Aranyer Din Raatri (1970)

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.  

42 thoughts on “Aranyer Din Raatri (1970)

  1. A very serene film, isn’t it? The scene which really stood out for me was the memory game…it could have easily descended into something tedious but it holds your interest!
    Satyajit Ray’s attention to detail is superb…like the smile Hari gives when Rini mentions Don Bradman…

    • Yes, that game scene is really good. Apparently Satyajit Ray filmed that sitting in the middle of the circle with the camera. His attention to detail is indeed superb!

  2. Excellent review of a really outstanding movie which is definitely among Ray’s best ! I fully agree with you that there is absolutely nothing in the movie that one can dislike.
    I may humbly add that I have written detailed reviews of this and 14 other of Ray’s movies on webgurjari.in in Gujarati language in a series entitled ‘ સત્યજીત રાયની સૃષ્ટિ ‘ that concluded recently. This was in connection with Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary this year.
    The artist playing Sanjay is Shubhendu Chatterjee.

    Interestingly, there is an excellent sequel to this movie named ‘ Abar Aranye ‘ ( Again to forest )made in 2003 by Gautam Ghosh where majority of the characters were played by original actors of ‘ Aranyer din ratri ‘. Those who have seen and enjoyed the original will certainly enjoy sequel too.

    • Thank you for pointing out that error, I’ve corrected it. I do wish I could read Gujarati – would really liked to have read your reviews! Which are the other top films of Ray’s that you especially like? I’ve been wondering which one I should review to mark his birth centenary, and have been torn between several that I haven’t watched yet.

      • It was a series published fortnightly on every second and fourth Tuesday of the month.
        I started with Ray’s last film _Agantuk_ followed by his Kolkata trilogy ( Pratidwandi, Seemabaddh and Jana-aranya ), Shatranj ke khiladi, Jalsa ghar, Mahanagar, Charulata, Aranyer din ratri, Ganashatru, Devi, Kanchanjanga, Nayak, Ashani sanket and Pather Panchali.
        The series concluded in current month only.
        Those of your readers who know Gujarati and are interested may read it in ‘ પરિચયો ‘ section of webgurjari.in.
        Thanks !

  3. A thoroughly engrossing movie this one… though I have often wondered on simi as a ‘darkened’ santhal girl… I am sure Ray had some thought on that.. I have heard a few, hypothesised a few, but would love to hear more on this..
    Abar Aranye, interesting thought it was, did not capture the tranquility of the forest like Araneyer… and that to me was a big disappointment. Death in the Gunjan came closer to being a spiritual sequel to Araneyer , is what I’d say.

    • I was wondering about Simi Grewal as Dulli too. I wonder why her; why not another actress. I suppose he specifically chose an actress who wasn’t Bengali because he wanted her to have that somewhat not-born-Bengali tinge to her accent. But why not another Hindi-speaking actress?It’s not as if the role requires really brilliant acting (or that Simi brings that to her acting, anyway – she’s adequate, not superb).

      Would love to know what you think too.

      Death in the Gunj was recommended to me too yesterday. Will certainly look out for it. Netflix, I hope!

  4. One of my favourite Ray films. Your review makes me want to rewatch it. The quiet gentleness of this meandering film coupled with the excellent acting throughout is just what I need.

    p.s. Simi Garewal also acted under Mrinal Sen’s direction in Padatik, a part of his Calcutta trilogy.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this, especially as it brought back memories. I watched Aranyer Din Raatri just the once at Dalhousie Film Society in 1971, or ’72. Thanks for fleshing out so many details at the edges of my memory. One sequence that has stuck with me was Satyajit Ray’s mature depiction of the widow’s sexual longing, and her taking matters into her own hand by taking the initiative in approaching the male character. Of course the man, in spite of all his earlier bravado, chickens out in the face of a sexually mature and demanding woman. Bimal Roy’s Devdas too had a similar sequence where Devdas too loses his nerve in the face of being approached in the middle of the night by the sexually bold Paro. What are these two Bengali Directors telling us abouut Indian men, or is it just about the Bhadralok – who were satirized by Kipling in Jungle Book?

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this; thank you!

