Agantuk (The Stranger), expanded from Ray’s own short story Atithi (The Guest), was filmed in 1991 – it was his last film. The reason the movie has had an abiding appeal for me is that a lot of people have told me over the years that the protagonist, Manomohon Mitra the globetrotting anthropologist played by Utpal Dutt reminded them strongly of me, or rather, the many blunt and unpleasant truths about ourselves that they remembered me saying. I watched it first as far back as 1992 (strange to think I was not yet 30 then!). Now that these things are so easily and cheaply available at home via the internet, I sometimes look back, and so I did with this movie recently.
Before talking about the movie itself, let me mention a few broader things. I have always felt that short stories lose a great deal of their impact when they are stretched for the purpose of making full-length movies. This is true about Agantuk too. Secondly – and I first made this comment ages ago, in our own newspaper Durgapur Perspective, in connection with Ray’s movie Sadgati based on Premchand’s story – Ray should have focused on making works of fantasy like Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne, because we have had plenty of directors who could make fine ‘realist’ films with strong social messages, but when it came to whimsical imaginative fiction of pure genius, Ray stood alone in India (has anyone, even armed with vastly bigger budgets and far more advanced technology, made anything in the last fifty years that can hold a candle to GoogaBaba?). Pity that he, like so many other filmmakers, probably began to feel that he was not being respected enough as a ‘serious’ director, and that there was a need to correct the impression. How much did Indian cinema lose in consequence, I wonder? And thirdly, maybe owing to advancing age and failing health, Ray was slowly losing his touch in his last films – the nuanced sophistication that made watching his earlier works a pure delight was missing already in Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha, and that is even more painfully apparent in Agantuk. It is simply overdone, too in-your-face, bordering on melodrama. Tell me if you feel otherwise, and why.
Yes, I know it’s basically about criticizing our urban middle-class society, which, yes, was already highly criticizable in the 1980s – Ray would probably have quietly committed suicide if he had lived to see it today. About that, in a minute. But first, why the exaggerations, and all the unnecessary mystery? Why was the guest being so coy about revealing details regarding his identity and background (why didn’t he, say, show them some of the scholarly books and travelogues he had supposedly written)? And why, if the hosts were so suspicious about whether he was a real uncle or fake, did they accommodate him at all, and if they did so, why didn’t they question him more directly – it can be done without being grossly impolite, you know? Why, instead, did they call over a friend to do the cross-questioning for them, whom they knew to be by nature impulsive with a tendency to be rude – who, almost predictably, messed up everything and drove the uncle briefly away? Why were they so anxious to make sure that the uncle had not come back to claim his inheritance: what would have been so wrong if he did? Why couldn’t they tell him they were sorry in a better way than merely buying him a new suitcase when he was leaving for the next leg of his world tour? … I hope you get my drift. With my very very limited knowledge of movie direction (but after a lifetime of watching and thinking about movies), I still do feel that things could have been handled with more finesse, made to appear more plausible – especially when it’s coming from someone no less than Satyajit Ray, and with a thespian of the stature of Dutt in the lead role.
All that having been said, I can now pay tribute where it is due. As I said, already in the mid-1980s the Bengali urban middle class was becoming insufferable to all decent people (and there weren’t even any IT-experts around then, God help us!), so someone had to come along and tell them where they got off. Who better than the man who was then the tallest living cultural icon they had to boast of? They were all very snooty about being educated and well-informed and highly cultured, yet most of them were little better at their best than skilled technicians of one sort or the other (you know, the doctor-lawyer-engineer types) who never read anything beyond textbooks, professional manuals and maybe a bit of pulp fiction, time servers and money grubbers who burnt with envy of those who had more, obsessed with being seen as ‘westernized’ at all costs yet incapable of borrowing anything more than the most superficial and gross aspects of westernism, something vastly and tragically removed from and inferior to the kind of ‘modernism’ that Rammohun and Tagore and Ray himself had successfully achieved, ‘smart’ in their own eyes yet in fact riddled with superstitions, unreasoned taboos, half-baked knowledge, silly preconceived notions about all members of humanity who did not belong to their own set (such as tribal folk), stuck in their little ruts mental as much as physical (the husband’s whole world revolves around his corporate office, his flat and perhaps his club; how many achingly tiresome clones of the same type have we all suffered, beer bottles in hand, gold chains and Nikon cameras around their necks, hairy legs sticking out from chic shorts, glued to their mobile phones, unable to talk without casually spewing obscenities and college-dorm jokes?) – in a word, as the uncle told his adopted grandson not to become, koopamanduk, frogs in the well. Heaven knows I have seen New York-returned koopamanduks without number for my sins, and been revolted. So in their eyes, all those who wore few clothes (unless they were film stars, I suppose) and indulged in relatively free sex and ate unfamiliar meat were savages beyond the pale, while the truly civilized man was the one who could wipe out millions of his fellow human beings with the press of a button and without a qualm, as the uncle tellingly says when he has been put on the mat. Nothing more starkly portrays their utter pettiness, their complete worthlessness as human beings than the way they are rendered speechless and awash in tears with shock and wonder as much as shame on discovering that the uncle has quietly left behind his entire patrimony as compensation for their (highly questionable) week-long hospitality – largeness of heart is so utterly, frighteningly alien to their mindsets – and, from all I have learnt about the vast majority of this class, alas, my own class, how true to life that is!
And so yes, I am deeply flattered that a lot of perceptive people have compared me with Uncle Mitra. I shall be glad if many old boys and their parents recollect to others that they have learnt a thing or two of lasting and non-trivial value from me, things that have forced them to think and look differently at the world thereafter. And when people want to find out a bit more about me, I could do worse than telling them to go and watch Ray’s last film. To all those who like to think I am just a nonsense-spewing oddball, I say, look at which people have inspired me and how. Russell is probably beyond their reach, Tagore they have forgotten, so try Satyajit Ray, at least, then tell me whether both he and I were wrong, deluded and irrelevant, and whether they have found better ideals to emulate!