The Stranger (1991)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The Stranger is Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s final film and a fitting capstone, overflowing with the curiosity and humanist ideals he espoused throughout his nearly fifty-year film career. At seventy years old, Ray had perfected his own version of “late style” (like Carl Dreyer, Luchino Visconti, and Yasujiro Ozu before him), a lucid simplicity of visual grammar and approach to story and acting that pares things down to the bare essentials. Its scenes are contained without being claustrophobic and punctuated by a handful of exteriors; similarly, the film is in color without being florid or self-conscious about it. The characters are well-meaning, complicated, and foible-ridden, and no one can be singled out as villainous. Ray’s confidence and powers in the arenas of screenwriting and directing of actors are in full evidence. Everything but the ideas involved screams modesty, and the entire film proclaims self-assuredness.
The Stranger is Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s final film and a fitting capstone, overflowing with the curiosity and humanist ideals he espoused throughout his nearly fifty-year film career.
The plot begins with one particular conflict but gradually fans out to encompass a multiplicity of concerns about modern life. Bourgeois wife Anila Bose (Mamata Shankar, niece of Ravi Shankar) receives a letter apparently from her long-lost uncle Manomohan Mitra (a magisterial Utpal Dutt) asking to meet his now only living relative after a thirty-five-year absence, but her husband Sudhindra (Deepankar De) is deeply suspicious of a potential scam artist. The couple agrees to cautiously welcome their new guest and to try to confirm his identity in a variety of ways, ranging from simply checking his passport to what amounts to an interrogation by a lawyer friend of the family. When Manomohan arrives, he’s a seemingly wise and sophisticated world traveler, and thanks to stories of far-off places and artifacts to match, the couple’s young son (Bikram Bhattacharya) is the most openly trusting of who this man says he is. Anila is also convinced until she remembers her grandfather’s will and the possible share of the inheritance owed to her uncle. The climax of The Stranger involves a virtual cross-examination in which Manomohan’s life philosophy is laid out, leading to his rejection, disappearance, and a bittersweet reunion.
It’s difficult not to see Manomohan as a transparent reflection of Ray himself: learned but questioning; a gregarious conversationalist and well-versed in art and literature; troubled by the artificial barriers of organized religion and caste; equally suspicious of the apparent lack of ethics tied to the march of technological “progress” (witness even the sweetly funny travails of Sudhindra interviewing an old attorney with a hearing aid). He’s visually associated with the openness of travel and the outdoors, first appearing on a train and most comfortable when lecturing to the family’s young son and his friends outside under a tree. Manomohan straddles East and West, the modern and the primitive, well aware of the benefits of high-minded pursuits while longing for the earthy, intuitive nature of the societies he studied in South America as an anthropologist. Manomohan’s philosophy is encapsulated by the joyous Santhal tribal dance ritual to which he invites his long-lost family; the beauty of a cave painting originally opened his eyes to the lost grandeur of the past and spurred him to exploration, and his presence in the Bose family makes him a similar conduit for his hosts to the positive aspects of tradition.
Many films have been made decrying the technological and political troubles wrought by modernity, but in the figure of Manomohan, Ray has fashioned a uniquely powerful spokesman for this position.
By the end of The Stranger, the central question of whether this man is Anila’s uncle has transformed into how this man became who he is. Many films have been made decrying the technological and political troubles wrought by modernity, but in the figure of Manomohan, Ray has fashioned a uniquely powerful spokesman for this position. World travel expanded his horizons and thirst for enlightenment even while disheartening him with the direction the world seemed to be heading. Beginning as a well-mannered but canny mystery man full of stories, he gradually reveals his core rootlessness forged by decades of experience and consideration. Anila and Sudhindra are understandably and comfortably stuck in place, unable to see beyond their limited perspectives at how others might live and be happy. Yet Ray never beats them down but eases them into understanding, first through the blood ties of family and eventually by Manomohan’s generosity. Utpal Dutt gives his main character a wizened dignity and wields a moral authority far beyond the reach of some mere one-dimensional Luddite cipher. His cosmopolitanism also grants him a great wit, leavening the seriousness with which he indicts the heartlessness of so-called “civilization.” He knows the best and worst of what it has to offer, and he imparts that wisdom with a gentlemanly elegance.
I’ll admit that I’m far more sanguine regarding the state of the world than Ray was in the early 1990s. To my mind, what lessons that indigenous peoples can offer can be fruitfully married to the scientific and cultural advancements questioned by Manomohan, as long as an eye is kept on the consequences. The perspectives of the pre-industrial past and the hyper-mechanized present need not be irreconcilable. In the end, whether one is sympathetic to how starkly and damningly this dichotomy is laid out in The Stranger, one must admire the eloquence with which the case is made.
Satyajit Ray's swan song The Stranger transforms his deeply-felt dislocation from modern, Westernized technological civilization into the purest art through the indelible figure of the aged, wandering prophet Manomohan Mitra.