Of Modernity, Civilization, and Identity: Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk

By Anuska Guin

Agantuk (The Stranger) is Satyajit Ray’s last film, released in 1991. The year 1991 is significant because it marks the beginning of liberalization reforms in India. The opening up of the Indian economy led to the rise of a ‘new middle class’ in India, as argued by Leela Fernandes. As the film showcases liberalization through the Bose family, the ‘bhadralok’ culture becomes evident in many scenes, from Sudhindra’s attitude towards his ‘priceless’ art collection to ‘goynabori’ cookies served by Anila Bose. This broadly depicts the ‘newness’ in the representation of the middle class. The cultivation or the growing of taste and consumption of cultures directly emerges from modernity. 

From narrating the story of the ancient Inca civilization to a group of kids on a sunny autumn day at Garer Math to going back to the Santhal’s rustic past at the end of the film, Manmohan Mitra gets projected as the epitome of rootedness and humanism in this modern world. The film’s opening reveals, through a letter received by Anila, that Manmohan Mitra happens to be her long-lost uncle. The former is an anthropologist by profession, who had left the country some fifty-five years back and now wants to be their humble guest. It was indeed astonishing for the family that a man who uprooted himself from his native land could write a letter in shadhu bhasha (used solely in 19th and 20th century Bengal). Ray attempted to exhibit the homecoming of his protagonist as ‘The Return of Prodigal Son’, who is perceived as wasteful and repentant by the civilized participants of the society. In fact, the stranger says he’s consumed by ‘wanderlust,’ and views travel as a means to enlarge one’s horizon. The impression of ‘kupamuduka’ i.e., a frog that imagines its home, a well, to be the whole world, goes against his principle, and he advises Satyaki, Anila’s son, to not be one in the future. 

Ray introduces a new Bengal, portraying a typical postcolonial society with a tinge of modernity. We witness a nuclear family of three (Anila, her husband, Sudhindra Bose, and their son, Satyaki), characters singing Rabindra sangeet songs, Bengali culture being reduced to the typical ‘bangal-ghoti’ or East Bengal-Mohon Bagan disputes. The film is a redolent contribution to the home-grown cultures and traditions that have been labelled by the Western apparatus as barbarous. Mitra’s ideology is heavily abstracted from Marx, Freud, Tagore, and Bankim Chandra. The protagonist rejects the corrupt colonial nations and refuses to adopt the Western instruction on progressive civility. Ray attempts to expose the pitiful lust for a sterilized ‘civil’ state where any progressive boom is brutally allied to a compulsive search for a ‘cultured’ cosmopolitanism that shall be the epitome of the so-called ‘bhadra samaj’. The marginalization and othering of various primitive tribes lead to a process of dehumanization, which eventually winds up as the ‘Us vs Them’ narrative. In this film, we observe an attempted disintegration of this savage/civilized dual. There were no longer binaries in that geographical space when the primitive santhal women danced in harmony along with Anila, who would generally be identified as a bourgeois Calcutta woman.

Manmahon Mitra is portrayed as a man who is not quintessentially carried away with time. Time in contemporary society is visualized as an evolving character in the film. To talk of ‘evolution,’ there is a drastic progression of scientific innovations, urbanization, and globalization. Looking at the flip side of the coin, we get a hint that Ray uses the protagonist as a tool to construct an idea that modern civilization is in conflict with itself. The modern urban space is displayed as an agency that uses power as an instrument to exploit. A classic example would be when Prithwish asks Mitra about his opinion on science and technology. The protagonist’s answer seems to be divergent from an urbane sentiment. The protagonist views that technology should be more important in curbing drug abuse rather than Voyager taking pictures of Neptune. Mitra reminds us of the existence of technology in man’s most primitive and barbaric state. From pottery and agriculture in the Paleolithic age to building igloos of the Eskimos, we get to recognize the scientific intricacies of a civilization. The protagonist is highly cynical about the Bengali ‘adda’ culture where the discussion mostly revolves around gossip and backbiting. The ‘stranger’ further cites an example of ancient Greece gymnasiums where there were conversations on philosophy, literature, mathematics, art, etc. It was an ‘adda’ of the highest level. In plain words, Mitra appears to be the modern primitivist. Bruno Latour, in his book We have never been Modern says that modernity has nothing to do with the emergence of the sciences, the secularization of society, or the mechanization of the world. All in all, the illusion of modernity has been highlighted.

Prithwish grills Mitra and asks whether he believes in the existence of God. Ray’s protagonist quotes the Rabindra sangeet that Anila sings, strumming her veena.

“Who will give light (to the blind)? Who will give life (to the dead)?’’

Manmohan Mitra keeps faith in cosmic power, and is highly skeptical about religion. Modernity has further expanded branches of the already existing laws of caste and religion, especially in the 21st century. Mitra admits that religion separates people and creates barriers, and thus labels it as bogus. Here, Mitra’s thoughts resonate with German sociologist Karl Marx’s infamous dictum: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses.’

Ray interrogates the politics of identity in the film, questioning the authenticity of passports. Sudhindra Bose wants his wife to ask for the protagonist’s passport, as the particular document is the sole material of recognition. Mitra evaluates the global process of authorizing as the gross computerization of data. Numbers, names, addresses, nationalities, passport-sized photographs, are all compressed together to form a ‘document.’ The verification of the papers is nothing but an inorganic and mechanized code of law. Mitra further confesses that there is no other way of finding his identity, apart from time. The passport may not reveal his true self. It is, after all, mere paperwork. Hence, for Ray, passports are an incoherent product of identity.

Agantuk cross-examines one’s ingrained monolithic notions and beliefs about the system. The Boses’ have learned a noteworthy lesson, and the encounter with the stranger has displaced one’s established concept from hitherto position. Mitra lies somewhere between the explored and the unexplored, between the past and the present.


1. Agantuk (1991). Watch here: Link

2. Fernandes, L. (2000). Restructuring the new middle class in liberalizing India. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 20(1–2), 88–112. Link

3. Moomaw, W. (2003). Modernity and hybrids: An examination of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

Anuska Guin is a recent graduate from Jadavpur University with comparative literature as her major. Her hobbies include reading, watching films, and journaling.

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