Friday, December 31, 2010

Einstein and Eddington (2008)

This BBC TV docudrama relates the well known events surrounding revolutionary changes in science which occurred in the first two decades of the last century. Einstein's two theories of Relativity ( the"Special" and the "General") which pointed out the limitations in Newton's ideas of physics, were propounded in 1905 and 1916. Einsteins ideas were radical (like the fact that "time" is different for different observers) and did not gain acceptance till they were experimentally verified. Eddington was the British scientist who carried out this verification by observations of a total solar eclipse carried out in Africa in1919. Of course the ultimate verification was the nuclear bombs used in WW2 but that is a different tale.

The events narrated take place in the background of WW1 and both the scientists face opposition in their native countries (England and Germany). Einstein, a Swiss citizen refuses to sign unconditional allegiance to the German nation and Eddington faces opprobrium for collaborating with a scientist from the country England is at war with, and that too in an endeavor which may prove the views of Newton, the greatest British scientist, wrong.

The film tries to tell us something about the personal lives of the two men. Eddington is a devout Quaker who refuses to enlist in the war. I had always imagined Einstein as a gentle and refined person. What we see here is a  noisy, theatrical and coarse exhibitionist. It is hardly a picture of genius. Einstein was probably given to, and in a position to afford playing the fool, but could hardly have been this clumsy joker. What we see is the universalized stereotype. There is no serious attempt to bring out the human being behind the myth.

A highly forgettable movie.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski, 2010, 128m

A ghost writer is commissioned (for a quarter of a million) to write the autobiography of former British prime minister Lang. Another person hired for the same work was killed in dubious circumstances.The plot meanders drearily through possible war crimes committed on the orders of Lang at the bidding of his CIA masters with some glimpses of the lives of the high and mighty.

The tailor dummy PM is a feeble caricature of Blair. This political thriller is conspicuously deficient in thrills and and the politics too is obscurely infantile. It succeeds neither in being a James Bond movie nor in it's attempt to soar above the genre. One can only conclude that Polanski has ceased to tick. Everything is deja vu here. The only image that remains with me is the final one, with the pages of the manuscript scattering in the wind.

It's a ghost of a movie. A headache is acceptable as a means but not as an end in itself.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Apichatchong Weerasethakul, 2010, 114m, Thailand, Palme d'Or 

Boonmee is a prosperous land-owner facing death. He lives with his wife and grown up son. As the end approaches, he is visited by his first wife who died nineteen years ago and a deceased son who has turned into a monkey like creature. In the netherworld of incipient death, he is able to recall his past lives, or imagines he can. The film alternates between two realities. One is the reality of Boonmee's house or farm or his car moving through the lush greenery. On the other side we find him moving through dark, damp forests with other-worldly rivers and grottoes, with brilliant psychedelic colors and lights. Indeed, it may well be a drug induced hallucination. There is a particularly haunting sequence where a palanquin born aging princess consigns herself to a pool at the foot of a dream like waterfall. Such is the general trend of the film. At best it may be regarded as presenting near death states or out of the body experiences.

Belief in life after death and the possibility of reincarnation are the underlying assumptions, as the title suggests. This is the lore of the East. The film ends up as a piece of pretty if exhausting gimmickry. It showcases the young director's cinematic talents but sentimentalizes death. It lacks the philosophical depth of films like Wit, A Taste of Cherry, or Goodbye Solo. Perhaps it can be commended for it's unusual, ever-pertinent if unanswerable theme of what happens to us after we die.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010)

The film is set in the Ozark mountains of the US, a region with a distinctive culture and terrain. I understand that the speech and manners have been authentically captured but for me this is as difficult to appreciate as would be for an American to distiguish, say, Kerala from Punjab. The film relates to the survival struggle of seventeen year old Ree, who takes care of her younger brother and sister and mentally incapacitated mother. The father belongs to a community of small time impoverished drug (amphetamine) makers and users and is currently on bail, having pledged the humble homestead as surety. Since he fails to appear in court, the family faces homelessness. The film relates to the heroic struggle of  young Ree in the subculture with it's brutal code of dealing with informers.

