It’s weird how when one starts wondering about a Satyajit Ray movie, one is faced with lots of people telling everyone it’s a masterpiece – this 1969 movie is even somewhere graced with the ubiquitous title of Ray’s best film ever – and how so little actual proof of the masterpiece is given… I think I’ve said this already, but why is this so? Is it simply that writers don’t care about backing their sayings with explanations? Or because it is too boring? God knows. True enough, the story is uninteresting in itself: four male Calcutta urbanites setting up in the Palamau forest in a bungalow which they haven’t booked in advance, bribing the caretaker to let them in, and then meeting two girls in a nearby residence, spending some time with them, or at the local arrak joint, and with some of the locals, before leaving and going back to their city lives… Told in such a way, you might say it’s pretty vacuous. But really, there isn’t much that happens, and anyway the film’s worth isn’t in its story. Neither is it about some kind of superiority of more mature women over less astute men, which is the other cliché that viewers repeat.
What’s good about the film is Ray’s presence. This is the movie’s strength. You can almost feel his breath over the actors’ shoulders, when they stroll here and there along the strip of road separating the two houses, when they’re in their rooms or on the porch in their bungalow, when such and such a shot is made to underline a tension, or a depth he wants you to wonder about. Sometimes the film-maker is even too present, like when he shows us Aparna’s book titles in her little summer room.
Even if we follow his camera very closely, it’s nearly always to suggest details and facts which contain some reflection, some association, some poetic meaning, some meditative insight. He’s there to make us look, to make us open our eyes on the world, and mostly the inner world. He’s there to help us move beyond the surface, as always, but this time simply through the fact of filming. This time, contrary to earlier movies, there aren’t any cinematographic tricks, like mirrors or negative pictures. There isn’t any resorting to a meta-narrative level which would shed light on what is being said. Simply the director’s there, to show you what he wants, and it’s a pleasure to be guided, to accept that he knows what he’s doing, and how he’s been understood by his actors. The structure doesn’t matter either very much. For example the flashback near the beginning where Hari is shown being jilted by his girlfriend: it isn’t used later, and the film wouldn’t lose much structurally by not having it.
What we would lose, on the other hand is an insight into Ray’s complex and original world of emotions: the very existence of this flashback tells us about who he was, and what interested him in cinema. Thanks to this little scene, we capture some of his passion for the feminine mystery, her elusiveness, the form of beauty which he wants us to dwell on as he’s (re)creating it. The same thing happens on a greater scale with Aparna, played by Sharmila Tagore, at her usual good level.
Watching Tagore is following Ray’s interrogations about her: he’s filming her to examine certain questions and their answers; what’s going on in a woman’s mind when her charm operates? How can one show her intelligence but also their instinctive knowledge of herself and of social relations? What is the right balance in a woman’s heart between self-preservation and the pleasure of being important? And about these questions, do Indian women have something special to tell us? I don’t know if I’m right, of course, but the way the scenes are filmed rather indicates Ray was searching for the answers to such questions, and that his movie is an attempt to answer them visually.
His Aparna moves about like Byron’s beauty:
One shade the more, one ray the less,
And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
The same quest for equilibrium and truth is present in his portrayal of the men (Soumitra Chatterjee at his usual cool, leading the gang): many of the scenes are so dangerously close to filming for filming’s sake that you can almost fear, here and there, the actors turning around and asking Ray to stop being so inquisitive, so intimate. He’s certainly using their persons and their faces to fulfill some sort of experiment – you see, the situation they’re in is so eccentric, by which I mean, so out of their normal circles: there’s got to be a reason to have brought them all there, almost against their will (check Hari’s attitude in the car on the way there). I think he wants to examine them, to see how they move around, how they talk, how their expressions reveal what they think, who they are down deep, what they feel. Of course they have their roles, but that’s secondary. They’re there to give Ray some fresh observations, to enable him (and us) to ponder about human interaction, human pursuits, human hopes and desires. One such particular moment of examination is the scene at the fun-fair, where Ray closes up on one face after another:
It’s a great moment, because you can follow, through the expressions, the various feelings which appear and fade on the faces: Ray makes the scene last because he has his subjects under his lens, and can look at them (and make us take part) again and again. And then the acclaimed picnic scene also contains much to be observed. It’s essentially an “ok now act your parts, don’t worry about me” scene. You can sometimes sense that the actors are being watched instead of filmed, because their acting is slightly strained, slightly exaggerated: it probably isn’t easy to get actors totally forget that they are the film’s subjects, not the story. It means that they aren’t intermediaries any more, they aren’t “part” of the story – since there isn’t really a story, and Ray has just rigged some flimsy structure to be able to film them interacting.
The film-long allegory of urban individuals spending some time in the forest, where their freed instincts govern them instead of their more educated selves, is an interesting one enough, but Ray doesn’t treat it to make an anthropological statement about civilization all that much. If he had wanted, he would have increased the symbolical level a few notches, and we would have had it. We do get the existential remarks here or there, and there’s a jerk of the unseen reality behind the scenes when (for example) suddenly a deer jumps in the brush and out of sight:
But the centre of gravity of the film is in the combination of all these faces, these human beings whose lives are kept preciously present there on the screen in their fragility and originality: the artistic screen has captured their humanity, and we can wonder once again at the wealth it used to mean for this master showman. Aranyer din ratri is in fact a sort of documentary on human emotions, human habits, human instincts, and we can watch it to learn about these features, which of course belong to 1969 Bengali cinema; it's nothing universal, but it's precious because it isn't.