Revisiting Classics- “Agantuk” (1991)

This is not a movie review. In fact, I am not qualified enough to be a movie critic. It is my humble take on the movie and a few lessons learnt about life in general from Ray’s last onscreen venture.

Agantuk (The Stranger) is a 1991 Bengali language movie written, directed and scripted by the master whom we Bengalis often prefer calling “Joy Baba Maniknath” (Satyajit Ray). It is based upon Ray’s own short story “Atithi”. But be rest assured that this is not a bong woman’s garrulous overdoes of why Tagore and Ray were the best thing to happen to India and Bengalis in general 🙂

Agantuk is the story about the dilemma that an upper middle class Bengali couple residing in a palatial house in the Calcutta of early 1990’s goes through when the wife’s maternal uncle decides to pay them a visit after 35 years. The ‘uncle’, who had been a briliant student and a painter, had left home as per his own wish to see the world. “Wanderlust” as he describes himself in the movie. The wife (Anila), played succinctly by Mamata Shankar, is the only living relation that he knows of and one who was only 2 years of age when he left home. The husband (Sudhin), played by Dipankar Dey, is a well placed corporate executive and has also inherited a huge amount of his deceased father’s property and priceless art collection. All of a sudden, just before the most celebrated Bengali festival ‘Durga Pujo’, the wife receives a letter written from Delhi by a man claiming to be her long lost uncle,in chaste Bengali, that he wants to visit them for a week before resuming his journey elsewhere. He mentions that there is a probability that there will be doubts about his identity and they were free to decline the overture. While the uncle also mentions about the ancient Indian tradition of treating one’s guests as god, the first thing that strikes the niece’s wonderfully decorated world is the fear of a thief impersonating as ‘someone’ about whom nobody knows. The husband is quite sure that this is a part of a plot to steal something from his deceased father’s art collection. While the wife is ready to give a benefit of doubt and see for herself if the uncle she never knew had indeed returned to his roots and to see his last known blood relation, the husband’s materialistic concerns blindfolds him to believe that this man is an impostor. In between two of them, there is a third member of the family, the child Babloo/Satyaki, who seems to be excited to meet one of his maternal grandfathers, who might be or might not be the real one.

I first watched Agantuk as a child with my parents. I do not remember the year, but I do recollect that my father had told me that it is indeed one of Ray’s finest works. Needless to say, I understood very little about the context of the movie, but at the same time I was never bored. Perhaps, it is the unique story telling capacity of Ray, that along with the kids (Babloo and his friends) in the movie, even I wanted to know what happened during a full Solar eclipse or a full Lunar eclipse. I re-watched it a few days back along with my husband and I realised why my father was correct about the movie being one of Ray’s best (click here to watch the movie with English subtitles). Anybody who is conversant with Ray’s work will probably count “Pather Pnachali”, “Charulata” or may be “the “Goopi Bagha” series to be the best works of him, but I will place “Agantuk” on a much higher pedestal, may be just after “Charulata”.

Utpal Dutta who plays the role of the stranger uncle in the movie delivers probably one of his most nuanced performances of his life. His acting calibre, like Ray’s directorial calibre, is beyond any question. But what is worth remembering that , Dutta and Ray together convinces you to be a part of this journey of discovering “who is this stranger?”. Deep down, Ray convinces you to reassess your views about yourself, your roots, your tradition and the human civilisation as a whole. And perhaps because of his genius, he manages to do it in extremely simple ways.

One of my favourite moments from the movie is the scene where the wife/niece asks his uncle, about whom she is still not so sure of, that how could he write such wonderful Bengali since he has spent most of his life abroad in the west. He answered that one’s mother tongue is something very close to heart, if one wants to forget it out of his own will he can do it in three months and if not, then probably 35 years is also not enough. While Ray remained a social commentator of the times he lived in, this particular aspect is a stern reminder of the times we live in too. I hardly see kids these days pronouncing Bangla or Hindi, two Indian languages I know, without mixing a splatter of English in to it. While this might be fashionable for the parents, I wonder how the beauty of multicultural and multilingual society will be lost in a few years from now. I will be happy if my children can read Shakespeare or JK Rowling in English but I will be happier if they do not need a translation to understand the beauty of Sunil Gangopadhyay or Leela Majumdar.

Agantuk/The Stranger (1991) [From: Here]
Coming back to the question about the journey of discovering “who is this man actually?”, the husband insists that the wife should not be carried away by emotions and insist on seeing his passport. While the uncle shows his passport on his own to the husband, he makes a valid argument about what does a passport prove? His name, his identity? No! A passport may be forged anytime (and we thought only our generation is fighting the crisis of identity theft in the wake of the popularity of social media) but more than that, it is a never a proof of human conscience. Later in the movie we see that the conscience which made the wife/niece to distrust this man and forced her to carefully remove two valuable figurines from the living room, replacing them in their original positions when the husband invites one of his friends to meet this man. The wife is convinced that he might be his uncle and not a thief but on the other hand she also fears that he might have come back after so many years to claim his share of family property.

