India | 146 min.
black & white
Satyajit Ray, 1962
THIS TITLE IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE TO PURCHASE
Abhijan was Satyajit Ray’s most popular film in Bengal: a “conscious” effort to communicate with a wider audience. The project was originally conceived by his friends and Ray stepped in when they panicked at the prospect of directing. Ray’s mastery turned a starkly conventional plot into a subtly nuanced story which topped the Bengali box office for months.
Set on the Bihar-Bengal border, where Marwari businessmen — a powerful Hindi-dialect community of entrepreneurs much disliked throughout India — and Rajputs of warrior caste (from Rajasthan) have both settled. The central character of Narsingh (Soumitra Chatterjee), is a disillusioned, frequently drunken Rajput reduced in status to an ill-educated taxi driver. Proud and hot-tempered, with a passion for his 1930s Chrysler, Narsingh is offered work transporting tins of ghee for Sukhanram, a shady merchant, and finds himself drawn against his better judgement into trafficking opium. Having failed in everything honest, he has to decide whether or not he will engage in criminal activity to make money.
Starring Waheeda Rehman — one of the greatest stars of ‘Bollywood’ cinema — as Gulabi, a prostitute; Rabi Ghosh as Rama, Narsingh’s right-hand man; and Ruma Guha Thakurata as Neeli, Abhijan was honoured with the National Award of India in 1962. The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present Abhijan for the first time on DVD in the West, restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy Film Archive.
by Marie Seton, 1971
In ‘An Estimate’ of Ray written in October 1957 for Amrita Baza Patrika, Ray’s old friend, Chidananda Das Gupta, observed:
Scripting is the beginning of film-making; editing the end. Direction is something built on these two pillars — for Satyajit Ray at any rate. By exercising complete control of these two stages Satyaiit integrates his work and makes it the complete translation of the picture in his mind… . It is the detail that makes cinema, for after all it is something you cannot ‘see’ in any other art… . Satyajit’s sense of detail is closely linked with his keen observation of life, his memory of the character of the scene. It is, on the other hand, linked also with his study of human character, his interest in revealing the essence of a character and in showing its relationship with other characters.
During the early days of Ray’s film-going he was almost exclusively exposed to American and British films. In his early-1940s attempt at a Tagore script, Home and the World, which he says he will still some day make from a new scenario [Ghaire-Baire, 1984], the human relations and political ideas were presented in a style differing little from the script-writing of American and British films of that period. In this script, the characters are shown behaving in a conventional and melodramatic manner little connected with Ray’s later approach. But, here and there, his own style for which he was groping was suggested in the details of a camera movement, a sound, or an object mentioned in the scenario. There come sudden flashes of ‘atmosphere’.
In Home and the World, a story largely told through flashbacks, two antithetic modes of film-making were detectable. One was in the line of current commercial cinema; the other was striving in the direction of the style which would become idiosyncratic of Satyajit Ray. At the opposite extreme, and during the struggle to realize Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road, 1955], Ray produced an entirely visual script without the inclusion of a single word. It still exists in an old drawing book; a visualization of Ravi Shankar playing his sitar, interspersed with almost abstracted images of the accompanying tabla. Possibly, some day, a variation on this audiovisual experiment may be made.
With the duality of the first Home and the World script in mind, it is interesting to trace the evolution of the 1961 script of Abhijan, the adaptation to the screen of which could easily have developed as a strictly commercial entertainment film.
The chief influence Ray had absorbed from Renoir was the idea of scenarios being kept fluid. Worked out in illustrated detail as to basic composition, Ray has left room for improvisation. In the case of Abhijan, dialogue and business were frequently subject to improvised changes.
When Bijoy Chatterjee came to discuss his idea of producing a film from Tarashankar Banerjee’s novel, Chatterjee had the notion of venturing to direct the film himself. Having read the novel over two days in August 1961, Ray advised Chatterjee to acquire the film rights immediately. Chatterjee acted with such alacrity that the rights were settled within a few hours. His enthusiasm was such that he wanted to start the film at once. But he had no script. Satyajit’s interest was so captured by Abhijan that he agreed to assist Bijoy with advice and to write the screenplay, despite his determination to push ahead with Kanchenjunga , his own idea.
