This 1990 movie was Ray’s last but one, only to be succeeded by Agantuk a year later before his death. Its title means “branches of the tree”: the film deals with a family situation and so the genealogical reference is clear; but the tree is such a powerful symbol that it will need exploring a little. You’ll find the story here. All in all, this might seem a rather less powerful film by the Bengali master (some people find it really bad): the theme is somewhat reminiscent of other works, the moral lesson rather predictable, and through it transpires perhaps a form of despondency which some critics have linked to Ray’s last years. Yet the film contains an originality and a depth of its own. The question of virtue and its transmission lies at its core: virtue is like the sap of the tree: without it, the tree cannot live, it soon rots and decays, or if it lives, it is ill. Ideally, the trunk is the passage from the roots to the branches and leaves and flowers; there are canals through which the sap flows to reach the top. But accidents can take place along this route: storms, bug infections, breakages, acid rains, you name it. Gardeners must pay attention to all of them and try to mend, cure and lop. But sometimes the best strategy is to leave things mend themselves on their own, and trust time to do the job. As all living beings, trees have in-built ways to deal with attacks from outside and from inside. It’s sometimes a good idea to let the plant find its own cure.
So what we have at the outset is apparently a tolerably well-to-do tree, a family which has weathered the storm of life as best it could; a retired and idealistic industrialist, renowned for his work and achievements, who lives with his own dad, a doting 93-year old who needs help like a baby, and his 2nd son, Proshanto, who’s handicapped because of a car accident and cannot live on his own either. The mother is dead. There are three other sons, two of which are married and one boy, around 10, in one of the two families. This tree has borne fruit and has gone through the seasons rather steadfastly: the blows it has received haven’t stopped it from expanding some vigorous branches and sheltering its more vulnerable ones. But the story will show it has a hidden disease, and like so many trees, you don’t see this disease until the tree is dying. What happens in this case is a severe shock, the trunk itself is revealed one day to collapse! While attending a conference where he’s thanked by his community, the 70 year old industrialist has a heart attack and of course all the family rallies to his bedside. His state is uncertain and the doctor says he can’t tell the family how long they might have to stay if the worst comes to the worst. This is the trick which Ray needs to examine and hope to cure the whole structure. All of them live rather far, and so they are obliged to remain together under the family roof, in the case of their father’s untimely death.
First the outwardly normal members of the family are forced to confront the outwardly non-normal. Hats off to Ray for having found that quirky great-grandad! He’s a marvel of eccentricity. Imagine a gaping corpse with eyes wide open slowly tottering towards you, all trembling, and all of sudden shrieking in pleasure at touching you: spooky, right? Well that’s grandad! He does exactly what he’s expecting to do, ie give a shake to the apparently sound branches of the tree, and make us see what drops off in the process. Certainly this apparition creates a form of shock and readies us for more shaking leaves. Then there’s a more serious case, that of Proshanto, already mentioned. He’s played by the masterful Soumitra Chatterjee (I don’t agree at all with Beth in the aforementioned article who thinks he’s botched his job), who’s taken on the task of digging deep into the family’s frightening subconscious. Proshanto is like a grown-up child, terribly unpredictable but also terribly strong. There’s something raw about him, something unhoned by social conventions and protections, a sort of Dostoievskian monster, harmless really but oddly threatening. He’s like a hidden source of truth which can emerge and erupt any time without warning. Like the grandad, he can’t easily express himself, but the undercurrent of denunciation goes much further, as if his accident had made him sensitive to realities kept secret to all but their authors.
The terrible, psychodramatic moment takes place when all of them are at the dinner table, and two of the brothers (Prabodh and Probir) exchange about their jobs. The atmosphere is tense and gloomy, everyone is eating in a sort of numb expectancy. The family have been shut up in waiting and so when the subject comes to professional achievements, one feels that the dying presence of the father is hovering above them and making them justify themselves. The attack comes first from Prabodh, the eldest brother, and is directed at Probir about his gambling practices; he’s clearly critical that he bets on credit, thus taking risks with money not his own. Prabodh admits it’s a widespread practice, as his brother tells him, but wants him to recognize it as a vice, which the brother does. But Probir justifies it by adding that he openly recognizes it. And he generalizes: in business, fraud is always present at some level, it’s impossible to succeed if you can’t accept some of it. Nobody is exempt, not him, not his brother. To which Prabodh tells him what does he know about his business? But the other one suggests he does. “Should I say what I know? Asks Probir. “Yes, bol” answers Prabodh. And so Probir begins the sickening business of uncovering his brother’s tax-evasion practices and the enumeration of his evasion-earned expenses… When all of a sudden he’s interrupted by Proshanto’s banging on the table with the flat of his hand; a rhythmical banging, which shakes plates and cutlery, and other hidden things inside the family’s minds, and the banging continues without interruption, in spite of shouts from Prabodh’s summons to his sick brother, and appeals to Protap, the 4th brother, who’s as aghast about this eruption of an unfathomable language which they all understand but cannot stop, as he is at his brother’s request that he Protap should take care of Proshanto’s fit:
Aghast as he is (why doesn’t Prabodh act himself? He’s clearly responsible), Protap does do something, he begs his ailing brother to be quiet, and slowly succeeds to make him stop. Proshanto then rises, a stiff as a corpse, and is taken out by a servant who’s just rushed in. Everybody (including the watching child) is overwhelmed, as if they’ve seen a ghost, as if a terrible fatality has been visited upon them. The two women slowly uncover their eyes when they feel the danger passes away; and a somber double-bass plays somewhere. Now of course, this is heavy works; one might judge the scene as overdone, not to mention psychologically unbearable. I believe precisely the opposite. I keenly sense that Ray has managed to recreate the type of sickly unease which grabs some come-togethers when people know things they can’t say or say things they ought to have not said, when some transgression has been done and no one dares to face the complete truth that it has revealed. Proshanto’s seizure possesses the intensity of biblical premonitions, where the mystery of the meaning goes far beyond the means used to express it (I’m thinking of events such as the crossing of the Red Sea or Jonas being inside the whale).
