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Agantuk the ‘chant du cygne’ of Satyajit Ray

Agantuk the ‘chant du cygne’ of Satyajit Ray

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Utpal Dutta in Aguntuk

Explore the final cinematic endeavor of director Satyajit Ray, Agantuk (The Stranger). Discover how Ray deviated from his previous works, the influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the film’s core themes of identity, materialism, and civilization. Dive into the profound moments and philosophical questions raised by this remarkable film.

Satyajit Ray had always avoided repeating himself as a director. In his final cinematic endeavour, he consciously lightened the basic mood, following the sombreness of “Ganashotru” (An Enemy of the People} and the bleakness of “Shakha Proshaka” (Branches of the Tree). Without much semblance of doubt, “Agantuk” (The Stranger) ranks among his finest work and was better received by the audience and critics alike (both abroad and in India), than the previous two films, but it is a more than usual challenging film to describe and analyse in print. The New Yorker happened to review it just after Ray’s death and called it ‘a modest picture’, a graceful domestic comedy made in a serene, leisurely classical style’.

The basis of ‘Agantuk’ was a short story, ‘Atithi’ (The Guest), that Ray wrote for his children’s magazine Sandesh in 1981. The script that germinated from this story was written by a physically ailing Ray in only a fortnight in 1990 (‘record time’, as Ray candidly exclaimed). It was partly influenced by Ray’s recent reading of two books by Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques and The Savage Mind), but was more ambitious, in its treatment than the original. The basic premise was the return of a relative to visit an ordinary family in Bengal after being in complete oblivion for decades. There was the family’s dilemma as to how they should treat him – with, or without, ‘traditional Indian hospitality’ – dubious about his true identity; and also, the friendship between the visitor and the young son. But most of the other elements and details in the story were new.

As per the film’s narrative, Manmohan originally left Calcutta in 1955, the same year that Ray had completed Pather Panchali. Coincidence – maybe not! The protagonist’s character surely resembles his creator more than any other character portrayed in any of Ray’s films. They both set themselves the highest standard in anything they choose to attempt. In the film, Manmohan, wittily and magnificently played by the brilliant Utpal Dutta, explains to the young boy that he gave up graduation plans to be a painter, after seeing one of the uniquely vibrant cave paintings of bison at Altamira in an art book. In real life, Ray abandoned the art school at Shanti Niketan for similar reasons (though he was considerably influenced by the work of Nandalal Bose & Binod Behari Mukherjee at Vishva Bharti). In 1991, he told a French magazine that he had consciously chosen film-making as a career because he had realized pretty early that he would never be able to paint or write as well as his father, the great Sukumar Ray. Both Manmohan and Ray shared an unsatiable curiosity that transcended eclectically across a wide gamut of fields in arts and sciences, rejecting specialization and erudition. Neither man cared for money in the conventional way. indeed, the story of Agantuk centres on the issue of materialism, and the uncle’s abhorrence for its modern dominance. And both of them, crucially, are loners. While in Manmohan’s case, it was purely by choice, for Ray it got triggered partly by necessity, but mostly by choice. In other words, with the success of Pather Panchali in 1955, its creator, like his anthropologist, began a long mental peregrination of wandering away from Calcutta and into a wider world, though he physically remained and worked for his entire life in Kolkata. It can safely be inferred that both the creator and his creation loved their vernacular language and culture, but they were, to an equal measure, determined to shake off the parochialism of the “kupamanduk”, a Bengali word meaning ‘frog in a well’ which is a clearly etched pattern in the film.

However, one should probably abstain from picking at the threads of a film as coherent as Agantuk. To do so is to risk missing the overall motive and treatment of the film, like the critics (and religionists) who quote selectively from great works and come to mutually contradictory conclusions.

The film flourishes profoundly in some of the master’s most iconic moments. Consider the scene where he is explaining the phenomenon of eclipses to Bablu (the school-going kid in the film) and his friends. The magic of an eclipse comes alive, in the dexterity with which Ray shot the entire scene. In the words of the stranger, it is inexplicable, ‘the greatest magic trick in the entire universe’. In another instance, Ray uses the word floccinaucinihilipilification, a word that clinically defines the core of the film, the stranger’s dismissal of a civilization or society where a 29-letter alphabet means ‘something of little or no value’; as Manmohan Mitra dismissively says, ‘That’s civilization for you.’

Manmohan Mitra and Bablu in themovie Aguntuk

At its very core, Agantuk is a philosophical film. It probably raises far more questions than answers, and each of those questions makes us wonder about ourselves. In a frantic attempt to reveal the stranger’s true identity, when Sudhindra’s barrister friend (aptly essayed by Dhritiman Chatterjee) grills him about his whereabouts over the last three and a half decades, what transpires was truly amazing. Manmohan claims to have lived almost his entire adult life amidst tribesmen – in various remote jungles across geographies. He argues and challenges vehemently that the very notion of civilization needs to be critically re-examined. It is his belief, he says, that the ‘conventional’ uncivilized people – the tribal folks and forest-dwellers – have achieved far more by way of science, technology, architecture, medicine, and art than their more civilized city-dwelling cousins.

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A scene from the movie Aguntuk

Noted film critic and a dear friend of Ray, Chidananda Dasgupta in his book “The Cinema of Satyajit Ray” says that Ray alluded to Apu several times in his directorial career, without explicitly calling him so. Apu’s story began in deprivation & poverty, but it was always suffused with so much hope, underlined by the essential humanism that has always been the basic fabric of Ray’s films. The Calcutta trilogy comprising Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, and Jana Aranya, represented a version of Apu, progressively more disenchanted and spent with each film. His final three films, the “Reflection Trilogy” Ganashatru, Shakha Prashakha, and Agantuk seem to unearth the complete disillusionment of an aging Apu.

It’s always flawed to call any director’s film a swan song, but Ray considering his illness might have apprehended that Agantuk could well be his last. “The Stranger” wears its certitude impeccably and is truly a heart-touching poised ‘chant du cygne’ for the maestro!

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