A Swansong and Frogs in Wells

"The Stranger," the last feature by Bengali master Satyajit Ray, questions how culture and worldliness challenge entrenched perspectives.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Satyajit Ray's The Stranger (1991) is showing January 20 - February 18, 2020 in many countries around the world in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.

The Stranger

Bengalis, quite self-celebratory, build the foundations of their lives and societies on what they call culture and struggle. While culture encompasses their deep-seated love for cinema, sports, and the arts, struggle is more a comment on their Left-leaning ambitions which prevents them from ever becoming very rich. It is somewhat akin to the American usage of “hustle.”

It is curious when Satyajit Ray (one of the reigning deities of that aforementioned culture) makes his last film The Stranger, in 1992, barely a few months before his death, holding a mirror to the community’s bourgeois hypocrisies and asking people to re-evaluate their priorities and revisit the definitions of culture, struggle, and pride embedded in their psyches. He wants people to educate their minds before falling into their echo chambers of unfounded pride.

Anila (Mamata Shankar) is married to Sudhindra (Dipankar De), a picture of upper-middle class Bengali conjugal bliss, and they live in a huge house in Calcutta. The film starts with Anila receiving a letter from an uncle, Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt), she hasn’t seen since she was a child. He had left home 35 years ago and the family only heard from him sporadically through the letters he sent from his travels to faraway, exotic places. Gradually, the letters stopped coming until the old man decided to be done with the West and be homeward bound before taking off for newer travels eastward. He wanted to visit Calcutta, his city of birth, and hoped that his niece, his only surviving family member, would host him.

What plays out is a range of obvious human emotions. It begins with doubt: is this man really who he claims to be?; then suspicion: is he here to steal our things?; and then curiosity: where has he been all these years and why is he back? Mitra becomes an object of scrutiny for the couple’s friends and they make a beeline to pay their visits to the Boses and interrogate the old traveler. They’re regaled with stories from his travels and often get into debates with him over his worldviews.

The Stranger, compared to Ray’s earlier multi-layered, complex emotional work, is much more simplified but is neither simple nor simplistic. In this almost morality play-like narrative structure, it is clear that Mitra is a stand-in for Ray. Both Ray and Dutt were, in the early 90s, at the end of their illustrious careers and were perhaps meditative about the past and the legacies they’d leave behind.

Things get out of hand when Sudhindra’s lawyer friend, Prithwish Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee), pays a visit to question the stranger. As it turns out, Mitra was an anthropologist who had spent a large chunk of his life with people from several native tribes in the world’s remotest jungles. Living with them and learning their customs had made him question the validity of the things that the world considered to be markers of civilization and got him to re-examine what gets considered “savage.” While the lawyer harps on the wonders of civilized modernity—space travel, modern medicine, technological development—the anthropologist interjects that there is nothing modern about civilization; the oldest tribes in the worlds have always had their own art, technology, medicine, and social systems. “I did not go to an art school because there was no art school in the world that could teach me how to draw a bison like the cavemen of Altamira,” he says. In lawyer-like attacks, Sen Gupta questions Mitra’s beliefs and in his attempts to win the argument, insults Mitra for being a parasite on his friends’ time and hospitable nature. 

Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, was one of the fathers of the Bengal Renaissance (19th to early 20th century). He was an author, a painter, and a printing pioneer. His printing press, founded in 1914, was one of the earliest modern presses in south Asia. His son, Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray’s father, was an author, painter, and poet. Filmmaker Ray’s lineage, then, is steeped in Renaissance values and he himself was an author, musician, commercial artist, and lyricist. As much as the Ray family’s intellectual ethos was steeped in Bengali culture, there has always been a worldliness about their art. It is natural then that Ray does not want Bengalis to become kupomonduks—frogs in wells. His whole life’s art has been an endeavor to open up the world to the people around him. Mitra makes a passionate argument against organized religion in The Stranger, saying its divisiveness has no place in modernity. On December 8, 1992, Ray was not around to see right-wing Hindus tear down the Babri Masjid, triggering communal riots all over India, but the words of his script proved prophetic.

It is especially interesting where Ray’s gaze rests when the civilization vs. savagery debate emerges. He is a practitioner of cinema, the hallmark of global modernity and civilization, and yet chooses to build an argument for the native inhabitants of the world—the adivasis (adi meaning original, vasi meaning inhabitant), their worldviews and social structures. Therein emerges a strange dichotomy. The adivasi has been an object of Ray’s fascination since Days and Nights in the Forest (1970). The character of Duli in that film is that of an adivasi girl played by Bollywood star Simi Garewal in black face. As problematic as that is, the character served very little purpose within the story of four young men from the city going to the forest, other than being a fetishistic curiosity.

In The Stranger, after Mitra leaves the Boses’ house after being insulted by Sen Gupta, he is found in a village in the Bolpur district, where the santhal tribespeople live. When the Boses find him, Mitra speaks to a santhal woman in their language. She doesn’t reply but silently obeys. He informs the family that he has organized a dance by the santhals and that they were invited to witness it. The santhals in the film are played by santhal men and women as they dance against the lush greenery of Bolpur. Soon Anila joins them. Shankar is a dancer and the daughter of Uday Shankar, the pioneer of contemporary dance in India and the brother of musician Ravi Shankar; another line of illustrious Renaissance men and women. The contemporary dancer joins the tribal dancers and they dance in unison.

This sequence is uncomfortable to watch because Ray, in his simplicity of vision, forgets to unpack the gaze of the anthropologist/filmmaker. The adivasi dance gets reduced to being a spectator sport, a tourism attraction without a larger context. People who are not allowed words in the film become dancers who dance at the command of an old anthropologist. The city woman and the adivasi woman dance away forgetting how the city constantly encroaches upon tribal lands.

In 2017, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories was banned by the Jharkhand state government. In the book, Mangal Murmu, the subaltern adivasi dance teacher, stops performing and finally speaks, “We Adivasis will not dance anymore... someone presses our ‘ON’ button, or turns a key in our backsides, and we santhals start beating rhythms on our tamak and tumdak, or start blowing tunes on our tiriyo while someone snatches away our very dancing grounds.”

While Ray remains a god for the Bengalis, the definitions of culture always need rewriting. To limit our worldviews to the shrines we build to the director is ultimately going against what he said and believed; our shrines need to grow and place Shekhar’s text next to Ray’s. Ray would’ve agreed.

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