screened August 4, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ
This mid-career effort from India’s most celebrated filmmaker shows his craft firing on all cylinders, from the deft dialogue and orchestration of a talented ensemble through several subplots to his lithe camera and shifting, multifaceted perspectives on class and sex. Four young urban businessmen take a jaunt to the countryside to act like frat boys one last time before adulthood inevitably sucks the life out of them; with grace and subtlety Ray is able to celebrate their rebellious drive to individual expression against stifling social norms, while simultaneously pointing out their selfishness and abusiveness towards less privileged countrymen. Events unfold with a symphonic complexity, each character an instrument: Ray mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee’s jazzy restraint as a self-absorbed playboy, Rabi Ghosh’s ebullient comic relief, and Sharmila Tagore’s fragile yet hypnotic sensuality as Chatterjee’s romantic counterpart are only half of the ineffable performances on display. But the greatest performance of all is Ray’s camera, relentless in its perpetual explorations of space and reconfigurations of people within any given scene, dissecting and re-animating a society that is essentially frozen in its stratified customs. By the end, the only profound change experienced by any of the characters is the kindling of a private love between two people and connection beyond one self. Their fragile naissance is juxtaposed by an act of lust followed by violence between one couple, and an embarrassingly failed seduction between another. Such variety in expressing the vertiginous distance between people seeking love exemplifies Ray’s mastery as both dramatist and cineaste.
Want to go deeper?
The following ballots were counted towards the film’s placement on They Shoot Pictures’ Top 1000 Films:
Mari Kuttna – Sight & Sound (1982)
Penelope Houston – Sight & Sound (1982)
Richard Barkley -John Kobal Book (1988)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
Jonathan Rosenbaum Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
The following quotes were found on the film’s tribute page on Satyajit Ray.org:
“On the surface, this Satyajit Ray film is a lyrical romantic comedy about four educated young men from Calcutta, driving together for a few days in the country, and the women they meet. The subtext is perhaps the subtlest, most plangent study of the cultural tragedy of imperialism; the young men are self-parodies–clowns who ape the worst snobberies of the British. A major film by one of the great film artists, starring Soumitra Chatterjee and the incomparably graceful Sharmila Tagore.
– Pauline Kael in Reeling
“… every word and gesture is recognizable, comprehensible, true … Ray’s work at its best, like this, has an extraordinary rightness in every aspect of its selection and presentation – the timing, performance, cutting, music – which seem to place it beyond discussion.”
– David Robinson, Financial Times, 15 October 1971
Other pages on the film:
Satyajit Ray Center of the University of California Santa Cruz
Ray’s most overtly Renoir-ish film, this might almost be a remake of Une Partie de Campagne, transposed to another time and place and through another sensibility. Instead of the French bourgeois family setting off for a picnic, four young men leave Calcutta for a few days in the country, trailing their westernised careerist attitudes, a middle class indifference to the lower orders, a self-satisfaction that leaves them closed to experience. Out of a series of delightfully funny mishaps as the visitors eagerly try to pursue acquaintance with their two promisingly attractive neighbours, Ray gradually distils a magical world of absolute stasis: a shimmering summer’s day, a tranquil forest clearing, the two women strolling in a shady avenue, wistful yearnings as love and the need for love echo plangently. Elsewhere jobs have to be won or lost, problems faced and solved, but not here; an illusion of course, revealed as time lifts its suspension but leaves one of the quartet a changed man, the other three assailed by tiny waves of self-doubt. Beautifully shot and acted, it’s probably Ray’s masterpiece.
– Time Out
From this beginning, aided by the beautiful, luminous black-and-white cinematography of Soumendru Roy, Ray contrives an extraordinary world, at once Arcadian and yet possessed of utter, unforced naturalness and reality. Ray’s language of cinema is a kind of miraculous vernacular, all his own. It has mystery, eroticism and delight. Critics have compared this film to Renoir and Chekhov. To those two masters I am inclined to add a third: Shakespeare. The phrase “must see” is bandied about very casually – but this deserves it.
