“Gandhi” - Richard Attenborough (1982)

With his epic film Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough took on the monumental task of covering one of the most remarkable and difficult to fathom personages in world history, Mahatma Gandhi.  Incredibly, this man of humble origin, with neither significant financial, nor familial, nor institutional backing, managed to unite the vast Indian subcontinent in order to achieve independence from one of the most powerful empires in history. 

Of course, the history (a) of how all this came to pass and (b) of the complex activities surrounding Gandhi during these times, concerning which there are many conflicting opinions, could never be fully covered in any single film.  So Attenborough must have known from the outset of his own 20-year quest to make this film that he would not be able to satisfy all his potential customers [1].  He would have to pick and choose a subset of events from Gandhi’s life that would somehow be representative of the great man’s extraordinary journey and the evolution of his thinking.  Indeed, the filmmakers acknowledge this approach with a textual statement along these lines at the beginning of the film [2].  So it shouldn’t be too surprising that there were some picayune reviews of the film that complained about the absence of some specific elements dear to the particular critics’ hearts [1,3,4].  And I have even come across one lengthy critical essay that degenerates into a vituperative diatribe of denunciation of both the film and the Mahatma [5].  Nevertheless, what Richard Attenborough and scriptwriter John Briley did come up with in the end for this film certainly succeeded in satisfying a lot of people and critics [6,7].  Their film Gandhi was nominated for 11 Oscars (US Academy Awards), winning 8 of them, including: 
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Attenborough)
  • Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Briley)
  • Best Actor (Ben Kingsley)
In general, the film’s production values are outstanding, particularly the cinematography (for which Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor won Oscars) and the film editing (for which John Bloom won an Oscar).  In addition, the acting in the film is gripping throughout, especially, of course, the magnetic performance of Ben Kingsley in the lead role.  They all contribute to making what Gandhi ultimately is – an evocative and colourful pageant that displays the evolution of a remarkable man’s social consciousness and spirituality.

Wrapped inside brief scenes covering the death of Gandhi that open and close the film, the story of Gandhi is unwound over four main segments.  Over the course of this account, the viewer is shown the evolution of Gandhi’s famous notions of satyagraha (the policy of passionate, non-cooperative social and political resistance) and ahimsa (the principle of noninjury to all sentient beings).  Concerning the tight connection between these two ideas, Gandhi stated [8]:
“It is perhaps clear from the foregoing, that without ahimsa it is not possible to seek and find Truth [Satyagraha]. Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth unstamped metallic disk. Nevertheless, ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end. Means to be means must always be within our reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty.”
The four main segments of the film’s narrative are as follows.

1.  Gandhi in South Africa
Initially, we see Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (he would later, on his return to India, be given the honorific title ‘Mahatma’, which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit) in 1893 as a 23-year-old London-educated lawyer who had recently arrived in South Africa and is riding in a first-class compartment on a train in South Africa.  Judging by his clean-shaven and Western-groomed appearance, it appears that Gandhi has absorbed many of the ideas and customs associated with British culture.  However, he is soon confronted by a racist passenger and a similarly-minded train conductor who inform him that “coloured people” (Indians and native blacks) are not allowed to ride first-class in South Africa.  When Gandhi protests that he has legally purchased a first-class train ticket, he is rudely thrown off the train.  This is Gandhi’s personal confrontation with the fact that the English rule-of-law that he had learned in his legal studies did not apply equally to all residents of South Africa.   

As a result, Gandhi launches a principled and extended campaign of nonviolent political protest for Indian rights in South Africa.  During this time, Gandhi is befriended and supported by an idealistic Anglican priest, Charles Freer Andrews (played by Ian Charleson).  Gradually their efforts begin to bear fruit.  Compelling scenes in this segment show on one occasion Gandhi arguing for ahimsa to a large gathering of followers, and another time Gandhi leading a group of protesters to lie down in front of a belligerent police cavalry that is confronting them.

Eventually Gandhi is imprisoned for his efforts.  But even though the Indian population in South Africa during this period was probably less than 20,000 [9], Gandhi’s peaceful protests begin to draw international attention, and eventually South African Governor General Jan Smuts (Athol Fugard) is compelled to grant some more rights to Indians.

2.  Gandhi Returns to India
In 1915 Gandhi is invited by his sometime mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale (Shreeram Lagoo) to return to India, and he is now given a hero’s welcome.  Whereas Gandhi has been shown up to now wearing Western (British) clothing, he is now seen looking more like a working-class Indian and wearing a traditional Hindu turban and tunic.  He soon meets other Indian activists, who are mostly members of the Indian Congress Party:
  • Jawaharlal Nehru (Roshan Seth)
  • Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Saeed Jaffrey)
  • Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee)
  • Maulana Azad (Virendra Razdan)
And he is also joined by his friend Reverend Charles Andrews, who has come to work in India.

