Sunday, March 1, 2009

Reassessing 'Agantuk' - Satyajit Ray’s final statement as an artist

In the year 1991 Satyajit Ray made Agantuk (The Stranger), his last film before his death in April 1992. Here, Ray made a unique attempt to convey his annoyance about the materialistic quest of modern civilization through his characteristic storytelling style. The film depicts how the protagonist uncle Manomohan Mitra’s sudden landing into a conventional milieu of hosts made a panicky effect on them and exposed their priggish pride as a sham. The uncle was initially suspected as a fraud and later assumed to be a person with an insular objective to ‘fill his empty pockets’. In fact the depiction in the film turns into a near perfect surgical analysis of not only the benevolent protagonist but his mean-minded middle class hosts. It uncovered a terrible status of the modern urban middle class – acutely selfish and self centered, extremely money driven, always worried about security and hypocrite to the core. When at the end, taking account of his host’s ‘hospitality’, the altruistic uncle simply leaves the million dollar cheque of his inherited money as a small message ‘of little or no value’ for them, it falls like a slap on the face of the middle class smugness. The only member of the host family who was totally unsuspicious about Manomohan from the beginning was his grandnephew - the host’s little son. He was the first to convincingly declare that his grandfather is not a fake but genuine. The child has not yet been infected by the synthetic worldview of his parents and is yet to become a slave of conventional habits. His innocent and keen observations of his grandfather were the only one which was without any prejudices.

In many ways Agantuk is an inciting film. Though there is a genuine doubt if at all the grungy middle class can really think today in the way Ray wanted them to think. The basic theme is an intellectual soul searching for a re-discovery of the lost human values. It bluntly focuses on the vices of the post-modern world. The reckless immorality of the elite class, their greed for material possessions is harshly criticized. A ‘civilized’ person was defined as the person who can wipe out an entire population with lethal weapon by just pressing a button but has awfully forgotten how to embrace an alien stranger! The contradictions of high-rise and rickshaw pullers, NASA and ‘NESHA’ (drug addiction), technology and organized religion, the phenomenal decay of principles and values, the deep rooted systemic corruption and the death of curiosity are among some of the dark hidden corners of civilization that Ray has scornfully declared in Agantuk as ‘symbols of civilization’. How can the tangibility of a person's identity be proved through a passport in a fraudulent world? Who is civilized and who is savage? Class, caste and religion, values and prejudices, politics and power really have no place in the concrete humanity and morality that Ray has articulated throughout the film. Through his quest and vast experience of life Manomohan has recognized the brotherhood of Man which is beyond any country, language, cast or religion and free of any form of identity crisis. Ray’s own beliefs become clear when he speaks through Manomohan that, “I do not believe anything that divides Man – religion does it, and organized religion does it certainly. For the same reason I do not believe in caste…” According to him, caste and religion in the present form is only spreading hate and dividing Man. Technological achievements may well become counter-productive to provoke blatant greed. Modern civilization boasts on the achievements of science but forgets that it was the Neolithic age when Man had already made most of the indispensable inventions crucial for his survival.

Agantuk has two discern layers. The upper layer of the film deals with the problems of the urban middle class morals. This layer is relatively easy to recognize while viewing the film. In this layer Ray is mercilessly probing the harmful effects of money, the artificiality of values, the idiocy of war, the emptiness of an acquisitive worldview and the absurdity of identity. But there is also another deeper and subtle layer that exists side by side with the upper layer which apparently looks abstract. It deals with a much wider gamut of pertinent issues. This layer is inciting the viewer to position him/her in front of the history of human race to re-discover the natural Man in relation to his social state.

Honestly speaking, the anthropological aspects of the film were not Ray’s own. He had often spoken about how Agantuk was inspired by the thinking of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his works Lévi-Strauss had firmly stressed that the mind and intelligence of the primitive savage people were certainly not inferior to civilized people. The universe of the primitives and of the civilized is different due to the approach in which primitive and civilized people conceptualized their world. The savage mind according to Lévi-Strauss is equally logical ‘in the same sense and the same fashion’ as the civilized minds and therefore no negative value could be attributed to it.

In his memoir Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss had revealed that in every part of the world and in every forms of society, whether savage or civilize, human beings has always followed its own styles and methods of thinking and has structured unlimited social systems for themselves. Every society is a product of the inescapable norms of these systems. The systems originate from the human thought process and then are applied in real life practices. The application of systems to reach the objectives of life might differ in time and space according to the cultural values of a specific society. This diversity is caused mainly by the different thought processes and its conclusion which evokes from the diverse reality of a particular time. The physical world is approached and conceptualized by the savage thought process in a supremely concrete way where the point of view originates from the sensible qualities of the savage mind. On the other end, civilized humans apply a supremely abstract method in their thought process which is derived from the formal properties of their civilized minds.