There is one point of similarity between Kanchenjunga and Abhijan, though in all other respects they are strikingly in contrast. In both films a financially successful middle-aged man attempts to buy over a younger and impoverished man. Both Indranath and Sukhanram, who is overtly shown as a trader in opium and women in Abhijan, adhere to the same standard — that money can buy anything and, more particularly, people. Both men discover there are exceptions to this ruthless operator’s rule.
Tarashankar Banerjee’s long novel is laid on the Bihar-Bengal border, in the general area of Tagore’s Santineketan, where Marwari businessmen — a powerful community of entrepreneurs much disliked throughout India — and Rajputs of warrior — chhatri — caste from Rajasthan have settled. They speak a dialect of Hindi. The Bengalis in the film speak their own language. The central character of Narsingh, a disillusioned, frequently drunken Rajput reduced in status to an ill-educated taxi driver, was based upon a real man who was still alive. Satyajit visited him after he decided to direct the film from his own script. The author, who had been a political worker in the national and peasant movement, had set his novel in the period of 1942-43.
Ray shifted the period forward to 1961 on the grounds that the essential sociological role of men like the Marwari, Sukhanram, had not changed in rural areas in twenty years. There were still reports in the [p]ress of similar opium smuggling and of white slave traffic.
Ray’s adaptation is focused upon Narsingh’s reactions and conflict as to whether, having failed in everything honest, he will or will not engage in criminal activity — the delivery of opium in faked tins of ghee — in order to make money. In the novel, Narsingh’s background was given in great detail. His much-loved wife had died. Ray replaced the dead wife by a wife who had deserted Narsingh and deepened his disillusion. The past life of Gulabi, the young Bihar village widow, and the rape that had loosened her morals, was also detailed. Her parents sold her to Sukhanram to save their reputation. Ray made drastic deletions. Only in one poignant scene with Narsingh does Gulabi attempt to explain her past life.
Without identifying his long opening sequence of Abhijan as a Prologue, Ray set out to establish the psychological condition of Narsingh prior to his first encounter with Sukhanram, at which point the main story commences. The first sequence shows his resentment towards women; his aggressive recklessness which rebounds upon himself; and yet his innate courage even if his character is too weak to support either his anger or his pride.
The following is a condensation of the scenario, which begins, as the film itself does, in the village of Imanbazar.
The public vehicle stand showing the taxi of Narsingh (Singhi), and his helper, Rama, waiting for fares. This shot was eliminated and the opening shot shows a man questioning Narsingh about the desertion of his wife. Narsingh’s reflection is seen in a jagged, broken mirror. He is drinking heavily.
He lurches out of the wine shop to find that the fares in his taxi are a wedding party. Disgusted by women, he turns the party out.
Narsingh, with elderly nervous passengers and Rama, drives recklessly to catch a train. He deliberately plays upon the passengers’ nerves. (In the film, the credit titles come over this scene and end as the level crossing gate comes down.) ‘There goes my train,’ says one of the nervous passengers. The gate rises and the journey continues. Narsingh races the train and beats it by a hair’s breadth.
A lapse of some hours.
The taxi is parked beneath a tree. Narsingh lies on the ground with a book while Rama fills the radiator. They continue, with Rama driving. Narsingh dozes. The honk of the horn wakes him and he sees a car in front. He takes over the driving; but still the car in front refuses to move out of the way.
In it is a sour-looking official — the Sub-District Officer. Narsingh twists his taxi off the road, into a field, and passes the car.
The S.D.O.’s room. The confrontation of the bullying S.D.O., who is determined to revoke Narsingh’s taxi driver’s permit for reckless driving, and a diffident Narsingh ready to apologize until, threatened with a riding crop and a savage ‘GET OUT’, he is seized with fury. But, faced with the bully in authority, he finds himself helpless… .
Narsingh’s car parked under a tree. Brought to rock bottom humiliation by the S.D.O., Narsingh flings a chunk of brick at the car he cherishes. Nothing is left for him but to go back to his village of Giribajra. The faithful and good-natured Rama will tag along too.
