For years, I had read an anecdotal story about Ray: after he took the last shot of Agantuk (The Stranger; 1991) and gave his unit orders to pack up, he turned to his wife Bijoya and said, “Well, that’s it. I’m done. I’ve said all I wanted to say”. I didn’t believe this story until it was confirmed in Bijoya’s autobiography Manik and I, a delightful piece of work that I recommend to Ray fans and casual readers alike.
Bijoya, by her own account, was seized with an ineffable sense of dread at Ray’s proclamation. Soon after, Ray fell badly sick and, after a series of trips in and out of the hospital, finally died on 23 April 1992.
How much of Agantuk was influenced by Ray’s premonition of his approaching death will forever be a matter of conjecture, but my viewing of the film left no doubt in my mind that it is Ray’s most complete work – an engagingly written, captivatingly performed, and impeccably polished farewell to his fans and his critics.
The titular ‘stranger’ of the film is Manmohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt in a career-best performance; he was to die soon after the release of the film), who descends on the Bose household after a thirty-five-year absence abroad, sending only a letter to inform his niece Anila Bose of his arrival.
Her husband Sudhindra, a prosperous executive, is immediately suspicious of the man and tells Anila to telegram that the family is out of town. “Do you know how much fraud is going on these days? My father’s art collection is priceless! What if it gets stolen?”
Anila, however, has mixed feelings: she is torn between her desire to see her infamous uncle, who vanished mysteriously all those years ago and protecting her family and her house. In the end, Anila prevails and the uncle is allowed to visit, and the rest of the film follows Sudhindra, Anila, and their various friends’ attempts to suss out the man’s real identity.
In keeping with Ray’s steadfast belief in the purity and innocence of children, the Boses’ ten-year-old son, Satyaki, is the only one who accepts Manmohan for who he is without question. There are many little moments in the film that speak volumes about each of the characters and their attitudes towards the mysterious stranger.
For example, right before the stranger arrives, Anila removes one of her husband’s ‘priceless’ artefacts from the cabinet on which it stands and locks it up in her cupboard. However, she completely ignores the numerous books (including a full encyclopaedia set) in that cabinet, as if they are of no value! Later, after Sudhindra comes home from work, he goes straight to Manmohan’s room to interrogate him.
Manmohan tells him, “You know nothing about me, but unfortunately, there’s no easy way of determining who I am”. “Why not?” Sudhindra asks, but before he can finish speaking, Manmohan lightly tosses his passport at him, having correctly deduced that Sudhindra is burning to see it. However, Manmohan himself coldly admits that “this proves nothing . . . To truly know whether I am who I say I am, you will need to spend time with me. But are you willing to do it?”
Sudhindra, the cynical business executive, is effectively silenced.
Manmohan himself is perhaps one of Ray’s greatest creations, perhaps because he is based on Ray himself. He is well-read and well-travelled and is thus extremely erudite and extremely good at sniffing out people’s true attitudes towards him. Even though all the different cultures of the West have moulded his personality and thinking, he is still irrepressibly Indian, at home in both a travel jacket and kurta-pyjama.
He speaks perfectly idiomatic English, and at the same time his Bengali, according to Anila, is ‘better than mine or my husband’s’. One of the very first things he asks Satyaki is whether he knows the one hundred and eight names of Krishna, and when the boy says no, Manmohan starts singing them in a beautifully clear and expressive voice. The voice is Ray’s himself; he sang for the first and last time in Agantuk, furthering the speculation that he knew this would be his last film.
Manmohan tells Anila that he left home after he saw a photograph in a book of the famous prehistoric ‘bison’ painting in the Cave of Altamira in Spain. The painting inspired ‘wanderlust’ in him, prompting him to seek out his destiny.
Similarly, Ray went to see the Ellora Caves near Aurangabad when he an art student at Santiniketan, the famous school that the poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore had started. The sight of the magnificent paintings at the cave convinced Ray that he would never be able to create something similar, and he gave up his plans of becoming an artist.
He returned to Calcutta to become a graphic designer instead before his own wanderlust took him first to Jean Renoir and then to Bibhutibhusan Bannerjee, who had published a sublime novel called Pather Panchali a few years ago. And the rest, to repeat an old cliché, is history!
In a later scene, Manmohan is being grilled by Sudhindra’s stern lawyer friend, Pritwish. The entire scene is a masterclass in writing, acting, and editing, and Manmohan’s wry yet thought-provoking replies to Pritwish’s most rude questions again show shades of Ray. For example, Pritwish asks Manmohan his views on dharma. Infuriatingly, Manmohan replies to the question with another question, “Do you mean dharma as in duty or dharma as in religion? Because those are two different things”.