What could this banging be saying? Obviously, behind the maniac dimension, it’s some sort of prophecy, some sort of voice coming from inside the mind and all of sudden let loose in the space-time of social interaction, where it is normally never heard, owing to society’s in-built protective hypocrisies. Proshanto’s distorted face as he delivers the pall-like thumps is evocative of the faces of creatures in Hell, suffering the torment of their sins without being able to assuage their pain; the gruesome succession of bangs on the table resonate long after they’re over, they’re like some infernal hammering like when Hephaestus the infernal Smith-God delivers his blows to those deserving them. They remind me of what Kalyani, the heroine of Bimal Roy’s Bandini, had half-seen and heard in her guilty nightmare. But deranged and deformed as he might seem, Proshanto is aiming at the social surface of an ill which lies under its make-believes pretenses, and which have somehow been projected, scapegoat-like, on this handicapped sufferer. So yes, Proshanto behaves and functions as a Christ-figure, bearing the wounds and sins of the world so that this world may survive and make do with its evil and lying. The scene has indeed made us witness something like a Passion, an unbearable suffering visited on an innocent lamb deprived of defense and guile. Besides, throughout the film he displays some almost prophetic attitudes which bring him close to Christ. For instance, when Protap comes to see him in his darkened room (where he listens to music), and manages to get some sense out of him, Proshanto at one point complains “brothers, brothers, brothers”, implying that he regrets how fraternity used to define the relationships they had in the past, compared to now when all is black, as dark as a new Moon night, thus referring according to us to the evil of sin (and this makes him start another one of his rhythmical repetitions: black, black, black…). Just before, about his music, he had pronounced “I play because of light in the darkness”, a sentence very reminiscent of John 1,5 (The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it).
Protap’s story is interesting too, because he’s perhaps what might come closest to Ray himself. We learn that he’s recently changed jobs: he used to be in business and, disgusted by the shady maneuvers in which he didn’t want to take part any longer, he’s now begun a career as an actor. Being an artist would therefore set him apart from the immorality of the world. I must say this sounds very idealistic! But well, it’s a film after all. Protap is also close to his sister in law, Tapati (Mamata Shankar), whom we learn is estranged from her husband, Probir the gambler. Tapati has ideals too; during the picnic towards the end of the film (all except Proshanto leave for the woods to let Grandpa rest one afternoon), we see her sing some beautiful lyrics:
So is Protap Ray? Perhaps not, but I believe he’s made to represent the fretful, worried modernist, who’s looking for answers and signs that he’s “doing the right thing”, and beyond that, that life has a meaning; he’s the one who, bewildered, is visited by that sprite of a great-grandad; as we mentioned, he goes by night to consult the seer Proshanto, and he has that long conversation with Tapati about what is good and bad for one’s conscience. Doesn’t he look like a disquieted humanist, confronted to the fights which virtue needs to fight in this greying world?
There’s a strong point there: what we do, up to a point, defines who we are. When we stop something which, even if half virtuous perhaps, was an achievement, was work done, represented something for society (that social self who we are just as much as our private self), we lose the sense of our identity, and the landmarks by which we were used to judge what our acts were worth, seem gone. The tree symbol helps here: we all are branches of a tree, and whatever it is which has shaped us has given us our recognizable curve, upwards or downwards, but what if we get cut off from the tree… Ray could be telling us that branches have their freedom in spite of their conditioning; saplings need not follow the same pattern as their originator; yet they still come from there (the roots, the trunk), and the virtue is probably in recognizing it. The figure of the little boy (Dingo) in the family represents this future modelling of ourselves. He is seen to absorb whatever right or wrong is done around him, and little seems to be done to direct him, to educate him beyond his natural tendency. Yet education means balancing the two influences, that which comes from the tree, and that which comes from the wind.