Abhijan, a remarkable moral fable
Publié le 29 Juillet 2011
Abhijan (the Expedition, Satyajit Ray, 1962) is the story of Narsingh (dependable Soumitra Chatterjee), a Kshatriya taxi-driver, who after having had his professional license taken away from him for imprudent overtaking, becomes jobless, and heads towards the Shyamnagar province in Bengal. There he gets involved in opium trading. A man he had given a lift to, Sukhanram (Charuprakash Ghosh, very good), is the one who lures him into the business, and that same man also deals in buying women for a time because he has the money.
This time he has Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman) with him, and she, aware of her plight, tries to catch the attention of Narsingh who seems to her an honest guy, so as to escape her present master and her future downfall. But Narsingh isn’t interested in her; he looks upon her as a cheap prostitute. He has dreams of respectability, and together with his projects of association with Sukharam, he plans on gaining the attention of the local schoolteacher, Milli (Ruma Guha Thakurta). She happens to be the sister of a distant relative he has encountered upon arriving in this Bengali village of the hills.
This man’s name is Joseph (Gyanesh Mukherjee), a name he has been given after he became a Christian. Alas, unfortunately for the valiant taxi-driver (who by the way has the privilege of owning his 1931 model Chrysler), Milli is secretly engaged towards another man, a one-legged fellow who, believing he was punished as a result of being “naughty” when a boy (he fell down a cliff), is now busy with good deeds and pious reading. Narsingh doesn’t know this, and asks Milli to teach him English, so he can rise socially. She accepts, and we have pleasant hopes for both until they are dashed one day with Milli asking Narsingh to enable her and her cripple to elope together. He agrees to it, but he’s hard hit, resumes drinking, and, perhaps as compensation, asks Gulabi to his bed.
Meanwhile, his affairs with Sukharam are moving ahead, and after some moral wrangling, he decides to take the risk of becoming his partner. He will continue to deliver the illegal cargo of opium, and gets tied to Gulabi (who’s lent him by Sukharam!). He has in effect fallen into the spider’s web, and willingly, but he can only blame himself. On top of that, he’s a rather solitary, haughty guy who thinks himself better than, for example, other taxi cabbies. He’s wounded by his wife’s having left him for another man (we learn this at the beginning of the movie). He’s imbued with the notion that his caste (the Kshatriyas, or warriors) obliges him to a certain social and personal standard. He refers to his “blood”, that doesn’t allow him to stoop to ask the policeman’s favours, or his ancestors' code of values according to which he cannot let himself cheat others. In fact he’s fundamentally an ambitious, proud man, who has dreams of grandeur, and who feels limited in his purposes by obstacles he wishes he could overthrow. His caste has put him at an intermediary social level, and he resents this position as insufficiently rewarding.
The film tells the story of his being tempted, and his resisting, his hoping and his yielding. One symbolic moment is when he is seen sitting against a tree practising his English reading. The word he is spelling is “SLY”: this seems to me as a good definition of who he is. A smart, cunning intellectual (he’s often criticised for “acting smart”), but full of devious compromises with the values he isn’t simple enough to accept at face value. He’s in stark opposition with Rama (Robi Ghosh, excellent), his diminutive hand, who represents unsophisticated loyalty and practicality.
Rama proudly looks after his boss’s grand vehicle, cleans it incessantly, wards off the swarms of fascinated children that continuously run after it, and relishes the moments when Narsingh, tired or busy, lets him drive. He’s developed an adoration for the Chrysler, and fancies himself responsible for it as you would a religious object. When at one stage, his master speaks about selling the car, we see his face aghast as if the order of the Universe had broken apart! Rama is like a faithful dog, happy and quick. But Narsingh is the sly wolf.
On the other side of the moral divide, there are the Christians: Joseph, Milli, her lover, their mother. They are egalitarian, caste-critical people full of generosity and disinterestedness, and they delineate Narsingh’s shadiness all the more. Milli lives with a cripple, thus living out Christ’s call to be on the side of the poor and the destitute. Her love, socially, means social salvation for him. Thanks to her and her profession, he won’t be obliged to depend on alms or worse. Joseph too saves his new friend out of a nasty brawl with jealous taxi cabbies in which he has got involved, and warns him about Sukharam’s opium trade. At his arrival in Shyamnagar, he takes him to see his family, and they walk past the “Uncle-nephew”, or rock of sins, because a travelling preacher had commented that this unusually balanced rock looked like the weight of sins ready to crush the sinner underneath.
At one stage, Narsingh asks Milli about that Christian God of hers, and gets told that the outcome of sins is death. So we are in a moral or religious perspective all along. The film could almost be a sort of Indian Pilgrim’s Progress. This would tie in well with the title of the movie, “the Expedition”: we could then see Narsingh as a kind of Everyman driving himself on the road towards self-accomplishment and truth, now falling into the traps on his way, now being saved by his God-sent friends. But the pious simile stops there, because Ray has made him into a more complex character than the XVIIth century roadside hero.
