Today, May 2, is Satyajit Ray’s birth anniversary.
A glimpse of the magnificent Kanchenjungha from Darjeeling on a clear summer’s day? Satyajit Ray believed – he has written about it often enough – there are few grander sights on earth. And if you are aware of that comment – as I happened to be as I sat down to watch Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962) once again after many years – you will likely expect to be treated to a feast of Kanchenjunga visuals in course of the film’s 100-and-odd minutes. And that lends a particular piquancy to your viewing experience, for it’s only in the last few seconds of the film’s run-time that your eyes finally light on the elusive Kanchenjungha, now streaked purple by the setting sun’s dying light.
Up until that point in the movie, you kept searching the horizon, wistfully, looking on even as mists rose steadily from gorges and ravines below the Observatory Hill, to eddy around Mall Road, the Gymkhana Club, the Mahakal temple and the old cemetery on Lebong Cart Road, often blotting out everything more than a few feet away.
The mists lift only at day’s end, and you realize that the riveting human drama you have just been witness to had played out, appropriately, in the overarching presence of the mighty mountain range. All day it lay in the shadows, blanketed in mist, but as it turns out, Kanchenjungha had always been there, and never far from anyone’s mind, as much the viewer’s as that of the movie’s dramatis personae.
The film’s story is told in real time. Which is to say that you get to see on the screen in the one-hundred-and-odd minutes of Kanchenjungha’s run-time just what happens, in those exact one-hundred-and-odd minutes on a late-summer afternoon in Darjeeling, in the lives of some ten holidayers. The clock strikes four – a metal dong is heard marking the hour – as Rai Bahadur Indranath Roy Chaudhury steps out of the venerable Windamere Hotel, the go-to place for every well-heeled traveller while in Darjeeling. He is every inch the Rai Bahadur: dapper, prickly and supremely sure of himself.
In the closing sequence, as the sun has started going down, presumably around six, Indranath is seen once again. This time he is walking out of the picture frame, calling out to others, agitatedly – indeed sounding somewhat frantic. His self-assurance has clearly deserted him. Earlier in the film, he was heard complaining how Kanchenjungha had eluded them on this trip, not showing up even once. And now he is so flustered he fails to take in the full panoply of the majestic snow range as Kanchenjungha pulls away from a tall bank of clouds to emerge into light.
A lot many things have happened in the interim. There was anticipation in the air at the beginning of the film, as Indranath’s extended family was getting ready to spend the final afternoon of their vacation in the picture-postcard hill town.
It was hoped that Banerjee, the suave, foreign-educated, corporate boxwallah – a bachelor, to boot – would propose to the comely Monisha – Indranath’s younger daughter – in the course of that afternoon. Banerjee, also on a holiday in Darjeeling, had made no secret of his feelings for Monisha, and Indranath had encouraged Banerjee to court his pretty daughter, believing she would have no reason to say no when Banerjee asked her for her hand. The courting couple was prompted to take a long walk along Mall Road and around Observatory Hill all by themselves, so that they could talk things out with one another.
Kanchenjungha’s storyline pivots on this walk, with Banerjee persistently, but gracefully, wooing Monisha while she is clearly undecided, even ambivalent. (In the end, Banerjee gives up – for now.) But the film is not a straight, linear treatment of a single story.
It has several other tales to tell about other lives, all of them playing out in parallel to one another, at the same place and time. And these are no sub-plots designed to throw the main narrative in clearer relief. Each of them has its own dynamic, its special flavour, and each evolves independently.
One revolves around Indranath’s elder daughter Anima and her loveless marriage with feckless – but well-meaning – Sankar, a rich man’s dissolute son. The marriage has clearly been on the rocks for a while. And it swiftly reaches breaking-point as the afternoon progresses – to be somehow salvaged from the brink, as husband and wife agree to meet each other halfway so as not to break their chirpy kid daughter’s heart.
Another narrative branches out into the exploits of Anil, Indranath’s debonair younger son, who compulsively chases pretty young things around Darjeeling’s elegant upper-crust cafes, regardless of what they seem to think of him. For Anil, any attractive woman is clearly as good as the next.
Then there is Jagadeesh, Indranath’s widowed brother-in-law, an avid bird-tracker and amateur ornithologist who spends the best part of the afternoon trying to locate a bird he has heard trill many times but never yet seen. A deeply sensitive man, he readily empathises with others in need of solace: for example, with Labanya, his sister, who has perforce passed her entire life in the shadow of the overbearing and vain Indranath, her husband.
