Aranyer Din Ratri: Holding a Mirror to the 21st Century Generation
Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), the 1969 masterpiece by Satyajit Ray, looks at the vagaries and vicissitudes of the “new generation” then.
Aranyer Din Ratri, (Days and Nights in the Forest), the 1969 masterpiece by Satyajit Ray, looks at the vagaries and vicissitudes of the “new generation” then, in a way, perhaps no other film of its time could.
Forty years down, it seems to reflect the complexities of the 21st century generation, in an astonishing close-up.
The story unfolds around a group of four friends, quite unlike each other and yet bonded together deeply.
They set out for the tribal Palamau, in Bihar, to tear themselves away from their regulated city life.
“Breaking rules”, they force a stay in a forest rest house by bribing the chowkidar, burn a copy of a newspaper in a symbolic gesture of cutting ties from civilization, deliberate on whether to shave or not and walk through the forest to get drunk at a country liquor shop.
Their resolve to be unshaven collapses when Shekhar sights two ladies Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) and her sister-in-law Jaya (Kaberi Bose) in the forest. The four introduce themselves to this family and in the midst of the forest, the two urban groups of people are almost relieved to find someone from their part of society.
Of the four friends, Asim (Soumitra Chatterjee), the leader of the pack, owns the car they drive in, has a cushy job, likes the company of girls and yet is very conscious of how he should be perceived by them. He is attracted to the elegant and enigmatic Aparna, but is unable to keep pace with her composure, presence of mind and intelligence.
Sanjoy (Shubhendu Chatterjee) is a labour executive but would ideally want to immerse himself in literature. Shy and inhibited, Sanjoy is attracted to Jaya, a widow with a child.
Hari (Samit Bhanja), a frank and straightforward cricketer, wants to forget the girl who dumped him. He gets close to a tribal Santhal girl Duli (a stunning performance by the sophisticated Simi Garewal in barely recognizable dark-skinned makeup), somewhat as a relief from his recent heartbreak.
Shekhar (Robi Ghosh) is the jester of the party, the only one without a job. He has a roving eye but stays sober when his friends get drunk and vent their frustrations.
These four men and their rootless journeys into nowhere underscore the universality of Ray’s characters and the relevance of the film today. When the film was released, the “individualism and materialism” of characters were not considered “truly Bengali” by the typical Tagore-loving Bengali. The successful executive who has everything but lacks something and takes off on a mission-less journey into the tribal heartland to get away from urban rigmaroles was more familiar to the western audience than the middle-class Bengali then. Today, Asim is but one of us.
Ray took the concept of the film from Sunil Gangopadhyay’s well-known novel by the same name, to develop characters which are almost entirely his own, a far cry from the jobless vagabonds, traveling ticket-less in the train as they were in the novel.
Much like a Mozartian symphony, the film seamlessly interweaves episodes in a lyrical pattern that rises to a crescendo and drops. In Ray’s films, women have usually come out stronger and Aranyer Di Ratri cements this further.
In a few deftly handled and hilarious sequences, Ray neatly gives the upperhand to the women. Much to the embarrassment of the men, the two ladies happen to spring up coincidentally at the wrong moments – once while three of them are enjoying a bath by an archaic well in their briefs; the second time inadvertently when they are doing a twist in the middle of the dark night forest in a hopelessly drunk state; and the third time (an uncannily ‘right’ moment this) when the two women save them from an embarrassing eviction by the Forest Ranger from the rest house.
Each time their confidence takes a solid blow, and Ray rubs it further in, in the memory game, considered a masterpiece scene of psychological probing. It’s a game where each participant has to add a name to a chain of names of famous people, after repeating all the names in correct sequence. The names each player chooses reflects his/her own preference and state of mind.
The game reaches a crescendo, with only Asim and Aparna left in the fray when Aparna pulls out, deliberately handing victory to Asim, who seems to have placed his entire confidence at stake on the win. The scene picturised in the sylvan forest with wonderful interplay of close-ups and long shots heightens the under-current of turbulent tension even though on the face of it, it is an innocuous game between a group of young people on holiday.
The tensions peak at the village fair where the four friends go their own way. Shekhar goes off to gamble on money borrowed from his friends. Hari takes Duli into the forest and makes love to her. The women again come up trumps when in the darkening twilight, Aparna reveals her more vulnerable side that lies behind her composed exterior. She also holds up a mirror to urban insensitivity by showing Asim that how despite having spent three days at the rest house, they never bothered to find out how grievously ailing was the chowkidar’s wife.
Sanjoy, held back by his middle class moralities, is unable to draw up courage to respond to Jaya’s bold advances. A reflective Sanjoy walking back lost in his own thoughts in the lonely village road as twilight melts into darkness is a shot that stays with you.
The next morning, the four friends, each wisened than before in his own way, leave for Calcutta since their new friends have had to return in a hurry. As a parting gift, they find a can of boiled eggs sent across by the thoughtful Jaya. The look of glee on Shekhar’s face as the car drives off and a relieved chowkidar rushes to close the gates behind them, brings about an emphatic finish to this forest sojourn.
(Editor’s Note: This review was Antara Nanda Mondal’s award winning review in the Dearcinema.com Review Contest.)
An extract from The Master and I: Soumitra on Satyajit, by Soumitra Chatterjee
It was in Aranyer Din Ratri that Manik-da had used the famous memory game. Such an interesting game had never been used in a Bengali film before. I remember the scene where all of us — practically every character in the film — are sitting in a circle. Manik-da performed an incredible feat while shooting this scene. It was natural for a director of his calibre to involve himself at every stage of the film. But it was much more than that when it came to Manik-da. He didn’t bother about grit or mud or puddles in order to take his shot from the precise spot he wanted. I had often seen him sit or even lie down on the ground wherever and whenever necessary.
At that moment Manik-da was unaware of just where he was. During that memory game, he took the memorable shot himself, panning the camera 360 degrees, depending entirely on approximations. In other words, the camera spun on an axis, capturing each of our faces in turn as we sat in a circle. The camera was placed at a height corresponding to the height at which the face of a person seated on the ground would be. But it would have been impossible to take this shot while looking through the eyepiece, since the operator would have to move through a 360-degree arc along with the camera. So Manik-da operated the camera using only his experience and guesswork, holding each face in the frame till the person had completed their dialogue and then panning to the next face.
Perhaps the fact that he was an excellent artist had given him an additional advantage. When it was time to edit Aranyer Din Ratri, I was astonished to see that each of the faces had been captured perfectly in every frame of that 360-degree shot. Every time I’ve watched Aranyer Din Ratri since then, I’ve been amazed at the flawless take of the scene of the memory game.
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