Monday, December 13, 2010

The Stranger (Agantuk)

Ray, 1991, 2 hours, Bengali

Satyajit Ray died in 1992, at the age of 72. This movie is his last. The movies of his youth are simple and lyrical with melodies of leashed emotion. His latter work tends towards more complex themes, murals in which he wants to express the complex workings of society or address the human condition in it's entirety. To what extent he succeeds may be questioned, but they represent ambitious projects. He once remarked that unlike his western counterparts, he matured early in his career.His stream of innovation and creativity never flattened out and he continued to evolve till the very end, springing fresh surprises with every new film.

Ray's identification and admiration is clearly more for his women characters. His women are brilliant, beautiful,  compassionate, courageous and often daring. The men are dunderheads more often than not. The male characters often seem to be supporting roles. It is certainly arguable that the credit for most ills of our world goes more to the male animal. He is certainly more violent, and not necessarily cleverer.

Anila, the wife of an executive and mother of a growing boy, receives a letter from a person purporting to be her maternal uncle--one who had left the family thirty five years ago, when she was two months old, and was never heard of again. The uncle is in town and wants to spend a week with his niece, if they are willing to entertain him. The question is, is this person who he claims to be, and even if he is, what are his intentions in barging in out of nowhere? Anila is keen to have him over, doubts notwithstanding, but her husband is disinclined to entertain a probable fraud. Anila has her way and Uncle Manmohan, or a person who claims to be him, brilliantly portrayed by Utpal Dutt, is in.

There is a slow and delightful unpeeling of the persona of  the Uncle, who seems to have traveled to strange places all over the world, and the quest to establish his identity and intentions takes us through many a comical or poignant twist and turn. In the process, Ray treats us to a kind of Socratic symposium, and addresses through dialog, music and dance the nature of life, art, religion and society. What prompted Uncle to leave home, he says, was the painting a bison in the pre-historic caves of Altamira in Spain. Which art school can teach that? So he became an anthropologist. He has poured out his own heart and mind through the enigmatic uncle. Anila, superbly played by Mamata Shankar, acts as a shimmering mirror to Ray's emotion. Ray was old though not really sick when he made this movie. Perhaps he had premonitions of the end and the film has an air of a quick winding up of things.

At a certain stage of life, one's feelings take a backseat behind our analytic side. However even in this, possibly the most intellectual of his films, Ray's language is of the heart and his capacity for love and awed wonderment is very much in evidence. The undulations of a tribal dance which concludes the film is a wrenching paean to life. Anila's eyes moisten and her throat tightens as something primordial stirs within her and encouraged by her husband joins the performance. All barriers of time, space and circumstance are erased in the moment. This is the director at one of his peak moments.I am inclined to take this sequence as his artistic adieu.


Jack L said...

Great review,
I'm definitely following up on my plan to see some of Ray's films, I'm getting the Apu trilogy and I've also found one called Abhijan, is that one one of his best or are there better??

anyway excellent review and I look forward to reading your future reviews.

S M Rana said...

Abhijan is avoidable.Thanks for the appreciation. The Apu trilogy is a good place to start.