Gokhale now urges Gandhi to reacquaint himself with India by travelling about the country for a number of months, which Gandhi proceeds to do.  As he travels about, Gandhi is troubled to see how impoverished the people have become under British rule.  Upon his return, he agrees to take up the cause of India’s independence (Swaraj), and eventually he becomes the leader of the Congress Party. 

Interestingly, during this early period, Gandhi was willing to help recruit Indian volunteers to help the British effort in World War I.  So his notion of ahimsa was still evolving.  But Gandhi was always against hatred and said you can fight to change things but not to punish.

Soon Gandhi is put in jail again, and when he is visited there by his friend Charles Andrews, he urges the priest to accept an assignment to go to Fiji, because he wants India’s independence movement to be led purely by Indians.

3.  Gandhi Launches His Campaign
Gandhi now launches his nonviolent campaign to achieve Indian independence.  But here it must operate on a much bigger scale than was the case in South Africa.  Instead of about 15,000 South African Indians, he must now try to mobilize the 350 million Indians on the subcontinent. Nevertheless, Gandhi, incessantly keeping to his themes of satyagraha and ahimsa, was extraordinarily successful in achieving a mass following.  There were, however, some painful setbacks along the way.  When Gandhi organized a national strike, he was quickly imprisoned.  And many of his peaceful protests of non-cooperation were met with violence. 

Notably among these violent responses was the notorious Amritsar Massacre in 1919, when General Reginald Dyer (Edward Fox) ordered his troops to open fire on a mass of unarmed Indian protesters, killing hundreds of them and injuring many more.  Dyer’s steadfast cruelty  here is frightening, and this is one of the most disturbing scenes in the film.  The news of this violent treatment leads to bloody riots, which goes against Gandhi’s preaching of ahimsa.  So he goes on a life-threatening fast that he says he will not break until the rioting ceases.  In deference to the people’s faith in their “great soul”, the rioting does come to a halt, and Gandhi’s life is saved.  But as soon as Gandhi’s health is restored, he is imprisoned again.

In 1930 Gandhi launched his protest against the British monopoly on salt production and its associated salt tax by carrying out his famous Salt March.  This highly symbolic action involved Gandhi walking 240 miles in 24 days to reach the coastal town of Dandi, where he demonstrated how the people could make their own salt by evaporation of seawater.  This was a perfect demonstration of Gandhi’s peaceful satyagraha.  Afterwards, Gandhi intended to lead a protest at the nearby Dharasana salt works, but he was quickly arrested before that was scheduled to take place.  A peaceful protest was held there anyway, but it was brutally crushed.

In 1932 Gandhi was invited to visit London in order to take part in a conference dealing with  Britain's possible departure from India.  However, though Gandhi met many famous cultural figures on this trip, the conference did not satisfy his ultimate aims for true Indian independence.  

With the onset of World War II, Gandhi is again arrested and held in the refashioned palace of Agha Khan.  Later he is visited by famous feature photographer Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen), whose photographs of Gandhi that subsequently appeared in Life magazine achieved world renown.  During this time, Gandhi’s beloved wife, Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), passes away in 1944 from a heart attack.  They had been married by arrangement some sixty years earlier, when he was only 13-years-old and she was just 14-years-old, and had been close companions and partners ever since. 

4.  Indian Independence
After the end of World War II, Britain found it impossible to hold on to its vast empire, and it finally decided to grant India independence.  But there were still disputes within the Indian independence movement concerning how this new arrangement should take shape.  Mohammad Jinnah and his followers wanted a separate state for Muslims, while Gandhi and Nehru wanted a united India.  To appease Jinnah’s lust for power, Gandhi even offers to Jinnah the position of Prime Minister of a united India, but to no avail.  Jinnah is adamant about having a separate country for Muslims.  The partition of India into two separate states, India and Pakistan (which will consist of two separate regions, West Pakistan and East Pakistan), is ordered to go ahead in 1947.  

When the partition takes place, millions of Hindus and Muslims, now suddenly finding themselves living in countries where their religion is in the minority, are violently uprooted from their homes and forced to move quickly to the respective country where their own religion predominates.  In the process, at least a million people lose their lives.  As the violent rioting continues, Gandhi is horrified and travels to Calcutta to see what he can do to stem the violence.  Finally Gandhi begins a publicly-announced fast, vowing he will not eat until the violence ceases.  Because the people see the benevolent Gandhi as the father of their new countries, the rioting does die down.  But Gandhi insists that he will continue his fast until the violence stops completely. 