The film is too culture specific to it's country and the atypical social group among whom it is set to have much impact. It is neither here nor there--it is never quite able to decide whether to be a sociological study of a sub-culture or a human drama. It winds up as Americana and folk-lore. It fails to rise above sentimentality and caricature. On a human plane, the teenager's gritty battle in harrowing circumstances does evoke respect and admiration, specially the unusual emergence of character in such a hopeless, drug-infested environment--perhaps that is precisely the cause. Adversity, like war, brings out both the best and the worst.

The film reminds me of Kore-eda's Nobody Knows which is able to paint a more powerful picture of abandonment right in the middle of a booming metropolis without the props of an outlandish backdrop of drug sozzled hill-bills or hands being chainsawed off a dead body (Winter's Bone). Kore-eda's film is a searing indictment of individuals being ground in the blind wheels of a civilized society.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Horse Thief

Zhuangzhuang Tian, 1986, 88m, Tibetan

This is a movie about human beings living in the stark and  pitiless land of Tibet. Tibetans have a clear if not too numerous a presence in North India and I always felt deeply curious about these strangers from a land not too distant yet strange and mysterious. My first memories of these people are of tattered nomads moving in groups. Today they are educated, vocal and have prospered economically on Indian soil.The present film is like a response to an inborn craving to visit this land.

It is set in 1923, thus steering clear of political controversies in China, of which Tibet is now a part. Tibet is the highest plateau in the world, with an average altitude of 16,000 feet. Going by this film, it also seems the most wind blown place. The mists are always floating swiftly away and the pennants planted near temples flutter noisily like arrays of weathercocks. I cannot remember any movie with such splendor of cinematography, not even David Lean at his best. It is a world of transcendent beauty. There is nothing of the picture postcard tailor's dummy prettiness. The azure mountains, snow deserts and water bodies live and breathe as though with the presence of stern deities. The musical score , comprising natural sounds, muffled incantations and a continuous drone punctuated with funereal beats of percussion are an unspoken script or reverent commentary on this majestic extra terrestrial world.

Norbu is a poor member of a nomadic tribe. He has a wife and small boy to support. Though devout he is forced into stealing horses for survival. He is expelled from his group under sentence of amputation if he should return. The film follows his journey through different regions in the course of which he loses his son to disease and sires another one. Religion and ceremonies dominate the life of these simple minded and plainspoken folk. Probably they need belief as a necessity in their lives with death, disease and starvation constantly staring at them. Norbu is a god fearing person and it is only to save his offspring from the jaws of starvation that he is driven to stealing. He contributes a good part of his "earnings" to the temple.

Both the mood and the score is reminiscent of Tarkovsky's Stalker. These snow blown mountains and deserts are, like the Zone, inhabited by a mysterious presence hinting at realities other than the familiar. The word mesmeric applied to this film is not a cliche but an accurate description of it's power.

At the end of the day, people are the same--in Tibet, Calcutta or in the US.

I was introduced to this movie by my friend Nathanael Hood.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Middleman (Jana Aranya)

Satyajit Ray, 130m, 1975

This film is unique among Ray's films in that it concludes on a note of undulated despair. It shows us society at a stage beyond redemption, where people are helplessly sucked into a life without honor, hope or human dignity, and are beyond caring, having accepted rotteness as a way of life. The human spirit is extinguished.

The film opens on a note of utter cynicism as we see a sight that most of us are familiar with--flagrant cheating going on in an examination. The invigilators close their eyes making routine hollow noises of "silence! silence!" perhaps for the gods or passers to hear. We have heard of students who go to the examination hall armed with a knives  A man comes from outside and passes a sheet of paper with all the answers. The invigilators shrug indifferently as they pace up and down the aisle.

