Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teen Kanya: The Postmaster

Satyajit Ray, 41m, 1961, Bengal

This is a heart wrenching story, capturing both a vanished era and eternal truths about the human condition. It is a worthy confluence of Ray and Tagore.

Young Nandalal arrives from Kolkatta to take up duties as a postmaster in a rural backwater. The post-office is a beaten down mud structure with a thatched roof and the lush greenery of the delta envelops it from all sides. He is served by a little girl Ratan (Chandana Banerjee), an orphan who lives in the post-office, serving as domestic help for the succession of postmasters. Nandalal enjoys the peaceful environs and strikes a bond of affection with the girl, teaching her to read and write.

In the process we participate in the rhythms of rural life in the late nineteenth century. The host of villagers, most of whom have never traveled beyond the next village, is etched with sublime delicacy. They surround the educated young man with awed respect. One of the less remarked qualities of Ray's cinema is his wonderful ability to catch with razor sharp accuracy and powerful nostalgia details of different periods in India. He has marvelous instinctive sense of history.

But then the scourge of malaria visits our anti-hero postmaster, and he is nursed back to health by his little care giver. However he has had his fill of the village and applies and is granted a transfer back to the city. It's not a big deal for him and the new incumbent is soon there to take over. But what about the little girl who stares with moistened eyes and dawning comprehension? But Ray and Tagore are too great to conclude on a note of defeat and heartbreak and the ending is one of those moments of dense meaning which lighten the Ray pantheon, wherein in a single master-stroke he touches the heart of things.

I was just wondering whether the figure of the local lunatic, whose ranting , frightening and comical, punctuates the film. The postmaster is scared of him but the girl can just shoo him off. Perhaps he is a symbol of the agony which only the heart of a child is capable of feeling. After all this is a stark and terrible story about childnood which Tagore has sketched so innocuously. Perhaps one of the marks of a master is the ability to see the extraordinariness of the ordinary things of life.

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