Distant Thunder (Film)

New review below added to Satyajit Ray director page.

Distant Thunder

Director: Satyajit Ray

Year: 1973

Country: India

In the final years of the Second World War, Satyajit Ray’s home province of Bengal was struck by a famine in which millions starved to death. The causes behind it were man-made, a result of the catastrophic consequences of the blockade of exports from parts of the British Empire surrendered to Japan, and a negligent colonial government who sent resources elsewhere to help the war effort. The rural parts of Bengal were the most severely hit, descending into a large-scale trauma which has scarred Bengali history just as much as the 1947 Partition. Ray at the time was starting employment as an illustrator for an advertising agency in Kolkata — perhaps this detachment is why it took him 30 years to broach the subject, he felt it too painful for someone who had not experienced the famine first-hand to make art out of. However, Ray ended up making one of his most resonant masterpieces from this subject matter.

In a small village in rural Bengal, Gangacharan (Ray’s regular lead actor Soumitra Chatterjee) and his pretty wife Ananga (Bangladeshi starlet Bobita) are the only Brahmin. He, played with a slight air of condescension by the ever-wonderful Chatterjee, makes just enough to feed the pair of them by teaching the local children, providing basic medical treatment, and performing religious ceremonies to keep cholera at bay from the villagers, who hold him in obsequious reverence. His wife is naive and innocent, blindly loyal to the rules of the caste system she has been taught — when an acquaintance from the untouchable caste visits from a nearby village, Ananga quite matter-of-factly avoids touching her. Overhead, and with increasing frequency, war planes come to be heard droning across the sky, making their way over to Southeast Asia — this is the distant thunder of the title, a reminder of the man-made ‘butterfly effect’ whose domino chain will result in disaster for these uncomprehending and unsuspecting villagers.

At first Ananga likens them to birds — a bitter irony for they are the symbol of Man wrecking nature. Other villagers ask Gangacharan how these strange flying machines work, but he can only give the vaguest of answers, just to barely save face. An unambitious man who enjoys being regarded as the wise pandit among a village of illiterate folk, Gangacharan is oblivious and short-sighted. Examples of him not knowing or seeing something are repeated across the film by Ray: when food becomes scarce Ananga goes to work to earn extra rice without telling her husband; when he inadvertently insults a guest in his house and is then reassured to see him asleep, only we the audience see that in fact the guest was pretending and heard all; or in a later scene when his wife, digging for yams in the forest, is jumped on by a rapist, he is absent, away in another village. All his powerlessness comes to stand in for that of the Bengal people as a whole, against more powerful forces which they couldn’t see coming and do not understand.

A stroke of genius from Ray and his camera crew is to depict nature too as oblivious, or at least unknowing and uncaring to the human dramas all around it. In a manner not dissimilar to what Malick would do a few years later on Days of Heaven, shots of nature, of butterflies, small insects, lizards, banyan trees, flowers, ponds, glorious cloudy skies, punctuate the scenes. Nature simply goes on, with the same beauty as before, even while the ugliness of desperately worrying where their next meal will come from slowly but surely hits home for the villagers. It is as unconcerned with them as the invisible faraway war is, but it is not their enemy. The powerful ending reminds of Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More in its effortless inference of the cycles of life and nature continuing: even amid the worst of disasters there is human survival and perseverance. Naturally, Ray does this without any heavy-handedness, showing just a modest shot of Gangacharan’s unassumingly taboo-breaking gesture followed by a quiet acquiescence to Fate, to imply something has changed and perhaps for the better.

This change is related to the other major theme of the film, alongside the progression of the famine and the place of Man amid nature, which is the caste system, something Ray always remained an unequivocal opponent of. The plot structure is so well-balanced, with every subplot and character having a precise purpose, and even those we initially suspected of being trivial ending up weaved into a crucial narrative juncture. Into this structure is kneaded the theme of caste, divisions which both exacerbate the famine before finally being levelled by it. Once all are starving together, there is a solidarity in adversity and austerity which transcends the restrictions of the caste system. It is perhaps in this film, paradoxically about the worst of tragedies he ever dealt with in film, that this profoundly humane filmmaker allows himself the most hope in a future for Bengal and India without caste orthodoxy.




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