There is a moving scene here which gives a glimpse of Gandhi’s notion of repentance and inclusiveness.  In it, a guilt-consumed Hindu activist, whose own son was killed by Muslims and who thereupon committed the unforgivable sin of killing a Muslim child in revenge, comes to Gandhi and begs him to eat something.  Gandhi tells the man that to repent and put his life in order, he must go out and adopt an infant Muslim orphan boy and raise him as his own son – but importantly, he adds, the man must raise the boy as a Muslim. 

Finally, the communal violence comes to a complete stop, and Gandhi, who is now near death, ends his fast.  Gandhi continues his efforts to bring the opposing sides together, but there are still some people who don’t want that to happen and who oppose his efforts.  The closing scene shows Gandhi going out for his customary evening walk on 30 January 1948 and being fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic. 

So what the viewer has been treated to over the course of this three-hour panoply of splendour is a display of the life of an almost otherworldly saint.  This humble and unshakably principled man managed to inspire an entire national populace to unite with him in joint non-cooperation towards their foreign oppressors and thereby restore their independence and national dignity. 

To have a feeling for the magnitude of what Gandhi accomplished, it is worth considering the political context and effect of Britain’s occupation and domination of India in those days.  Indeed the ultimate effect that Britain had on India’s welfare as a result of their domination is a complex issue, and here are varying views on this matter [10,11,12].  Those who hold that Britain significant positive contributions to Indian life often make mention of the British bequeathing to the Indians (a) a national railway system, (b) a working postal system, and (c) a well-developed legal system.  On the other hand, those who denigrate what Britain did to India have a more telling argument to make and point out the iniquities associated with (a) British divide-and-conquer strategies promoting ethnic communalism and (b) Britain’s devastating exploitation and destruction of India’s economy (destruction of local Indian industries and crafts).  In this latter regard, it is worth quoting the comments of Paramahansa Yogananda [12]:
“The ideal of a well-rounded civilization is not a chimerical one.  For milleniums India was a land of both spiritual light and widespread material prosperity.  The poverty of the last 200 years [the period of British domination] is, in India’s long history, only a passing karmic phase.  A byword in the world, century after century, was ‘the riches of the Indies’. . . “
   
“The records of history present India, up until the 18th century, as the world’s wealthiest nation. . . .  The Bible refers to the riches of India. . . . Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador (4th century B.C.), has left us a detailed account of India’s prosperity.  Pliny (1st century A.D.) tells us the Romans annually spent fifty million sesterces ($5,000,000) on imports from India, which was then a vast marine power. . . . Chinese travellers wrote vividly of the opulent Indian civilization, its widespread education, and excellent government. . . . Columbus, discovering the New World in the 15th century, was in reality seeking a shorter route to India.  For centuries Europe was eager to possess the Indian exports . . . Portuguese and Italian merchants have recorded their awe at the fabulous magnificence throughout the empire of Vijayanagar (1336-1565). . . .”
I think Yogananda’s perspective is the more comprehensive one, and so I believe that what Gandhi helped accomplish was the opening up of an opportunity for Indians to restore their unparalleled world civilization.  This film attempts to trace the course of that civilizing movement. 

Still, one might wonder if over the course of this evolving cinematic paean about the great soul Gandhi, whether there were there additional issues that could have been given a little more attention.  For example:
  • Caste system
    Although Gandhi championed the idea that the Indian designation of “untouchable”  should be abolished, the more general abuses of the pervasive Indian caste system were not addressed.  Of course there are limits in the degree to which one could overhaul the whole of Indian society, and the injustices associated with untouchables was a good place to start.
     
  • South African Blacks
    Although Gandhi fought for the rights of South African Indians, he overlooked plight of South African blacks.  Of course Gandhi could address fellow Indians in terms they understood.  The possibility of him organizing a non-cooperation movement among blacks would have been effectively nil.
     
  • Pacifism
    The issue of Gandhi helping recruit Indian volunteers to support the British effort in World War I could perhaps have been given more attention.  It should be noted, though, that Gandhi did assert that he, himself, would never personally fight in a war. 
     
  • Gandhi’s political partners
    Gandhi’s partners in the Indian Congress Party, particularly  Nehru, Patel, and Jinnah, played very active and significant roles in India’s fight for independence,, but the viewer only sees brief glimpses of them.  Some commentators have said that they should have been given more attention in order to tell the full story [3].
     