A put-out Pritwish mumbles that he meant the latter. In an echo of the humanist and rationalist Ray’s reply to the same question in numerous interviews, Manmohan says, “I cannot believe in something that divides man. Religion invariably does that – and organised religion and caste even more so”. (Remember that this film was made at the height of LK Advani’s Rath Yatra movement.) “What about God?” Pritwish quickly asks.
In response, Manmohan sings a few lines from a famous hymn (again dubbed by Ray himself) and says, “In this day and age, it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe in a benevolent god”. This is an incredibly prescient statement, as the events of December 1992 in Ayodhya and the terrible riots and bomb blasts in 1993 were soon to prove.
Pritwish asks whether science and technology can be an effective counter to religion’s more deleterious effects. He gives the example of the Voyager 2, the unmanned spacecraft that had a few years ago clicked the very first pictures of Neptune, calling it a ‘feather in the cap of NASA’. Manmohan smirks and, in an expectedly biting bit of wordplay, asks, “What can your NASA do for the nasha (drug addiction) that so many people – most of them young – suffer from?”
Instead, he refers Pritwish to the smaller scientific and technological achievements of rural folk: “Did you know that the igloo, the dwellings used by the Eskimos, uses two types of ice, one for the roof and one for the windows?” He also mentions a ‘witch doctor’ who cured him when he fell sick in Brazil, claiming he had knowledge of ‘five hundred medicinal plants at his fingertips’.
These arguments harken back to Gandhi’s vision of the ideal Indian village, a self-sustaining civilisation with local solutions to local problems; and to Ray’s own pastoralism, an area he first explored with Pather Panchali and that he would keep returning to throughout his career.
Like Gandhi, Ray too seemed to believe that unbridled use of technology would not solve people’s problems – only a simple life shorn of unnecessary modern accoutrements could do that.
Pritwish is frustrated with Manmohan’s intractability and his own inability to work out the latter’s intentions, and he shouts at Manmohan to come clean about who he is or get out – much to the embarrassment of Sudhindra and Anila. But before they can come up with the words to apologise to Manmohan, he packs up his bags and leaves their home in the middle of the night.
The Boses are able to track him to Santiniketan, where he has gone to meet his father’s old lawyer. The lawyer informs them that Manmohan’s father left him a significant amount of money in his will and that Manmohan has gone to a Santhal village close by, where he spent a part of his youth before leaving India. “God knows what attraction that place holds for him”, the lawyer muses. “He’s been all over the world, after all”.
However, those who are familiar with Ray’s career would know immediately why Manmohan went to the village. When Ray was at Santiniketan, he met Tagore. Tagore was old and sickly and near death at the time, but his intuition was still intact. He wrote a poem on a piece of paper and gave it to Ray:
For many a year, I travelled many a mile to lands far away.
I went to see the mountains, I went to see the oceans.
But I failed to see that lay
Not two steps from my home.
On a sheaf of paddy grain, a glistening drop of dew.
Tagore saw both Ray’s wanderlust and his distant fame and sought to remind him that no matter how far he travelled, he must not forget his home. So it is no coincidence that, through Manmohan, Ray returned to Santiniketan, the place where his career began. When the Bose family finds Manmohan, he is reposing contentedly on a bale of hay, as though he is waiting for them.
Anila and Sudhindra beg him to come back home, and he agrees to do so if they stay and watch the tribal dance he has organised. This dance provides the climax of the film and is arguably its true ending.
There are some final story beats in the end where the Boses find out that Manmohan left his inheritance to Anila before leaving their home, but they are less interesting than that incredible climactic dance in which Santhal women sing a mesmerising rustic song while dancing in time to the beat produced by Santhal men on their primitive instruments.
If the entire film is taken as a metaphor for Ray’s career, with Manmohan standing in for Ray himself, Sudhindra and Pritwish standing in for Ray’s critics, who often called him inauthentic and fraud for being too Western for India and for romanticising her poverty; Anila standing in for Ray’s contemporaries and successors in the film industry, who did not know whether to live up to his legacy or to abandon it; and Satyaki standing in for the new generation of filmmakers still to come, for whom Ray would be a figure of legend, then the dance sequence can be viewed as Ray’s farewell to them all.
Indeed, one of the film’s most enduring images comes from this scene, in which Manmohan sits shoulder to shoulder with Satyaki (both have the same haircut, further indicating the passing of the torch) and they both watch the dance. Manmohan looks weary but contented and Satyaki’s face is luminous with enthusiasm and excitement. One can almost hear Ray saying, “Look at the beauty I have tried to capture. For nearly fifty years, that was my lot. And now, it is yours. Take good care of it”.