Satyajit Ray, if you were to believe a significant number of serious film watchers, made Pather Panchali, completed the Apu trilogy, added Charulata and Jalsaghar along the way to finish with five films worth talking about; his other films are just too embarrassing to be discussed, when there is “so much Bergman and Antonioni around”.
After watching The Middleman I was certain that there was more to Ray than you’d be allowed to believe. I have great respect for any film made about half a century ago which can still impress fresh viewers and Middleman was one such. More than anything, that film made it easier to have a look at other, more diverse works of the director. One such I got hold of was Sonar Kella (Golden Fortress).
A boy’s memory drifts into his past life and he inadvertently becomes target for a smart set of thieves. Only the legendary Feluda can save him. Ray used many elements that he commonly wrote about in his short stories: magic, detectives, parapsychology. The film is far from perfect, with the basic premise of the boy’s past life seeming like an excuse for some indulgence. But it’s the whole search angle which has a distinct stamp of authority.
Feluda is like the other famous Bengali detective, Byomkesh Bakshi, cool, intelligent and enterprising. Unlike him, he smiles a lot less and doesn’t indulge the novelist in the film the way Byomkesh would have. Why you end up liking the detective is because he is not just a detective from Bengal. He has a strong knowledge of the rest of India, it’s history and geography, which is how he’s aware of the deserts of Rajasthan. He solves problems in an intelligent way as if it were a mathematical problem. The joy of arriving at a solution is just the same.
Ray’s strength was his brilliant craftsmanship. He made films, drew storyboards, scored music and most importantly, wrote stories. Proper stories, not autobiographical reminiscences. He also had remarkable interest in varied fields just like a quiz buff would have. It means that if anyone is open to this vast source of knowledge, some of his lesser-known films become joyous experiences.
In the holiday hill-town of Darjeeling, the Kanchenjunga is covered with early morning mist on the day Mr. Choudhuri hopes his daughter is proposed to by the well-to-do, Mr. Bannerjee. As the day goes on you realise there are only two people who want this marriage to happen, and neither of them is the girl in question. Also during the day, the family encounters and solves many of it’s other teething problems which might never have been spoken about in the busy daily life of Calcutta.
You’d least expect Darjeeling to be venue for such a wholesale moral cleansing. But remember, there is the mighty Kanchenjunga looking at it from afar. You can only see it if the mist relents. The parochial patriarch doesn’t know that an internal mist is blocking his mind’s eyesight. The bickering married couple has it’s own sins to clean. The mother, the youngest daughter and the unemployed youth haven’t got any such problems.
That however is the advantage of a day-long chronicle. The patriarch is as much a caricature as the “good” people are. But it’s just a single day in their lives and even that was enough for Mr. Choudhuri to change tracks.
Apparently, this film was the first time Ray wrote by himself without adapting from a source. Like in Sonar Kella, he gets his terrain right. If for thieves hunting for ancient treasures he went west, to Rajasthan. For a philosophical experience he went east, to the hills.