  • Gandhi’s writing
    Gandhi wrote many articles to support his causes, but these are not really covered in the film.  Of course in film dramas, the spoken word is more compelling than the written word and invariably must take precedence. 
But though these issues might be interesting to pursue, they do not lie at the core of what Gandhi was all about.  Gandhi, we know, was a unique individual of loving compassion.  But the way he connects with us goes beyond just his being an admirable example of unselfishness.  Deep down inside, we can all of us (including the British) respond to Gandhi’s appeal for universal mercy and compassion towards all sentient beings, because we ultimately recognize that there is an element of unselfish compassion and sympathy within each of us.  Gandhi was able to evoke those compassionate feelings that are often lying dormant inside so many people and thereby inspire those people to work together for a noble cause.

Similarly we all have the capacity to respond to the  teachings of Jesus Christ, because there is a Christ-like element inside each of us [13,14].  But there was just more of that Christ-like element inside Gandhi, and that is what this outstanding film reveals to us.  It shows that Gandhi seems to have been a modern-day saint who helped so many people, not only to find their way to work together peacefully, but also to evoke their own true loving nature.  As Albert Einstein remarked of the man –
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." 
 ★★★★

Notes:
  1. Philip French, “Gandhi”, The Observer, (5 December 1982).    
  2. “No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one's way to the heart of the man . . .”
  3. Darius Cooper, "GANDHI", Film Quarterly, University of California Press, vol. 37:2, pp 46–50, (1 December 1983).    
  4. Susmit Kumar, “Hitler, NOT Gandhi, Should Be Given Credit for the Independence of India in 1947", Modernization of Islam and the Creation of a Multipolar World Order, Booksurge, USA, pp 17-21, (2008).  
  5. Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows”, Commentary, (March 1983).   
  6. Andrew Robinson, “Bapu”, Sight and Sound, (1 December 1982), pp.64-65.   
  7. Roger Ebert, “Gandhi”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1982).    
  8. Mahatma Gandhi, Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, (2001).
  9. “Indian South Africans timeline 1654-1899", South African History Online, (15 July 2020).   
  10. William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, Bloomsbury Publishing, (2019).
  11. S. Priyadarshini, “Contribution and Impact of British Rule on India”, History Discussion, (n.d.).   
  12. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Self-Realization Fellowship, (1946/2007), pp. 533-534. 
  13. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You,  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, (1894).
  14. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You – A revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus, Self-Realization Fellowship, (2004).

Richard Attenborough

Films of Richard Attenborough:
  • Gandhi - Richard Attenborough (1982)

“Andhadhun” - Sriram Raghavan (2018)

Andhadhun (English: “Blind Melody”, 2018) is an award-winning Indian crime thriller that has achieved immense popularity both at home and abroad [1,2,3].  The story, which is something of a multiply-linked whodunit, concerns a blind piano player who finds himself suspected of knowing too much about an unsolved murder.  As the story unfolds, the plot becomes progressively more complicated with a succession of threats and lies, and this has led some people (but not me) to view the film as a black comedy. 

Director-writer Sriram Raghavan was inspired to fashion this account after seeing Olivier Treiner’s 14-minute French film L'Accordeur (The Piano Tuner, 2010).  However, Raghavan and fellow script writers Sriram Raghavan, Hemanth M Rao, Pooja Ladha Surti, Arijit Biswas, and Yogesh Chandekar considerably expanded on Treiner’s work.  What they came up with was a noirish tale in which almost everyone we see is engaged in misrepresenting themselves and doublecrossing their temporary partners in order to further his or her selfish aims.  Everyone turns out to be a fake, and so the resulting multiple confusions concerning real identity are what doubtlessly lie at the base of this film’s popularity.

The narrative of Andhadhun unfolds over roughly six parts, but I will give you only a partial description of what happens so that you can go through the discovery process, yourself.

1.  Akash, the Pianist
Akash (played by Ayushmann Khurrana), the protagonist of the film, is an accomplished young pianist who is apparently blind.  Because the film’s focalization is almost exclusively on Akash, the viewer sees things going on around Akash that he, himself, may not be aware of.  But relatively early on we learn that Akash is not really blind – he fakes his blindness by using obscuring contact lenses in order to enhance his hearing and thereby improve his piano-playing skills.  However, noone else knows that Akash is not really blind.  When he goes out on the street, he wears dark sunglasses and uses a blindman’s cane to tap his way around. 

One day out on the street, Akash is knocked over by a girl, Sophie (Radhika Apte [4]), driving her motor scooter.  Sophie sympathetically helps the evidently blind Akash to his feet, and soon they become friends, and then lovers.  Sophie gets Akash a gig as a piano player at her father’s café, and there his playing attracts the admiration of retired actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan), who invites Akash to come to his home and play the piano for his upcoming wedding anniversary.