Somnath Banerjee is a bright boy, the hope and pride of his idealist father. However the examination results are far below his deserts, a result of clear mis-checking. But there is no remedy and he joins the sea of job-seekers where there are a lakh of applicants for ten jobs. His girl friend is forced to marry someone else because he has no means of support. His friend Sukumar languishes in destitution with his ailing family, depending on the earnings of a sister who, we are soon to learn, makes a living from the ancient profession. The two friends call on an MP with their predicament, to be turned back with platitudes, tinged with sarcasm and even loating.

He is drawn to business by an old friend of his. He starts buying and selling commodities on a commission basis and is soon earning decently, much to his family's satisfaction. Finally, to clinch a crucial deal he must arrange a woman for an important client. We are introduced to a series of brothels. Finally the girl he manages to arrange is none other than the sister of his best friend Sukumar, who meanwhile has become a taxi driver.

The film would be melodramatic in lesser hands or if it was not so searingly close to realities. In the hands of Ray, it turns into a brilliant X Ray picture of a society which is hollow with canker.

The last of the Calcutta Trilogy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Company Limited (Seemabaddha)

Satyajit Ray, 108m, 1971

This is Part 2 of the Calcutta trilogy. Stepping forward from the unemployed rebel of The Adversary, we have a view of the workaday life of a rising executive Shyamal Chatterjee in a British owned fan manufacturing company (Peter Fans) in Calcutta. He has climbed rapidly to become the sales manager and is eying a directorship.Their son is schooling in a boarding in Darjeeling. There seems hardly any cloud of discontent in their monotonously blissful routine of office politics and evenings spent at clubs and restaurants.A sister-in law (Tutul by name) visits from Patna and we see the routine of innocuous flirting. The sister is only mildly impressed by the prosperity and adroit social climbing of her brother-in-law.

We get a nostalgic and somewhat drab recap of that period when there were only two brands of cars made in India, fans were more ubiquitous and airconditioning a rarity, television were still a decade ahead, and the villainies were also on a humbler scale, even in Bollywood. The world population was half the current figure. The wheel of life ambulated at a more leisurely pace. The ceiling fan and bicycle are appropriate symbols of this fleeting era..

And then there is real big trouble when a costly consignment of fans meant for Iraq is found liable for rejection on account of faulty painting. Shyamal's future is in jeopardy because the sales agreement includes a haevy penalty clause for late delivery. He has come a long way from the clever student and humble schoolteacher that he was as he conspires with the personnel manager to brew up labor trouble culminating in a temporary lockout and an explosion in the factory which leaves the guard badly, but not fatally, wounded. So what if he had died, joke the conspirators complacently, so many die in Calcutta every day, and the company would have sent a wreath. Both achieve their coveted career advancements, thus cashing in on an adverse situation.

The movie ends as Tutul returns the watch lent to her by Shyamal, indicating her own disillusionment with the adored brother-in law..

Not a masterpiece but certainly a vignette and a memorable slice of real life. No character is wasted and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, as the worldly wise wog director of the company is particularly amusing as he gives a trade-mark performance. Ray is incapable of dishonesty or exaggeration for the sake of popularity and he paints the era as drab as it was. His hold on our mind is derived from authenticity, familiarity and recognizability of the situations, people and objects he shares.

The Adversary (Pratidwandi)

Satyajit Ray, 1971, 115m, Bengali

There are as many Rays as there are movies made by him, for he seldom repeats himself. Having seen a good number, I find the present one different from any of the others. This is not the gentle poet of Pather Panchali nor the romantic chronicler of India's past of Charulata. This is the first of the so called Calcutta Trilogy. The film depicts the agony of youth stranded at the dawn of adulthood, in the specific context of Calcutta in the late sixties.

This was the age of hippies and budding Naxalism, of Woodstock and the Vietnam war.The film reflects the bitterness and anger of an intelligent, sensitive and impecunious young man engaged in the near impossible task of finding a job.

