If feel-good storytelling leaves us warm and happy at being alive, what can we call cinema that leaves us uncomfortable? How about be-better cinema?
The film Bengali Bhadralok Ray-lovers dislike the most is his last work, Agantuk. I loved it when I saw it first, as an 8-year-old who watched a near-complete Ray retrospective late nights on Doordarshan the year he passed. I loved the angry righteous old man Manmohan Mitra, played by Utpal Dutt, who arrived suddenly at the home of a wealthy south Calcutta family in the early 1990s. He introduced himself as the uncle who had left home long ago to study and then work abroad. His arrival turns the household upside down, and quickly tears through the reputation of warm hospitality that Indians are renowned for, ‘Atithi Devi Bhava’ –the guest is god. The husband of the house is especially furious at the thought of a guest freeloading at his (their) expense.
I loved Utpal Dutt in the film. He reminded me of my grandfathers, both serious, head-masterly men who did not condescend to me with baby talk or softened pronunciation. Instead, they conversed about what I was learning in school and often explained it with stories and demonstrations. Gyaen deowa (pontification) is what my parents would say for this kind of conversation, a form of one-way talking down to young people. But I remember my grandfathers with affection, I didn’t feel condescended to. I value their seriousness, their deep interest in knowledge and science and their distaste for what they felt was tawdry gossip. I myself take an academic interest in gossip, but they were men of their time, full of the values of the Enlightenment.
There is a sequence in Agantuk where Mitra sits in a Calcutta park on a winter’s afternoon with his grandnephew and friends, and demonstrates to them the sun, moon, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena with the coins of different nations. This little episode perfectly captures was what my grandfathers were like, one of them was even a numist matist and philatelist. Their idea of an outing would be an afternoon in the zoo, or a ride around Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, while they pointed out things and told me the stories around them.
In a way, this is how Mitra behaves with everyone in the film: explaining things, asking questions, and undeniably judging their answers . “Moralising,” my parents and persons of their generation said about the film, “gyaen dichhe (pontificating and passing judgment).” Mitra is a career anthropologist in the film, a Renaissance man whose knowledge, interests and confidence runs deep. He is critical of the acceptance of Western science and technology as the culmination of achievement, pointing to the science and art of indigenous peoples. This perspective has been called child-like in some reviews. Is Ray glorifying indigenous cultures?
While the country was locked down for a pandemic, the environment ministry opened up protected forest areas for infrastructure projects. Most evidence points to the Covid pandemic being of zoonotic origin—coming from animal origins. The Sars-Cov-2 virus is believed to have originated in a Chinese wetmarkets, but the scientific evidence points to shrinking forest cover as the real reason for the spread of zoonotic diseases. It brings undomesticated, forest animals, such as various bats, closer to human habitat and interaction, “shaking loose” the viruses these animals hold within them. Wetmarkets, for all the anger against them, are lifelines for the poor as a source of affordable food and livelihoods. They are also well regulated.
When I returned to the film last year, I found I was still very moved by it. As a child, I liked the film for the grandfatherly presence of Manmohan Mitra, much like the boy child in the film. He felt like a warm, dependable shelter against the unpredictable bad temper of my parents that I often ran into. This time, I am older. I see why my parents, complete Ray-philes, felt under attack from their favourite auteur. In a purely conversational scene that combusts with tension, Mitra unambiguously indicts us for being in thrall of the West. A supercilious Calcutta barrister (bar-at-law qualified in the UK), played by Dhritiman Chatterjee, asks Mitra what he thinks of the practice of cannibalism, given his love for indigenous peoples. In response, Mitra asks what he makes of the nuclear bombs. Isn’t that too cannibalism, he implies, human beings using the rigour of science to kill each other in massive numbers?
It is a direct accusation against the Bengali Bhadralok, of ‘decent middle class’ people like my family. Here they were, believers in science and technology, the value of good education , the benefits of big dams and the big picture. They were working the “honest middle-class way”, enjoying the occasional drink and adda with their “intelligent middle-class friends, they were good citizens of the state with official documents, weren’t they?