There is for example the powerful theme of competition in Abhijan. Because of Narsingh’s fiery spirit, he constantly fights (he’s a “warrior”) against other drivers – on the road: the taxi-drivers, the bus-drivers, but also on the rail, and we witness a superbly filmed race between the Chrysler and a train in which he recognises the driver. This vanity makes him of course take risks, and endanger his passengers’ lives. Ray films their faces during one such race, and subtly makes us understand that they are torn between the fear of an accident and pride of having chosen a faster and technologically superior form of transport than the bus and all riff-raff. When he drives, Narsingh is transformed, he becomes a fearless warrior like his ancestors used to be (Ray at one stage visualizes for us his horseman’s dream), and then knows no rule but speed and bravery. But this attitude attracts the attention of others: the police inspector who takes away his licence (causing him to wander off, deprived of the professional safeguards which a regular job gives) and Sukhanram the opium dealer who sees in his zeal something he might manipulate to his own ends. The risk-taking also has a moral twist to it, because that’s exactly what Sukhanram hints at, saying in a clever sophism that no business is ever straight through and through. If one deals with money, one somehow deals with soil, one has soiled hands. The good businessman is the one who can adapt to the necessary compromises which business demands… In other words, cheating is part of dealing, and one would say, isn’t he right? Who said capitalism was, not the best, but the least bad economic system we had?
Cheating was precisely what Narsingh thought he could not do. The virtues inherent to his caste forbade him any such practice. But Narsingh doesn’t believe in these virtues deeply. He wishes he could become a warrior once again, because when a warrior wages war, the moral constraints can be shifted due to the existence of higher, war-connected imperatives. What’s the good of a warrior in peace-time? Right at the beginning of the film, in this revealing talk with a barman who tries to talk him into a business partnership, we can see Narsingh in the broken mirror (his flawed personality?) saying:
And this line shows his essential distrust of others, and his solitude as a result. Perhaps this is why, in spite of his unpleasant character, we still feel interested in him: he’s a wounded loner, and one wonders how he’s going to find peace. All he has is his horse, that is, (as he himself jokes to Joseph) the 26 horse-power of his car. That car for him comes to represent his independence, his superiority, and the frequent night-rides that we see him use it for are like his secret in-roads into forbidden lanes. Interesting that Ray films the headlights from in front, so that when Narsingh drives at night, all we see are the two glaring (almost drunken) lights, but the car and himself disappear. Just as the lights shine too brightly in the dark, obscuring everything else around, so does his alcoholic habit blot out his conscience and prepare him for his shady deeds. He hesitates before deciding to accept Sukhanram drug-offer, but the drug of his sick will was already inside him.
So one might say that the film is a drive, a drive around cheating, then deep into cheating and then finally out of cheating. Along this night-drives, he meets the Devil (Sukhanram), whose laughter should have chilled his spine, and whose gun-shaped lighter should have warned him that sin meant spiritual death. He also meets his guardian angel, Joseph, who does all he can to protect him and keep him on the right path. He meets Milli, the bright star, but her light shines in heavens too far above his cloudy gloom. Then he meets Gulabi. She doesn’t seem a positive influence at first sight; compared to Milli the Christian schoolteacher, she’s a tainted woman who is trying to ingratiate herself with Narsingh. The latter’s dreams of elevation can hardly hope to succeed with her. But she is the one he holds on to in the end, isn’t she? And I think the clue to her moral importance in that story she tells about her orphan youth, when she was molested and shut up in a room and almost committed suicide, but found the strength to remain in life in spite of what the future held. She’s really an innocent girl, and if at one stage she’s seen trying to seduce Narsingh, it isn’t, as I’ve read that she’s ready for physical intercourse, but she’s doing this out of a survival instinct. She’s hoping Narsingh will keep her, and anything is better than being some rich man’s pleasure object. Anyway, he’s saved thanks to love, thanks to Gulabi’s love.
Narsingh changes his trajectory when Joseph discovers he’s lied to him. It’s a powerful scene, the warrior’s fall is painful to see, and Ray makes him pathetically run after his guardian angel in order to explain, to say he’s sorry… His head is delineated against the blackening sky, and compared to the Rock of sins close by. But the Rock is also the symbol of Christ (cf. 1Cor 10,4) who has accepted to carry all men’s sins (2Cor 5,21), so that, when he confronts Joseph’s denouncing eyes, Narsingh is like Peter in the gospel, he cannot but understand that everything he’s done was betrayal. He understands his guilt, and knows he was sinfully proud and vain. He goes back to Sukhanram’s place, gives back the opium he was supposed to deliver, and wrenches Gulabi from her master.
Needless to say that Abhijan is another one of Ray’s masterpieces; this guy has apparently done nothing but that. The special quality of the film is the superb symbolism it displayed and integrates into the story. The car allegory for example contains a wealth of meanings and emotion; it’s almost a living being. And the atmosphere and geography of the Bengal countryside lends the film an eerie quality which sticks to it and isn’t easily forgotten.