Siddharth has recently interrupted his medical studies after losing his father. His sister is earning, but that is more because of her youth and femininity, and although nothing specific is imputed, her activities are perceived to be dishonorable. The younger brother is drifting towards shady political activity. Siddhartha's own encounters with women are sensitively portrayed. One charge that can never be made against Ray is lack of realism or anything less than utter honesty. He tells it exactly like it was.

Ray seems to have indulged in some cinematic innovation. There are a number of eery dream sequences which reminded one of the opening sequence in Wild Strawberries. At some points the surrealism definitely seems artificial and overdone as when a whole crowds of job seekers waiting to be interviewed turns into skeletons in his imagination. There are some sequences in "negative" like an X-ray. Like Siddharth, Ray is in love with Calcutta, city of revolt and history and squalor, a third world intellectual hub. (Laden bookshelves are a constant feature of most urban dwellings in his films, even the humblest.)

He has an unusual ablity to condense everything into a short statement of a minute or so. These inspired climactic moments of dense compression punctuate Ray's work. In the present movie this comes towards the end when the seething dammed emotions of the young man explode in a demonstration of rage, as the long wait of the job seekers waiting to be interviewed is prolonged by another hour.

Not his best but his worst is ahead of other's best.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
  One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,         5
  But being too happy in thine happiness,
    That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
          In some melodious plot
  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.  10
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
  Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
  Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!  15
  Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
          And purple-stainèd mouth;
  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
    And with thee fade away into the forest dim:  20
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,  25
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
          And leaden-eyed despairs;
  Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.  30
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
  Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
  Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,  35
  And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
    Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays
          But here there is no light,
  Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
    Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.  40
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
  Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
  Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;  45
  White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
    Fast-fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
          And mid-May's eldest child,
  The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
    The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.  50
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
  To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,  55
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
          In such an ecstasy!
  Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
    To thy high requiem become a sod.  60
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
  No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
  In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path  65
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
          The same that ofttimes hath
  Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.  70
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
  To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
  As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades  75
  Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
    Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
          In the next valley-glades:
  Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
    Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?  80

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No Country for Old Men

For a film this well known, one can assume everyone has seen it, which saves the bother of having to say much. It's my second view after three years. The first time I could not understand why it was so highly rated, and I may say the same now. The feeling is of having seen a gripping thriller, particularly well constructed and painted on a wide canvas depicting the current state-of-the-art wild west.

Chigurh, the lead character, is not exactly a serial killer or a psychotic. He is intelligent, literate and articulate. If one were to attempt a deconstruction of his personality, one could only say he's a person who desires money, and lives by letting the toss of a coin determine his path. He leaves a trail of bodies as he pursues the suitcase filled with money. 

It's a society dominated by money and drugs. Even children understand the meaning of money. Llewyn's wife refuses to bargain for life by tossing a coin. The policemen for a change are portrayed as good philosophers, uncomprehending the transformed society, of which they see the worst. In fact Chigurh seems the distilled logical end product of a society in which the traditional sources of values have dried up. Satan, after all, is known to be a crafty logician, and logic cannot produce values.

The efficient air-cylinder which he wields is an apt symbol for the weaponry which distances the killer from the victim. This is a film about the roulette wheel society and the coin-toss universe. The film is a chilling and exquisitely wrought portrayal of our times and Chigurh is more a prototype than bizarre.

All though the film is about a series of killings, it somehow does not take the extinction of life as lightly as many others.The ghastliness of the act of killing comes through sharply. Why is murder so foul? Life, so laboriously nursed and nurtured with pain and sacrifice, is a journey, an unwritten odyssey, a bundle of infinite possibility. To tear off the pages of the book of life mid way is a sad deed indeed.

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.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Home and the World (Ghare Baire)

Satyajit Ray, 141m, 1984, Bengali, based on Tagore's novel

The story is set in the first decade of the previous century. Bengal is to be partitioned into two states, a Hindu Bengal and a Muslim Bengal. Lord Curzon is the current Viceroy.The freedom movement is in it's nascent state and is being spearheaded by the upper class intelligentsia. British goods flood the market. There is a move on the part of the rebels to boycott imported goods.This on the other hand is likely to hit the poor since imported goods are cheaper and of better quality.

