Samapti: How Satyajit Ray brought Rabindranath Tagore's classic story to the big screen
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 have been several people who had a profound impact on Satyajit Ray’s creative career. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s keen observation of nature, his own teacher artist Benode Behari Mukherjee’s approach to positivity and unshakable dedication to his art, and French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ deep insights into the true meaning of civilisation — all of these have found a place in Ray’s work and life in some form or the other — that too, time and again.
Among these great minds, however, there was one which injected the very notion of free thinking into his veins — a notion, which, as we all know today, was a pillar of Ray’s success as one of the champions of meaningful cinema in India. That individual, whose teachings literally — and in Ray’s own words — set his mind on fire, was none other than Rabindranath Tagore. In the year 1961, on Tagore’s birth centenary, Ray paid his tribute to the great man with an anthology of three films based on three short stories by Tagore. In this article, we will discuss one of these films — Samapti (The Conclusion).
At its very core, Samapti is a love story, which shows the rather painful journey of its lead character Mrinmoyi (played with great compassion by a magnificent Aparna Sen) from being an unruly and carefree young girl to a loving wife. A young graduate named Amulya has just finished his exams and returned to his riverside village in Bengal with an assumed air of urban supremacy. While alighting from the boat on the muddy banks of the river, he slips and falls, setting a free-spirited tomboyish girl named Mrinmoyi into an uncontrollable bout of laughter. Not at all amused by this disastrous insult, Amulya is rather furious with the girl, who soon scoots from the spot.
When his mother asks him to get married before going back to the city to study further, Amulya insists on taking Mrinmoyi as his bride, because by now, after another close encounter with the girl, he has fallen in love with her. Mrinmoyi, however, is severely opposed to the very notion of marriage, because it would inevitably bind her to a domestic life — putting an end to her wayward and happy-go-lucky days of climbing trees to pick fruits, swinging from the branch of a tree by the river and playing with her pet squirrel. But as was the practice during those days, she doesn’t have a say in the matter, and is promptly married off to Amulya. On the night of his wedding, Amulya realises that his wife has been forced into the marriage. Not willing to win her by force, Amulya goes back to the city, leaving Mrinmoyi behind. And it is then, that Mrinmoyi begins to realise, much to her surprise, that she is actually beginning to miss the man who she had refused to accept as her husband.
With a few necessary changes to the original story in order to keep the events confined to the village itself, Ray ensured that he stuck to the essence of Tagore’s message. He deals with the character of Mrinmoyi with great compassion, making us realise, time and again, that she is someone with merely the body of a woman, but the mind of a little girl. Her whims, her fancies, her obstinacy emanate from something simple — she just loves her freedom. And Ray maintains this note throughout the film. When her husband leaves her in the village and goes away to the city, causing much disgrace to her family, she begins to recall his comforting words of support and realises that she has made the grave mistake of misunderstanding him, and that her ideas about marital life need not necessarily be true. And when her husband comes back to the village and looks for her through a raging storm, she realises, perhaps for the first time, his love for her. That someone can do this much for her — a poor, madcap, loony girl who everyone has always reprimanded and rebuked — is enough to make her fall in love.
Ray tackles the first half of the film with comedy, with Amulya finding it difficult to adjust to the village life after his long stay in the city. But in the second half, the film dives headlong into the tragedy of an unwilling young girl losing her independence to marriage. Amulya’s character is beautifully portrayed by Ray’s go-to man Soumita Chatterjee. He is the kind of man who likes to reason with his wife to reach a point of marital harmony, and does not believe in curbing her freedom. Although his initial approach to Mrinmoyi is one of a conqueror, he soon realises that he genuinely loves the girl who had once laughed at him. In order to keep peace with a mother he loves and cares for, and not wanting to force his newly wed wife into submission at the same time, he gets away from it all, considering the failure of the marriage as his own fault.
As with his previous films, Ray’s portrayal of the rural life in Bengal is absolutely marvellous in this film as well, with pretty sailboats plying up and down a free flowing river by the side of the village, an abandoned chariot of Lord Jagannath at the base of a massive tree, ample trees and plants all around, and post-monsoon pathways full of the worst possible slush and mud that one can imagine. The thunderstorms, the cocks crowing to announce the rising of the sun, the white sheet of smog hanging just over the fields in the evenings, the ponds, the orchards — everything is captured meticulously by the camera. Ray’s detailing and wit also deserve a special mention, for instance, in a scene where Amulya places a framed photograph of his hero Napoleon Bonaparte on the shelf of his room, and hours later, on realising that he would not be able to win the love of Mrinmoyi so easily, pushes it right towards the back of the shelf in a dark corner. Or in another scene, when he and his mother are quarrelling over his choice of bride, as an equally shrill and cacophonous piece from an Indian classical music plays full blast on an old gramophone in the room.
But perhaps the most beautiful scene in the film comes towards the end, when Mrinmoyi is lying on her bed in her mother’s house, thinking about her husband, and one of her friends comes into the room to inform her that her pet squirrel has died. As the dead rodent hangs in front of her face, she feels sad for a moment, but soon gets over it and goes back to the loving daydreams of her estranged husband. We realise that with the death of the squirrel, a symbol of her childhood, Mrinmoyi has shed her old skin too, and although it did take some time, she has now finally stopped being a girl and matured into a woman.
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.