– Peter Bradshaw, The UK Guardian
Satyajit Ray always insisted that his films were made first and foremost for his own fellow-Bengalis, adding that foreign viewers, unless exceptionally well up on Bengali language and culture, would inevitably miss a lot of what was going on. Despite such claims, several of Ray’s films found more appreciative (and, it could be argued, more perceptive) audiences outside India. One such was Days and Nights in the Forest, widely hailed by Western critics as one of the director’s finest films, but received by his compatriots with puzzlement and indifference.
Indian viewers, by all accounts, were put off by the loose-limbed, seemingly random flow of the narrative. “People in India kept saying: What is it about, where is the story, the theme?” Ray observed regretfully in a Sight & Sound interview. “And the film is about so many things, that’s the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands.” He likened the structure of the film to a fugue, in which different elements appear and reappear developed, interwoven, transformed, and subtly balanced against each other.
But there’s also a political dimension to the film. Days and Nights can be seen as a prelude to the three films often grouped together as Ray’s “City Trilogy”: The Adversary, Company Limited, and The Middleman. In these films Ray engaged, for the first time in his career, the social and political upheavals that were then shaking Bengal, and in Days and Nights he hints at the kind of class- and caste-based attitudes that underlay this unrest. The four young men from the city are not unlikable, but their treatment of the local “tribal” people reveals an unthinking arrogance that at times verges on brutality. Hari, having mislaid his wallet, at once accuses the villager co-opted as their servant of stealing it, and hits him—an injustice which later rebounds on him. Even Ashim, the most intelligent and politically aware of the four, browbeats the caretaker of their bungalow into accepting a bribe, then mockingly comments (in English, significantly), “Thank God for corruption.”Days and Nights in the Forest marks a transition in Ray’s filmmaking career, turning his talents for social comedy, emotional nuance, and quiet, understated irony towards more contemporary concerns. At the same time it demonstrates the subtlety of his narrative control, concealing a carefully devised dramatic shape beneath the seemingly casual flow of everyday life. Far from being shapeless or lacking a theme, as its first audiences imagined, the film is subtly orchestrated throughout: there isn’t a scene or incident, barely even a gesture, that doesn’t contribute to the overall purpose.
—Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com
One of the overriding themes of the film is the clash of polarities as represented by the urban and the rural; the rich and the poor; the sophisticated and the tribal; the corrupt and the innocent. But Ray, being the compassionate master that he is, refers to the theme obliquely, in swift and deft brush strokes and does not address it as an agenda like the so-called art filmmakers of the 70s who made an issue out of it. It stays at the level of subtext. We retain our sympathies with the characters despite their double standards and narrow mindedness; the characters come across as rounded and believable, and a reflection of ourselves maybe in many cases.
No discussion of the film would be complete without the memory game sequence that is played out by the six major characters. Each player has to choose the name of a famous person and also remember, in sequence, all the previous choices. Subtle and elegantly structured, each character reveals himself or herself in the way he or she plays. Ray’s mastery of the misce-en-scene comes out in full steam as he cuts between the different characters and tracks from character to character as they engage in this wonderful game that throbs with sexual undercurrents. It is a brilliant piece of cinema played out in a surefire style and marks him out amongst the masters of world cinema.
Mention must also be made of the wonderful cross cutting sequence towards the end of the film when all the four male characters are engaged in their respective pursuits. With a tribal fair as its central setting, the director intercuts between the different sets of characters: Ashim trying to forge a relationship with Mini; the voluptuous Jaya trying to seduce Sanjay; Hari running amongst the wilderness with the svelte and dusky tribal girl before they end up making love under the trees and Sekhar gambling away with borrowed money. The entire sequence is interspersed with shots of tribal women dancing to primitive rhythm as the central characters are engaged in their primitive pursuits. It is another piece of beautiful cinema that raises the film to extraordinary levels of artistic expression as the music rises to a crescendo.
Bansi Chandragupta’s re-construction of the interiors of the forest bungalow and the country liquor shop and recreation of the tribal fair are other highlights of the film that point to a superb craftsmanship in the annals of realistic cinema. His teaming with Ray was a winning companionship that is sorely missed in Ray’s last films after Bansi’s death.
