he now lives basically alone (with a servant) at home with two people who are mentally handicapped and offer almost no opportunities for meaningful interaction – his senile 93-year-old father and his brain-damaged second son, Proshanto.
     
  • Proshanto (played by longtime Ray favourite, Soumitra Chatterjee) is Ananda’s second son, whose promising career (Ananda considered him to be the smartest of his four sons) was ruined by a motor vehicle accident while he was studying in London many years ago.  Now he sits alone most of the time in his room listening to Bach-composed classical music records.  He never looks people in the eye, and he seems almost completely unable to communicate.  But there are indications over the course of the story that he may be more aware of what is said in his company than is first suggested.  So he is our quasi-mute witness to what transpires.
     
  • Probodh (Haradhan Banerjee, another veteran of many Ray films) is the eldest son and seems to be in his late forties.  He is a very successful businessman; but although he is generally outwardly amiable, he seems inwardly cynical and unsympathetic.  For example, he thinks that his harmless brother Proshanto should be shipped off to an insane asylum.  Probodh is accompanied on this trip by his admiring wife Uma (Lily Chakravarty).
     
  • Probir (Deepankar Dey) is the third son and a financial businessman.  Unlike his upright eldest brother, the fortyish Probir is an openly sinful hedonist, addicted to alcohol, gambling, and extra-marital affairs.  He excuses himself for these things by jovially and openly admitting his wrongdoings – he feels that he is at least honest about himself.  He also attributes his inherent greed to what he supposedly learned from his father, but in his own case more honestly confessed.  Probir is accompanied on this trip by his comely wife, Tapti (Mamata Shankar), and his young (about 6-8 years old) son, Dingo (Soham Chakraborty).
     
  • Protap (Ranjit Mallick) is the unmarried youngest son.  Now thirty-four, he has been working for a decade at a cushy advertising job that his father had arranged for him.  But the pervasive dishonesty and corruption of his own business colleagues has led him, unbeknownst to his family, to recently resign from his position and take up an acting position in professional theater.  
The story of this family is told in about four stages.

1.  Ananda and Proshanto at Home
The film begins by showing Ananda Majumdar living at home with his mentally disabled son Proshanto.  As Ananda soothingly and somewhat rhetorically talks to his almost mute son, who never looks him in the eye and only responds with occasional single-word, ejaculations, we get the impression that Proshanto has always been Ananda’s favourite son.  At one point Ananda  reminds his son of his two fundamental mottos for life:
  • “Work is worship”
  • “Honesty is the best policy”
But later at a celebratory civic party for Ananda’s 70th birthday, where the community leaders express their appreciation for his many contributions he has made to the town that has been named after him, he suffers a serious heart attack.  Ananda is taken home for extended medical care; and upon hearing about his condition, the other three sons make arrangements to come to their father’s side.

2.  Three Sons Arrive
The other three sons arrive with their families from distant locations for a stay in Ananda’s home, and they inquire with the doctor about their bedridden father’s condition.  When they learn from the doctor that Ananda’s longer-term prospects won’t be known for three weeks, Probodh and Probir express their vexation to each other over the fact that they will have to take more time out from their busy lives than they had anticipated.  They want to know what is the minimum required for them to do their duty.  Thus, for them, their own private concerns are seen to take some precedence over familial compassion. 

Because of Ananda’s renown, an out-of-town newspaperman comes to write a story about him, and Probodh recites to him his father’s many professional and humanitarian accomplishments.  In particular, he tells him, his father was famous for his honesty.

3.  Revelations
When Protap and his brother Probir’s wife Tapti have a chance to meet alone, we learn that the two of them have long been familial best friends.  In fact although she never exceeds the bounds of propriety, it is clear that Tapti is in love with her brother-in-law.  Protap confesses to her that the brooding attitude he has been displaying since his arrival is because he quit his high-standing business job one month ago due to the rampant dishonesty and bribe-taking he observed among his colleagues.  They have unashamedly told him that his father’s honesty is no longer possible in today’s India.  So he has decided to become a theater actor, a profession that is considered to have an unacceptably low standing among people of his class.  For her part, Tapti tells her soul-mate about her dysfunctional marriage to a husband who is a compulsive gambler and alcoholic.

