Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mahapurush (The Holy Man)

The protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s Mahapurush (1965) isn’t really a person but a class: the talksy, urban, skeptical, pseudo-intellectual, down-at-the-heels professionals of Kolkata’s middling strata. The paper-thin plot concerns a bogus guru and the comic band of armchair Einsteins who set out to expose him. But the story takes a back seat to the social milieu, which Ray depicts with a loving, lightly mocking eye.

The movie’s especially attentive to interiors, where sloping stacks of books, dusty lithographs, porcelain hula girls, cuckoo clocks, barometers, telescopes, and hanging laundry express the big dreams and small means of the persons who live inside them. Ray’s insurance agents and ledger keepers, chess enthusiasts and crackpot professors have their noses pressed against the glass of a wider world that’s not quite theirs to enter, assembling a secondhand modernity out of snatches of technical English, faulty reel-to-reel tape machines, loud synthetic shirts, and an eclectic worldview that rolls Jesus and Tulsidas, the Buddha and E=MC2, into one catch-all philosophy.

Ray comes up with a neat visual trick for depicting the guru’s teachings: time forward moves in a clockwise circle with one index finger, time past moves counterclockwise in the other. It sounds simple, but no one in the movie can do it till the end, except for Babuji, and Lesley and I are having a hard time with it here. Babuji claims to be over 2,000 years old, and wows his followers with stories of his days instructing Jesus, Einstein, Plato, and Siddhartha on the illusory nature of time present. His syncretic spirituality resembles the jumble in Ray’s apartments, and Babuji fits into these characters’ lives as naturally as cigarettes and telephones.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Babuji skeptic Nibaran (Somen Bose) and his relative Nani (Santosh Dutta) discuss the guru’s claims. They don’t do anything but talk—nobody in the film’s Kolkata does anything but talk—yet in a few short minutes Ray celebrates the humor, curiosity, optimism, and warmth of the type in Dutta’s Nani, busy infusing grass with music from a hand organ to “oxidize” the proteins so the rice yield improves. The farcical, throwaway plot lets Ray show his range (a quality his fan Wes Anderson could learn from) while sketching a wry portrait of Beatlemania-era India and its ironies.

1 comment:

noukadubi said...

A beautiful film! With a rather thin plot, Ray is having fun with other aspects of the movie, some of the dialog sequences are just brilliant.