Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha)

Ray, 1990, 122m

This is Ray's second last film made when he was just short of seventy. The tree is Ananda Mazumdar, a retired industrialist famed for his honesty and philanthropy, to the extent of having his town named after him. The branches are the four sons and two spouses. Mazumdar suffers a heart attack and as he hovers in the danger zone, the progeny converges around him. Ray is a good spinner of yarns and he knows how to play the heartstrings. Here he gives us a taut drama about old age and family relations with the background of Bengali society of the eighties (there is a family picnic and one of the cars is a Maruti 800).

Unlike some of his more acclaimed films which are about youth and childhood, this one is about aging with which comes cynicism and tolerance. He is able to turn an eye more understanding than indignant towards the corruption and rot in society. This somewhat lame anger is voiced through the youngest of the four sons, who chooses to opt out from the bribe driven business world. Ray was often accused of not being sufficiently concerned about the ills of society. He once said that no movie could ever change society, not even Battleship Potemkin, which only hooted for an ongoing revolution, nor Triumph of the Will, which pandered to the Nazi state. He is no firebrand: he is a mere humanistic genius, an artist and an impeccable mirror of the society which owns him, for all his anglophilia.

Ray is an enraptured by womanhood. His men are more often pathetic shadows, as in this one. Mamata Shankar as one of the wives gives a bold and charismatic portrayal of a woman disappointed in her marriage, with a mind and strength of self acceptance beyond her era and milieu.

This is a more ambitious film which expands the usual canvas to depict an era and a society. It achieves a high level of dramatic tension, even though it lacks the compassion and innocence of some earlier movies. It definitely limps at many places, as Ray is affecting a piety not his own. It is not his nature to judge people, as if to say, that might have been me. On the whole, a gripping film for all it's negligible weaknesses.

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