Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder)
The 1943 famine famine in Bengal took a toll of five million lives, making it a forgotten holocaust. It was caused not by crop failures but artificial scarcity brought about by diversion of food grains to British troops in South East Asia.
Brahmin Gangacharan Chakravarty arrives in a village with his beautiful and good hearted wife Ananga and makes a livelihood by starting a school and performing religious ceremonies. A war is in progress and the villagers stare in wonder as planes occasionally glide across the sky. They have a dim awareness of the war with the Japanese and the fall of a place named Singapore and later Burma.
Rice starts becoming scarce and hunger and soon starvation stares the village in the face. The price of rice soars skywards and the traders start hiding whatever supplies they have. We are shown a food riot as the rowdy elements loot a grain shop.Gangacharan himself is driven to desperation in spite of his privileged status. Ananga offers to sell her gold bangles to tide over starvation. A man with a disfigured face offers rice in return for sexual favors. Finally we find the desperate women reduced to consuming wild plants, roots and river snails.
Even this grimmest of Ray's films is laced with humor and throughout retains the human touch. Every character is a three dimensional human being. Ananga cannot bear to turn away a hungry guest and offers him a nights stay at her hut. She cannot understand how her neighborhood friend Chutki can bear to sell her body in return for rice. Even under these grim circumstances we participate in the slow and musical rhythm of life in this village ahd realise that these people are no different from us. The universal sympathies of Ray are very much in evidence. The camera captures the village with it's mud huts and the mild villagers in their infinite facial variety with love and passion.
The ending is once again of breath taking sensitivity. A woman dies of starvation at Gangacharan's doorstep. She is a low caste and a Brahmin cannot touch him. Transcending taboos of cast, the Brahmin couple decide to cremate the body properly. Eight member's of a starving family arrive to lodge themselves on the couple. "What difference does it make", says Gangacharan, "instead of two we have ten." "Eleven", shyly retorts Ananga, revealing that she is pregnant. Like Tagore, Ray's work never loses the notes of triumph and the sheer joy of existence.
To quote Vincent Canby:
"...the sweep of the film is so vast that, at the end, you feel as if you'd witnessed the events from a satellite. You've somehow been able to see simultaneously the curvature of the earth and the insects on the blades of field grass."