The contradictions in Narsingh’s character have been hinted at. He has nothing to look forward to. The main story is about to unfold. The theme underlying the action, which carries a more formal plot than any other Ray film, is that of temptation, accommodation and redemption. During production, Soumitra Chatterjee, as Narsingh, commented that he felt Ray was constantly encouraging him to uncover the latent spiritual conflict within the character; that the Narsingh of the film was more complex than Narsingh in the novel.
Opens with a ‘long stretch of metalled road with paddy fields on either side’. Night descends. Change of objects along the road emphasizes distance. Suddenly, in the glare of Narsingh’s headlights, a man is seen waving. Behind him a bullock cart has overturned.
The man is the Marwari, Sukhanram. He asks if Narsingh will drive him to Shyamnagar. ‘No.’ The man pleads. They bargain on price. From the shadows a girl appears — Gulabi — whom Sukhan identifies as a ‘maidservant’. Narsingh protests. Sukhan offers him Rs 10/- for the journey. On arrival at Sukhan’s house, Narsingh is invited in to rest. He goes reluctantly, with Rama remaining outside.
The exterior wall of Sukhan’s house and the inside courtyard shown in the gray light of early morning [were] later shot on location at a genuine Marwari house in the town of Dubrajpur. The next scene, a set, was Sukhanram’s Room, also used as an office. Several subsequent scenes take place here.
Sukhanram, ‘all kindness and hospitality’, begins his tempting of Narsingh by ordering a sherbet for him and declaring ‘we need a man like you here’. (He sees possibilities in the collaboration with a man owning a taxi.) He offers Narsingh a cigarette from a gold case and passes him a fancy-looking lighter, while pursuing his idea about the usefulness of a taxi. Narsingh, intrigued by the lighter, is offered it, but resists taking it.
Sukhan says: ‘After all you were a great help to me today — and you can be of help in the future too.’
‘I want to make you an offer.’
‘I want you to set up [….] plying trade between here and Panchmati — seven miles away… .’
He will advance money to repair the car. Suspicious, Narsingh wants to know how would this help Sukhan. ‘You can transport some of my goods from time to time. A car is much quicker [than the bullock cart he has been using]. It’ll help my business and you’ll have no difficulty in getting a permit here. The S.D.O. is a good man.’ He invites Narsingh to stay and look around.
When it came to production, Chandragupta and Ray devised a set concentrating upon atmosphere which reflected not only the sociology of this Marwari set-up, but the psychology. The entrance hall of Sukhanram’s house was given a fanlight window, a detail of which is repeated in the construction of Sukhan’s room-cum-office. It allowed for patterns of lighting which illuminate the inner conflicts within Narsingh.
With the possible exception of the 1879 drawing-room in Charulata [The Lonely Wife, 1964] and the primly modest room of the prospective bride in Samapti [The Conclusion, an episode in Ray’s Teen kanya / Three Daughters, 1961], no set evolved by Chandragupta and Ray is so indicative of the mentality of the occupant as Sukhan’s room. It reflects the dualism of Marwari psychology, which is also examined in the characterization of Bajoria in The Alien [an unmade Ray script from 1967, intended as a U.S.-Indian co-production]. While serving as the greatest money-lending and business caste throughout India, and with an exceedingly powerful grip in Bengal, Marwaris are hallmarked by a superstitious religiosity. They pray intensively, as if to ward off retribution for their worldly activities. They are notable as donation-givers to temples. This ironic but not incongruous aspect is prominent in the habitat of Sukhan, the rural dealer in opium and women. The whole back wall of his sanctum is cluttered with popular prints of protective deities. A large cherubic Krishna, all mischievous innocence, serves as obscene comment that Sukhan cherishes the sight of this holy horror of divine infancy. And the sly reminder: Krishna enlightened the milkmaids through love. Sukhan trades in ‘milkmaids’, or ‘gopis’, as Gulabi will breathlessly reveal.
The next morning at the vehicle stand of Shyamnagar, with Narsingh and Rama a centre of interest to the bus-drivers. It is here that Narsingh first meets Josef, the good-natured and upright Christian driver of the S.D.O. when Josef strikes up a conversation. He elicits the information that Narsingh is on the way to Giribajra. This delights him for this is where he, too, comes from. He asks: ‘May I know your name?’
