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From Apurba Kumar Roy to Manomohan Mitra: Ray’s Shifting World-view

September 28, 2022 | By

How did Ray’s worldview manifest through his protagonists, right from Apu in Aparajito to Manomohan Mitra in Agantuk? Sauronil Ghosh explores.

Soumitra Chatterjee in Apur Sansar

Soumitra Chatterjee in Apur Sansar

Modernity puts a hyphen between “Man” & “Nature”. In Agantuk, the protagonist argues strongly that we must go back to our roots, the tribal primitive forms of life from which Modern Man emerged.

This urban city-bred life is nothing but an aberration of the old one.

We all know that Manomohan Mitra, in Ray’s last venture was acting as the director’s spokesperson.

What is interesting to note here is the fact that the same Satyajit Ray in his earlier films of the 50s and 60s had displayed tremendous faith in reason, scientism, rationality, and progress promised by modern urban life as is reflected in the worldview of the central protagonist Apu, of the famous Apu Trilogy.

This attitude towards life is clearly a product of enlightenment that happened in Europe and reached the Indian shores via colonial modernity.

Ray’s protagonist Apu arrives in the city of Calcutta for the first time from a remote village of West Bengal with a globe in his hand, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.


Apu arrives in Calcutta witth a globe in hand (Aparajito)

He studies science in college during the day and works at a printing press during the night.

He slowly gets so absorbed and attracted to the life in city with all its  allure and charm that he almost forgets his ailing mother Sarbojaya in the village.

He even goes to the extent of saying that he would “manage” his mother by sending a few pennies for not having gone to his village during the holidays.

By Ray’s own admission made in a seminar on Robert Flaherty held in Vermont he identifies with Apu more and more as he moves from the village to the city because he “ is an educated young man,  rational with an intellectual mind-set who is fighting against prejudices”. Ray even said, “My own feelings go into the character.”

Now contrast all of that with what Manomohan Mitra said in Agantuk, where he lamented the fact that long before he could leave his house Marx, Freud, Rabindranath, Shakespeare and Bankim had entered into his blood. Therefore, even after after spending so many decades with tribal lives in wild forest he isn’t “wild” enough and it’s a matter of great regret for him.


Utpal Dutt as Manomohan Mitra in Agantuk

But why does Manomohan Mitra, protagonist of the old Ray, abandon the city and runs away to the village, to the roots?

Why does the once optimist Ray turn so bitter and cynical towards the fag end of his career that he discards everything which he so dearly valued in his youth?

The two world wars, the catastrophe caused by nuclear weapons that wreaked havoc on humanity couldn’t erode his faith in science.

We see Apu curiously looking at an experiment conducted using a Bar-magnet by one of his professors in college, followed by the shot of a chemical reaction conducted in Chemistry class accompanied by a tune of sitar being strung in the background.

Earlier we had seen Apu in the village experimenting with siphon.

All of these clearly aligns Ray with ethos of the Nehruvian era.


Apu and Sarbojaya in Aparajito

When in 1970 Folke Isaksson of Sight & Sound asked Ray – “Gandhi or Nehru, who is the greater man to you?”

His reply was – “I was closer to Nehru, I think. I admired Nehru, I understood him better, because I am also in a way a kind of product of East and West. A certain liberalism, a certain awareness of Western values and a fusion of Eastern and Western values was in Nehru, which I didn’t find in Gandhi.”

When seen in the context of his earlier films it becomes quite clear that Satyajit is questioning his previous stance.

The “Atom Bomb” which’s a curse of modern science is brought up in the discussion of “who’s civilized?” in Agantuk and so is the mention of “nesha”(addiction) as opposed to NASA.

One simply can’t reconcile the Ray of Aparajito with that of Agantuk. They seem to be two different human beings from opposite poles.

I vividly remember Ray saying in multiple interviews that he’s so fond of the city having been born and brought up here that he would soon run into creative impotence if he’s ever to leave it.


Manomohan Mitra with his grand nephew Satyaki in Agantuk

Now contrast it to the fact that the globe-trotter Manomohan Mitra who having arrived in Calcutta after three decades very soon gets fed up with it and decides to run away.

But what made Ray indict modern civilization so heavily? Could it be that he realized the dark shadow that lies behind the halo of enlightenment?

After all it’s Europe, the birth place of Renaissance, which has a dark history of colonial legacy associated with it.

On taking a closer look at Ray’s films in a chronological order I think the slow erosion of faith in the so-called modern, intellectual man, with all their compromises and hypocrisies is right their from 70s onwards.

It was precisely when the city was facing political turbulence in the form of radical uprising from rebellious youth with Maoist links that Satyajit Ray focused on the contemporary.

Having turned his gaze into contemporary Bengal, Ray straightaway brings into it a certain kind of disapproval.

Looking at his films of this period it becomes clear that there’s indeed something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Take for instance Jana Aranya. Made in 1975, it paints a bleak picture of the contemporary world we inhabit. There’s no way left to survive this world without taking to unfair means. Bribery, prostitution & corruption are rampant in a city that was the cradle of famous “Bengal Renaissance”.

The very first scene, shows an examination hall with students openly cheating from books & notes. When the examiner tries to say something, the students ridicule him.

Answer sheets are being supplied from outside (Jana Aranya)

Making a mockery of the examination system, we are shown that answer sheets are being supplied from outside.

