RAY’S ‘KANCHENJUNGA’

Ruma Chakravarti

When I began to write about the Satyajit Ray film ‘Kanchenjunga’, I admit that I reached for the DVD copy that I had. For a film that is about the kind of Bengali people that many of Ray film watchers today would know far better than the poverty of Pather Panchali  or Ashani Sanket, this  is not as widely watched. It is a story of the quiet changes that happen to families with time, so subtly as to often go unnoticed, but of great importance none the less. The events are set against the physical backdrop of Kanchenjunga, the second highest peak of the Himalayas. Ray uses the mountains as both prop and metaphor; showing the uphill struggle of some characters, the monotony of the existence of others and a heightened sense of confidence that various characters begin to enjoy as they conquer the mountain in their own ways.

The story depicts the last day of a stay in Darjeeling for a wealthy family. The film begins with an introduction to the family members who are dominated by the father, Indranath, played superbly by Chhabi Biswas. Biswas was one of Ray’s favourite actors and when he lost his life in a head on collision between his car and a truck five weeks after the release of this film in 1962, Ray was devastated and stopped writing parts for middle aged men; that quintessentially Bengali institution known as the ‘Bhadralok’. He believed that Biswas was one of the very few actors of the time who possessed the high degree of acting ability required to bring the character to life.

In the film, Indranath’s wife Labonya seems wearily acquiescent to her husband’s word being law. elder daughter Anima looks unhappy while her husband Shankar advises his sister-in-law Monisha to not marry a man without first falling in love; thus confirming the idea that all is not well in his own arranged marriage. Monisha is shown to be a timid girl who does not question what is planned for her. As the day progresses, an unrelated uncle and nephew duo are shown climbing the steep steps leading to the Darjeeling Mall. The older man is breathless and unable to talk after the climb which parallels his own life of hard graft. When they find the industrialist and his family graciously taking the air, the uncle attempts to remind Indranath that he was once house tutor to the only son of the family, down to the year of his employment. The contrast between the importance of this memory to the poorer man and Indranath’s inability to recognize him is as stark as the difference in their personal circumstances and is made worse by his desperate plea that his nephew Ashok be granted a job.

Indranath is a man whose Anglicized manner and clothing belie his close links to the patriarchal belief systems of the past. Having achieved success during the recently ended British period, he is regretful over their departure from India and derides the role of revolutionaries including his own classmates in gaining independence. He wants Monisha to marry a foreign returned man, Mr Banerjee, who is considered to have ‘good prospects’. He is unable to appreciate things beyond his own materialistic interests. He fails to see both his own and elder daughter Anima’s marriages as one-sided and unhappy and responds to his brother-in-law’s delight at finding a long sought after bird by asking whether the creature can be roasted for eating. He represents the sort of Anglophile post-colonial mentality that Ashok, a young character in the film, seems to be struggling against as a representative of the new order.

The film unrolls in the form of several conversations between pairs of characters as they take long rambling walks. At no point in the film are these characters more than a few minutes apart from each other. I felt the different stretches of mountain roads were almost an allegory for the different paths people take. The married couples have their conversations in situations where they are generally static. The younger un-married characters such as Monisha, Mr Banerjee and Ashok are shown walking almost constantly.

