An upper-class Calcutta family has come to the hill-station of Darjeeling to spend a vacation. The narrative encompasses the day before their planned departure. The patriarch is a relic of the Raj: educated, rich businessman with a title (presumably for co-operating with the British rulers, or making a sizeable donation to the coffers) and a vain, insensitive ego. He wants to have his younger daughter – Manisha, who is sensitive, soft-spoken and just 19 – married to a well-to-do engineer with some social status and security. This underlines the significance and urgency of the day. All events in the films ultimately center upon what decision Manisha makes. The suitor is an amiable man possibly in his 30s – Banerjee – a little too formal, somewhat pragmatic though overall likeable.
The patriarch, Indranath Roy, has a sensitive wife in Labanya. She has long turned spontaneity and self-esteem inwards, submissively putting on a façade of agreement with everything her husband says and does. She doesn’t seem to be too happy with the present situation Manisha has been forced into, yet she cannot bring herself to oppose her husband on his stand. Labanya’s brother, Jagadish, is a cheerful, philosophical man who likes to stay alone with his passion – bird-watching. The contrast between Jagadish and his brother-in-law is etched in a wonderful comic scene where he tries to arouse some ornithological interest in Indranath. “Can the bird be roasted?” Indranath asks. For a moment, Jagadish cannot fathom the question. When he says no, Indranath smugly says that the bird does not interest him in that case.
Manisha’s elder sister, Anima, has an unhappy marriage with Shankar. We come to know more things about them as the film progresses, but it is established in the first few minutes that Shankar is cynical about the family’s subservience to Indranath as well as his failed marriage. He also reveals shades of concern that Mani might be emotionally manipulated to accept Banerjee as her husband inspite of her true wishes. Anima and Shankar have a daughter of about eight, which is what anchors their relationship inspite of personal differences. Manisha’s other sibling is Anil, a somewhat stupid and happy-go-lucky fellow who chases pretty girls in Darjeeling’s famed Mall. Anil is incidentally the only character in the film whom Ray does not put under the scanner. He is a prototype for the spoilt rich-brat and has little function other than drawing a few easy laughs.
A key to understanding the film from the POV of a westerner is to recognize the typical Indian social mindset that craves security and social standing above all else. It might be slightly confounding to wonder why no one in the family has ever spoken against Indranath’s tyranny. Disagreement stains the façade of family integrity, which no one wants to jeopardize. The fear of breaking an accepted social structure – where the patriarch decides everything – also permeates their mind. No one enjoys this patriarchal supremacy, except Indranath of course, but everyone buries the frustration deep within. Kanchenjungha is, in a way, a search for someone who will have the courage to break the existing social structure.
As a counterpoint to the society-conscious Choudhury family, Ray introduces Ashok, a young graduate from the lower-middle class who earns a pittance by tutoring students. This profession he seems to have in common with a pushy uncle who forms the distant link between him and the Choudhury family. In Darjeeling accompanying his uncle, who is comically unimaginative in the manner of most middle-class babus, he comes across Indranath. The uncle is an old acquaintance of the Choudhurys and wants Indranath, chairman of five companies, to help his young nephew get a job. That Ashok is something of a rebel is already evident within moments of his arrival on screen. When introduced to the big man, he stands straight hesitantly, not doing the “done thing”: i.e. bowing down and paying obeisance (which is the standard Indian custom). It takes his over-eager uncle’s urging to do that.
The events of the day unfold as all these characters walk about the lonely streets of Darjeeling in pairs or alone, coming across one another by chance, then relapsing back into solitude. Ray employs a cyclical structure: he captures a bit of the conversation between Banerjee and Manisha, then switches over to Indranath and Labanya. Then he suddenly brings in a roaming Ashok face-to-face with Banerjee and Manisha, and so forth. The dialogue is written keeping this cycle in mind, so that when Labanya voices her concern that Manisha may have wishes of her own and may not be ideal for Banerjee, we have already seen hints of the clash between Manisha’s natural whimsical nature and Banerjee’s formal politeness.
The true genius of Kanchenjungha is, I think, how Ray pairs almost every principal character with some other at one point or the other, thereby contrasting and comparing their nature and the relationship they share. Also, nearly every character is given a distinct life of his or her own (they could be people we have met ourselves), which is somewhat unusual considering that the narrative is tightly controlled and organized (though that is not apparent on the surface).
