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.
When I read the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing away, my first thought was: I need to write a tribute, talk about how much I liked this actor. Then, reality crept in. It’s not as if I’ve seen too many films that starred Soumitra Chatterjee. Charulata, Kapurush, Jhinder Bondi, Aranyer Din Raatri, Sonar Kella, one of the three episodes of Teen Kanya… and that was it. I didn’t recall having seen any of his other films.
Which might sound odd; how could one like an actor so much based on only such a handful of films? But I suppose when you’re looking at quality rather than quantity, it can work. And Soumitra Chatterjee, even in the few films of his that I’ve seen, proved himself a memorable actor. Not just handsome, not just superficially charismatic, but also so very talented. His ‘coward’ of Kapurush is so very real, so flawed and believable a protagonist; his Mayurvahan in Jhinder Bondi is a deliciously evil portrayal of the flamboyant, boyishly attractive yet very wicked Rupert of Hentzau. It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata, and he is Feluda. Sharp, intelligent, well-read (and intelligent and well-read are apt descriptions of the man in real life too, from what I gather).
But a full-fledged tribute, a run-down of all his best films: no, that was not something I thought I would be capable of. Instead, I decided to commemorate the life and career of Soumitra Chatterjee by watching one film I’d only heard of in passing, never really got down to seeing.
As I’d mentioned in my last post, I’m not much of a Raj Kapoor fan. I have seen most of his films, but I like very few of them. Jaagte Raho, a flop when it was first released (even though it won an award at Karlovy Vary) is one of the exceptions: an RK film that I found engrossing and worth the watch. Part of it probably is the fact that it features a veritable who’s who of 50’s Hindi cinema character actors. Part of it is due to Salil Choudhary’s superb music. And more than that, it’s because this is a well-scripted story, socially relevant in a tongue-in-cheek way.
There’s something a little strange about seeing a film you’ve heard so much about. An English film, but with a primarily Bollywood star cast? With a story line that wavers between the usual hiccups of a middle class urban couple, doing the painful transition from carefree single existences to married life—and an American, floundering about as he tries to reach for a higher spirituality? Part Indian, part foreign outlook? And all of it with its roots in the Manusmriti, which says that of the four states of man, that of the grihastha (the householder) is the most important…?