But amidst all the noise & ruckus we find Somnath the protagonist meticulously filling the answer scripts, without copying, on his own.

Somnath is shown as an honest hardworking student among the bunch of dishonest students.

But the tragedy of the film lies in the fact that by the end of the film even Somnath had to compromise, thus becoming a middleman, visit whorehouses to select “girl” so as to please his client in return of a favour. In the process he ends up selecting and supplying a young lady who happen to be his best friend’s sister.

Somnath couldn’t maintain his sanctity in this unholy world. The promise of a few notes turned him into a supplier of whores.

The film perfectly portrays Ray’s angst at the rapidly declining moral fabric of the society he found himself in during the late 60s & 70s. Through all his films made during this period the auteur makes a political commentary on his society, people and his times.

Seemabaddha, made a few years ahead of Jana Aranya, shows what greed and high aspiration to climb the ladder of success can make of an otherwise honest and principled man.

Shyamlendu is a successful and ambitious sales-manager in a corporate firm which has expertise in manufacturing fans among other things. He occupies a cozy apartment with his loving wife and has a hawk’s-eye on the position of the Managing Director which he one day hopes to occupy.

All his peace comes to a halt when he realizes that his dreams might be shattered as a consignment of fans meant for export are all found defective just before they are to be shipped.

It’s a matter of great prestige for the company, the order being from a middle-eastern county and a flaw like this under his supervision might just pave the way for his closest rival.

The only clause in the contract that can save Shyamlendu and act as an excuse is “unavoidable circumstances” such as civil disturbances caused by strike.

The intelligent Shyamlendu  hatches a plan, rings up the labour manager Talukdar late at night, implants a fake strike by labourers. A bomb is detonated, injuring an innocent watchman of the factory.

The delay caused by the mayhem allows him to get the defective fans replaced, thus getting them ready for shipment.


Shyamalendu falls in the eyes of his sister-in-law Tutul (Seemabaddha)

Though he ultimately becomes what he wished for and earns a place in the much coveted board of directors, he falls in the eyes of his sister-in-law Tutul who returns the wristwatch that he had given her as a mark of disapproval.

We see Shyamlendu immersed in deep guilt at the very end of the film. Much like Bunuel, Ray exposes the moral vacuum that lies hidden behind the façade of sophisticated table manners of the bourgeoisie class. The complete lack of any sympathy towards the working class is brilliantly portrayed in the film and so is the narrow definition of success based on materialistic possession.

The four young men seen in in Aranyer Din Ratri are by no means comparable to the Apu that we saw in the trilogy. In every sense they represent a mutation of the Apu prototype. They lack his sensibility, his inquisitiveness, his integrity and the broad-spectrum of his intellect.

They are driven to act upon their selfish motives, and even the proximity of forest fails to reform their inner selves.

In 1989, the ailing director said in an interview, “People have become diminished in their stature”. Of course, he meant that men do not live up to the principles that their predecessors lived by. The moral decay is deep and widespread.

Who do you think that old and weak father in Sakha-Prosakha, Ray’s penultimate film, represents? He is bed-ridden after a massive heart-attack, helplessly discovering that his sons amassed huge wealth by unfair means.

Anandamohan in Shakha Prosakha

Anandamohan in Shakha Prosakha

One can’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance between the old Ray, looking frail after two heart-attacks and the industrialist Ananda Mohan in Sakha-Prosakha (played by actor Ajit Bandopadhyay), the honest, morally upright father who sees his sons desert his path.

In film after film Satyajit Ray with a sense of urgency, highlights our fall.

Perhaps all of these could help us fathom his bitter and harsh criticism of urban life.

In Apu, Satyajit had put all that he thought were achievements of the Bengal Renaissance. The true essence of a modern man with his appetite for knowledge, his liberal attitude towards the world, a man free of superstition and narrow-mindedness driven by scientific temperament with a sympathy and respect for all creatures.

Perhaps Ray like his predecessor and mentor Tagore, dreamt of a Utopia “where words come out from the depth of Truth”, but what he found instead was a world filled with lies, deceit and treachery – where man kills man for property.

The selfishness of the modern Man was a source of constant malaise for the Auteur, and like any true artist he reacted to it through his Art.

More to read

Satyajit Ray’s Sakha Prosakha: A Critic of Contemporary Ethics

Satyajit, Ritwik – and the Renegade ‘Father’ Figure

‘Illuminating Ray’ A Critique on Gaston Roberge’s Satyajit Ray: Essays (1970-2005)

Ray@100 Lecture 2: Glimpses of the City in Satyajit Ray’s Cinema







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Sauronil Ghosh is a final year Medical Student, a film enthusiast. He has previously written in Bengali on films in Bichitrapatra (published under the guidance of Sandip Ray), Film-Free, and short pieces in Anandabazar Patrika.
All Posts of Sauronil Ghosh

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One thought on “From Apurba Kumar Roy to Manomohan Mitra: Ray’s Shifting World-view

  • Subhas Bagchi.

    Sauranil’s unmistakable analysis of Roy’s change of mind through time is really praiseworthy. But then, it’s nothing new. I find the same change in me at the fag end of my life. Rabindranath too had the same feeling in his last days. In fact, the world goes, rather has been going the same way since the time of Mohabharot. People learn to adapt with the good, bad and the ugly of his time & tries somehow to stay on the crease till he/ she gets out.

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