Mitra’s anger at what we have done under the spell of Western paradigms of “development” feels particularly germane now. While the country was locked down for a pandemic, the environment ministry opened up protected forest areas for infrastructure projects. Most evidence points to the Covid pandemic being of zoonotic origin—coming from animal origins. The Sars-Cov-2 virus is believed to have originated in a Chinese wetmarkets, but the scientific evidence points to shrinking forest cover as the real reason for the spread of zoonotic diseases. It brings undomesticated, forest animals, such as various bats, closer to human habitat and interaction, “shaking loose” the viruses these animals hold within them. Wetmarkets, for all the anger against them, are lifelines for the poor as a source of affordable food and livelihoods. They are also well regulated. Yet many of us are applauding, or simply uncritical about, the government opening up more forest areas for development while public sentiment appears to be sharply against Chinese wet markets.
In Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), Ray’s views on the ‘tribal citizen’ appear to be critical of the mainstream understanding that their culture is noble and simple. Yet it is also true that Ray does not allow the tribal citizen Duli (played by a black-faced Simi Garewal) to speak for herself. She is only discussed, never heard. Agantuk does not let the tribal speak either. It continues the colonial project of anthropology to ‘study’ the tribal. Of the films I have seen, only Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj allows us to hear the ‘tribal’ opinion of us in the mainstream. But Agantuk really is about the disillusionment with modernity.
The reception to a film also tells us a lot. The refined, Ray-phile Bengalis, the Bhadralok, dismiss Agantuk as the work of an irritable, perhaps senile, old man with failing health. When people who are not culturally Bengali ask about the film, my parents’ generation shrugs it off as a minor work. Ray was, in fact, ailing when he made Agantuk. But he made two other films in a similar fragile state—Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People) and Shakha Prashakha (Branches and Shoots) —both shot mostly indoors like Agantuk. But it is Agantuk that they are most embarrassed by. It is the film where he abandons the humanism he is famed for, and calls them out for being out of touch with their roots, for being too much in awe of the West. Both are things the Bhadralok pride themselves on. The Bhadralok believe they are deeply Bengali and properly Westernised, they are the twain where the East and West have met successfully.
There are stories you hear in Calcutta about Ray despising the Bhadralok, rather a certain Anglophone bracket of the Bhadralok known as boxwallahs. These are Bengalis who work(ed) for colonial sahib companies with offices in Calcutta, tea estates and other cities in the east, wore suits, went to the rude colonial clubs many people still find impressive and mostly converse in English. I have heard that Ray eschewed the film screenings organised by his former colleagues in advertising because he had discovered that people were mostly not interested in what happened on screen but in drinking, gossiping and networking. He has made one film about boxwallahs, the stunning Seemabaddha (Company Limited) but that film is quieter in its pronouncements, mostly made by the silent disapproval of a very attractive Sharmila Tagore. In Agantuk, he gives gyaen himself.
Dasgupta argues that Ray returned to Apu several times in his career, without calling him so. Apu’s story began in privation, but it was always tinged with so much hope, underlined by the essential humanism that Ray’s cinema is famed for. The Calcutta trilogy comprising Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited), Jana Aranya (The Middleman), features a version of Apu, progressively more disillusioned and weary with each film. His final three films, Ganashatru, Shakha Prashakha and Agantuk trace the complete disillusionment of an aging Apu.
I do see the scoldiness in the film, but I find the old man’s anger and scorn and disappointment moving. I feel the same anger against the Boomers. In fact, a generation across the world feel the same anger against Boomers for supporting the extractive, reckless system of economic production that culminated in Neoliberalism which they gained much from. This is the Millenial anger against Boomers. The term feel-good refers to storytelling that leaves the viewer with a warm happy feeling at being alive. What can we call a film that scorns the beliefs we hold and indicts us for not thinking them through? Can we call it “be better” cinema?
I am going to end with an observation from the critic Chidananda Dasgupta’s book The Cinema of Satyajit Ray. Perhaps, no work of criticism has trained me to see in the way this book has. Agantuk marks the end of Apu’s journey which began with Ray’s debut Pather Panchali. Dasgupta argues that Ray returned to Apu several times in his career, without calling him so. Apu’s story began in privation, but it was always tinged with so much hope, underlined by the essential humanism that Ray’s cinema is famed for. The Calcutta trilogy comprising Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited), Jana Aranya (The Middleman), features a version of Apu, progressively more disillusioned and weary with each film. His final three films, Ganashatru, Shakha Prashakha and Agantuk trace the complete disillusionment of an aging Apu.
But in Agantuk perhaps there is hope again, in the rejection of the city and the narrative of progress that it once stood for in Apu’s life. Apu departs to the simplicity of premodern life.
Agantuk is streaming on Mubi India
Director: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Utpal Dutt, Mamata Shankar, Dipankar Dey, Bikram Bhattacharya