The characters are fleshed out through the film. Monisha’s prospective groom, Mr.Banerjee talks about his professional achievements and indicates his liberal lifestyle by referring to the company of women he enjoyed abroad. As he understands Monisha’s coolness towards him he shows an attitude which contrasts with her father’s intolerance. Monisha seems to come alive only while interacting with Ashok who tells her that he has turned down the job offered by Indranath; he mentions the fact that the mountain and their surroundings have enabled him to feel like a giant and that he might not have dared to say no had he been behind a desk in the city. Their friendship is a chapter left unexplored but a growing bond between the two is hinted at despite their disparate social situations. The bitter exchange between Anima and Shankar begins with a barrage of accusations by each. The conversation takes place as they watch their daughter and the surrounding scenery and covers problems that have taken place in the city far from the mountains around them. As they talk, they seem to grow expansive and attain a degree of forgiveness. They both agree to make another attempt at saving their marriage for the sake of their child who is shown constantly riding a horse through Darjeeling, in a possible reference to the set patterns that people will fall into. Labonya’s brother Jagadish is a keen birdwatcher who seems less worldly but understands the situation of his relatives better than they do themselves. As a result of his unspoken encouragement Labonya takes on the role of an assertive parent after years of blindly following her husband’s dictates. The scene where she is shown singing while sitting alone on a bench, seemingly to the mountain and for herself epitomizes for me her metamorphosis into a human being who does not need anyone else to tell her what to do or how to feel. The song is one by Rabindranath Tagore that speaks of the angst of being exiled and living in doubt and sorrow. The use of Rabindra Sangeet ties this film firmly to the soil of Bengal and is another of Ray’s skilful touches to indicate her traditional roots while speaking of the torment within her.

At the end of his walk, the father arrives at a previously arranged point, expecting to meet the rest of his family but no one is there. He is unaware of the changes that have taken place within the family as they take the first steps to free themselves from the boundaries he has set for them. As the mist lightens, Kanchenjunga is revealed in its full glory but Indranath is too pre-occupied with his thoughts to notice it or appreciate it, despite having missed out on this throughout his entire stay.

This was Ray’s first original screenplay and also the first film that he shot in colour. Colour has been used to great effect throughout the film. The brilliant skies, the dense grey mists rising out of the wooded valleys and the soaring mountain above all the human activity – all these create a mise-en-scene that is as far removed from the city the characters come from as is imaginable. One is able to imagine that each character has drawn strength from their surroundings and from the presence of Kanchenjungha, as Ashok admits to Monisha. The sound track is also instrumental in furthering the ambience of the location. The film makes great use of local folk songs to accompany the hand drawn credits which were done by Satyajit Ray himself. Background sounds such bird calls, the radio and yak bells serve brilliantly in setting various scenes.

It is a contemplative movie – quiet and slow, filmed as a series of conversations punctuated by sudden spells of activity; an ode to the spirit of progress and social change against the setting of the glorious mountains. It is proof of Ray’s expertise as a film maker that he manages to produce a film that engages the viewer with images as well as the dialogue which is imbued with multiple layers of interpretation achieved through attention to a multitude of details. The power of the film comes from both this and the sensitive performances of the cast. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in making us become deeply aware about the fortunes of this cast. We completely understand why it is necessary that the wife becomes a person capable of independent thought, or that the father is overthrown as the lawmaker of his kingdom and that each of the young people come to an understanding about their own roles in life.

Although it is shrouded in mist most of the time, we are constantly reminded of the presence of the soaring heights of Kanchenjunga as a symbol of the progress of India’s men and women as they step out of the shadow of the past and look to a more egalitarian future. The director has been quoted by Andrew Robinson as saying,

“The idea was to have the film starting with sunlight. Then clouds coming, then mist rising, and then mist disappearing, the cloud disappearing, and then the sun shining on the snow-peaks. There is an independent progression to Nature itself, and the story reflects this.”

He manages to convey this and much more throughout the film’s entirety, through a beautifully crafted ode to both human nature and the glory of nature that is Kanchenjunga.

***

Ruma ChakravartiRuma Chakravarti was born in Africa, had her schooling in India and has lived in seven countries. A high school mathematics teacher in her other life, Ruma is an avid blogger, writer and people watcher. Her interests include Rabindranath Tagore, reading, folklore and music, crafts, gardening and films. She currently lives in Adelaide, Australia with her family which includes three children, one dog and one rabbit.

 

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7 Comments

Filed under Essays, Tin Trunk

7 responses to “RAY’S ‘KANCHENJUNGA’

  1. I am admiring your review, Ruma.

  2. amanita sed

    A remarkable write-up.. the allegories of mountain roads and mists were new insights for me. I have always been awed with film and this writing helps me to relive the feeling to the T..

