Aranyer Din Ratri
Review by Ben Ewing
Posted on 25 February 2010
Source 35mm print
In the introduction to his 1972 study on the Apu Trilogy, the late film critic Robin Wood digressed to a broader assessment of the films’ director, Satyajit Ray. Wood praised then-recent Days and Nights in the Forest, a film about four relatively westernized friends from Calcutta and their holiday encounter with the countryside and tribal life, as the fullest flowering of the “Mozartian aspect of Ray’s art.” Though he was one of the most eloquent and imaginative English language writers on Ray, Wood was here following the filmmaker himself, who once said, speaking of another film: “I’m very conscious at all times of the musical aspect of a film, of its rhythm, of its silences and of its general pattern. I’m a great lover of Mozart, and certainly I had Mozart in mind when I made Charulata, very much.”1
Whether we trace its origins to the critic or the director himself, the comparison with Mozart is illuminating. As Wood suggested, Days and Nights in the Forest bears an affinity with Mozart’s operas in two important respects: “[t]he simultaneous awareness of different, even incompatible, viewpoints” and the “balance and counterpoint” of the “comic and tender.”2 The film creates sophisticated portraits of its protagonists through deceptively casual, simple interactions and gestures. Beneath its vacation-comedy veneer lie wrenching emotions that spring from the forest’s depths - metaphorically and literally - in a few key moments.
Whereas Mozart incisively employed melody and harmony to characterize his protagonists and even peripheral persons, Ray gave his characters nuance through subtle manipulations of the camera, sound and his actors’ expressions. To get a sense of Mozart’s gift for sophisticated, nearly subliminal characterization, consider one of Mozart’s less empathetic but certainly masterful treatments of a mere stock character, Monostatos, through his aria in Act II of The Magic Flute, “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” (“Everything feels the joys of love”). Mozart fiercely caricatured the Moor by setting his lament to a cheery major key melody vociferously mimicked (and mocked) by its accompaniment. For an analogous appreciation of Ray’s technique, consider in Days and Nights in the Forest how sensitive the camera is to the minute expressions on individuals’ faces as they observe others. Ray’s carefully choreographed reaction shots are not for emphasis but primary exposition: we learn more about his protagonists through how they respond to others than what they say or do themselves.
This emphasis on the act of looking - the male, but also importantly the female, gaze - is the technical means by which Days and Nights in the Forest explores the principal concern of its story: cultural and interpersonal encounters. Based on a Bengali novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay, the film follows four young men - Asim, Hari, Sanjoy and Sekhar - as they mosey about during their getaway to a small village in Bihar. With the help of references in dialogue to their life in Calcutta and several stirring flashbacks - but mostly through a host of revealing confrontations with other characters - we get to know the four intimately.
First they confront a feeble innkeeper at a civil service rest house and, rather oblivious to his ailing wife, bribe him to let them stay, against regulations. Gradually they have cursory interactions with the tribal people; they gawk at the crowd and enlist servants—including an obsequious lay-about whose mistreatment sparks revenge and a dark-skinned beauty who captures the attention of Hari, recently spurned by his girlfriend. Eventually they approach and befriend two confident, forward sisters-in-law from Calcutta who have a cottage nearby the village. Later still, they briefly spar with a bureaucrat who insists that the men must leave the inn where they’ve planted themselves.
Each of these encounters hints at, and their cumulative effect makes unmistakable, the precarious social position the young men occupy. Seemingly confident in their education and urbanization as they scoff haughtily at the villagers beneath them, they reveal their profound insecurities and limited power when confronted with modern, relatively empowered women and a higher-up official for whom their petit bourgeois status carries little weight. The protagonists’ anxieties and tenuous social status are subtexts, if not in the forefront, of many of Ray’s images. Sweaty close-ups of a drunken evening spent on the periphery of the tribal village are symbols of the men’s dangerous ability to quickly shed their elevating “civilization.” Cuts of them sheepishly covering their bare bodies when caught bathing outdoors by the Calcutta women show both the men’s fierce desire for “respectability” and the insecurity that undergirds that aspiration.
Without Ray’s touch, the tale might reduce to an obvious conceit: cocky bachelors’ brief encounter with various “others” yields greater self-awareness for them and others alike. But with his guidance, the young men’s subjectivities are rendered distinct, and sympathetic despite their foibles and more alarming flaws. Moreover, theirs aren’t the only interiorities we glimpse: importantly, albeit more fleetingly, we also see the sisters’. In one revealing scene masquerading as pure comedy, the women, driving home at night, are stopped by the young men drunkenly dancing in the road, unaware of their embarrassment. In their good-natured laughter, we glimpse in the sisters-in-law both growing sympathies for the men and nascent joy in the gender reversal that makes the women the onlookers.
As in his best work, Ray avoided sermonizing through a refined balance of tone akin to that prized among composers from the classical period of western art music—the late 18th and early 19th century epoch that Mozart epitomized. Ray’s young men see something like their illusive reflection in the water; they catch glances of self-knowledge rather than grand truths. These subtle but particular suggestions are enough - however many of them we catch - because of the film’s pretexts of weekend-exoticism and brotherly comedy. Onward from the first scenes - in which the four men engage in gentle horseplay at a gas station and tease each other as they drive down the open road - Days and Nights in the Forest is full of comic moments, and a careful selection of music (often diegetic) keeps the film from tipping too far toward ominous severity or empty pleasantry. The cool tone makes the few bursts of startling emotion feel simultaneously restrained for their brevity and infrequence. Like Mozart, Ray gave us more - and more humane - insights, when pretending to give us fewer.
Though the label “humanist” is often irritatingly illusive and sometimes backhanded praise when applied to art, the works of Mozart and Ray clarify its meaning without undercutting the reverence it ought to inspire. For them - and indeed for other humanist giants, such as Jean Renoir - it means firstly a focus on characters, plural, and their competing but intertwined perspectives. It means more than formal construction, though; not just any set of intersecting plot lines will do.3 What is needed is a sympathetic understanding of the complex desires and hopes, charms and flaws of real people. In other words, humanist works like Days and Nights in the Forest pay tribute to the latter half of Renoir’s famous adage: “The awful thing about life is this—everyone has his reasons.”