2.  An Unwitting Witness
Akash comes to the Sinha’s home on the appointed date, and the door is answered by Pramod’s wife Simi (Tabu [5]).  Simi sees that Akash is blind and lets him in to start playing the piano as a warmup for the anniversary party.  She tells him that her husband is not home yet.  But Akash sees that Pramod has just been brutally murdered and that the dead man’s bloodied corpse is still lying on the floor.  He also sees Simi’s apparent lover, the brutish-looking Manohar (Manav Vij).  But Akash is forced to remain silent and pretend he hasn’t seen anything.

Akash quickly goes to the police to report what he has seen.  But at the police station he notices that Manohar is a police officer, so he is again forced to withdraw from taking any action.  Later Akash happens to see Simi murdering her suspicious neighbour by pushing the elderly woman out of her upper-floor window.  Again Akash is the unwitting witness to foul play, and again he feels compelled to remain silent.

3.  Efforts to Eliminate the Witness
Despite Akash’s silence, Simi and Manohar are suspicious about the supposedly blind Akash, and Simi visits his apartment to test him.  After some staged interactions, Simi eventually discovers that Akash is not blind and threatens to kill him.  Akash pleads for his life and promises to remain silent and disappear from India.  But Simi has already given him a drug that  in a few minutes makes him now truly blind.
 
Manohar, though, is not satisfied with leaving Akash alive, even if blind, and comes to kill him.  Despite his blindness, Akash manages to knock Manohar out and escape, but running out on the street, Akash crashes into a telephone pole and is himself knocked out.

4.  New Adversaries
When Akash wakes up, he finds himself in what he believes to be a hospital bed.  But he soon discovers that his unconscious body on the street had been discovered by a corrupt rickshaw driver, Murli (Pawan Singh), who had taken him to an organ harvesting clinic.  The clinic’s director, Dr. Swami (Zakir Hussain), intends to kill Akash and sell his organs for a profit.

So now, halfway through the film, Akash’s situation seems hopelessly dire.  He is facing two ruthless groups – (1) Simi and Manohar and (2) Dr. Swami and his two assistants – which are both out to kill him.  And now Akash really is blind.  But there are a lot more complicated machinations to come, and I will leave it to you to find out what happens when you watch the film.

Though I won’t go over the details of the remaining two parts of the film, I think it is still appropriate to remind the reader that the people in the two ruthless groups out to kill Akash are all unconscionably self-absorbed and exclusively out for their own material gain.  Therefore they are all in competition with each and liable to become mutual enemies.  This is what can make things complicated, and you will not be surprised that there are more deaths in the offing.

And remember that all these people are telling lies.  In this respect, the viewer should also keep in mind that even the at-first seemingly innocent Akash is also an inveterate liar.  This is a significant issue, because at the film’s outset there are indications that this whole tale is a narrative told by Akash (there are voiceover passages early on reflecting Akash’s reflections).  Thus the viewer may be justified in questioning whether certain events presented in the film are accurate representations of what is supposed to have actually happened.

In particular there is a climactic sequence of events near the end of the story that, to the careful viewer, seem to be told in two conflicting versions.  The sequence of events at issue concerns a scene showing Dr. Swami driving, with Akash seated next to him in the front seat, down a country road.  One of the versions of this scene is presented as part of the normal, top-level narrative of the film.  And the other, slightly different, version is presented as a flashback reflection on the part of Akash that he shares with Sophie when she runs into him in Europe two years later.  Since both versions are told by Akash (remember the whole film is supposedly narrated by Akash), at least one of these versions of this late sequence must be a lie.  How to resolve this question, and indeed how to come to a clear understanding of the ending of Andhadhun, has been a matter of considerable discussion among people who have seen the film.  You can check out some of these speculations by looking at a few of the discussions on the Internet discussion site Quora [6,7]. 

But no matter what conclusions you might come to about that  matter concerning the film’s conclusion, your overall appreciation of Andhadhun will probably depend on the degree to which you enjoy all the plot twists and playing all the guessing games that keep coming up.  From my perspective, those things don’t quite add up to a successful viewing experience.  Although actors Tabu and Ayushmann Khurrana have a certain degree of screen magnetism, they do not portray characters here with whom the viewer is likely to feel sympathy or even fascination, especially as the story progresses.  Indeed, all the significant characters other than Sophie are contemptible and ruthless narcissists, and so we are not drawn into empathizing with their thoughts and motivations.  But successful  narratives are usually those in which the reader or viewer is moved to empathize with one or more of the characters.  That is not the case in Andhadhun.  The only sympathetic character in this story is Sophie, and although she has potential, she is here basically only an observer who has minimal impact on the other characters and what ultimately happens.

