21 December 2009

KANCHENJUNGHA (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962, India) - 'Why accept a life of endless submission?'

The title to Ray’s first film in colour shares its name with the third highest mountain in the world. It is perhaps the least seen of his films and the original negative has unfortunately been damaged beyond repair. However, in 2008, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the digital restoration of the film from the copy of the master negative which were recently discovered in the US and UK. Sandip Ray (Ray's son) who is also a film maker has said that 95 percent of the black and white films directed by his father have been restored by the Academy. It is encouraging that film preservation does not solely limit itself to great American classics, extending its reach to film makers like Ray. Film preservation and restoration of this kind is also likely to allow scholars, academics and fans to reappraise the work of Ray, with a much more concerted aesthetic consideration.

Andrew Robinson’s definitive work on Ray offers one of the best explanations for the film’s relative obscurity:
‘Kanchenjungha’s distribution abroad suffered from its difficulties at home. In the US Edward Harrison released it in 1966 to mixed reviews. In Europe it went unseen, bar one festival, because, it appears, its producers failed to make available a subtitled print. Those critics who did manage to see it with subtitles, felt it would have run well in Britain; it shares much of the appeal of the later Days and Nights in the Forest. That view was confirmed by the appreciative response to its British television premiere in 1988.’
Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, pg 136.

I managed to watch ‘Kanchenjungha’ via YouTube (through a PS3 streaming to my TV) – it has been uploaded in ten parts including subtitles which seemed to flash at me constantly. I am assuming this is either a VCD copy or an old VHS print and whilst the sound is slightly distorted, the image itself is acceptable. Indian cinema scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha notes that ‘the film is remarkable for its use of pastel colours’ but ‘existing prints do not always reproduce Ray and Mitra’s intended colour schemes’. Ray did not experiment with colour again until the early seventies when he directed ‘Ashani Sanket’ (Distant Thunder) in 1973. Similarly like Kurosawa, Ray’s minor films are just as fascinating and accomplished as the major films championed by the critics and academia.

A multi narrative family melodrama, the film was also significant for marking Ray’s first original screenplay and perhaps it is of little surprise that he chose to focus on the lives of an upper class Bengali family, dominated by the arrogant figure of a wealthy industrialist and staunchly conservative patriarch, Indranath Roy Choudhury. I would argue that this film firmly belongs in the company of Ray’s female melodramas including ‘Devi’, ‘Mahanagar’, and most strikingly ‘Charulata’ with which it shares a sympathetic feminist concern. However, Ray’s experimental use of an ensemble cast, several overlapping story lines and real time narrative signalled a shift away from the rural context of his previous films. The subtle and understated manner with which Ray deals with human relationships is complemented by the shifting weather patterns, providing a concern with how nature determines mood.

The narrative largely focuses on the self determination of Indranath’s daughter, Monisha. The family excursion to the hill station at Darjeeling is organised so that Monisha can meet a possible suitor (an engineer who has just returned from England) her father has chosen. It is an arranged marriage and one that the mother secretly disapproves because she does not want her daughter to face a similar life of unhappiness. The mother is played by Ray regular Karuna Bannerjee (Apu’s mother) and her relative silence (until the final moments of the film) articulates her submissive position within the family. However, this being a family melodrama, disruption emerges in the form of Ashoke, a young student who strikes up an unexpected friendship with Monisha. In addition to the emerging relationship between Monisha and Ashoke, Ray also interweaves the stories of the elder daughter, Anima and the spoilt son, Anil. Anil (played effortlessly by Ghatak regular Anil Chatterjee) is represented as the mischievous playboy who models himself on popular Indian film stars. Ray seems to critique the superficiality of the movie business with Anil’s boisterous and impulsive character. Whilst Anil’s character is arguably utilised for light comic relief and to probe the eccentricities of the family structure, Amina’s disintegrating relationship with her alcoholic husband provides an embittered contrast to the innocent relationship between Monisha and Ashoke.
'The underlying psychology of the film derives in large part from the setting. In order to understand the effect of that on the characters we have to appreciate what Darjeeling means to Bengalis. In 1912 Sukumar Ray compared it to Bournemouth in a letter from Britain, mainly because of the steep roads they share, but the analogy could be taken just a little further: people visit both places to escape the big city, and they behave differently in them from the way they do at home. ‘Darjeeling is something very special for Bengalis,’ said Ray, ‘because you have the sea at one end of Bengal and the snow-peaks at the other. In that narrow waist of India you get the full range of landscapes.’
Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, Pg 137

