“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.

  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).   

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