(Days and Nights in the Forest)
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production: Priya Films; black and white; running time: 115 minutes. Language: Bengali.
Producer: Nepal Dutta, Ashim Dutta; cinematographer: Soumendu Roy, Purnendu Bose; screenplay: Satyajit Ray, based on a novel by Sunil Ganguly; editor: Dulal Dutta; music: Satyajit Ray; production design: Bansi Chandragupta; art direction: Ashoke Bose; sound: Sujit Sarkar.
Soumitra Chatterjee (
); Subhendu Chatterjee (
); Samit Bhanja (
); Robi Ghosh (
); Pahadi Sanyal (
); Sharmila Tagore (
); Kaberi Bose (
); Simi Garewal (
); Aparna Sen (
Hari's former lover
Seton, Marie, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray , Bloomington, 1971.
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Cooper, Darius, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity , Cambridge, 2000.
Milne, Tom, in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 41, no. 1, Winter 1971–1972.
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Ganguly, S., "No Moksha: Arcadia Lost in Satyajit Ray's Days and Nights in the Forest ," in Film Criticism (Meadville), vol. 19, no. 2, Winter 1994–1995.
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* * *
Satyajit Ray always insisted that his films were made first and foremost for his own fellow-Bengalis, adding that foreign viewers, unless exceptionally well up on Bengali language and culture, would inevitably miss a lot of what was going on. Despite such claims, several of Ray's films found more appreciative (and, it could be argued, more perceptive) audiences outside India. One such was Days and Nights in the Forest , widely hailed by Western critics as one of the director's finest films, but received by his compatriots with puzzlement and indifference.
Indian viewers, by all accounts, were put off by the loose-limbed, seemingly random flow of the narrative. "People in India kept saying: What is it about, where is the story, the theme?" Ray observed regretfully in a Sight & Sound interview. "And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands." He likened the structure of the film to a fugue, in which different elements appear and reappear developed, interwoven, transformed, and subtly balanced against each other.
The musical analogy is apt. Ray often acknowledged the influence of composers, above all Mozart, along with that of writers and other film-makers, and Days and Nights is his most Mozartian work: like
The heart of the film is the picnic sequence, where the six young Calcuttans sit round and play a memory game in which each player has to choose the name of a famous person and also remember, in sequence, all the previous choices. Subtle, elegantly structured, and delectably funny, the scene discloses a wealth of emotional and psychological detail: like the various members of a sextet, each character reveals him- or herself in the way he or she plays, from Aparna's graceful flute to Sekhar's galumphing bassoon. The scene shows us a process of insight getting under way. By the end of the film each of the young men—with the exception of Sekhar—has experienced a moment of epiphany, brought up short by self-realization. None of them, we can guess, will ever be quite the same again.
But there's also a political dimension to the film. Days and Nights can be seen as a prelude to the three films often grouped together as Ray's "City Trilogy": The Adversary , Company Limited , and The Middleman. In these films Ray engaged, for the first time in his career, the social and political upheavals that were then shaking Bengal, and in Days and Nights he hints at the kind of class- and caste-based attitudes that underlay this unrest. The four young men from the city are not unlikable, but their treatment of the local "tribal" people reveals an unthinking arrogance that at times verges on brutality. Hari, having mislaid his wallet, at once accuses the villager co-opted as their servant of stealing it, and hits him—an injustice which later rebounds on him. Even Ashim, the most intelligent and politically aware of the four, browbeats the caretaker of their bungalow into accepting a bribe, then mockingly comments (in English, significantly), "Thank God for corruption."
As so often in Ray's films, the women come off rather better than the men, being far more adult, sensitive, and attuned to what's going on around them. In particular, Ray uses Sharmila Tagore's cool, intelligent screen persona as the film's moral touchstone (as he would again in Company Limited ); it is Aparna who brings home to Ashim the full extent of his thoughtlessness. Having brushed aside as excuses the caretaker's concern about his sick wife, he's taken aback when Aparna suggests he should look for himself—and appalled when he sees that the woman is close to death. It's a moment that anticipates the similar shock felt by the complacent young Brahmin (also played by Soumitra Chatterjee) in Distant Thunder when he registers the ravages of famine on his fellow villagers.
Days and Nights in the Forest marks a transition in Ray's filmmaking career, turning his talents for social comedy, emotional nuance, and quiet, understated irony towards more contemporary concerns. At the same time it demonstrates the subtlety of his narrative control, concealing a carefully devised dramatic shape beneath the seemingly casual flow of everyday life. Far from being shapeless or lacking a theme, as its first audiences imagined, the film is subtly orchestrated throughout: there isn't a scene or incident, barely even a gesture, that doesn't contribute to the overall purpose.