Favorite Movie: Satyajit Ray's "Distant Thunder"
Ashani Sanket, 1973
[Distant Thunder. Color, In Bengali with subtitles. 101 minutes.]
If you are familiar at all with Indian film, it is probably by way of overwrought Bollywood dance, drama and music spectaculars. But Ray is not of Bollywood. He made his films in Calcutta 1500 miles and a world away. With Ray, the drama is in a look, the dance is in the curves of a cupped hand resembling a lotus, the music is in the melody of monsoon rains and the dissonance of a distant thunder.
Distant Thunder is set in 1943 in what was then undivided Bengal still under the British Raj (see map below). There is a war on somewhere, the people of the village don't rightly know where. The monsoons have been abundant, the rice crop plentiful, there is a sense of simple joy in the air.
The movie begins with an unforgettable montage that is pure, liquid poetry compressing the above into the first few minutes. The images of the rains, the undulating fields of grain, the lowering skies , a shot of airplanes flying in formation which the uncomprehending villagers regard with wonder (one comparing it with the flight of cranes) and of village women frolicking in the water is the work of a master at the height of his lyrical powers. (The only clip on YouTube is of this sequence. The quality is rather poor, but it does convey the essence. The haunting background music, composed by Ray, is not your usual Bollywood fare either. It was based on the folk music of Bengal, especially the minstrel tradition of the Bauls.)
Into this idyl comes our protagonist, Ganga, with his young bride, Ananga. They have come from the capital city of Calcutta, where things are not so idyllic, where food shortages have already started to occur, severe rationing has been imposed as the British sequester available stocks for the War effort and the grain merchants (Indians) have started to hoard anticipating higher profits.
Ganga is an educated Brahmin, of the highest, priestly caste. He is a man with a clever, not particularly venal, plan. He intends to teach school, perform various priestly functions (the village lacks both), including that of apothecary (he has brought along a basic store of pills from Calcutta as well as a book on hygiene). He expects that both as compensation and Brahmin Sewa (literally, service rendered to the priest) he will earn enough, especially food, amid the seeming bounty all around, to make a life for the young couple.
But after the harvest, when the grains have been sold to the merchants and middlemen, the food shortages hit the village as well. People are reduced to begging for food. And here is where Ray's mastery is in full flow: instead of shots of starving chidren and rotting corpses (there are none), he drills to the core of a disintegrating society in a few strokes.
Ganga tries to shoo away a starving beggar who has come to his door for food -- a significant violation of the priestly code, Brahmin Sewa is supposed to work both ways. His wife forgoes her own meal to feed the old man. She has to take to manual labor in the fields, a violation of caste and societal norms, and is reduced to foraging for food in the woods. For a few handfuls of rice for her family, a married woman has sex with a man whose face has been horribly disfigured in a fire. Almost imperceptibly, fire images and a sere landscape replaces the wet lushness of the movie's beginning.
And then there is an old woman lying in the middle of a a dry, dusty road. None of the villagers will even go near her because she is of an Untouchable caste. Ganga, the Brahmin, touches her, feels for her pulse. She is dead. He carries her to the river bank, builds a funeral pyre, performs the final rites and lights the flame.
The movie ends as we learn Ananga is pregnant, and with the ineffable image, burnt in my memory since I first saw it 35 years ago, of the entire screen filled with the silhouettes of hundreds of people streaming out of the village, then frozen in a still shot imprinted with the only overt message of the entire movie:
"OVER FIVE MILLION DIED OF STARVATION AND EPIDEMICS IN BENGAL IN WHAT HAS COME TO BE KNOWN AS THE MAN-MADE FAMINE OF 1943."
Satyajit Ray died in 1992 at the age of 71. If Americans remember him at all, it is for his speech from his deathbed accepting the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992.
He was a deeply humanistic and humanitarian film-maker. Distant Thunder is a true work of art from a master at peak form in all aspects of his craft. The cinematography, the music and of course, Ray's always subtle story-telling.
We never see the war (the Japanese were in Burma by 1944, not that far from Bengal), just the one image of the planes flying in formation. We see exactly one dead body in the whole movie. And while society in microcosm is shown imploding because of unseen, unstoppable external forces, Ray also gives us hope through Ganga and Ananga of the possibility of the human spirit prevailing over circumstances. The same Ganga who would not share his food with a beggar redeems himself performing the funeral for the untouchable woman. And his wife, Ananga (Babita, a Bangladeshi actress, is positively incandescent in this role, like so many of Ray's female leads), who is the moral center of the movie (once again, like so many of Ray's heroines), is steps ahead of her husband in accepting and adapting to the world changing around her with sacrifice, caring, love and shared responsibility. Truly one of my all-time favorite movies.
Photo credits: SatyajitRay.org