Thus for these reasons, Andhadhun is of some interest, but it does not really reach the top level.
½

Notes:
  1. Priyanka Roy, “Andhadhun: Thrilling and intelligent whodunit”, The Telegraph, (6 October 2018).   
  2. Renuka Vyavahare, “Andhadhun Movie Review”, Times of India, (17 October 2018).    
  3. Raja Sen, “Andhadhun movie review: A terrific game of blind man’s bluff. 5 stars”, “Hindustan Times”, (5 October 2018).   
  4. Radhika Apte also starred in “Chokher Bali”, a part of Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episodes 1, 2, & 3, directed by Anurag Basu (2015).   
  5. Tabu, whose real name is Tabassum Fatima Hashmi, is very well-known and has appeared in the following films that I have reviewed: The Namesake (2006), Haider (2014), and Drishyam (2015).
  6. “How do you explain the ending of the Andhadhun movie of Ayushmann Khurrana?”, Quora, (n.d.).      
  7. “How did Ayushman Khurana got back his eyes or was he never blind in the movie - Andhadhun?”, Quora, (n.d.).     

Sriram Raghavan

Films of Sriram Raghavan:

“The Stranger” - Satyajit Ray (1991)

Satyajit Ray’s last film, The Stranger (Agantuk, 1991), was completed only months before the ailing writer/director passed away, and the film has a solemn, valedictory air to it that suggests the great filmmaker knew this would be his last work.  Indeed the film at times has the feeling of a philosophical treatise that summarizes some of Ray’s closing thoughts about the “civilized” worlds that have been fashioned over time and who we are that live in them [1,2,3,4,5].  As critic Bhaskar Chattopadhyay remarked [4]:
“At its very core, ‘Agantuk’ is a philosophical film. It raises more questions than answers, and each of those questions makes us wonder about ourselves.”
In this connection the very nature of human identity and the defining features of civilization are explicit topics of the several conversations that permeate the film [3].

As usual with Ray films and despite his frail condition at that time, Ray assumed the major production responsibilities for The Stranger.  He produced and directed the film, and he wrote the screenplay based on his own earlier published story “Atithi” (“The Guest”, 1981).  In addition and also as usual, Ray composed the music for the film, too.  The cinematography was handled by Barun Raha, who had also done similarly for Ray’s immediately preceding An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) and Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1990). And the film editing was carried out by Ray’s longtime collaborator Dulal Dutta.  The result was another customarily professional production, and The Stranger wound up winning the awards for Best Feature Film and Best Directing at the 1992 Indian National Film Awards.

The story of The Stranger concerns what happens when an upper-middle-class married couple in Calcutta, Sudhindra and Anila Bose, receive an unexpected visit from an elderly man who claims to be a long-lost uncle of the housewife, Anila.  The visitor, Manomohan Mitra, disappeared from Anila’s household to travel abroad 35 years ago, when Anila was only two years-old, but he now wants to pay a visit to his only surviving relative. 

Naturally given these circumstances, neither Manomohan nor Anila has any recollection of the other, so Anila has no straightforward way of establishing the identity of her visitor.  To her, Manomohan is something of a mysterious stranger.  And indeed Anila’s husband, Sudhindra, is suspicious that the visitor may be actually an imposter, perhaps seeking to steal something from their well-appointed home during his intended one-week stay.  But given their adherence to traditional Indian standards of gracious hospitality even to strangers, Anila welcomes Manomohan on his arrival and opens their home for his visit. 

So a key narrative issue is established from the outset of this story – how can the true identity of Manomohan be established with certitude?  And along the way, this notion is extended further to the consideration of just what it is that constitutes the identity of anyone.

The story of this film unfolds over four basic segments.

1.  The Stranger Comes to Visit
Manomohan Mitra (played by Utpal Dutt) comes to visit the Bose family in Calcutta during the Durga Puja festival.  Immediately, Sudhindra Bose (Deepankar De) is suspicious about the identity of their visitor, and he tells Anila (Mamata Shankar) that he wants to somehow find a polite way to see Manomohan’s passport in order to be sure the visitor is the person he claims to be.  This problem seems to be solved when Sudhindra later meets their guest alone and Manomohan goes ahead and voluntarily shows Sudhindra his passport.  But then the visitor quizzically points out that nowadays passports can always be faked, anyway.  So Sudhindra is still in the dark.

However, Manomohan soon charms the Boses and their pre-teen son, Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya), with his account of why he ran away 35 years ago, immediately after receiving his bachelor’s degree. Most of those intervening years he spent out of India, in the West.  He did it, he says, to satisfy his fundamental wanderlust and also to discover what was the essence of being civilized.  Although Manomohan was always a top student, he was inspired in this direction by seeing a 2,000-year-old painting by a caveman that was superior to anything that so-called classic artists of later  “civilizations” ever produced.  This quest for what it means to be civilized is the second major theme, after the nature of true identity, in this film.