Another thread leads us on to young Ashok, an unemployed college graduate from Kolkata, and his grumpy, short-winded uncle who is forever searching determinedly for a job opening for his nephew. They happen to have come to Darjeeling in the hope that Ashok’s sick mother recovers her health in the bracing mountain air. Normally, the trajectory of their lower-middleclass existence was not expected to bring them anywhere near the affluent Roy Chaudhurys, and their paths intersect largely by accident. (There has, though, been a one-time tenuous link: the uncle had once given private tuitions to Indranath’s elder son, a circumstance the Rai Bahadur has obviously no recollection of.) The uncle soon drops out of view, however, but not before foisting an acutely embarrassed Ashok on the imperious, snooty Indranath.
Over much of the rest of the movie, Ashok drifts from one role to another: now listening to Indranath’s monologues about what a rewarding life he has lived; now as an unwitting foil to the prim and proper Banerjee when a slightly exasperated Monisha seeks a break from Banerjee’s unwavering attentions; now as a companion to Jagadeesh who finds in Ashok an intelligent and sympathetic listener. Through it all, Ashok manages to put across to the viewer his poise, his sensitivity and his self-respect. He spurns a job offer the patronising Indranath makes him.
All these separate storylines are deftly woven into a pattern which closely resembles a musical composition’s. Individually, each sequence plays out on its own momentum, evolving in accordance with its intrinsic tonality. The viewer keeps moving on from, and coming back to, these separate stories time and again. But, each time she returns, she enters that story at a different point to where she had left it.
At every stage, these stories, like musical phrases, blend with one another to create a distinct movement which drives the overall composition – the whole musical idea, as it were – forward.
Satyajit Ray has rarely essayed this film idiom, though his film writings suggest that the idea of the musical structure for a movie appealed greatly to him. But his primary audience – the average Bengali cinema-goer of the early 1960s – may have found the ‘episodic’ story-telling technique somewhat choppy, jarring. Which perhaps was why Kanchenjungha did quite poorly at movie theatres in Kolkata and elsewhere in India, even as its reception by European audiences was decidedly more enthusiastic.
Ray sensed that, in many ways, the film may have been well ahead of its time. He also suggested that Kanchenjungha may have “turned out to be so Western in feeling that it put off most Indian viewers”. What he probably had in mind was the movie’s very urbane, often quite slick, exterior, and its use of irony, understatement and consistently low-key dialogue. That it shunned all dramatic flourish and even something like a climax may also have disorientated many viewers.
Be that as it may, it’s still a surprise that contemporary Indian audiences failed so completely to come to grips with the leitmotif running through Kanchenjungha. Which is that the nearness to something truly great can affect people in unforeseeable ways, often vesting ordinary, humdrum lives with nobility.
Back in Kolkata, the shy, reticent Monisha would likely not have demurred when Indranath broached the idea of her marriage with the eminently eligible Banerjee. But something stirred in her here in Darjeeling – and she realized she yearned for something more than the comfort, security, and social prestige that such a marriage was guaranteed to bring. She said no, knowing full well that her father would be scarcely amused.
Labanya, the archetypally pliant and dutiful wife, does the unthinkable when she tells her brother that Monisha must not be coerced into marriage with someone she didn’t love – no matter how Indranath looked at it. Equally, Anima and Sankar’s wrecked marriage gets a new lease of life when something they had long since forgotten reawakens magically in them: that it doesn’t hurt to give some things up for the sake of a dearly loved one – in this case, their charming little daughter.
Most tellingly, this transmutation is palpable in Ashok, the modest, uncomplicated young man who could surely do with a decent job, but turns down Indranath’s offer to get him one. True, he found the Rai Bahadur insufferably sanctimonious, but could he really afford to look a gift horse in the mouth? Later, recounting to Monisha his conversation with her father, Ashok wonders what may have induced him to do what he had done – pass up a big opportunity:
Maybe it was this place that got me to do it…After all, I had never seen anything like this before, had I? The towering Himalayas, the silent pine forests, this fascinating tapestry of sunlight, cloud and mist…It’s all so unreal, as though all of this was a dream…My head was in a whirl, and everything seemed to be changing right in front of my eyes. It was as if I wasn’t poor me anymore, but someone else, someone special…A hero! A colossus!…It seemed to me I was bursting with courage…That I had not a care in the world, nor anything to fear…As though no one would dare stop me doing anything anymore….
A more moving paean to what it means to be human is hard to come by.
Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected].