SATYAJIT RAY's Apu trilogy, completed in 1958, was the first group of Indian films to gain attention in the West, and it still serves as the reference to which all other Indian films are compared. But while the critical standard has not changed, Indian society has been in upheaval. At one time Ray explored misery, poverty, and rural survival in a colonial province, or the tenacity of religious superstition in a new nation, but now he focuses more sharply than before on an urban elite caught between the Western forces of the city and the essentially tribal India of the forest.
In the early '60s, Ray's films were the exotic favorites at some international film festivals. But as his subject matter changed his films lost their picturesque appeal. They demanded more thought; their visual immediacy was no longer anthropological. Satyajit Ray's films became cultural documents in India, but began to bore festival audiences.
Days and Nights in the Forest, shown at the New York Film Festival almost four years ago, but in only its second Boston appearance now, portrays four men from Calcutta on an excursion into the forests of Palamau. Ray judged that he could best deal with the urban mind by removing it from the complexity of the urban milieu. The men burn a newspaper to show their detachment from city life, but their modern morals have penetrated too deeply to be dismissed by such a ritual. The forest, reduced to a dizzying madness in Ray's shots from a car window, is polluted by both profane and commercialized love, burnt out by whiskey and corruption.
Each of the four men sees his vacation in a different way, so the story gradually divides into four. Nominally, Ray's method is to present events in a natural setting and let us see them as if we were present. As in all of his films, however, this objectivity melts away to reveal the larger issues with which he is concerned, issues that he presents through the details of the simple events of his screenplay.
THUS RAY does not have to introduce the caretaker of the rest home as a poor old man because, by means of the little details, we grow to know him better than we ever could from a didactic presentation. Ray shows the man from the guests' point of view. When he says his wife is ill, there is no way to know whether or not he is lying, and so the impact of her illness is strong indeed when she finally appears.
Some details reach toward Ray's concerns over the minor actions that constitute urbane life (the men worry over whether or not to shave, and such like) while others, such as the men's stretching their limbs when they leave the car, are purely visual delights. After notable failure in color filmmaking, Ray has returned to the traditional black-and-white frame. His compositional eye seems to have regained its earlier strength, whether the subject is a group of people or a gasoline pump.
While two of the men are attracted to the two complex and enigmatic city girls they meet, and a third to the roulette wheel, Hari, the cricket star, concerns himself with a local girl whom the other men jokingly call "Miss India"--they use the English phrase. Her stunning beauty is so captivating, in Hari's eyes--and in ours--that we feel a whole country has been raped by the city boy when she suddenly appears as she really is: a pathetic pauper, drunk and asking for more, begging for work and selling herself to Hari. To him, the ambiguous transaction is neither prostitution nor charity but a means of keeping her from having to demean herself by doing menial work. Miss India is one of most sensitively handled characters in all neo-realistic cinema, skillfully acted by an amateur, and skillfully directed.
The actors are all amateurs, as in all of Ray's films. Ray first saw the potential of using untrained local people as actors when he saw de Sica's The Bicycle Thief before he made Apu. But although de Sica sometimes went through 30 takes of a single scene, Ray consistently obtains deeply emotional performances with little rehearsal or retake.
THOUGH CENTERED around the four well-to-do Bengalis, Days and Nights in the Forest does not lose sight of the mass of the Indian people. The four men are the Indian equivalents of American suburbanites, but in India there is no suburban isolation. Cross-caste encounters occur everywhere, and these make the film far more telling than the many documentaries that have simplistically contrasted starving millions with polo-playing aristocrats. Each encounter reveals the men to be torn between the Indian society still found among the poor and the increasingly pervasive Western society. The men in the film have come very close to abandoning their culture.
Cultural differences reinforce the class separation between the city and the tribal people, so much so that the men show a greater interest in a group of aristocrats they meet than they do in the forest and its people whom they came to see. But only the characters emphasize the well-to-do; Ray's film is concerned with the plight of all Indians. And while the film opens with the four men riding in their car, it closes, when they leave, not on them but on the caretaker whose job and security their irresponsible behavior has left in jeopardy. Ray made his film about the middle class because he believes they have the freest hand. In his reformist view, they--and not the masses--are the hope for change in India.