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02 May 2021

Agantuk (1991)

Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Music: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Utpal Dutt, Mamata Shankar,
Dipankar De, Dhritiman Chatterjee,
Bikram Bhattacharya, Rabi Ghosh,
Subhrata Chatterjee, Pramode Ganguly,
Ajit Bandopadhyay

In Manik and I, Bijoya Ray’s memoir, she mentions her husband turning to her after filming the last shot of his final film and saying, “Well, that’s it. I’m done. I’ve said all I wanted to say”.  A few months later, on 23rd April 1992, Satyajt Ray, one of India’s best directors, passed away. Today, on his birth centenary, it is fitting, therefore, that I review his swansong, one of the most personal of the Ra‎y’s films – Agantuk.

When Anila (Mamata Shankar) gets a letter from man purporting to be her long-lost uncle, Manmohan Mitra , she is both intrigued and wary.

He had left home when she was barely two years old, and all she knows is the fragments she’s heard from the gossip of the family elders. Thirty-five years have passed and she has no idea what he even looks like. 

Sudhindra (Depankar De) is sceptical. How could a man who had spent over three decades wandering around the western hemisphere as her uncle is reputed to have done, write such impeccable Bengali? One hears a lot about strangers who show up to people’s houses, only to rob them, or worse. He suggests Anila send a telegram to put the stranger off but she, bereft of relatives is loath to do so. What if this man is really her uncle? 

She convinces Sudhin to let Manmohan visit them. It is easier to take a decision once they have met the man and spoken to him. Not entirely convinced, Sudhin nevertheless agrees.

And so Manmohan (Utpal Dutt) arrives – much to little Satyaki’s (Bikram Bhattacharya) delight. Anila’s and Sudhin’s eight-year-old son is delighted to meet his great-uncle. Manmohan’s easy charm and genial nature soon charms Anila as well. 

“Baby", as Manmohan calls her, has a wealth of family lore to regale her with, and by the time Sudhin returns home from work, both mother and son are well on their way to taking this new-found relative to their hearts.

Sudhin is taken aback at their easy acceptance of what the stranger has told them, and cross-examines his wife closely. He even questions ‘uncle’ but has the grace to be embarrassed when the latter hands his passport over. Later that night, Anila remembers her grandfather’s will – and Sudhin is suddenly sure that the man claiming to be Manmohan has only appeared now to claim his share of the inheritance.

Little Satyaki, however, has no doubts that his great-uncle is who he claims to be. A deep friendship has sprung up between the two, and the old man has more than enough answers – and interesting ones – to all of Satyaki’s questions.

Sudhin, unfortunately, needs ‘proof’– and as friends come and go, his suspicions too wax and wane. Finally, he calls on Pritish Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a lawyer friend, to settle this question once and for all. 

The conversation between the two soon quickly falls apart as Pritish, frustrated by what he deems ‘non-answers’, finally snaps, asking Manmohan to clear out if he can’t offer any proof. The next morning, the family realises that Manmohan has indeed cleared out.

Where is Manmohan Mitra? More importantly, who is/was he?

Based on a short story titled Atithi that he published in the children’s magazine Sandesh, Agantuk seemed like a quasi-biopic, where Manmohan stood for Ray himself – erudite, intellectual, questioning dogma. Like Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha, Agantuk too is filled with socio-political commentary, with Manmohan voicing Ray’s views.

As portrayed by Utpal Dutt, Manmohan was the avuncular, well-travelled, sophisticate who yet has a deep appreciation for the simpler things in life. What is important, according to him, is not material wealth but the knowledge and understanding that one gleans from peoples and cultures and the use to which we put them. It is telling that among all his relatives and their friends, it is little Satyaki who accepts him unconditionally.

Mamata Shankar plays her Anila with quiet assurance. The film hinges on her relationship with a man whom she desperately hopes is her uncle, but her husband’s suspicions play upon her mind. Her joy in her uncle’s arrival and in his company is tainted by her late night conversations with her husband, as they try to make sense of his motives for visiting them.

Actor Soumitra Chatterjee once mentioned that he had asked Ray why he couldn’t be Manmohan, whereupon the auteur told him that if he was cast, then the element of doubt about whether Manmohan was really Anila’s uncle would be lost. While one may wonder what Chatterjee could/would have brought to this role, it wouldn’t be amiss to state that it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Utpal Dutt as Manmohan. He genuinely keeps you guessing, and much like Pritish, the audience is often tempted to throw a temper tantrum.

Finally, implies Ray, it comes to a matter of trust, of humanity. What can a passport tell us of a man’s identity that our own emotional ties cannot? Was Manmohan any less Anila’s uncle because he cannot provide proof? Or is he her uncle because of the bond that springs up between them during his short visit?

Agantuk was a deeply personal film that makes you question the distinction between family and strangers. How well do we know ourselves?  It is also the film where Satyajit Ray sang – perhaps for the first, but certainly the last time – around 17 minutes into the film, Manmohan asks Satyaki whether he knows the hundred+ names of Krishna. When the boy answers in the negative, Manmohan begins to sing a mellifluous bhajan that recites those names.

Agantuk might not fall into the ‘great’ Ray films like the Apu Trilogy or Charulata, or even the lesser-known Jalsaghar (another one of my absolute favourites), but this small, gentle and exquisite little film deserves to be better-known. It is a fitting swansong to a great career. Besides, any film that introduces ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ to an audience has to be worth watching!

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