Melodrama proves to be the perfect vehicle for Ray to probe the contradictions, despair and false hubris that dictates the lives of the upper class Bengali family. Unlike Ghatak who regularly used the family as a metaphor for partition, Ray’s study of family is more conventionally related to class, the representation of gender and especially tradition. What does stand out in terms of aesthetic considerations in regards to framing and composition when comparing the film to his earlier films is the illuminating and modern use of negative space – at times the empty silences, awkward glances and isolation of characters within the landscape reminded me of Antonioni and in particular ‘Red Desert’, (1964) which was also embraced for its expressionistic and inventive use of colour.
'The father, Indranath Roy Chowdhury, played to perfection by Chhabi Biswas, is a bully of a type that no longer quite exists in Bengal with the passing of the generation that served the British Raj, but his general outline remains only too familiar. Ray shows very little sympathy with him – not because he assisted the Raj and made himself rich, but because he is a philistine who has suppressed his wife and regards his own daughter as a marketable commodity.'
Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989,Pg 138

It is Indranath who is finally viewed as the underlining cause of the unhappiness and anxiety experienced by mother and daughter. His sense of class superiority is attacked by Ashoke, a symbol of the Bengali middle class, when the downtrodden graduate bluntly rejects Indranath's grudging and despicable offer for employment. In many ways, Indranath and Monisha are two very familiar archetypes; the patriarchal bully and the repressed daughter, which reoccur throughout the family melodrama. It is unfortunate that Ray never made more films in colour yet his cinema is one that has become synonymous with realism when in fact the gentle tone and naturalistic rhythm of a film like 'Kanchenjungha' is more in line with the work of Ozu.

Recommended links:

Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989



(Satyajit Ray, Ray’s Films and Ray-Movie By Ashish Rajadhyaksha)


  1. "Unlike Ghatak who regularly used the family as a metaphor for partition, Ray’s study of family is more conventionally related to class, the representation of gender and especially tradition"... couldn't agree with you more. With that single statement you've managed to briefly introduce the 2 great stalwarts of Bengali cinema.

    I wouldn't go so far as placing Kanchenjungha, in my opinion not among Ray's best works, with the complex and multi-layered work that is Charulata. But yes, though Aranyer Din Ratri too was among Ray's finest, Kanchenjungha does have thematic similarities with it, given both capture the sociological and psychological urban diaspora represented by an ensemble cast while on holiday.

    Since you've been watching a lot of Ray, I would strongly urge you to watch some of his gems not seen much outside Calcutta - Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy & Bagha) and its sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds), Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), Nayak (The Hero) and Agantuk (The Stranger). His Calcutta Trilogy, too, was brilliant and incisive piece of filmmaking.

    Since you've been watching Ray & Ghatak, and I guess a bit of Tapan Sinha, I find only Mrinal Sen, another great contemporary of Ray, slightly left out. His films represent a direction completely distinct to the other three, and I hope you try a few of his movies as well.

  2. Thanks a lot for your comments Shubhajit. 'Charulata' is the focus of my next chapter which is going to be on Ray. Thanks for the recommendations, I lot of the ones you have mentioned are the ones I have tended to stay away from - perhaps this is to do with how his work has been analysed and written about. I haven't seen any of Sen's work and I have managed to get hold of a few films (the image is terrible though)of his films - didn't he direct his own parallel calcutta trilogy? I do agree with Charulata as multi layered and complex - it also features one of Ray's most poignant and emotionally involving endings.