Every time I’m asked to name my favourite Satyajit Ray film, I do not know how to respond. Earlier, I used to stare stupidly for a while and then blurt out a name which, for no apparent reason, came first to my mind. Once you decide on a favourite, it is thereon easy to explain why, simply because one can never run out of good things to say about a Ray film.
I’ve recently changed my response to this question. Instead of getting a mini anxiety attack, I raise my eyebrows in exasperation, and firmly declare with immense conviction, ‘If one has watched all of Ray, it is impossible to have a single favourite film.’ There can be lesser favourites and more favourites, but there’s too much of brilliance scattered across too many films, to simply choose one in all its entirety.
Yet, even as I refuse to put a single film on a pedestal, there’s one that seems to remain separate from the rest. Not because it is his first film in colour, nor because it is his first based on an original story – Kanchenjungha (1962) is different because of a charm of its own. ‘It was a good ten to fifteen years ahead of its time,’ said Ray in an interview. It is not the first film that comes to our minds when we discuss Ray, and is far less talked about compared to his other works, but with its serene location, the nuanced characters, and an exquisite Himalayan tune that a Lepcha kid hums throughout the film, Kanchenjungha enchants me every time I sit down to watch it.
This is the story of a single day in the hill station of Darjeeling in Bengal – the final day in the vacation of a large, upper-class Bengali family headed by the authoritative and influential patriarch, Raibahadur Indranath Chaudhury (Chhabi Biswas). With him, there’s his submissive wife Labanya (Karuna Banerjee), their son Anil (Anil Chatterjee) who tries hard to be a womanizer, the elder daughter Anima (Anubha Gupta) with her family, younger daughter Monisha (Alakananda Roy), and Labanya’s passionate ornithologist brother, Jagdish (Pahari Sanyal).
The beauty of Kanchenjungha lies in its complexity. Because this is the story of several people at once, it has a lot of shades, and quoting Ray, ‘it went back and forth’. Each of the characters have stories of their own, and they continuously cross paths to take the film forward. As the film progresses, we find the characters discussing two concerns in most of their conversations. The first is a casual one, still common to all tourists visiting the place – the day is misty, and the mighty Himalayan peak Kanchenjunga, the primary attraction of Darjeeling, is invisible. They struggle to catch a glimpse before returning to the monotone of the city, but in vain.
The second concern runs deeper. Also on a vacation is a young man named Banerjee (N. Viswanathan), affluent, upper-caste, recently returned from abroad, with a bright career ahead – features that automatically make him an eligible bachelor. Indranath considers him a perfectly suitable match for Monisha, and expects a proposal from him on the final day of the vacation. As the patriarch, Indranath’s line of thought is incontestible – as a father who has seen more of the world and wants only the best for her daughter, this decision is, very naturally, correct. The chairman of five companies, he fails to keep his professional credentials separate from his personal life – ‘an acquisition’ is how he describes the possibility of getting Banerjee as his son-in-law.
While Indranath fixes his younger daughter’s marriage with confidence, we find the elder one struggling through a failed one. Ten years ago, Anima had married Shankar (Subrata Sen), a man with qualities very similar to Banerjee. Restrained but observant, Shankar looks at the ruins of his own marriage and understands what Monisha’s future with Banerjee shall look like. Shankar also understands that women (and perhaps men too) in the Chaudhury family do not have voices of their own. Indranath likes to believe that he gives his family enough freedom to make their own decisions, but this is the sort of freedom that ‘allows’ Monisha to receive education (not too much because ‘educated women deprive men of their earnings’) but expects her to finally abide by her father’s decisions. Indranath is used to his decisions being accepted uncontested in the family and perhaps at work as well. Labanya, too, knows her husband well – she’s too afraid to speak, but worried about her daughter’s young and innocent heart.
At the heart of Kanchenjungha lies the story of Monisha. As a nineteen-year-old suddenly expected to think of her future, she’s confused. Does she like Banerjee? Does she want to spend the rest of her life with this man? She doesn’t know. Coincidentally, also visiting Darjeeling at the same time is another young man Ashoke (Arun Mukhopadhyay), whose uncle is a distant acquaintance of the Chaudhurys. In every respect, Ashoke is the exact opposite of Banerjee – middle-class and unemployed.
Monisha is brought up in the sort of family where she is conditioned to think that the Banerjees, men who check all boxes, are the ones who should be chosen as husbands. She knows that her father approves of the match, but she doesn’t know how to feel about this stranger who loves to speak about himself. Distracted while Banerjee tries to draw her into a conversation about marriage, Monisha silently looks at the mist that covers Mall Road, and asks him, ‘Can we simply walk, and not speak at all?’ As the paths of the various characters intersect, Ashoke becomes Monisha’s respite – from Banerjee, from her family, from the decisions she must take. Perhaps Ashoke understands her situation, but he’s the only one who doesn’t talk about it.
The first time Monisha meets Ashoke, his uncle requests Indranath for a job for his nephew. The camera focusses on Ashoke’s bent back – clearly, while his uncle is in awe of the mighty Raibahadur, he’s uncomfortable that his unemployment is discussed, that too in front of a young woman. Ashoke is in dire need of a job, but when Indranath hints at a possible offer, he’s guarded. Ashoke is shy and well-mannered, but the audience senses his increasing dislike for Indranath, who thinks all was glorious in times of British rule, says ‘it was a fad to terrorize the British during our times’, and disapproves of workers’ unions. Ashoke’s silent resistance against this man is to say, ‘I expect to get a job by my own efforts,’ a statement that Indranath strangely finds offensive.
The presence of the two young men in the film, Ashoke and Banerjee, make Kanchenjungha a powerful but subtle story of class differences. Ashoke’s social standing makes him understand the concept of class much more than Monisha, and his conflict with Indranath makes him behave differently towards Monisha for a brief moment. Through Ashoke, Monisha comes closer to a world that is very different from her – young men in her own city who struggle for days looking for work, write applications, borrow trousers to sit for interviews. Perhaps for the first time, she truly understands the implications of the class divide. Yet, this uneven friendship develops.
The crafting of the story makes its location play an important role. ‘I wouldn’t have dared to decline a job offer in Kolkata,’ confesses Ashoke to Monisha. It is the interplay of sunlight, clouds, and mist – like a world of dreams, that makes him do so, for in dreams, middle-class unemployed men have the audacity to find their voice. Perhaps it is the majestic Himalayas that suddenly make Labanya want to rush to her younger daughter and tell her, ‘Do exactly what you feel like, you’re under no compulsion to listen to anyone else’ – before it is too late. Perhaps it is the tune that a Lepcha boy hums, that makes Monisha drift away from an eligible bachelor who pays attention to her, towards a penniless Ashoke. Kanchenjungha takes a handful of individuals accustomed to the cacophony of the city, and shows them a magical world, where their lives are accidentally intertwined. It is a new place that shows them the possibility of an alternate existence, the possibility of not conforming to the expected versions of themselves, but doing what feels right. It is when they start finding the strength to do so, that the mist clears, and we look at the magnificent Kanchenjunga in all its glory.
(Satyajit Ray’s 100th birth anniversary was on May 02, 2021)
From the ind.igenous desk