Aranyer Din Ratri: Satyajit Ray's beautiful study of man, nature, and the very nature of man
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
There are many people who consider Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights of the Forest) the best film of Satyajit Ray’s post-Apu Trilogy career. And why wouldn’t they? High on subtlety, technically brilliant and hauntingly scored, it is a magnificent study of the urban youth, who have been conditioned to exist in a heightened state of callousness towards the rural poor, against the serene and yet ruthless backdrop of the great leveller — the forest.
Four young men, city bred and brimming with confidence, travel to the forests of Bihar to escape the daily grind of urban life, where each of them go through a series of experiences that changes them in one way or the other. While the vain Asim (played by Soumitra Chattopadhyay) meets a beautiful and educated young lady named Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) who crushes his pride with ruthless subtlety, the easy-going and good natured Sanjay (Subhendu Chatterjee) is faced with a moral dilemma that would make him question his own beliefs. While the shy sportsman Hari (Samit Bhanja) is enamoured by the brimming sexuality of a young tribal girl, good old Shekhar (Rabi Ghosh, in one of the best performances of his film career) finds himself helping all his friends, despite being fondly considered to be the buffoon of the gang. At the end of the film, as they leave the forest behind and go back to their day to day lives in the city, each of them realises that the forest has literally held up a mirror to his face, and that he is now a changed man, although none of them dares to divulge the same to the others.
The film is an adaptation of legendary Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel of the same name — but it is also true that Ray made several changes to the story to make it suitable for the screen. It is a widely known fact that the author was not at all happy with these changes. But for the film medium, the final outcome works exceedingly well. The humour is apt and subtle, for instance in the scene where the four city bred men are enjoying a refreshing bath with the ice-cold water of a well just outside the forest bungalow, and two young ladies they have met the previous day decide to show up at the bungalow right then, causing the men immense embarrassment. Or in the scene where Shekhar tries to bribe the Forest Ranger with a cigarette and requests him to let them stay at the bungalow without reservation, but the man leaves without promising anything, prompting Sanjay to comment — “There goes your Gold Flake”.
One of the most common mistakes in studying Aranyer Din Ratri is to assume that it is a film about four men. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Consider the character of Jaya (played by Kaberi Bose) for instance, who has lost her husband when he committed suicide while traveling abroad — probably because of a failed extra-marital affair. In one of the most tragic scenes in the film, the young Jaya propositions the bright and handsome Sanjay, but when Sanjay hesitates, she giggles nervously and asks — “Why are you so frightened? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” — only to turn grave and sad the next moment, adding — “A ghost indeed! What else do you call a woman when her husband dies?” Ray exposes the hypocrisies and double standards of society when it comes to the natural state of being a woman.
In another scene, the brash and confident Asim tries to talk his way out of a nasty incident when the conservator of the forest catches them staying at the Forest Bungalow without proper permission. When he fails, and is almost about to be kicked out, it is Aparna who turns out to be the conservator’s acquaintance, and who manages the situation with her natural grace and composed presence of mind. The fact that this has hurt Asim’s masculine pride does not escape Aparna’s attention, and she once again dissolves the tension elegantly by letting Asim win in a game they play during a picnic.
But perhaps the most beautiful, least discussed and most overlooked scene of the film comes at a Santal village fair, where the chivalrous Asim insists on paying for everything that Aparna buys. Aparna quietly lets him go ahead and pay. At the end of the day, when Asim asks for her phone number, she writes her number on a currency note and hands it over to Asim, saying — “I couldn’t find any other scrap of paper.” One of the most influential film critics in America, Pauline Keele, while writing for The New Yorker, had said — “No artist has done more than Ray to make us re-evaluate the commonplace” — and this one scene of Aranyer Din Ratri illustrates that comment beautifully.
A word or two needs to be said about the film’s technical brilliance too. The opening credits of the film are done beautifully. Among other things, Ray was a skilled calligrapher himself, and an adman too, and he puts both skills to create the opening of the film, in which the scene of a dense forest rushing by, witnessed from inside a moving car, is inlayed into the title of the film. But the most famous, talked about technical wizardry in the film has to be the one Ray exhibited in his handling of the camera during the famous ‘Memory Game’ scene. The four friends and the two women are sitting in a circle, and each has to take turns to say the name of a famous personality, adding on to the names that have been said before his or her turn — thus forming a long chain of sorts to test one’s memory. Ray shot the scene by placing the camera right at the centre of the circle and turning the camera in sharp ‘swivels’ to focus on each person’s face as they played the game. What’s surprising is that he did the entire thing with nothing but his bare hands, with no additional mechanical contraption built for the scene — none whatsoever! The film was shot in 1970, but even today, that one scene is studied in film schools all over the world as an example of simplicity and economy in the craft of cinema.
There is no doubt that Aranyer Din Ratri is a landmark film, not only in the filmography of Satyajit Ray, but in the history of world cinema as well. A keen observer, Ray is known for the intrinsic humanism in his films, and this film, in particular, offers a beautiful study of man, nature, and the very nature of man.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.