The story takes a sharp turn when the husband’s friend visits their house to take a test of whether the uncle was truly genuine or not. This friend, played by Dhritiman, was known to be a lawyer with the ability of being bitterly straight forward. The uncle presumes that this might again be a visit from over inquisitive friends of the couple as the other day, but what ensues is a debate over what is civilised and what is not. The uncle’s views about the simpleton tribal life, people considered savage by the world that we belong to, the ones with whom he had spent a considerable time in South America and even in India, before he left for the west, irks the friend. He is convinced that the man claiming to be his friend’s wife’s maternal uncle is a fraud. He tells that to him on his face. While the couple is left red faced, they find that the man is gone. Ray depiction of Dhritiman’s characters is about being one of us. The ones like us who believe that civilisation is a licence to cut trees and then complain about the increasing temperatures. One like us who may decide to stick on to an age old belief of marrying a girl to a tree but on the question of some ancient tribal man and woman exercising their right of expression in matters of sexual choice, we do not think twice before dubbing that to be promiscuous.

The idea of development and civilisation as a whole is challenged when Dutta’s character questions about the homeless asking for shelter in the very ambitious city of New York. His questions on what we call as an advancement of technology is something that all of us have been thinking, but yet to find an answer to. If technology gives you power to destroy an entire city by just one click on your remote control, is that the progress that we are looking forward to? And then what gives us right to tag the lives of men and women in the forests as ‘backward’? By the end of the movie, I realised that Ray etched the characters of the husband, the wife and the straight talker friend as a reflection of our city bred selves. The parameters of urban life has changed since 1991, but at the core we still remain “Kupomunduk” (the frog who can never never leave his known surroundings and broaden his horizons). In fact the insecurities have always increased. The wife faces the dilemma of accepting his uncle and yet cannot overcome her doubts behind the actual reason of his return. The property factor plays on the minds of both the husband and wife while they try to be perfect Indian hosts. The friend is someone we all can relate to. It is us actually. In the race to be the brightest and the best, we indeed forget the simple joys of life.

The joy which the couple rediscovers while they trace the uncle near an Indian tribal village near Bolpur. Surprisingly, the uncle never faces a question about whom he actually was in their surrounding, nor about his motive behind the visit. Perhaps when you do not fear losing out on something, you are more open towards it. The couple apologises to the uncle who tells them that he will claim his share of family property. He leaves for his desired destination soon but are taken by surprise to find that the uncle had transferred his share of the property in his niece’s name.

His parting shot of advice to Babloo, the couple’s kid who grows much fond of his grandfather is not to be a “Kupomunduk” and to explore the world. Perhaps a bit of advice for all of us. In our day to day existence in a cubicle bound life, we often forget the charm of ‘wanderlust’. But even more than that, we tend to forget the importance of keeping our minds open. We boast of 5000 year old history and tradition, but nowadays even tradition seems to be measure in per sq ft basis 🙂

Perhaps this story is also a ringing truth and a reminder for us  Indians who take immense pride in our culture and legacy. But the mould of idol worship that we have prepared over the years for our icons and the complete intolerance towards any criticism or satire towards them or for famous personalities in our living history, is something that we need to get over. All of us may not be lucky or rich enough to travel across the world, but we have a far more feasible solution closer home- Books. Reading opens doors which we may not have imagined earlier but on the other hand intolerance and the belief that what I think is the only way round is disastrous.

P.S. – The movie remains special to me because of the house it was shot. Those kind of houses with red flooring and beautiful windows and balcony are quickly disappearing from the face of Calcutta. My guess is that the house must be somewhere in Ballygunge. Do not know if it is still there though.

P.P.S.- Is it only me or Sujoy Ghosh deliberately named Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s character “Satyaki/Rana” in Kahaani? The eternal bong dilemma about Bhalonaam and Daaknaam 🙂

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Life these days- Hyderabadi Autos and the overbearing ‘Anna’s…kkkkkkkkkiraann