Later, they all, except for the near-comatose and bedridden Ananda, get together for a family dinner.  At the table the conversation takes a nasty turn when Probir’s openly corrupt life becomes a subject of discussion.  Probodh criticizes his younger brother, but Probir unashamedly defends himself.  He says that there are two kinds of money – white money and black money.  White money is money earned by honest means, while black money is earned via corrupt means, such as embezzlement and bribes.  He says that these days black money is necessary and the only way to go in business and in life.  He also says that Probodh, whom he knows engages in illegal income tax evasion, is just as corrupt as he is.  Upon hearing this, the seemingly inattentive Proshanto explodes in anger and begins compulsively pounding his fist on the dinner table.

The next morning in their room, Probodh confesses his wrongdoings to his wife but says that dishonesty is standard practice in today’s world.  Ananda’s days of honesty are finished, he tells her.

A little later Ananda urges his attending relatives to relax and go out together on a picnic, which they, except for Proshanto, agree to do.  This picnic scene features an excellent display of coordinated ensemble-acting cinematography, and it shows Ray’s continued mastery in this regard.  The brothers and their wives all nervously try to amuse each other, but the unspoken issue of honesty and integrity is still just beneath the surface.  Finally and amidst this jocularity, Probir taunts the still-brooding and unsociable Protap to reveal what is bothering him.  Protap tells them all what he had earlier confessed only to Tapti – that he has resigned from his prestigious business job and entered the dubious field of theater acting because of the pervasive dishonesty infecting the business world.

4.  Departure Day
After a couple of weeks, Ananda’s condition seems to have stabilized, and his sons and their families make arrangements to return to their own lives.  Just before the adults are about to collectively bid farewell to Ananda, however, the young Dilgo sneaks into his grandfather’s room and wants to tell him what he has learned on his visit.  Among the things he has learned, Dilgo innocently tells him, is that there are two types of money – honest money and dishonest money – and that his father and older uncle have dishonest money.  Ananda instantly understands what this means and is crestfallen.  His dreams of having raised an honourable family are shattered.  
 
After the visitors have all respectfully taken their leave, the grieving Ananda calls Proshanto to his bedside.  On this occasion Proshanto shows empathetic concern, and he finally looks his father directly in the eye.  As the film closes, Ananda reaches out to him and tells him, “you are my everything”.

Branches of the Tree is a grim tale about what mark we make as we pass through this complex and imperfect world.  The facts that Ray, himself, was about the same age as Ananda in this story and that he, himself, was suffering like Ananda from the effects of a serious heart attack suggest to us that the content of this film reflects some of Ray’s own most personal considerations. 

Here, Ananda’s four sons, his branches, represent different positions one might take with respect to the corrupting temptations one might encounter along the way.  In the background is the disturbing image of Ananda’s dementia-addled 93-year old father.  If this is the image of our inevitable deterioration, then we may well be concerned about leaving something more meaningful behind before we go.  So these are the positions concerning dishonesty that were assumed by Ananda’s four sons:
  • Embracing itProbir made no bones about his corrupt life and openly embraced dishonesty.  But at least he was honest about that.
       
  • Making compromises with itProbodh made judicious and surreptitious compromises with corruption.  He played the game of respectability, but he was even less honest than Probir was.
     
  • Running away. Protap sought to run away from corruption.  But this will probably prove to be more difficult than he imagines.
     
  • Innocence. Proshanto is basically innocent, but we feel he wants to be good.  And his final engaging look with his father even suggests that he might be getting a little better.  In any case, Proshanto is his father’s only hope.
All in all, this is a thoughtful tale about different postures towards honesty and integrity, and Ray gave it a subtly dramatic rendering.
½

Notes:
  1. Hari Narayan, “A Ray that reflects on itself”, Thread, The Hindu, (2 May 2016).   

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