The Visitor (Bengali Title: Aguntuk 1991)
Dir.: Satyajit Ray
A letter arrives from an uncle who left home to lead a nomadic life 35 years ago saying that he wishes to spend a few days with his niece at her home in Kolkata. The recipient of the letter is Anila Bose (Mamata Shankar), an upper middle-class homemaker married to a mild mannered salaryman, Sudhindra Bose (Dipankar De). Anila was 2 years old when this uncle left home and she has only heard about him from her grandmother.He was a brilliant student, a wonderful artist and a singer.Nobody has heard from him since and his letter is a bolt from the blue.They don’t know what to make of it and decide to meet him and then make up their minds about hosting him. By the time Manomohan Mitra(Utpal Dutt) arrives a few days later Anila and Sudhindra are in a state.
The prodigal uncle turns out to be an absolute charmer, he speaks chaste Bengali which arouses the suspicion of the Bose’s since he has lived abroad for decades. Anila is in a terrible dilemma, she likes him instantly but removes her valuable bronze statues from the mantelpiece. Her husband is further perplexed when Manomohan shows him his passport but tells him disarmingly in the same breath that passports can be forged.Nobody is more acutely aware of the predicament of the hosts than the visitor.He strikes an immediate friendship with the young son of Anila, dazzling him with his stories about everything under and including the sun.
Sudhindra is an inherently decent man, a bhadralok, and just not up to the task of cross examining the uncle whose outward decency and endless knowledge of the world makes him feel out of depth. Ascertaining a mans identity should be a matter of a few practical steps which a cultured Indian family cannot take with a person who is possibly a close relative.He asks his barrister friend to come and do the needful.The living room scene where the family along with Manomohan and the feckless barrister spend a tense evening is a triumph of dialogue writing.For every pointed question of the lawyer the old man has a reply which advertises his wisdom and erudition.The evening does not end on a happy note.Ray resolves this conflict in a poignant manner and gives us a sequence of graceful tribal dance that is set to the music of his swan song.
This was Ray’s last film and undoubtedly his most neglected one.Everyone has their favorite Ray film and this one is mine. There is a general consensus among critics that the quality of Ray’s work declined in the last phase of his career after he had a heart attack midway through shooting Ghare Baire in 1982.While undoubtedly the bulk of his great films came in the first two thirds of his career, this last film is somehow very personal.The Visitor is very Bengali in its sensibilities and it reads like a letter that Ray composes to his fellow Bengalis as a sort of parting rebuke, one that he was eminently qualified to administer, as there has been no towering cultural figure like him, since his death in 1992.
By the early eighties West Bengal had fallen into a state of alarming economic and social decline and the intellectual and cultural superiority that the average Bengali felt over his fellow country men had become justifiably questionable.When a man of Ray’s intellect and experience decides to become almost a character in his own film and talk to us about the meaning of civilization and the human condition it is appropriate that we listen carefully.He is not trying to make another Pather Panchali here, he already did that back in 1955, and in the process changed Indian cinema forever.
The screenplay is studded with the insights gleaned by Manomohan who led an unorthodox life, not just by Bengali standards but by global standards, living with tribals all over the world and acquiring a degree in anthropology almost effortlessly. When Manomohan corrects an actor friend of the Bose’s in another riveting living room scene, pointing out that the adda (leisurely debate and discussion with friends) is not a Bengali invention but a poorer version of the dialogues in the gymnasium’s of ancient Greece, he is exhorting the wider local audience of his film to expand their worldview.He spells it out too, advising his grandson never to be a kupamunduk (frog in a well). Twenty years later his message remains just as potent. Utpal Dutt as Manomohan gives one of the finest performances in the history of Indian cinema.
When Manomohan goes back to wherever he came from, it is almost as if Ray is saying goodbye, leaving behind a treasure trove of astonishing films.He directed part of the film from an oxygen tent and did not have the physical strength to embellish it with visual flourishes.He knew he had very little time and used it wisely to get his message across.The current raging debate about us turning into cyborgs and the potentially damaging effects of living our lives on Facebook was neatly predicted by Ray when Manomohan points out the dehumanizing effects of technology.He admits to seeing a witchdoctor when he was sick in the jungles but then the witchdoctor had intimate knowledge of hundreds of medicinal herbs which ultimately cured him.Now contrast this with how perilous our lives have become at the mercy of big pharma and the universal handwringing over almost criminally high healthcare costs.
Ultimately The Visitor is also a love letter to humanism and how varied and wonderful the human condition is.This is a theme which permeates all of Ray’s work but here he decides to make a chamber piece that is like a farewell speech.His becoming an icon of world cinema was almost a miracle, something that India has since been unable to better.The Visitor is a film that everyone should see, it is entertaining, endlessly engaging and sadly a bit of a forgotten gem.