There have been queries. and more queries. and simply speaking..some of tehm have left me quite flattered. I never knew that so many people actually read my blog. A big thank you.
And to all your queries as to where I have been..and why didn’t I update this page often in the recent months- Well! to say the truth- I have been busy, very busy actually. I have started working and so now I know what it means, actual deadlines I mean. It’s quite surprising to note that a few days back we were this rebellious bunch of college kids bargaining for an extension of the project deadline with the seemingly helpless teacher. she had already provided us 2 in the past 1 month. But then who cared? we were the fifth years…the batch of 2011.
And today we are all these blackberry totting grown up professionals…managing our own lives in this big bad world. We dont argue with our respective bosses for extension of deadlines. we all know that the client is supremely important. the world stares at us, gives us jealous glances….but nobody knows the story behind all that corporate jazz (slavery! :P)
But am lucky to have a very nice team to work with. People say you will always remeber your first boss….and I will surely do remember my Manager…He is one of the sweetest and most accomodating fellows I have known. and so are my other senior members in the team. the best part about my team is that every one is approachable 🙂 May be that’s what a true professional should be- be approachable.
Hyderabad really doesnt seem the similar town that I had known for all these years. Its a changed place now….the every day haggle with auto annas, or the needful for “aatey daal ka bhao”-times a are changing… a quite indication that we all are growing up.
In deed we are. all. everyone. Just the way that guy whose article pointed out why the youth is suddenly so conscious about the anna Hazare movementy. Because they know they have no place to run away to, they can’t escape India. We are the ones who are providing aid to the nations to over come their debt crisis who supposedly have a better credit rating than us. India is truly the furture. Don’t believe me? Browse through the world stock market idices in the past few days and you will understand. I remeber reading an article way back in 2010 which had succinctly put why India had fared so well during the recession. the reasdon was one we all know (an I agreed wholesomely with the author)- the presence of a very strong public sector.
Don’t get me wrong, neither do I support corruption in any ways (since we have this huge thing for black and white…so in case I dont support Kiran and Kejriwal…I am anti Anna- Don’t make this presumption) but how many of these protestors actually read the draft of the bill? Perhaps not many. Noit that our democratic thought ever advocated the cause of informed decision making. Or else what would make people still support the commies who destroyed and actually bludgeonoed the economy of my state in these 34 years. Frankly speaking there is nobody called a communist in this world. None. those who claim to be..decoarte their daughters with tons of gold jewellery and show off by throwing lavish parties….if that’s socialism…I am very proud to proclaim myself as a supporter of Didi. even if she pretends (according to some), she does it well. Besides I believe in everything being open and that includes the economy. There are no free lunches anywhere I suppose 🙂
But coming back to the point. there was this mad rush to support Anna. I have gathered that he is a truly dedicated man. But I had thsi huge feeling that during the last few days of his fast, he merely became a ploy in the hand of Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi. Come on! these guys should know that nobody is beyond the constitution in this country. Not even Arundhati roy (who seemed to jump at another ocassion of attention grabbing by *NOT* supporting Anna). It is the Constitutional framework that we have in place, that makes this Democracy a success. Yes! a true success story. and that includes the way Kejriwal protested and Kiran Bedi cry when she asked the police force to disobey the orders of their seniors-err! wasn’t that seditious? I mean you arrest Maoists on same ground….and what was Om Puri saying? atleast the same people he was referring to had the guts to face the election.
Well to sya the least anyone could have gone up on that stage and claimed to be our youth leade including a guy who provides MBA degrees without any affiliation. A person on twitter rightly pointed out that his claim to fame now- “Think beyond the Parliament” Bwahaaaa!!!!!
Nobody supports corruption. everyone has the right to be angry. Everyone has the right to protest, but just like Chauri Chaura happened and killed the momentum, the proclaimed new age Gandhi should be very cautious. Gandhiji was right to call off the movement after Chauri chaura. He knew we were not mature enough to handle the principle of non violenece right then. That did materialise…in varied form…many years later. Don’t know where Ramlila Maidan will take us. If that recorded tape of one of the original heroes of this so called second freedom struggle is anything to go by- we are not ready for it Annaji. Hope the Janlokpal turns out to be as idealistic as it promises to be. Best wishes from a proud Indian.

The Babri verdict and me. And us.

Time and age has made us realise that the most complicated kind of relationships (yes! I speak in the facebook lingo, any problem?) exist between man and woman. The coexistence however forced or chosen is bound to give rise to some amount of friction which is unavoidable. But it turns out to be enjoyable in most of the cases. Imagine your smoked hilsa without the adequate share of green chillies. There you go! spice is the way of life. But not always.