The complex social and political situation is narrated by Ray through the medium of a bold and torrid love triangle triangle, bold for the year when the movie was released, bolder for the milieu in which the film is set and even by present standards of Indian cinema. The level of intimacy depicted is perhaps unusual in Indian cinema, since kissing on-screen still is likely to shock sections of the audience. And nor is Ray the kind of guy given to shock tactics.

India is a confluence of civilizations and Ray is an individual who embraces contradictory multiplicities. One of the opening images is of  Bimala (played by Swatilekha Chatterjee), traditionally cloistered wife of the aristocrat Nikhil (Victor Banerjee), as she is tutored in Western vocal music by her teacher (Jennifer Kendall). Nikhil decides to liberate her from the traditional role of housewife and introduces her to ex college mate and firebrand freedom fighter Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), who is currently campaigning for Swadeshi, or the boycott of foreign manufactured goods. Ray clearly aims to portray the shallownes which underlies much revolutionary fervor. This is particularly evident in the ritualistic greeting of the Swadeshi-ists, which is artificial and comic. Bimala is completely infatuated with Sandip, till events disclose the duplicity and self serving motives which underlie his chest thumping patriotism.

The film is not up to Ray's best. This is perhaps due to it's complexity and scope of ambition. Ray is not one to distort for the sake of simplification. He seeks here to portray some still continuing realities of India's multi religious and multi cultural society through the microcosm of a family living through a turbulent period of nascent nationalism. This is just before the appearance of Gandhi, when the serious business of confronting colonialism really started. Certainly cannot be missed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Napoleon (PBS)

This three hour documentary in four parts does an excellent job of narrating the life of one of the most fascinating figures of all time. The narration is by well known scholars and historians of France, Britain and the US. Photography being not yet invented, the dramas of his life are magnificently captured through the volumes of paintings that exist (mostly commissioned by himself, since he was a publicist as well as a man jealously obsessed by the opinions of posterity) about every phase of his life. This is further punctuated by cinematic takes of locations like Corsica, Elba and St. Helena which were the stage of his life. The narration is constantly interesting and we learn the story often through Napoleon's own choice of words or of the historians and military men. One is left with a three dimensional image of the man and the events he authored which is well worth the time invested.

His persona is perhaps the composite of the anguished times of his childhood (the French invasion of Corsica), a powerful nurturing mother figure, and the alchemy of genes. Here is a man with a demoniac concentration of purpose, pragmatic intelligence coupled with daring and infinite risk taking capacity. For all his intelligence, he seems to have had no conception of the value of human life--possibly this lack of conscience is precisely the source of strength of demagogues. Notwithstanding the fact that he was responsible for six million deaths (surely that figure strikes a more recent note) he paradoxically remains a testimony for what a single individual can accomplish, for better or for worse. It's hard not to admire him.

The series of battle-field paintings that the movie treats us to is a testimony to the brutish nature of the human animal, and the bloody routine of war that is a major component of human history. It is mind boggling to learn that the Napoleonic forces marching into Russia were 600,000 strong. The battles are scenes of ghastly butchery where human life is not worth a farthing, as colourfully garbed men on whinnying straddling horses exterminate each other with sharp instruments. Fire power has appeared and the killing is remote controlled placing a distance of  a hundred yards between the compression of the trigger and the gushing out of blood. Tanks and aeroplanes are a century away. And now Fat-man and Little-boy too are remote history. The recent invasion of Iraq with it's precise anaesthised airborne killer machines is the state-of-the-art of the ancient science of war.

The movie is perhaps a good appetiser for Sergei Bondarchuk's six hour well known extravaganza War and Peace, which I hope to see in the near future.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder)

Satyajit Ray, 1973, 100m

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."