In English, Days and Nights in the Forest.
In one important scene in Aranyer Din Raatri, a successful business executive named Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) tells Aparna, a poised young woman he’s met in the jungles of Palamau, that life in the city is all about rules. If you have to work, you have to abide by the rules.
Rules, the implication is, suffocate. And every now and then, to survive and to give yourself a break from those oppressive rules, you rebel. You go away, you flee. You find yourself again, you refresh yourself, regain your energy and then come back to start conforming all over again.
This seems to be the premise with which this film, one of Satyajit Ray’s best-known works, begins. Ashim, along with three other friends, is driving down from Kolkata to Palamau for a holiday. The men are a mixed bag. Sanjay (Shubhendu Chatterjee) works in the jute industry and, as they’re driving along, is sitting in the back of the car and reading a book about Palamau from which he reads out excerpts now and then.
Beside him, snoring, is the cricketer Hari (Samit Bhanja). The others tease Hari: it’s to help Hari mend a broken heart that this trip has been organized. In a brief flashback, we see what happened: Hari’s girlfriend (Aparna Sen) dumps him. In a conversation that’s initially volatile on his part and relatively composed on hers, she shows him a letter he’d written to her. We don’t get to hear or see anything of its contents, but it has obviously got her furious enough to not want to have anything to do with Hari any more.
Sitting beside Ashim (who’s driving) is Shekhar (Rabi Ghosh), who’s unemployed, and is the clown of the group, heckling the others, occasionally playing pranks, and generally lightening the mood.
Once they reach Palamau, they ask for directions to the Forest Bungalow, and eventually ask a local man, Lakha (?) to get into the car and show them the way.
When they reach the Forest Bungalow, Lakha stays on and becomes a sort of man Friday for them, running errands on their behalf.
This is largely because the watchman at the Forest Bungalow, an old man, says that his wife (who usually cooks for visitors) is ill and he can only do so much. Taking his wife to the doctor and attending to her also seems to take up much of the watchman’s time, so even getting their rooms cleaned or getting something other than tea for breakfast becomes a challenge for the quartet.
But before that, there’s the problem of their staying at the Forest Bungalow. Visitors here are required to make prior reservations and bring a letter from the District Forest Officer at Daltonganj; in the absence of this, the watchman refuses to entertain these newcomers. They try persuading him, and eventually end up bribing the man. He takes the money gingerly, but it’s clear that he’s too poor to be able to resist it.
The four men settle in, drinking in the silence of the jungle beyond (Sanjay and Ashim), sleeping (Hari), and bemoaning the fact that the others—“All hippies!”—have decided not to shave for the duration they’re here (Shekhar). It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, they can laze and break all the rules they want.
And they do. That evening, they wander down to the local Santhal village and get tipsy on the brew that’s being sold there. They also see a bold-eyed and beautiful Santhal girl, Dulli (Simi Garewal; this came as a surprise to me; I hadn’t known Simi had acted in a Bengali film). Dulli is busy drinking when they first notice her, and when she notices Hari, especially, looking her way, she is bold enough (and possibly drunk enough) to come along and ask for money so that she can drink some more.
The next morning, though, this no-holds barred sojourn gets a sudden and unexpected jolt. Shekhar, waking up before the others and peering out of the window, sees two women walking in the distance. A woman in a sari and another in slacks, as he excitedly reports back to his friends. Sari and slacks! They have to go make their acquaintance, and it’s every man for himself as they rush to shave.
The women turn out to be the widowed daughter-in-law, Jaya (Kaberi Bose) and daughter Aparna ‘Rini’ (Sharmila Tagore) of a Mr Sadashiv Tripathi (Pahadi Sanyal), who has a house nearby. The four men wander across, to where Jaya and Rini are playing badminton, while Mr Tripathi and his grandson, Jaya’s son Tublu, are sitting nearby. It’s not long before Ashim, Sanjay, Hari and Shekhar have made friends with the family and have joined them.
Sanjay is intrigued by Jaya, and Ashim is attracted to Rini, from whom he manages to wangle a visit to a tiny one-room annexe next door, where she sometimes goes to meditate. Ashim chats with her, sees her collection of books and LPs (all very eclectic) and tries to flirt with Rini, but her poise and her somewhat enigmatic smile are a bit daunting: it’s hard for Ashim to gauge her, to understand who she is and how she regards him.
But this is just the start. As the hours pass, these four men, initially together and looking for companionship with each other, find themselves drifting towards other people. Swiftly, they forge connections and relationships with individuals in Palamau, and how those connections reach a climax (or at least a satisfactory point in the story) is what Aranyer Din Raatri is about.
What I liked about this film:
The way the story moves, the slow, organic progression of each relationship. You see exactly how, slowly and believably, each of these relationships (especially the Rini-Ashim one) builds. Even otherwise, the entire tone of the film till just about 20 minutes before the end is this very believable, non-dramatic, almost lazy tone. I could almost believe myself part of this quartet as they arrived in sleepy Palamau, tried to let their hair down, and almost immediately found themselves having to keep up their urbane, sophisticated image, all for the sake of impressing the Tripathi women.
The swagger and self-confidence of the city-dweller comes through in small details in those first few interactions with local people. The way the watchman is bribed; the easy, entitled way in which the men hire Lakha or pay Dulli and her friends to clean their rooms; the unselfconscious ease with which they go to the village to drink: these are all men who are very sure of themselves, of their place in society, because they are urban, they are upper caste, they are entitled. Never mind if none of them bothers to wonder how their bribery might cost the watchman his job (or what the repercussions of that might be). Never mind if they cannot see how someone like Lakha perceives this self-confidence when it tips over into loud, angry aggression.
But when the Tripathis come face to face with these four men, they are suddenly taken back from the forest to the city, if only in spirit. Suddenly, they need to put their masks back on—and in several instances of the wit that Satyajit Ray could be so good at, the men find themselves in embarrassing situations that erode that self-confidence just when it’s sorely needed.
The acting is uniformly superb (there wasn’t a person here whose acting actually felt like acting), and the camera work is superb. That scene at sunset between Ashim and Rini, the light becoming less and less until he is obliged to take out his cigarette lighter, the way the last few rays light up their faces… excellent.
Plus, I loved the glimpses of Santhal music and dance.
An excellent film. There’s nothing here I didn’t like.