‘Are you the famous Singhs of Giribajra?’
Narsingh smiles and says: ‘Yes.’
Josef is astonished. He says: ‘My name is Josef.’
‘Josef Ranjan Das.’
Josef points to a little crucifix around his neck. Then he says: ‘I think my grandfather knew your grandfather – my grandfather was Prankrishna Das.’
‘Then originally you were… .’
‘Yes, low caste. My grandfather was converted.’
‘And now… ?
‘And now we are Christians and I drive the S.D.O.’s car.’
Josef also suggests that Narsingh open a taxi service.
Once representative of family social extremes, Narsingh, whose chhatri ancestry is an important psychological factor — it is referred to several times and a lion is tattooed on his right arm which he looks at each time he meets defeat — has sunk in the social scale, while the low-caste Das family have risen.
Brought together, it would appear that Narsingh is a degenerate and reactionary personality, while Josef, as subsequent scenes reveal, is apparently more progressive in outlook and certainly far more conscious of moral standards. He will seek to restrain Narsingh from becoming Sukhanram’s tool. But as Ray estimated these two characters, he later explained to me that Josef, the consciously virtuous man, was a relatively static personality while Narsingh, being at bottom a good man, had greater capacity for growth and undergoes a marked degree of change.
In view of the social implications of the meeting of the two, the casting of Josef appeared as an example of marked perceptiveness. Ray selected a stage actor, Gnyanesh Mukherji, with an interesting and strong face conveying integrity. But in contrast to Chatterjee, Mukherji is decidedly dark. This is most apt for Josef since it is noticeable that, apart from Goan Christians, darkness of complexion is often a characteristic of Indian Christians. This darkness is not always because they are South Indians of Dravidian origin; but because relatively recent converts — like Josef’s grandfather — have often been drawn from among dark people of former low caste or Untouchables. The explanation as to why people of the fourth caste, Sudras, and the Untouchables should frequently be dark is that the conquering Aryans, whose descendants are so visible among the Brahmin and chhatri castes, pushed down the dark aboriginal and Dravidian people and locked them into servitude in a caste-dominated society.
The next scene — another part of the town where Josef, his mother and his sister, Neeli, a school-teacher, live — underwent drastic change from scenario to the film. Instead of Josef driving Narsingh to his home in the S.D.O.’s jeep, Josef walks Narsingh through the area of rocks on the edge of Dubrajpur (the location which made such an impact on Ray that he decided to direct the film; this is explained later). Narsingh is instantly attracted by Neeli (who, as shown later, is in love with the clergyman’s son). The mother offers Narsingh tea and cakes. Narsingh is silent — from awareness of Neeli. This is mistaken by Josef for caste consciousness. He says: ‘It’s all right if you feel you shouldn’t touch our food… after all, you were a chhatri — and we were… .’ The implication is they were Untouchables. Narsingh is flustered and [says,] ‘Oh, no, no, no… .’ To cover his embarrassment he puts a whole piece of cake into his mouth and chokes.
This, and the previous scene, are the only ones in a Ray film where caste is introduced.
Josef promises to arrange a taxi permit if Narsingh will set up business in Shyamnagar. Josef would like to go into business with him.
Narsingh goes to Sukhanram to discuss the taxi proposition. This time Narsingh accepts the gift of the fancy lighter, and the loan of Rs 200/- for the repair of his car. A stranger sitting in the room adds a sinister touch.
Rama is delighted to stay. He points out the presence of Gulabi, who is watching them from a window. Rama approves of her.
At the wineshop. The bus driver, Rameshwar, a dangerous type, envious of Narsingh’s lighter, attempts to provoke him.
To a restaurant where Rama expresses his dislike for the bus drivers, but his liking for Gulabi.
To Narsingh’s room. Situated in an outbuilding of Sukhan’s compound, it became the most important set. Costing a little over £175 to construct, the small set aimed that the simulated texture of brick walls with a broken window, barred as the great majority of windows are in India, be as visually effective as possible when lit either for day light or the murkiness of night.