Whenever the strangeness of the primitive world is unintelligible to the people of the civilized world, the reality of the primitive people is viewed by them as ridiculous and disgusting. Frustrated by the inability to comprehend the culture and values remote from them, the primitive reality becomes insignificant, a ‘vanished reality’. This ignorance then becomes an excuse for the modern mechanistic civilization to gradually trap, overcome and finally destroy the radically different society of the primitives. As Lévi-Strauss has pointed out, human societies or individual human beings never create absolutely but “choose certain combinations from a repertory of ideas which it should be possible to reconstitute.” The values and social norms of the primitives are therefore important. To understand another system one needs to be tolerant, reflective and curious. Sadly, the mechanistic civilization by and large has lost these qualities.

Lévi-Strauss has asserted that, “Certain social groups must be adjudged superior to ourselves, if the comparison rests upon their success in reaching objectives comparable to our own…” The phenomenal evolution of human beings from anthropoid apes to modern man is the greatest evidence of this success. Certain civilizations of the past knew quite well how best to solve the same problems which the modern civilized society is still struggling to solve today. If one can diversify the field of investigation into different societies it will “eventually become plain that no human society is fundamentally good: but neither is any of them fundamentally bad; all offer their members certain advantages…” Cannibalism is considered to be the most horrible, disgusting and ‘uncivilized’ of all savage practices. But according to Lévi-Strauss, “…no society is proof, morally speaking, against the demands of hunger. In times of starvation men will eat literally anything, as we lately saw in the Nazi extermination camps.” By looking from outside one could be easily tempted to distinguish two opposing types of society. But once one had “lived as they live, and eaten as they eat, one well knew what hunger could be, and how the satisfaction of that hunger brought not merely repletion, but happiness itself.” Every form of society thus has its own impurity within itself that “finds outlet in elements of injustice, cruelty, and insensitivity.” Societies which seem to be brutal may turn out, to be reasonably humane and benevolent when examined from another point of view. By nature, no society is perfect. Claiming one form of society as superior in its relation to all the others is thus a shameful stupidity. In Agantuk, the representation of the Bison of Altamira convincingly explains this point.

In a most bizarre way, the honest provocation generated by Ray in the film has stirred his detractors. He is criticized as an ‘armchair liberal functioning as a simple humanist’ who is placing his ‘hopes and disillusionment on some grass-root cultural activity’ and on the innocence of children. Is he not oversimplifying social reality by viewing it as an ‘individual vs. society conflict’? Is he not an old fashioned, anti-progressive artist under a humanist cloak trying to spread pessimism? Do not forget that Ray was accused by similar criticism for romanticizing India’s poverty for foreign consumption in his seminal work Pather Panchali. These are stupid arguments essentially stimulated to achieve solace from envious intellectual melancholy of the present time and its flatulence from indigested modernity.

Ray did not profess for the primitive form of society which many of his critics thought he did. He has simply chosen a middle path where Shakespeare, Tagore, Marx and Freud can equally contribute along with the experience and values of primitive ancestors. While he has harshly criticized the war mentality of the civilized world, similarly he has disapproved the tribal custom of polygamy. His intention was to raise relevant issues from a certain perspective which can stir his audience to look differently. As a genuine artist, Ray did not intend to show the solution but tried to guide the audience to find one. Agantuk assists to shift the focus of the civilized world towards re-evaluating its root.

Similarly, Ray has definitely not spoken about any individual vs. society conflict in the film. He got the fundamental idea from Lévi-Strauss to put up incisive interrogations on society and culture as a whole. Is it possible to take an unbiased view of customs and ways of life distant from one’s own? Is it possible to doubt the rightness or naturalness of the customs of the civilized society instead of taking it for granted? Is it possible to find a middle way between the primitive and modern values? How to find elements from other societies and make use of them that will help the civilized world to reform its own customs? How to gather experiences from a remote culture and get enriched by them? Is it possible to unravel what in the present nature of Man is original, and what is artificial? Is it possible to re-discover the natural Man in his relation to the social state he belongs to? Even if we believe, how do we prove that other societies may not be better than our own?

The level of depth inscribed in the oeuvre of Satyajit Ray’s films is unique. In the age of the banality of Slumdog Millionaire and the hoopla surrounding an overcooked myth of Bollywood’s theory of culture, it is worth talking about Ray and his phenomenal artistic mastery.

Altamira Bison image: