From Sight and Sound, Spring 1975. This is probably the most embarrassing review I’ve ever published (in addition to being one of the very worst) — particularly for reasons given in a quite reasonable letter published in the next (Spring 1975) issue, which I’ve reproduced below, along with my reply. But it’s an instructive sort of embarrassment, which is my main reason for reproducing it now, after some initial reluctance. -– J.R.
‘Over five million people in Bengal starved or died in epidemics because of the man-made famine in 1943.’ The title appears over the final shot of Satyajit Ray’s film –- a quasi-expressionistic, rather Bergmanesque vision of silhouetted figures standing on the edge of a precipice, composing a line of seemingly endless breadth behind the camera’s fateful retreat – and is clearly the crucial piece of information around which the preceding 100 minutes have been constructed. Yet the sheer immensity and horror of this unambiguous fact, essentially as unfilmable as it is unimaginable beyond the abstraction of statistics and other metaphors, can operate structurally only as a coda and ‘footnote’ to the rest of the discourse, even if it paradoxically comprises this discourse’s raison d’être. This it is scarcely accidental that the visual rhetoric accompanying this conclusion is equally divorced and alienated from the remainder of Distant Thunder (Intercontinental Film Services) -– an adaptation of a short story by Bibhuti Bhusan Bannerji, author of the novel from which Ray’s Apu trilogy was derived. Moving between fact and fiction, one is offered an illustration of both the strength and limitations of Ray’s humanist art.
Apart from occasional newspaper headlines declaring the rise in prices and a few faded photographs depicting a more universal famine, the physical scope of tie plot is restricted to one remote village and its immediate environs. It stretches no further than the fourteen miles walked one day by Gangacharan (Soumitra Chatterji), the Brahmin hero and religious-medical-pedagogical leader of the village, when he unsuccessfully attempts to sell some of his wife’s bracelets for a few measures of rice. The “War’ as such figures visibly only as planes flying overhead. We hear their ‘distant thunder’ in the opening scene, when the hero’s beautiful wife Ananga (Babita) is bathing in the village pond, and gazes up at the ‘flying ships’ in innocent awe. ‘How beautiful — like a flight of cranes,’ she exclaims, gracefully assimilating this intrusion into a natural world whose fragile loveliness Ray has already established – with Soumenda Roy’s splendid colour photography – in landscape tableaux behind the credits.
Ananga’s response is emblematic of the fate of all the subsequent characters we encounter, to be destroyed without any clear understanding of what is happening or any power to change it. (Occasional rumours about the Japanese taking Singapore and ‘our king’ –- in Gangacharan’s phrase – ‘fighting the Germans and Japanese’ are are virtually the sum total of their knowledge about the reasons for the rising cost of rice; the hero appears only marginally more enlightened than the others because he thinks he knows approximately where Singapore is.) And Ray’s response to this appalling tragedy is to focus on a few individuals’ initial experience of it, seen principally from the vantage point of Gangacharan and Ananga.
Within their relatively protected world, the crisis registers first as a threat to caste and class – a scaled-down rural equivalent to the decline of the Magnificent Ambersons. And as with the Ambersons, this decline runs parallel to a certain moral growth. Beginning as a fairly diffident racketeer and village shaman mainly concerned with preserving his status, Gangacharan exudes complacency when he arrives in the village to propose starting a school. (‘You are the jewel in our crown,’ says one admiring villager, to which he replies, What is a crown without a head ?’). It is only after he experiences the humiliation of Ananga husking rice in a low-caste house and sees women searching for pond snails to eat that his attitude towards the villagers starts to change: ‘We live off them and that’s wrong. If only we had land of our own.’ And his grasp of Ananga’s unselfishness finally registers when she offers her bracelets for him to exchange for rice -– so much so that after his trek proves fruitless and the rice owner insists that he stay for lunch, he finds himself unable to eat.
This latter scene, with all its delicate psychological shadings -– Gangacharan lingering mournfully over scraps of food he doesn’t know how to cook and feels ashamed to consume, while the rice owner’s wife tries to console him — is intercut with Ananga digging for wild potatoes with two friends, and suffering an attempted rape by a village outcast. Her cries — ‘significantly’ — at first go unheard by her companions because of the planes passing overhead. Yet it is just this ’significance’ that hints at a slight strain in Ray’s rhetoric; a shift of tone even more evident in the melodramatic shots of the scarred rapist lurking in the woods’ darkness, which suggests that serene pantheistic naturalism. is ultimately inadequate to explain the enormity and importance of what is happening to these people.
Inadequate or not, Ray is able to carry it a considerable distance in the film’s climactic sequence, before it gravitates into something else. Moti, a lower-caste friend of Ananga who visits her in the opening sequence (‘Don’t touch me now,’ Ananga warns her amiably, ‘I’d have to bathe again’) reappears, on the verge of starvation, and collapses at the foot of a banyan. After Ananga is told feebly, ‘Don’t touch me — you’ll have to bathe,’ she runs off to give herself to the scarred rapist in exchange for some arum root to feed Moti, and lays it on the ground beside her. But Moti dies too weak to eat the food; Gangacharan arrives just before another starving girl makes off with the untouched arum roots, and when Ananga remarks that ‘Jackals will come,’ he promptly forgets Moti’s status as an Untouchable and proposes cremating her.
At this point, an old man is seen approaching with his many ‘dependants’ – -the same old man whom Gangacharan put up for the night at Ananga’s insistence earlier in the film – and Ananga asks, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Well,’ her husband notes philosophically, ‘we’ll be ten instead of two.’ Ananga, reminding him of her recent pregnancy, adds: ‘Eleven.’ Silhouetted glimpses of the old man and his family shortly give way to other men and otherfamilies in the closing apocalyptic image and explanatory title.
Could Chekhov write an ‘adequate’ story about the victims of Hiroshima? As incongruous as the notion might sound, it is not entirely foreign to the problems faced by Ray in doing justice both to his characters and the plight that envelops them, to his awareness and their lack of awareness. Perhaps the key image in the film — it appears at least three times — is that of brightly coloured butterflies resting on a muddy patch of ground, flapping their wings but not rising: an image of beauty rather than one of shock, and not unlike Ray’s appreciation of Ananga and her friends in their bright saris and playful moods. Politically committed by his theme to lodging an anguished protest, he seems much more assured and comfortable within the stylistic frame of a stately elegy, and it is within these terms that Distant Thunder delivers its most lucid and devastating impact.