Kanchenjungha was Ray’s first film in colour. That Mani chooses a saffron sari to wear on this ‘important’ day already hints that she doesn’t wholly approve of her father’s choice – saffron being the colour of renunciation in Hinduism. We do not yet know if she will accept Banerjee’s proposal, but she wants to make her resignation clear. Darjeeling’s natural beauty is shrouded in mist, which adds a sense of gloom and confusion, thereby reflecting the mood of the characters. I’m not entirely sure the same effects could be achieved on black-and-white stock.
If the film is a document of an old social structure disintegrating, it also marks the birth of several relationships. It is revealed that Anima has an extra-marital affair that she has sustained from before her marriage (she could not marry her lover against her father’s wishes). Shankar has learnt of this, but typically stomachs the failure with his cynical resignation to fate. He has several vices – gambling and drinking among others – which he inherited from his zamindari heritage, but he shows signs of silent remorse. Husband and wife confront each other, break down and while the final reconciliation is far from cheerful, it shows signs of hope that each will try to become better partners. Their daughter – who in her innocence does not realize the tension between her parents and continually punctuates their tragic confrontation with cheerful cries – convinces them to start anew. Manisha and Ashok have only been introduced, but they find some common ground. This engenders not so much a romantic relationship, not quite a friendship, but curiosity enough to explore each other in future. Mani invites Ashok to her house in Calcutta.
The breaking of patriarchal supremacy happens in three separate blows to Indranath’s ego. The most poignant of these is his own wife’s. Left alone for some time, Labanya gives full voice to her pain and frustration in a melancholic song by Tagore. As her saddened voice echoes off the valley, her brother Jagadish silently walks up to her. When she finishes, he says with a smile that she has not sung like that for years. Labanya, like many Bengali girls, has a sweet voice (which is somewhat true even to this day) but her devotion to family has throttled any caprice she had. Somewhat ironically, this is the only defiance that Indranath does not learn of. Even in rebellion, Labanya has preserved family integrity.
Ashok delivers the most surprising of these blows. Though romantic and idealistic by nature, he also craves some of the security that his middle-class peers so desperately want. Forced by his uncle, he reluctantly tails Indranath in some hope of getting the promise of a job. He swallows the businessman’s condescension and patronizing attitude for some time, but ultimately summons enough courage to laugh at his face when he is handed a concrete offer. Of course he’ll have to slog off for some years more, but he much prefers to be self-made than be someone’s fool forever. Indranath cannot understand how someone with low social status can so easily defy him: the look of confusion on his face rivals Jagadish’s astonishment during the early bird-roasting episode.
Manisha’s refusal to cave in to familial pressure probably pains Indranath the most, because he never imagined his daughter having will of her own. It is commendable of Ray that the development of Mani’s character does not seem abrupt. She does not so much reject Banerjee as just keep him waiting. On his part, Banerjee reveals depths as the narrative progresses. While seemingly shallow at first, we gradually see that he is basically a honest and decent fellow. In one of my favourite exchanges, he gives Mani a rare flower she had been looking for. When she asks if he sought it out, he pretends for a moment to have made a painstaking search. Then he feels compelled to admit being helped by a botanist in his hotel. His final words are equally touching. “Maybe these romantic surroundings make you think that love is the most important thing in the world. But once you’re back in Calcutta if you ever feel that security is better than love, or that love can grow out of security then let me know.” Banerjee is part of the traditional social structure, but he shows the best traits of it.
Ray ties the film together with a little native urchin who pesters passers-by for alms. The song accompanying the opening title credits is a folk tune sung by this boy. When Banerjee and Mani begin their walk, the boy tails them for a while before giving up. Banerjee had placed a bet with Mani that he would give her a chocolate bar if they did not get to see Kanchenjungha before leaving for the city. After Mani refuses his proposal, he makes his way back alone. The urchin tails him again. Banerjee had forgotten about the chocolate bar in all the confusion. He smilingly gives it to the boy. Magically, not long after, the mists clear and Kanchenjungha is seen. Ironically Indranath, who was most keen about the range, does not have the mood to enjoy the vista anymore. The film ends with the urchin singing the same song that played at the start, this time smiling as he relishes the bar of chocolate.
In its own way, Kanchenjungha also comments on the relationship between nature and man. Ashok says he had the courage to refuse the job only because he is in Darjeeling. In Calcutta, he most probably would have accepted the offer. Nature gives him the inspiration to be true to his conscience, just as it probably guided Mani in her defiance. Jagadish, of course, is the classic example of a man happy in his co-existence with nature. Indranath, with his superficial touristy enthusiasm about the Kanchenjungha peak, is the only disappointed person at the end.