When Satyajit Ray died in 1992, we lost among the last of a certain breed of artist: the socially conscious classicist. Ray was influenced in equal parts by the Western artistic tradition and by the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, perfectly realized in the literature of Rabindranath Tagore. In Ray’s cinema, we find compositions at once present and detached, functional yet poetic, serving a masterful formalism absorbed from Renoir and De Sica, Ray’s cinematic mentors. Within that framework jostle themes of survival amidst loneliness, the status of women, the decadence of the rich, old-world hypocrisy and new-world corruption, all of which rattled the Bengali status quo. Like Tagore’s sensuous riverscapes, Ray’s worlds — from the downtrodden huts and tenements of the Apu Trilogy to the ornate drawing-rooms of Jalsaghar and Charulata — thrive with detail. His cinema trains us to pay attention to set design, body language, gesture, the words left unsaid, all the while guiding us with the telling close-up, the insinuating tracking shot, the long take, the play of light and shadow.
“The Stranger” was Ray’s last film. I would not place it among his greatest, nor is it a film I would choose to introduce Ray to those unfamiliar with his cinema. But as the filmmaker’s final statement, a slap in the face of an entire social class — one that Ray devoted several pictures to criticizing — it’s as direct and as graceful as they get. Here is one satirical comedy that speaks its mind and doesn’t have to feel ashamed about itself in the morning.
On the surface, “The Stranger” is about trust and identity, as the well-off Bose family of Calcutta is paid a visit by a man who calls himself Mitra (Utpal Dutt) and who claims to be the wife’s long-lost uncle. Explaining his 35-year absence to his niece Anila (Mamata Shankar), Mitra recalls how, as an arts student in the mid-50’s, he chanced upon a picture of the Altamira cave paintings — primitive stone-age art that, he knew instantly, could never be rivaled for its authenticity, its immediacy. “After Altamira,” Picasso declared, “all is decadence,” and, after journeying all over the West, Mitra would surely agree. Having roamed the “civilized” quarters of Europe and America, Mitra explains how he grew bitter with the West’s obsession with technology (and nuclear one-upmanship), while its sickest and poorest continued to suffer. He turned to living with Native Americans and South American tribes. Civilization is just a cover, a word behind which all manner of evils and hypocrisies exist. “Savage” cultures, on the other hand, may not be perfect, but at least they are honest about themselves and co-exist peacefully with their environment.
Mitra’s presence in the Bose household triggers suspicions over his motives. While Anila bids to authenticate Mitra’s identity, humoring him with conversation and Bengali hospitality, her husband Sudhindra (Deepanker De) stashes away the family’s art pieces, and snoops out whether the self-proclaimed uncle’s sudden appearance has anything to do with a decades-old unclaimed inheritance. The only member of the family most open to believing Mitra and believing in him is the Boses’ young son, Satyaji (Bikram Bannerjee) — still innocent of social wiles.
Gradually, Ray uses Mitra’s presence to get at something deeper and more insidious, namely, that tendency in our “civilized” natures to judge self-righteously any culture we consider inferior or “savage.” The idea is first treated comically as Ranjan (Rabi Ghosh), a buffoonish actor, turns up and tries to suss out the visitor. His bungling efforts only show him up for what he is: a gossip-monger, a purveyor of lowbrow and scandal, something that Mitra has tried to escape from his whole life. Later on, a tragic version of that scene unfolds, this time as a mock cross-examination in which Prithwish (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a pompous lawyer, grills Mitra about his history and tries to shame him for his affinity with “barbaric” peoples. His efforts, morally anyway, have the exact opposite effect. For all his Enlightenment rationale, Prithwish’s bourgeois values, rife with double-standards and quick-to-condemn arrogance, makes him exactly the sort of “civilized” personality Ray is railing against throughout “The Stranger.” It’s during this sequence that we begin to sense that Mitra is, to a great extent, a stand-in for Ray himself, eager now in the twilight of life to sound off against the bourgeois smugness festering in his own culture. Indeed, we find Ray’s doppelgangers in both Mitra and the innocent Satyaji (a name not far removed from Satyajit) — characters who’ve either yet to be corrupted by “civilization” or who have successfully withstood its effects.
Mitra is not permanently estranged, though; there is hope at home, evidenced by Anila and Sudhindra’s final gestures to shed their urbane trappings. Their attempt to reconcile may be but a slight concession to our “wild side,” but it speaks volumes in Ray’s subtle vocabulary. In terms of its pacing and subtlety of style, “The Stranger” is arguably among Ray’s least accessible works. Those familiar with his cinema, though, will know where to look to find rewards — we find it in the cavernous corridors, stairways and antiques of the Bose household, bespeaking bourgeois indolence; in the sequence of carefully timed close-ups as the camera roves between faces masked in half-light; we find it in the extraordinary sequence in which Anila tries to impress Mitra with her sumptuous lunch of mutton, fish, lentils and Bengali “fancy crisps” — items that amuse more than awe the worldly and modest Mitra. With Ray, we’re guaranteed standout performances — whether farcical or dramatic — and The Stranger is no exception. Dutt, as the wise, gently acerbic Mitra is the film’s eloquent center of gravity, while De, Ghosh and Chatterjee are all pitch-perfect, variously flummoxed, bumbling or self-consciously stern. “The Stranger” cannot boast the lyrical energy of Ray’s 1955-1975 period; it’s the product of an artist whose temperament (and health) had since mellowed. It is, however, a beautiful valediction by a great filmmaker anticipating his own departure, whose message is as profound as any in a majestic career.
Written/Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Dipankar Dey, Mamata Shankar, Bikram Bhattacharya, Utpal Dutt, Robi Ghosh, Promode Ganguly