Friday, November 9, 2012

Neglected Gem #28: Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

Days and Nights in the Forest
I first saw Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest in 1973, when it played a brief and almost entirely unheralded run in the U.S. (It came out in India in 1969.) I was twenty-two, it was my first exposure to Ray, and I didn’t get it. I think my initial bafflement and subsequent love for it – amounting nearly to worship – may get at why Ray sometimes eludes western viewers at first but often exerts a loyal, even obsessive hold on those of us who return to him.

The title Days and Nights in the Forest echoes the titles of Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, both movies in which characters venture into the country for a little harmless respite and find their lives are changed forever by what they discover (mostly about themselves). Days and Nights in the Forest works the same way. It’s a film about a journey: four pampered young men from Calcutta drive into the countryside for a few days’ freedom from the pressures and demands of their urban lives. They bring with them a lot of stupid prejudices, a lot of unattractive habits, and a lot of bad faith. They begin by intruding themselves upon a government-run rest house they didn’t bother to reserve, bribing the caretaker and imperilling his job thoughtlessly. (The caretaker’s wife is seriously ill, and Ray shows us what the Calcuttans don’t notice: that this man is poor but honest, and the temptation of the bribe tears him apart.) They abuse the locals; they get drunk and act like fools. And they meet two women, one a widow, also from Calcutta, who lift the men’s time in the forest onto an entirely other experiential plane than they could ever have anticipated.

Sekhar (played by Rabi Ghosh, the comic actor who stars in Ray’s Goopy and Bagha movies) is a gambler and the clown of the group; he’s the only one of the four who is exactly the same at the end of their few days in the forest as he was when they arrived. Harinath (Samit Bhanja) is a cricketer with a limited imagination, on the run from a romance that went sour (from what we see, in a flashback, because the woman was Hari’s superior in sensitivity and emotional availability). Hari mistreats a local boy they hire as a go-fer, accusing him, groundlessly, of stealing his wallet (which, in fact, Hari has lost, temporarily, through his own carelessness). He so injures the boy’s pride that the boy ends up beating him and – ironically – stealing the wallet for real. Hari’s corruption of this boy, Lokha, is more indirect but just as certain as the men’s corruption of the caretaker at the rest house.


Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee) is retiring, intellectual, and largely unconscious. He flirts unthinkingly with the widow, Jaya (Kaveri Bose), and only at the end of two days does he realize, with a jolt, both what she’s been asking of him and the weight of tragedy she carries around with her. Finally, Ashim (played by Ray’s favorite actor, the phenomenally versatile Soumitra Chatterjee) is brilliant, charismatic, but supercilious. Behind his shades he’s distanced from the world – until he comes to the realization that his quick judgement of Jaya’s beautiful sister-in-law, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) – and, by extension,all his judgments – have been hopelessly inadequate. He learns, in short, that he doesn’t understand anything, and the knowledge humanizes him. (In Ray’s The World of Apu, Tagore also plays a character named Aparna, who turns the title character’s world around and renders all his judgments irrelevant. And Apu is played, again, by Soumitra Chatterjee.)

Days and Nights in the Forest shares with both A Day in the Country and Smiles of a Summer Night – and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game – a Mozartian double vision. It’s a comedy that laughs at the follies of the men, who are constantly being brought up short; but it’s also rueful and compassionate, and, like those other films, it breaks your heart. There’s a difference, though. Ray’s movie is more pensive, more mysterious, and the tonal shifts are so subtle you tend to catch them retrospectively, if at all. In form, the movie is an archetypal journey drama, a fable, but Ray’s style is so delicate, his focus on the characters so contemplative and complex, that you don’t necessarily notice the signposts.

director Satyajit Ray
Ray is often compared to Renoir and De Sica – two lyrical realists, like him, who, however, have always had a foothold in the American art house that Ray hasn’t had. Let me offer one example of how Ray’s approach is different from theirs, and that may suggest why he’s been denied that foothold. Realists generally rely on the device of the significant object, which has two purposes – as a concrete image, it’s an emissary from the real world, and it can operate as a symbol. As a realist symbol, it borrows its power from our recognition of how objects, as souvenirs of our experiences, can take on extraordinary emotional potency. As a dramatic device, it can reveal multiple layers of meaning to expose the hidden reserves of the characters: the earrings in The Earrings of Madame de . . ., the dance card in Un Carnet de Bal, the bicycle in De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, the fortress and the geranium in Renoir's Grand Illusion.

Days and Nights in the Forest contains only one such symbol: Hari’s wallet. But Ray uses it ironically and melodramatically, as if he were deliberately throwing it away, even throwing away the idea of so easy a symbol. Instead he draws on something intangible to carry the weight a realist’s significant object usually does. It’s a game that the four men and two women play at a picnic, a celebrity memory game that reveals as much about their characters (especially Ashim and Aparna) as a whole short story by Chekhov or Joyce might – and that, like their stories, keeps shrouded in mystery as much as it reveals. I think this sequence is one of the greatest episodes in movies, but it doesn’t dazzle you while you’re watching it, because you can’t get everything that’s going on in it until you play it back in your head afterwards. In Pauline Kael’s review of the movie, she dubs the game in this scene Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, referencing the finest work by James Agee, who was also a great movie critic. Kael ends her piece beautifully: “It’s a pity Agee didn’t live to see the films of Satyajit Ray, which fulfill Agee’s dreams.” I couldn’t possibly improve on her conclusion.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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