2.  The Actor Friend’s Visit
In the second, somewhat comic, act, the Boses are visited by their actor friend, Ranjan Rakshit (Rabi Ghosh), who wants to probe Manomohan’s true identity.  Of course, actors are always dealing in fabricated identities, and Ranjan’s questioning of Manomohan turns out to be very superficial and along these lines.  When Ranjan asks Manomohan if, after not having seen Calcutta for 35 years, he is impressed with the big-city advances and whether it reflects the utmost in civilization, Manomohan responds affirmatively.  But he tells Ranjan that is because Calcutta’s persistent inequality, then and now, is similar to other world metropolises and is a sign of its “civilization”.

In the end Manomohan exposes Ranjan as something of a fraud, but Ranjan gets nowhere in his attempt to uncover any fraudulence in Manomohan.

3.  The Lawyer Friend’s Visit
The next evening, another Bose family friend, the attorney Prithwish Sengupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee), comes to visit.  Sudhindra knows that Prithwish is very analytical, and he believes that Prithwish will be able to uncover the ultimate intent of Manomohan.  The ensuing 20-minute conversation between Prithwish and Manomohan proves to be the most interesting portion of the film. 

But this telling conversation is first preceded by a beautiful musical sequence showing Anila singing the Rabindranath Tagore song, “Whose Veena is it that Rings Out?”, while she plays the tamboura.  This is certainly an affective rendering of 'civilized' that effectively transcends the analytical perspective.

Then the conversation, which is something of a cross-examination, begins with Prithwish asking Manomohan whether he believes in religion, which leads to the following exchange:. 
Manomohan: “I cannot believe in something that creates a divide between men.”
   
Prithwish: “What about God?”
   
Manomohan: “In this day and age it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe
in a benevolent God.”
Their exchanges continue along these lines, with Manomohan dryly expressing further skepticism about the benefits of modern civilization.  Finally, Prithwish asks him a key question.
Prithwish: “If you despise modern technology, why have you lived so long in the West?  Why haven’t you gone to live with the aboriginals in the jungle?”
At this question Manomohan finally lights up with some enthusiasm and tells Prithwish that that is exactly what he did do.  After college, he says, he spent five years living with the principal aboriginal groups in India.  Then after bumming around Europe for a few years, he studied for an anthropology degree and thereafter went to the USA where he was commissioned to study the Native Americans there.  He goes on to say that he has since then spent his time studying and reporting on 43 different Native American tribes in North and South America.  This work has included examining wondrous historical sites, such as Machu Picchu in Peru.  And as a result of all these studies, Manomohan says, he has come to admire the science and technology of these people.

But Prithwish is still skeptical and challenges Manomohan about a practice of some aboriginals – cannibalism.  How can that practice be considered to be civilized?, he asks.  To that Manomohan has a ready rejoinder:
Manomohan: “‘Civilized’ is that man who uses one finger to press one button and release an atomic weapon which obliterates an entire city . . . ”
With that, the frustrated Prithwish gives up on his querying and rudely leaves.  The Boses are left still in the dark about Manomohan, but they are impressed with the erudition he has shown during the semi-accusatory conversation he had gone through with Prithwish.  As Sudhindra remarks later that evening to Anila, “so much knowledge has certainly opened his [Manomohan’s] mind, but his heart has perhaps not opened up so much.”  So Manomohan’s hunger for the essence of civilization remains unabated.

4.  The Gift
When the Boses wake up the next morning, they discover that Manomohan, perhaps feeling that he has worn out his welcome, has packed up and left their home.  Anila suspects that Manomohan is seeking to find out whether he is entitled to some inheritance that may have been left to him in her wealthy grandfather’s will, and they head out to a remote town about 150 km north of Calcutta where the executor of the grandfather’s will lives.  There they do find Manomohan, and they learn that, yes, he is entitled to inherit a huge sum of money from that will.  

Now convinced that Manomohan is really Anila’s uncle, the couple are apologetic and want him to return and stay with them before his scheduled departure to Australia (where he intends to study more aboriginals).  But Manomohan insists that they first must all stay and watch some dancing by local natives of the Kol tribe that is about to take place.  This they do, and the viewer is treated to five minutes of magical music and dancing on the part of the natives.  In fact their dancing is so rhythmically enticing that Anila is moved to join in and dance with them.  Her  intuitive embrace of the hypnotic music moves the onlooking Manomohan to comment to Sudhindra, “I was very suspicious about whether she’s really my niece . . . not anymore.”

