Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Days and Nights in the Forest (India, 1970, Satyajit Ray)

To commemorate sixty years of Indian independence, the Curzon cinema chain is showing a mini-season of films by India’s most famous and celebrated film maker, Satyajit Ray, which also includes his famous work, The Apu Trilogy. These following two films are much less known, but just as intriguing and remarkable.

Days and Nights in the Forest focuses on four men who are leaving Calcutta for a vacation in the countryside. They immediately strike us as vain and materialistic, and comfortable in their Western attitudes (which include references to Western popular culture, e.g. American western movies). With this apparent confidence goes a patronising attitude to their rural countrymen and a belief that they act as they wish without consequences. When told a guesthouse needs to be booked for them to stay there, they bribe the caretaker, despite the fact his job would be at risk (“thank God for corruption”). They hire a local boy to run errands and so on, and mistreat him, which comes back to haunt one of them later on. The men make a symbolic break with their lives in Calcutta though by burning the newspaper they had with them, though their values and mindsets are distinctly at odds from those of the rural folk. The men get drunk; try their luck with local ‘tribal women’ and make fools of themselves.

However, their vacation suddenly is spurred into action beyond simple leisure by the sight of two refined women, who are clearly more like the women of Calcutta, and they all try their hardest to impress them, although this generally ends with the men embarrassed or humiliated in some way, such as when the women catch them bathing by a well or when the men unwittingly flag their car in the middle of the road one night when drunk. Despite this, the women seem drawn to the men, partly because of their own frustrations in living in such a remote place with their father. Perhaps they yearn for the freedom and lifestyles these men enjoy back home. During a picnic, Rini (the youngest woman) and Ashim (the most dominant of the four men) play a memory game that has sexual undertones (similar to the famous chess game in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ perhaps). Sanjoy, the most serious of the four men, courts Jaya, though this is short lived once he discovers that she is the widow of a man who committed suicide. Hari, who was rejected by his lover back in Calcutta (his version of events differs from the flashback Ray presents) becomes fixated with Duli, a local girl, and seduces her in the woods, which incurs the wrath of the boy Hari mistreated earlier. The boy extracts revenge by attacking Hari and robbing him.

By the time the four agree to return to Calcutta, it’s interesting that Ray presents their confidence as being little more than superficial. As the film develops, their insecurities and fears about their jobs and their futures come to the fore, and they are finally able to admit and identify their shortcomings away from the competitive worlds they normally reside in, as if the countryside is a retreat away from their lives. The men are then presented more sensitively, and show themselves to be more complex than the arrogant city dwellers they appeared. Days and Nights in the Forest blends comedy and drama exceptionally well, and is so effortlessly handled by Ray. Time Out describes this film as his masterpiece, and perhaps few would disagree.

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