FILMS & ENTERTAINMENT: Transcending time while capturing moments – the Bengal cultural hegemony experiment that didn’t quite gel through Jyoti Basu’s legacy ?!!
From The Statesman
By Abhisek Ray
30 July 2010: The current, desperate gamble practised by major political parties in the state to woo the tribes and use them ruthlessly as pawns on the manipulative chessboard ~ these remain what they were when Satyajit Ray artistically alluded to these in Aranyer Din Ratri, writes Abhisek Ray
CINEMA and Time do share some astounding similarities. While the former dilutes frames to invest newer meanings to flowing images, the latter tends to conjoin flipping moments to conjure up a semblance of rhythm along the continuum. The more subtle, cocooning and congruent the mixture proves to be, the more the chances of its transcending physical constraints that the “maker” or “being” cannot help taking note of.
Satyajit Ray was a vibrant storyteller (far more than he was a filmmaker) whose incisive oeuvre of celluloid creations seems to be growing more responsive to the present rather than the “mere times”, which it, indeed, represents. One of his less acclaimed (though widely hailed by Western critics) masterpieces, Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) may be cited, for instance.
Made in 1969, an epochal year in Indian cinema as marked by the release of Mrinal Sen’s Bhuban Som, Aranyer Din Ratri remains a striking indictment of the know-it-all Kolkata-based middle class. The film brings into focus the political tantrums holding particularly metropolitan life under sway at those critical points of time, though the treatment of the sublime in an apparently lighter, somewhat mocking, vein is what provokes an eminent critic to compare it to Mozart’s La Nozze di Figaro.
Bhuban Som first introduced to the Indian screen the much-talked-about anti-narrative technique of the Cahiers du Cinema group pioneering the French Nouvelle vague (New Wave). It doubtless lifted native cinema much beyond stereotyped clichés. But we will remain focused here on the socio-political-cinematic relevance of Aranyer Din Ratri.
The history: Apart from American astronauts catching up with Soviet achievements to land on the moon in July 1969, the eventful decade witnessed radical struggles breaking out in Europe, Asia and the USA. Revolutionary humanism was rediscovered; the readiness to sacrifice for a cause was back in the air; Marxist ideals were revisited. These were reflected in the national liberation struggle in Vietnam, the anti-war protests and civil rights movement in the USA, students’ agitations in Western Europe, China’s Cultural Revolution, Che Guevara’s self-sacrifice in Bolivia and, finally, the Naxalite movement back home in pursuit of the old dream of empowering the peasantry over imperialism and feudalism. The whirring of rancorous ramblings resounded beyond frontiers.
The film: Based on a Sunil Gangopadhay novel, Aranyer Din Ratri opens with four Kolkata friends on a hedonistic road trip to a forest. Each has a distinctive personalitry trait: Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) is successful, slightly dominating and narcissistic; Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee) is coy, conventional and anaemic; Shekhar (Robi Ghosh) is the funny one; and Hari (Samit Bhanja) is rash and impulsive. The apparently “loose-limbed and random” storyline reflects Ray at his best as a storyteller. He was skeptic though about the receptive capability of Indian viewers. He once said, “People in India kept saying: what is it about, where is the story, the theme?” He admmited later, with regret, “… and the film is about so many things, that’s the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands.”
“Class” plays a dominant role in the film, in and through the tentative relationships that unfold: Ashim, the most affluent, is attracted to the poised and composed Aparna (Sharmila Tagore); Sanjoy becomes enamoured of the young widow, Jaya (Kaveri Bose); Hari, the wildest and the most impulsive, seduces the Santhali girl, Duli (Simi Garewal).
The masterly-crafted “picnic sequence”, where six Kolkatans sit together to choose the name of a famous person, lasts nearly six minutes on screen. Elegantly structured and delectably funny, the sequence unfolds an array of emotional and psychological details, with each character revealing himself/herself. Amazingly, Ray went to such an extent as to use 73 cuts for a time span of only six minutes. The camera glides in a circular motion in one of the shots where Sanjoy recalls the names Rabindranath, Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Atulya Ghosh, Helen of Troy, Shakespeare… The unusual shot has the camera placed at the centre of the circle, showing each of the sextet with incredible cinematographic precision and dexterity. Sanjoy and Jaya are shown together in 15 shots, as if to establish the physical proximity developing between them. Ashim’s attraction towards Aparna, on the other hand, is distinctly intellectual in nature. They are never in the same frame.
Aranyer Din Ratri clearly reflects Ray’s admiration for French master Jean Renoir whom he had first hand experience of working with in The River prior to Pather Panchali. The film might well be termed a remake of Renoir’s Une Partie de Campagne, though with different settings and treatment.
Though apparently a comedy of manners with a “dark undertow” on the surface, Aranyer Din Ratri is unparalleled, depicting the boorishness of Kolkatans, their arrogant, treatment of villagers beneath them, their ludicrous and, at times, brute yearning for respectability, abysmal insecurity and naked emptiness within. To quote Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, “Ray’s language of cinema is a kind of miraculous vernacular, all his own. It has mystery, eroticism and delight.”
During the film’s first flashback scene where Asim recalls the spectacle of one of his office parties, Ray retains the original sound track on the periphery of the tribal village. The four Westernised men are seen engaged in desperately defending their elevated “civilisation”, while consuming country liquor to let themselves go. Ashim’s remark, “Jato uthbe tato nambe” (the higher you rise the greater the fall) at this point is a subtext, mirroring the insecurities and tenuous social status of the protagonists. The innumerable reaction shots used in the film are pregnant with psychological tendrils, opening avenues for the audience to tread into interiorities of the characters. Each of these unfailingly creates an aura of lingual interrelatedness almost unparalleled in the cinematic universe.
The relevance: Ray’s political insight stands out in bold relief quite apart from his contemporaries. The seeming detachment from the political mêlée of the turbulent 1960s and the early 1970s imparts a peculiar relevance and timeless quality to his films made during the period.
These are entirely free from any preconceived political doctrinaire. The yawning chasm between urbanised minds and rustic simplicity, the failure to fathom the needs, desires and sentiments of the tribes, the coarse demagogic attitude of youths brought up in a metropolitan ambience: all are yet to change. The current, desperate gamble practised by the major political parties in the state to woo the tribes and use them ruthlessly as pawns on the manipulative chessboard — these remain what they were when Ray artistically alluded to these in Aranyer Din Ratri.
Summing up, one feels tempted to quote Philip Kemp, who succinctly puts his appreciation of the film thus, “Far from being shapeless or lacking a theme, as its first audiences imagined, the film is subtly orchestrated throughout: there isn’t a scene or incident, barely even a gesture, that does not contribute to the overall purpose.”