This is not about man-woman relationship. In case you thought it to be so, it’s entirely my fault since I keep on writing about that stuff. My friends call me a hopeless romantic and I don’t mind. More so because of the fact that being serious and drab doesn’t come easy to me. But somehow I don’t feel good about September 24. Yes! it’s the day that many in this country have been dreading about and that includes our elected body of representatives who have gone ahead to form the Government. A few days back a regular (those boring government scheme types) advertisement caught my eye. Not because of it’s presentation (they seriously need to work on that) but because of the content. It was an appeal on part of the Government of India, ‘the Government of the people, by the people and for the people India’ to maintain peace after the Babri Masjid judgement is delivered by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court on September 24th. Frankly speaking the romantic in me wasn’t happy. Neither did I see a reason to be so. The gloom of the situation had rubbed off.
As a law student I won’t go into the technicalities of the numerous (to the extent hilarious) affidavits filed in this particular matter on issues which only vote bank politics (with a tint of orange and green both- their is no discrimination there you see!) can justify. My coffee table discussions with colleagues will suffice for that. and to think of it, this is just the beginning of the long drawn litigation process with avenues up to the Supreme Court of India being open. And now with the new found demand of an out of court settlement in form of an arbitration proceeding finding ground with one judge (dissenting on the count that his views were not taken into account before rejection of an affidavit supporting out of court settlement) all I can say is- picture abhi baki hain mere dost! Trust me! the Government supports this view in that public appeal too. I will keep short and simple here. That I am scared. I am very very scared.
I am scared because I fear for my family back home in Calcutta. I am scared because I have relatives living in the Hyderabad city. I am scared because I am here alone with a bunch of friends in Hyderabad. My father is supposed to make an official trip to Bombay in and around the time the verdict comes out and am hellbent on not letting him go. Is this the kind of atmosphere that the citizens of a country with supposedly one of the best economic growth rates in the world supposed to live in?? In fear??
In fear of an 18 year old ghost that comes back to haunt us every 6th December?????? I have my political leanings and be rest assured I don’t prefer passing judgements on the saffron, secular or red brigade anytime soon.  But somewhere they boil down to the same leaning for titillation in politics. the basis of political theory of state (I know very little of that) is fearlessness. Fear leads to a state of anarchy, and aren’t we headed there? I have been advised not to venture out in the city for atleast a week after the verdict. Hyderabad is known for it’s mixed culture across religion and all credits to the people out here, I have never seen turmoil in the parts I have ventured in. But then isn’t applying 144 CrPC the easiest way out during the ganapati visarjan and the eid celebrations every year in the old city?? What is it, if not fear? Tell me if I am reading too much into it.
I have cyber forensics as one of my seminar subjects in my final year of law school. We were supposed to make a trip to one of the forensic laboratories in the city form campus as a part of the course curriculum. But unfortunately we have to wait for some more time before that materialises. The Australian exchange student on campus asked me, why? I didn’t have an answer. It isn’t that she hasn’t seen the ugly side of racial attacks in Australia. But living in fear is not justified anywhere right?
There are two bits of image which I think I will carry with myself forever. 18 years back I was a kid, my memory doesn’t recall everything but yes I knew Curfew was a dreaded word. My mom and dad ran to the market nearby my house along with pishimoni, chotoamma and dadubhai to buy groceries and eggs when the curfew was relaxed for two hours. My pishimoni earlier used to saty ver close to our place, in fact just two houses removed from ours. My amma used to go there everyday and I used to tag along with her. No wonder she decided to visit their place after so long during those two hours. We were late…..suddenly the curfew was back and we couldn’t come back….we might have over reacted, but a generous policeman helped me and amma walk back that distance. Can we always?…The distance between us have grown so much that walking back now is not even an option. The rest of India celebrated Ganesh Chatrurthi and Eid with elan. Nobody had time to think about Kashmir. And t think of those days when my amma’s father’s most trusted aide (he was a government contractor in erstwhile purbobongo) was a muslim man (I don’t recall his name). Am sure many of us have heard stories like that and of those gory days like I did when my amma’s  affluent family had to walk past the border with seven daughters in tow (or may be six since my amma was alreayd married by then). The fright of checkposts never made my amma welcome the birth of a girl child in our family. Too much of friction in a relationship makes for an overkill you see. you need the phases of sweetness in between, but unfortunately for us it always turns into an issue of us and them. Man and woman relationships have a hint of counselling attached- not in this case. Faith takes the centre stage.

So what if the Babri judgement says something decisively (that’s plain and stupid) about the site beloging to one particular sect, will I stop being friendly with my muslim classmate who helped me so much with the passport formalities in Hyderabad? or will the family of Sumitra mashi, my domestic help in Calcutta or Sharda or the Needzwali aunty start earning more to fulfill their needs of two square meals a day. To tell you the truth, they will live in fear..more fear, just like I am now.

and the Constitution guarantees freedom of movement, conscience..blah blah blah….

P.S.- The Taliban destroyed the buddha statues in Bamiyan. did that alter history? or did it somehow prove that Buddhism never had reach on the land they claim to be their own? And who does that land belong to? You, me or God? How does that matter? I am scared.
P.P.S- It’s my best friend’s birthday today. Celebrated well. But this nagging fear had been there on back of my mind which forced this 3’o clock in the night blog entry.