Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Satajit Ray | আগন্তুক Agontuk (The Stranger)

the raw and the cooked
by Douglas Messerli  

Satajit Ray (screenplay, based on his story, “Atithi”) and director আগন্তুক Agontuk (The Stranger) /
1991, USA 1992

 A letter arrives in the Boses’ Calcutta home, which, in front of her husband, Anila (Mamata Shankar) intensely reads. Her slowness to respond when asked about its contents brings even her young son Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya) to wonder what it says. Reading the “massive missive” to her husband, Sudhindra (Deepankar De) she reveals that a uncle of hers, a man whose face she cannot even remember, left India 35 years earlier, and has been heard from only in snippets of messages to a family friend in all these years. The uncle reports that he is now in New Delhi, and will be arriving at the family’s home in a few days to stay for a week. He hopes for the Bengali tradition of hospitality, but also claims he will not be offended if the Boses do not welcome the “stranger’s” visit.
      Sudhindra, a wealthy executive, is suspicious about the event, fearful of fraud and even wondering about the possibility that, were this unknown figure to enter their home, he might steal from their significant art collection. Although Anila is also troubled by the epistle, she is much more willing to permit the visit, if for no other reason than to meet the man whom she had known her mother and brother had so deeply loved and admired. Against her husband’s warnings, she refuses to write back and refuse him entry, but agrees that if she is not convinced upon meeting him, she will herself, “sweep him out.”
     So the great director Satajit Ray sets up his series of dialogic encounters with the family and family friends with the stranger, the unknown uncle Manomohan Mitra (beautifully played by Utpal Dutt) who is far more wily than they might have expected, and openly recognizes and answers their challenges while still guarding the privacy of his life and refusing to completely explain his near life-long absence or, more importantly, the reasons for his sudden return, particularly during the festival days when the family might have sought out private rest and celebration.
     Eschewing the remarkable cinematic images of his early work—this would be Ray’s last work and he spent many hours of filming it attached to an oxygen machine—the director focuses instead on the bright-hewed costumes of his characters, the mix of Indian and Western objects that their house contains, and, most importantly, upon the verbal sparring of the film’s characters.
     One by one, the elderly “uncle,” convinces the family members of not only his authenticity but of his brilliant capabilities. He first wows Satyaki and his young friends, telling them fabulous stories of the Peruvian city Machu Picchu and entertaining them with “magic tales” that explain to them the relative sizes of the sun, moon, and earth and the their planetary movements. His gentle encounters with her son, moreover, along with his observations about food and local customs also quickly convinces Anila that the man is authentic, and through his sprinkling of both German and French words in his conversation, she is amazed at his vast knowledge.
    Returning home the office, Sudhindra expresses his doubts, resulting in Manomohan showing him his passport which temporarily convinces Sudhindra, only to have the “stranger” remind him that passports might be easily faked, and encouraging him, in that fact, to remain skeptical.
      A visit that evening from the Boses’ friends, the Rakshits—the husband, Ranjan being a well known comic actor—results in a further embarrassing encounter as the stranger not only brilliantly answers all his questions, going so far as to challenge his notion that the Begalis were the creators of meaningful cafe dialogues, while reminding him of the activities of the Greek society of Socrates and Plato, as well as quickly recognizing the purpose of his clumsy questions.
      That evening Anila, herself, suddenly begins to suspect the stranger when she recalls that upon her great uncle’s death, he may have left money not only to his elder son and her mother, but to his third missing child as well, and that Manomohan may have returned only to collect his inheritance.
     New evening, a lawyer friend, Prithwish Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee) begins his questioning with wondering about the stranger’s ability to travel with so little money, which leads Manomohan to reveal that he had been given money by his mother, and later traveled as an anthropologist on grants. But as it becomes clear that Manomohan’s wanderlust involved a search to engage with notions of civilization, and to question whether or not the tribal cultures might not be more “civilized” than the modern urban world which he has left, the conversation turns into Prithwish’s coarsely argued beliefs that question everything from Manomohan’s religious convictions (the “stranger” does not only disavow religion because of exclusion of other cultures, but questions the notion of God) to the primitive cultures’ sexual habits and lack of technological progress. In short, Manomohan’s disquisitions about issues, somewhat related to anthropological differentiations between “the raw and the cooked,” are quite brilliantly, if a bit elliptically, expressed, demonstrating his careful thinking about what we define as primitive and how, blinded by our own notions of science and technology, we miss the great achievements of art, architecture, and technological advances of cultures outside of Westernized society. 
     If nothing else, the family’s friends have revealed themselves of having little ability to openly discuss and learn, having determined simply to reveal the “agontuk” as a fraud.
     Pained by the way they and their friends have treated the old man they now truly welcome him as their uncle, the family determined to spend the rest of his stay ameliorating “the hurt”; but when they awaken in the morning, they discover Manomohan has packed up and left.
     Through the family lawyer, they discover that indeed Manomohan has collected his inheritance and is staying nearby at a village of an ancient Indian tribe. The family quickly drives to the outpost, where they discover their uncle waiting to watch a performance of a tribal dance. The family is unexpectedly delighted by the event, with Anila, finally even joining the row of women dancers.
     It is also clear that the sophisticated cultural views of Manomohan are very close with those of the director, with, at moments, Ray even dubbing the voice of Manomohan in one scene to suggest the connection. And because of that we recognize the urgency, particularly given the director’s problems with health, of the “stranger’s” message.
     Yet it is also in these final scenes when the film begins to shift, someone sentimentally, into a feel-good film. The family quickly makes up with the endless wanderer, who returns to their home for a few more days before setting out, now a wealthy man, to Australia. 
     As if to prove the uncle’s good intentions all along, Ray ends his work by having the old man leave behind a letter in which he wills his entire inheritance to the family. It is a of problematic closing, suggesting that the real issues of the film, the urban culture’s self-centric vision of the world and their suspicion of the primitive and unknowable might be resolved simply by the visit of a nice old Santa Claus-like being who leaves behind a fabulous gift. In a sense, Ray’s film reminds me, a little, of Frank Capra’s empty-headed It’s a Wonderful Life, where modern doubt and anxiety are resolved with the financial rewards of family and friends—only in this case, the Bose family had no financial problems, failing only to easily open up their minds and their hearts. 
     Still, this Indian family has clearly learned some important life lessons. And now their young Satyaki will certainly be able, should he desire, to follow his own wanderlust.

Los Angeles, August 4, 2015

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