      Yes, that particular scene left quite an impression on me too, because I found it both so poignant as well as mature. It’s been too long since I watched Devdas to remember the scene you mentioned, but I think you’re probably right about it being a telling comment on the bhadralok. An inability to accept that a woman could be open about her sexuality and her sexual needs.

  6. Watched it right after your review. Loved it. Plan to watch it again. Ray’s movies are just marvelous! Had seen few of them before but am inclined to see more. Also saw Agantuk tonight.
    Check out the brillian critique by Utpal Dutt on Ray being called a Renaissance man available on youtube.

    • An interesting incident concerning ‘ Agantuk ‘. We all know, it was Ray’s last film and in a way, his Swan Song ! He became seriously ill immediately afterwards and passed away a few months after the completion of film. It is said that after finishing the last shot of the film, Ray spontaneously said, ‘ That’s All ! I have said whatever there was to say. ‘ !

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Will watch the Utpal Dutt critique when I can find time – but I completely agree that Ray was indeed a Renaissance man – so very multi-faceted.

  7. The book Sanjay was reading is ‘Palamau’ written by Sanjib Chandra Chatterjee, the elder brother of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It is regarded a classic in bengali travel literature.

  8. Yes..you can review ‘Mahanagar’.it’s excellent. I recommend two other movies, I think you will appreciate are ‘Kanchanjangha'(1963) and ‘seemabaddha'(1973). In fact, I am waiting for your reviews of those films.

  9. The Apu Trilogy, Pathar Panchali, Aparajita and Apur Sansar were shown on TNT. The prints were restored prints by Crittenton, so were brilliant. I hope you can see those prints. In my younger days did not watch them, because thought they were slow. Now in my 60s, realized they were perfectly paced. I have seen almost all of Ray’s movies, but think the Apu trilogy is the best.

      • Make sure you watch the restored prints. I would like to read your reviews. Ravi Shankar’s background music was great. After you finish Apur Sansar, Apu’s character stays in your mind for sometime. His mother…..no words to describe. Please see it.

  10. The film completely differs from the original story by Sunil Ganguly. In the story a group of jobless youths get into a train with no destination in mind and without buying a ticket. They hop off at some random station and start walking aimlessly around. It is semi-autobiographical. Satyajit Ray took the spirit of the movie and wrote a completely new screenplay. The writer was not very pleased with it although the end result was excellent.

    • Majority of Ray’s films are adapted from literatural masterpieces and virtually all of them are altered to ‘ suit the needs of cinema ‘ as Ray firmly believed that literature and cinema were altogether different mediums. To me, these alterations and additions-deletions have always added to the overall value of the original.

      • It’s not quite that. I’m well aware of the changes Ray made to original stories or novels to make them suitable to the film medium. This time, however, he did not take anything from the original story except the gist of some friends transplanted in an unfamiliar surrounding and beginning to realize something different about themselves. I’m not saying the film didn’t work; it’s marvelous. But not quite what the author had imagined. I think Ray’s middle-class upbringing had something to do with that. He was not familiar with that class of people. It was more up Ritwik Ghatak’s street than Ray’s.

    • I hadn’t known that. Interesting – reminds me of a book I’d read, a collection of 14 stories that inspired Satyajit Ray. For almost every single story for which I’d seen the corresponding film (Aranyer Din Ratri was not one of them) I was amazed at the way Ray had adapted it – he seemed to capture the essence and the spirit of the story so well.

      I can see Sunil Ganguly’s point, though: a lot of writers are very annoyed if a story of theirs is adapted into something very different. RK Narayan and The Guide is a case in point.

      • Yes, he had a masterly knack of weeding out the un-filmic elements. But, as I mentioned in my reply to Bhagwan, this was more a re-write than an adaptation.

  11. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen “Aranyer Din Raatri” alongwith a number of other major works by Ray. Your review of the film is so enticing that I’m compelled to rectify this deficiency as soon as possible. Thanks for the pointer, Madhu!

    • I haven’t seen a lot of his most iconic films either, Shalini, so we are in the same boat! :-) Glad you enjoyed this review; I hope you’ll enjoy the movie too.

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