– from Upperstall.com (author unattributed)
Conjuring an atmosphere both Shakespearean and Chekhovian, and borrowing Antonioni’s signature theme of alienation, Satyajit Ray achieved a complex, poignant result with Aranyer Din Ratri—like Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962), a “holiday film.” Ray’s apprenticeship to Jean Renoir is richly evident here; Une partie de campagne seems an especial influence. Like Renoir, Ray portrays Nature as a moral force one can either resist or submit to; unlike the men, their pair of picnic partners already seem to have taken Nature into their lives, perhaps along with their joint loss (brother, spouse), but, as likely, steadily, gradually. The sparkling forest in Aranyer Din Ratri exudes the mystery that would elude the Mirabar caves fifteen years hence in David Lean’s A Passage to India… This ravishingly beautiful black-and-white film is quietly momentous about love—few films are so driven by erotic undertows—and about the ways we open up to others and the ways we stay shut.
– Dennis Grunes, ranking Days and Nights in the Forest #43 among his 100 Greatest Asian Films
BBC review by Jaime Russell
About Satyajit Ray
In-depth reviews of many Satyajit Ray films by Acquarello at Strictly Film School
When I was writing a biography of Satyajit Ray in the 1980s, I received a magnificent letter about him from the great Akira Kurosawa. “The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly… They can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river. Mr Ray is a wonderful and respectful man. I feel that he is a ‘giant’ of the movie industry.” Many years earlier, in an interview Kurosawa even went so far as to say: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
For Scorsese, “Satyajit Ray’s ability to turn the particular into the universal was a revelation to me. I had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience. I was moved by how their society and their way of life echoed the same chords in all of us.” For Mike Leigh, “coming back to Ray’s cinema has been like returning to a succulent banquet, or experiencing a series of clairvoyant flashes. I emerge from each of his films with a newly sharpened view of the world.” And for the writer and Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, a severe critic indeed, Ray’s period film about the ‘clash of civilisations’ during the British Raj, The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) is “like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words are spoken but goodness!—terrific things happen.” In my view, there is no director in cinema who can express what is going on inside a character’s head—his or her psychology—more acutely than Ray…
As if this were not enough, Ray has a strong claim to be the most versatile of film-makers. He was personally immersed in every aspect of production. He wrote the scripts of all his films, which were often original or near-original screenplays. He designed the effortlessly convincing sets and costumes down to the smallest details. He acted out the roles for the actors and actresses with consummate nuance. He operated the camera throughout the shooting (after 1963). He edited each frame of the film. He even composed and recorded the music after scoring it in a mixture of western and Indian notation, for all but his earliest films. The songs he wrote for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha in 1969 are as well known on the streets of Calcutta as the best of Lennon & McCartney. The only activity he avoided—despite invitations from Hollywood producers like David Selznick—was acting in front of the camera, because “it would be too tedious”, as he told a mildly offended Marlon Brando…
I think the main reason for Ray’s comparatively low critical profile must be that genius takes time to be fully appreciated, in any culture. Those critics who try to diminish him as a simple third-world humanist lacking in cinematic sophistication demonstrate only their own ignorance of his films. In 1958, the chief film reviewer of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, dismissed Pather Panchali as a film that would “barely pass for a rough cut in Hollywood”. So many people disagreed that Crowther saw the film again, changed his mind and published a second review; soon he was an aficionado of Ray, writing of The Postmaster that “It says almost all that can be managed about the loneliness of the human heart.” Yet as Ray himself realised: “the cultural gap between East and West is too wide for a handful of films to reduce it. It can happen only when critics back it up with study on other levels as well. But where is the time, with so many other films from other countries to contend with? And where is the compulsion?”
“I never had the feeling of grappling with an alien culture when reading European literature, or looking at European painting, or listening to western music, whether classical or popular,” said Ray in 1982, the first time we talked. The breadth of his knowledge staggered me then; now I find it unique.
– Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, for MovieMail
I think he [Ray] chose actors who were slightly cerebral so they’d be able to follow his instructions. Speaking personally, I never found him difficult to follow. The way he spoke was crystal clear–it was never anything like “imagine you’re a sunset, a flower blooming in the wind.” It was “open that drawer, stand by that curtain.” It was much easier.
– Sharmila Tagore, from interview in Metroactive, October 16, 2003
About Sunil Gangopadhyay
Essay by the author of the short story after which Days and Nights in the Forest is adpated