  3. Pingback: MEMORIES OF KANCHENJUNGA | Northeast Review

  4. Kunal Sen

    This is an excellent piece that talks about a classic in a tone that is soothing and not cantankerous or patronizing like those pedantic ‘world-cinema’ reviews you normally get to read on a film like this. I know a hell of a lot about the film. I learnt more from this article. Sometimes though, I feel that a lot of discourse about this film tends to be only around the thematic linkages between the screenplay and the weather depicted. There’s relatively less exposition available on other intriguing, often subliminal aspects of the film. In Satyajit Ray’s biography by Marie Seton, Ray likened the narrative structure itself to a musical composition, with scenes transitioning rhythmically between the protagonists: A-B-C-D-E, A-B-C-D-E, and so on- that brought me a fresh angle on this film, but yes, had nothing to do with the mountain itself, so I think in that sense, the reviewer has covered a lot more relevant ground and yet, stayed calm, focused and engaging- much like the film and its maker.

  5. PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA

    KANCHENJUNGHA: RAY’S MASTERPIECE
    BY PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA

    The doyen of International cinema SATYAJIT RAY in his myriad revelations said that the one film that he would make the same way, if he had to do it again, is Charulata. There are other films, such as Days and Nights in the Forest, which he simultaneously admired openly. Among the children’s films, he rejigged his view in favour of Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God). The public perception is that it works very well. It’s got wit and tag of intellection. It’s got aesthetic film eye. It’s got a face, a very satisfying social face, and some wonderful performance. It is engaging to note that he said he also enjoyed making the musical films because they give him a chance to compose music, that has an eternal quality. According to him, they’re commercially successful, which gave you a certain kind of satisfaction. It is needless to mention that based on his short story he liked Kanchenjungha, too, as the film is full of spacio-temporal ellipse. That’s probably because it was his first original screenplay and a very personal film. It was a good ten to fifteen years ahead of its time. This critic is of the view that no director of India even today could capture this epic tag.

    On our audience the great Ray noted that our audience likes a central character, or a couple of central characters with whom they can identify, and a plot with a straight narrative line. Kanchenjungha told the story of several groups of characters and it went back and forth. His structure is like that of between group one, group two, group three, group four, then back to group one, group two, and so on. It’s a very musical form. Truth has it that after its release of the film very few people liked the work though after six decades it is still a masterpiece that none can surpass. He was aggrieved to see reaction which was stupid, and bovine. At the same time the reviews were not interesting; they were very.tupppenny-halfpenny. However, before he left us in 1992 he repeated looking back now, he found that it is a very interesting film.

    Subject of women is another aspect Ray’s oeuvre that even foxed like an eminent literary Professoor Dr.Ashoke Rudra. On women Ray used to have liberating views. The women in his films tend to be much stronger, more determined, more adaptable and resilient than the men in his films. One may ask: Is that a reflection of Bengali social history? That is often a reflection of what the author has written, a confirmation of the author’s point of view expressed in the books on which the films are based. There have been many strong women characters in Tagore and in Bankimchandra. But it also reflected Rar’s own attitudes and personal experience of women. It is rare, very rare with our innumerable directors of Bengal or India. Ray is the supreme artist and remains so even now, even to-day. Indian cinema still draws from Ray’s Cinema that guards the flame of aesthetics of good Indian films.

  6. PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS, INDIA

    PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA
    June 25, 2014 at 9:04 am
    KANCHENJUNGHA: RAY’S MASTERPIECE
    BY PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA

    The doyen of International cinema SATYAJIT RAY in his myriad revelations said that the one film that he would make the same way, if he had to do it again, is Charulata. There are other films, such as Days and Nights in the Forest, which he simultaneously admired openly. Among the children’s films, he rejigged his view in favour of Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God). The public perception is that it works very well. It’s got wit and tag of intellection. It’s got aesthetic film eye. It’s got a face, a very satisfying social face, and some wonderful performance. It is engaging to note that he said he also enjoyed making the musical films because they give him a chance to compose music, that has an eternal quality. According to him, they’re commercially successful, which gave you a certain kind of satisfaction. It is needless to mention that based on his short story he liked Kanchenjungha, too, as the film is full of spacio-temporal ellipse. That’s probably because it was his first original screenplay and a very personal film. It was a good ten to fifteen years ahead of its time. This critic is of the view that no director of India even today could capture this epic tag.

