Agantuk: Strange notions!

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 03, 2019 11:07 hrs

In his final film, Satyajit Ray follows the arrival of a stranger who disrupts a middle class family's routines and reveals the hollowness of modern society

Agantuk (The Stranger) was Satyajit Ray's swan song, and reveals the ripeness of the craftsman at the helm.

With an ease that flows with total mastery of one’s chosen medium, Ray begins the film, based on his own short story, with a letter. The recipient, Anila Bose (Mamata Shankar) is informed that a man who claims to be her long lost uncle, Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt), is visiting India after 35 years abroad. Although Anila hasn't actually seen her uncle since she was a baby, a fact that the uncle makes note of, as he calls on the family's sense of "traditional Indian hospitality" and asks to be taken in until he takes up his travels once more.

Anila looks forward to the meeting, but her husband Sudhindra (Deepankar De) is suspicious. The central conflict of the film rests upon the verity of Manomohan’s claimed identity of and the family's struggle to accept or reject it.

In spending considerable time in establishing these dynamics, Ray revels in the unhurriedness of the events, observant style that made him one of the cinema's most respected filmmakers. While the focus is always on the human elements, Ray is clearly also interested in abstractions. That is where Agantuk reveals its finest moments; a simple lunch becomes the first insight into Manomohan’s interests in anthropology and aesthetics.

The uncle arrives and stays with the family. He says that he is an anthropologist who has travelled all over the world, and he immediately wins the friendship of Anila's son Satyaki.

Manomohan charms Satyaki and his young friends with tales of magic; Satyaki comes to enjoy the idea that this weary, redoubtable explorer might not be his grand uncle. To Satyaki, the whole situation is akin to a great game; perhaps a natural explanation for his easy kinship with Manomohan. Sudhindra, playing the suspicious patriarch, sets up little traps to trip up their house guest; even bringing in a few friends to have a go at Manomohan’s credibility.

One of these guests, a lawyer, played by an extremely stern-faced Dhritiman Chatterjee, is a rationalist who turns the talk session into an indictment of Manomohan's spiritual endorsement of the ‘uncivilised’ life. For Manomohan, modern society is full of discontents. The way he relinquished a promising academic career to chalk out his own way of life, is a living testimony to his beliefs. And, although there is weariness in him, Manomohan is still mysteriously more content in himself than anyone else in the movie. Through Manomohan and his discussion with the family and their friends, Ray is really exploring his own interests - the dividing line between apparently civilised and so-called ‘savage’ cultures. 

As Manomohan is welcomed without hesitation into the homes the supposedly naive tribals around the world he seems rejected and suspected of malfeasance at his own niece's house. Though he seems to be exactly who he says he is, the parents continue to obsesses over verification of his true identity.

Utpal Dutt, in one of his final movie performances and in his final turn as a lead, is a revelation here. He exudes sagaciousness and worldliness endowed with an acrid wit when need calls for it. His is a portraiture of a man secure in his own self. Manomohan, as imagined by Ray and played by Dutt, is equally comfortable speaking of Aristophanes and singing lines from Narottama Dasa’s Hari Haraye Namah Krishna.

His quiet wit, considerable knowledge and intense self confidence puts the family's bourgeois assumptions into question.

Completed mere months before Ray's passing, Agantuk is a small and concentrated feature which never digresses into melodrama or provides any real closure. Manomohan’s arrival and departure seem to be inkling to the cycles of life and death and the only real closure one ever gets in what they leave behind. Some words of wisdom, some of mirth, some of solace and a few more to acknowledge contentment seem to be what one can offer. 

‘Floccinaucinihilipilification’ is a word spoken of towards the end of Agantuk, and is taken to mean “the estimation of something as valueless.”

The word might be an indication to the character’s apparent disregard for a type of civilisation that places so great an emphasis on material pageantry than on ephemeral yet perennial values of compassion and fraternity.

Agantuk brings to light Ray’s reflections on the nature of art and science, progress and regress, literature and travel. The film acts like a capsule to store the thoughts and experiences of a consummate wayfarer Manomohan Mitra.

Agantuk revels in its apparent simplicity and like a work of Yasujiro Ozu’s finds its real magic in its quiet pauses. As Ray’s valedictory film, Agantuk is a multifaceted character study that contains both humour and melancholy rumination. A humanist exploration of life, Agantuk is a bittersweet adieu from one of the world’s foremost filmmakers.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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