When Manomohan finally departs for the airport, he hands Sudhindra an envelope which he asks them not to open until after he has gone.  And at the close of the film when they do open the envelope, they discover that Manomohan has signed over to them his entire, vast inheritance.

So by the end of this film, we have learned more about Manomohan, but he is still something of a mystery.  We know that he is frustrated with what modern “civilization” has to offer and that he thinks earlier societies may have made more profound discoveries.  As far as modern society is concerned, Manomohan is profoundly alienated, and he is eternally seeking a way to resolve his alienation.
  
In this regard, another fictional “stranger” comes to mind  – the protagonist, Meursault, in Albert Camus’s famous Existentialist novel, L’Etranger (The Stranger, 1942) [6]).  Manomohan was alienated from the emptiness he found in modern society, whereas Meursault was fundamentally alienated from everything he encountered in the world.  But neither Meursault nor Manomohan was ready to completely give up on this score.  For example critic Peter Rainer wrote of Manomohan [3]:
“And, although there is a blasted weariness to him, he still seems more deeply, mysteriously content than anyone else in the movie.”
Nevertheless, these two tales have fundamental differences in their perspectival stances.  In the Camus story, as with all existential narratives, everything is seen from the inside of the main character – the reader is shared a view of Meursault’s consciousness.  But in Ray’s story, Agantuk, the main character, Manomohan, is mostly seen from the outside [5].  The viewer is shown a number of additional characters who are all externally struggling to ascertain the true identity of Manomohan.  But each is viewing Manomohan from the perspective of his or her own personal narratives:
  • The two Boses initially see Manomohan as a threat, and they are concerned about the potential harm he could bring to them.
     
  • The friend Ranjan is a stage actor, and so much of his life is concerned with his own dissimulation.  He looks at Manomohan somewhat sympathetically from the perspective of a fellow-dissimulator who admires his craftiness.
     
  • The attorney Prithwish is an analyst and wants to know about Manomohan’s basic beliefs.  He feels that by this route he can uncover the true nature of Manomohan.  Although this way of looking at things is supposedly objective, it still overlooks the crucial aspect of inner experiences.
Of course, we all see new people from the perspective of our own personal narratives, and the way this is exemplified in the story is a fundamental part of what makes this film fascinating.  But finding out what is going on inside Manomohan proves to be an elusive task.  

Overall, Ray’s The Stranger is a polished production, but there are some limitations.  The film has a static feel to it, because it is mostly composed of a few extended conversations.  Although there are several somewhat lengthy camera-panning sequences, these don’t manage to alleviate the general lack of dynamism. 

In addition, for a film that is concerned with one’s deepest feelings about life, I am surprised that there is no consideration of love in the story.  Love truly does make the world go round, and it would have been natural for love to have made appearances at some points over the course of Manomohan’s worldwide quest for meaningful civilized life.

So what, in the end, do we come to know about Manomohan?  We do know that he has been to many indigenous societies in the world and has found a number of interesting practices that they have come up with.  And many of these fascinating practices, by the way, seem to be inspired by thinking that is not expressible in terms that are compatible with the logical, Turing computable text and formulae characteristic of our modern scientific “civilized” societies [7].  So we could guess that even though the power of Turing computability has fuelled the digital information explosion of our modern world, Manomohan wants to search beyond its boundaries (even if he doesn’t think about things or articulate his ideas in these terms) and find something more quintessential to the wonders of human existence. 

Manomohan still hasn’t found that something at the end of the film.  But when he and Anila rapturously immerse themselves in the mesmeric dancing of the Kol women, we can believe that he is looking in the right direction.  Satyajit Ray spent his whole life on a quest looking in that direction, too, and he well-expressed the philosophical underpinnings of that quest in this, his final film.
★★★½    

Notes:
  1. Acquarello, “Satyajit Ray”, Strictly Film School, (2001).   
  2. Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, “Agantuk: Through Utpal Dutt's character, Satyajit Ray articulated his views on civilisation's illusory nature”, Firstpost, (18 March 2018).   
  3. Peter Rainer, “MOVIE REVIEW : Ray’s ‘Stranger’: Bare-Bones Filmmaking From a Master”, “Los Angeles Times”, (30 June 1995).   
  4. Alison Macor, “The Stranger”, Austin Chronicle, (1 September 1995).   
  5. James S. Rich, “LATE RAY - ECLIPSE SERIES 40", Criterion Confessions, (12 January 2014).  
  6. It is ranked by Le Monde as the greatest book of the 20th century:
  7. Algis Valiunas, “Turing and the Uncomputable”, The New Atlantis, Number 61, (Winter 2020).