“Adapted from his own short story Stranger, the movie shows us how we perceive ourselves and our culture in relation to the world.”
The Stranger (or Agantuk) was the last jewel to be added in the cinematic crown of the masterful Bengali filmmaker. A relatively less layered film than his more famous work, The Stranger still doesn’t leave without igniting elementary thought experiments on the evolution and future of humans (both as individuals and as a collective), and the ambivalent relationship shared between modernity and traditionalism.
Talking in specificity to the narrative structure, it doesn’t fritter away time in establishing the world of the characters. It expects the viewer to partly assume and to partly witness the natural unfolding of the plot through common household conversations.
The movie opens up with a shot of Anila, the matriarch of a bourgeois, Bengali household holding a letter sent by a long-forgotten maternal uncle who wishes to visit her after 35 years of no contact, thus establishing the conflict right away. What transpires is a series of dire attempts to decipher the curious past of the said uncle and to confirm whether he is real or fake.
The story is a poignant commentary on the residual existence of Indian hospitality (and culture at large) and how the present exposure to a globalised (Anglicised) worldview has consumed the lives of the Indian elite, making them presumptuous and highly suspicious of the intentions of apparent strangers. By creating a demarcation between seemingly Western and Indian thought, Ray portrays how the moral standards of “westernized Indians” have been shifted from naive and hospitable Indians to materialized, cynical ones. An unexplored but potential addition to this could have been a commentary on how this amalgamation of world views could affect the kid’s perception of the world and his privilege.
Amongst the array of themes, a prominent one is the conflict between tradition and modernity.
We can see how beautifully the capitalist forms of hospitality have blended with the traditional ones, thus establishing a coherent system of mutual existence of the two systems of thought.
On a more methodical viewing of the film, one can find accurate representations of how the said conflict is resolved in a household influenced by both the worlds.
This paradoxical coexistence of the two worlds is portrayed throughout the movie.
This is a household where Thumbs Up is served to a guest upon arrival, after which rice and fish are eaten with fingers. The influence of English literature in their lives is evident as Tintin and Agatha Christie are their bedtime reads and their Anglo-Bengali lingo carries an air of nonchalance.
This urban, nuclear family has individualistic standards of living, however the very house is inherited and requires several servants to function. The matriarch has the right to dissent and express it, however, the gender roles are presumed beforehand.
This ambivalence might come across as hypocritical to some, however, one must realise that this is the reality of people torn between existing in the two different worlds.
The old statues in the living room are the remaining manifestations of their traditional identity, which they proudly claim can be sold out for lakhs! However, their fear of theft and loss of identity on the arrival of a guest/stranger counterintuitively makes them hide the statues in the cupboard. This is reflective of one’s quest to remain rooted to their culture, even though it might only mean in terms of materialistic possessions.
There is a similar character journey for Manomohan Mitra, the stranger, who despite travelling the world wishes to reconnect with his homeland, even though it might only be for a few days.
The story provides us 3 different perspectives to the sudden arrival of a stranger in a relatively stable household – the cynical patriarch’s, the sentimental homemaker’s and the fascinated kid’s. All three keep the mystery about the guest’s true identity alive and interesting.
An aspect of the movie that I refrain to elaborate on is the second half, where we see consistent (and unnecessary) attempts by the family’s friends to decipher more about the stranger’s life. Ray’s attempt to include a deep conversation about human civilization and evolution, seemed rather forced and indulgent.
But what is worth admiring is his fascination with the mysteries of the world and how he sprinkles his understanding of humanism all throughout the film just like he did in all his movies and literature.
Adapted from his own short story Stranger, the movie shows us how we perceive ourselves and our culture in relation to the world.
Anyway, so it was only after finishing the film and reading a bit about it that I got privy to the fact that this was Ray’s last film. And this piece of information made me want to watch it once again, but this time with a lot more admiration and fascination.