Agantuk: Through Utpal Dutt's character, Satyajit Ray articulated his views on civilisation's illusory nature

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Mar,18 2018 13:52:17 IST

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 in May 2017), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

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Over the last 10 months or so, we have revisited, dissected and analysed 39 films by Satyajit Ray. These include feature films, short films and documentaries. These 39 films together constitute the entire body of work that one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema has left behind as his legacy. But today, as we come to the end of this series, it has to be said that of all the films that Satyajit Ray has made, perhaps the most intellectual, the most thought-provoking and the one which compels us to question ourselves over and over again, is his final film. And yet, very few people know that this film is actually based on what can best be described as a children’s story, written by Ray himself. In 1992, merely a few months before Satyajit Ray passed away, the legendary director gave us Agantuk (The Stranger).

Still from Satyajit Ray's Agantuk (The Stranger)

Still from Satyajit Ray's Agantuk (The Stranger)

As with all great films, the story of Agantuk is a very simple one. Anila Bose – a young, educated lady in south Kolkata — receives a letter one day, written by a man who claims to be her long-lost uncle. The stranger claims to have roamed around the globe for the last 35 years, and has invited himself over to her home as he is passing through India. While Anila’s son Babloo is excited about the arrival of ‘a man who may or may not be Dadu’, her husband Sudhindra Bose is cautiously skeptical of the stranger’s motives. During his stay at the Bose’s residence, the stranger, who introduces himself as Manomohan Mitra, comes across as a man of simple tastes, good humour and gentle manners. And yet, the seeds of doubt are not entire dispelled from the minds of Anila and her husband. Is the man really who he says he is? And if he is indeed Anila’s uncle, why did he return to Kolkata after 35 years? Is it because of the money that his father has left behind for him? Or does he have an ulterior motive? As all these questions continue to bother Anila and Sudhindra, the stranger continues to impress them with his deep knowledge, rich experiences and profound views of life, until a shocking discovery at the end leaves them astounded.

At its very core, Agantuk is a philosophical film. It raises more questions than answers, and each of those questions makes us wonder about ourselves. In trying to reveal the stranger’s true identity, when Sudhindra’s barrister friend grills him about his whereabouts over the last three and a half decades, what comes out is truly astonishing. The stranger claims to have lived almost all his life amidst tribesmen – in various remote jungles of the globe. He argues that the very notion of civilisation needs to be re-examined. It is his belief, he says, that the so-called uncivilised people – the tribal folks and forest-dwellers – have achieved much more by way of science, technology, architecture, medicine and art than their more civilised cousins living and working in the cities. Religion, he argues, is a by-product of civilisation – and it has done very little other than dividing people – creating groups and classes and sects within the very people who practice it. Of what use is such religion, then, he asks. When questioned about the unthinkable progress that space technology has made, the stranger argues that the success of NASA is no more important than the success of a tribesman who can erect a hut that protects him from the elements, or that of an Eskimo who uses opaque slabs of ice to build the walls of his igloo and transparent ones to build the windows.

The stranger’s views of life are quite simple, and yet, he looks at the world like no one usually does. In explaining the phenomenon of eclipses to Babloo and his friends, for instance, he wonders how the moon and the sun were both placed at such precise distances from the earth that in the sky, the two of them appear exactly the same size, despite the latter being much bigger. It is, in his words, an inexplicable phenomenon, the greatest magic trick in the entire universe!

Utpal Dutt gives one of the best performances of his career in the film, as the stranger who calls himself Nemo – or, ‘Mr No One!’ An extremely learned and scholarly gentleman himself, Dutt gets right into the skin of his character with such ease that it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else in the role thereafter. Dipankar De also gives a fantastic performance as Sudhindra Bose and in a small but significant role, Dhritiman Chaterji is brilliant as the tough-talking lawyer who, out of sheer frustration of not being able to win a debate against the learned Mitra, chooses to hurl insults at him instead. Mamata Shankar is literally perfect as Anila, in what almost seems like a role written for her. Towards the end of the film, when the family is gathered to witness a tribal dance next to a meandering river, the joy and excitement on her face is vivid – so much so that on the first insistence of her husband that she should go and join the dancers, she promptly does so, leading Manomohan Mitra to comment – ‘I had a doubt if she really was my niece. Now I don’t!’

Avid film lovers – at least those who have followed Satyajit Ray’s films, his literary works, his essays and his life in general – will tell you that when they see Manomohan Mitra on screen, they know that it is, in fact, Satyajit Ray speaking. Never one to conform to any one religion, and yet keeping an absolutely open mind about all forces and phenomena that Science fails to explain – Ray himself never believed in organised religion and had offered several critiques of it through his films. He was, however, quite aware of the presence of a supreme force that drives us all, and he refused to label it, or try to explain it in any way. To him, this mere awareness was enough, and it was a deeply personal experience and belief.

Similarly, he had managed to raise himself above all political discussions, and like a true artist, believed that one lifetime is too short to soak in everything beautiful that nature has to offer. Refusing to waste his time on futile debates of divisive politics, he turned his attention to the human condition instead. To him, it was a far more fruitful and interesting exercise, one that quenched his thirst and gave him great contentment. Like Manomohan Mitra, Ray had tried to live his life amidst simple people, and his experiences had taught him that civilisation was nothing but an illusion. It was these precise thoughts that he wanted to portray in his swan song. It is said that on the last day of shooting, after the final shot was over, Ray threw up his hands in the air and announced to his wife – ‘That’s it. That’s all there is. I don’t have anything more to say.’ A few months later, he passed away in a nursing home in Kolkata, leaving behind a rich collection of films that continue to enthral us even today. As film lovers, we are deeply in his debt, and will continue to remain so, for as long as there is the magic of cinema.

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.

Updated Date: Mar 18, 2018 13:52 PM