    On our audience the great Ray noted that our audience likes a central character, or a couple of central characters with whom they can identify, and a plot with a straight narrative line. Kanchenjungha told the story of several groups of characters and it went back and forth. His structure is like that of between group one, group two, group three, group four, then back to group one, group two, and so on. It’s a very musical form. Truth has it that after its release of the film very few people liked the work though after six decades it is still a masterpiece that none can surpass. He was aggrieved to see reaction which was stupid, and bovine. At the same time the reviews were not interesting; they were very.tupppenny-halfpenny. However, before he left us in 1992 he repeated looking back now, he found that it is a very interesting film.

    Subject of women is another aspect Ray’s oeuvre that even foxed like an eminent literary Professoor Dr.Ashoke Rudra. On women Ray used to have liberating views. The women in his films tend to be much stronger, more determined, more adaptable and resilient than the men in his films. One may ask: Is that a reflection of Bengali social history? That is often a reflection of what the author has written, a confirmation of the author’s point of view expressed in the books on which the films are based. There have been many strong women characters in Tagore and in Bankimchandra. But it also reflected Rar’s own attitudes and personal experience of women. It is rare, very rare with our innumerable directors of Bengal or India. Ray is the supreme artist and remains so even now, even to-day. Indian cinema still draws from Ray’s Cinema that guards the flame of aesthetics of good Indian films.

    Reply

  7. PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS, INDIA

    PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS, INDIA
    September 6, 2015 at 7:59 pm
    PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA
    June 25, 2014 at 9:04 am
    KANCHENJUNGHA: RAY’S MASTERPIECE
    BY PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA

    The doyen of International cinema SATYAJIT RAY in his myriad revelations said that the one film that he would make the same way, if he had to do it again, is Charulata. There are other films, such as Days and Nights in the Forest, which he simultaneously admired openly. Among the children’s films, he rejigged his view in favour of Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God). The public perception is that it works very well. It’s got wit and tag of intellection. It’s got aesthetic film eye. It’s got a face, a very satisfying social face, and some wonderful performance. It is engaging to note that he said he also enjoyed making the musical films because they give him a chance to compose music, that has an eternal quality. According to him, they’re commercially successful, which gave you a certain kind of satisfaction. It is needless to mention that based on his short story he liked Kanchenjungha, too, as the film is full of spacio-temporal ellipse. That’s probably because it was his first original screenplay and a very personal film. It was a good ten to fifteen years ahead of its time. This critic is of the view that no director of India even today could capture this epic tag.

    On our audience the great Ray noted that our audience likes a central character, or a couple of central characters with whom they can identify, and a plot with a straight narrative line. Kanchenjungha told the story of several groups of characters and it went back and forth. His structure is like that of between group one, group two, group three, group four, then back to group one, group two, and so on. It’s a very musical form. Truth has it that after its release of the film very few people liked the work though after six decades it is still a masterpiece that none can surpass. He was aggrieved to see reaction which was stupid, and bovine. At the same time the reviews were not interesting; they were very.tupppenny-halfpenny. However, before he left us in 1992 he repeated looking back now, he found that it is a very interesting film.

    Subject of women is another aspect Ray’s oeuvre that even foxed like an eminent literary Professoor Dr.Ashoke Rudra. On women Ray used to have liberating views. The women in his films tend to be much stronger, more determined, more adaptable and resilient than the men in his films. One may ask: Is that a reflection of Bengali social history? That is often a reflection of what the author has written, a confirmation of the author’s point of view expressed in the books on which the films are based. There have been many strong women characters in Tagore and in Bankimchandra. But it also reflected Rar’s own attitudes and personal experience of women. It is rare, very rare with our innumerable directors of Bengal or India. Ray is the supreme artist and remains so even now, even to-day. Indian cinema still draws from Ray’s Cinema that guards the flame of aesthetics of good Indian films.

    Reply

    Reply

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