Sounds of music and a noisy party reach Narsingh lying awake on his bed, a charpoy. Suddenly there’s soft insistent knocking on his door. Opening it, Narsingh finds Gulabi, in a state of near collapse and with her blouse torn, anxious to be let in. She begs him to let her stay for the night to escape from ‘the new man tonight … . He [Sukhanram] forced me into his room — to spend the night… .’
Unwillingly, Narsingh finally agrees to let her stay. (It is because, despite his rough ways, he does not touch Gulabi, treating her as a human being and not a whore, that Narsingh captures her affection and later her love.)
He simply goes to sleep.
_Slow Fade Out_ on the girl’s face
Next morning: Narsingh drives to Josef’s house. Josef, having done a little mischief to the jeep, has arranged for Narsingh to drive the S.D.O. to Panchmati. On the way to the Officer’s house they drop Neeli at the house of the Rev. Bannerji, her excuse being that she has to collect a book; but it is to meet his one-legged son.
Before they arrive at the S.D.O.’s house Josef warns Narsingh of Sukhan’s shady deals. The Officer, in the sharpest contrast to the one at Imanbazar, is friendly. It turns our that he once served in Giribajra while Narsingh lived there. Narsingh is now a model of the careful driver. He refrains from even overtaking a bullock cart.
To the vehicle stand of Panchmati where Narsingh rejects taking any fares until he has a licence.
To evening at Sukhan’s house. Sukhan informs Narsingh that he has been to see a lawyer, Ukil Bahu, to draw up the papers for the repair of the car. He adds: ‘A lot of people say a lot of things about me. I don’t pretend to be a saint. I am an opportunist and I am bold enough to take risks… .’
Narsingh leaves, thoughtfully, and goes to his room. In the script, he found his bed neatly made — and not by Rama. (In the working out of direction, the context in which Gulabi makes Narsingh’s bed was altered, placed later, and made significant of the change in their relationship. It comes after they have spent a night together making love.)
Sunday. By a wayside pond Rama cleans the car while Narsingh, responding to his brighter prospects, trims his moustache in a mirror. Josef joins him until Neeli arrives on her way to church; that is, in the scenario. For lack of finding a suitable church, the next scene was altered for Narsingh to walk with Neeli to her school. They talk, until Neeli asks:
‘Don’t you believe in God?
‘Oh… I’ve never thought of it. Perhaps I do. I make a sign when I pass a temple… any temple… Hindu, Muslim, Sikh… .’
‘But not a church?’
Narsingh thinks. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever done that while passing a church.’
There is silence. Then Narsingh says: ‘But I think I will — from now on.’
‘Why from now on?’
Neeli is half amused, half intrigued. But Narsingh says with simple sincerity: ‘Because YOU’RE a Christian.’
Neeli is touched, and also slightly embarrassed at this sudden confession of weakness on this man’s part. But Narsingh has suddenly become serious. He says:
‘Does your God punish sinners?’
‘Yes. We have a saying in the Bible… “The wages of sin is Death”“.’
This was to become a motif and associated with a particular rock. Ray’s resolution of this romantic symbol is discussed later.
In directing the following scene, Ray introduces a notable instance where Nature becomes an embodiment of a human psychological state: Narsingh, sitting at the foot of a tree with a tangled growth of roots, tries painfully to teach himself English in order to acquire the embellishment of ‘a gentleman’ in accord with his ancestry. It picks up the idea of what he has confessed to Neeli during their walk: ‘I’m only a driver. At least if there were a big company, with trucks and taxis and buses, and I was a partner, then that would be something. But now there’s only one taxi and I am the driver… .’
_Mixes to Montage_
Of Shyamnagar vehicle stand. Rama keeps honking the new electric horn on the overhauled car.
To a typical trip with Narsingh again driving recklessly with alarmed passengers.
To Narsingh honking outside Josef’s house. Neeli comes out and he drives her to school.
To another trip. This time, Narsingh sees the S.D.O.’s car reflected in his mirror and respectfully moves to one side to let Josef pass. The Montage ends after Narsingh is grimly stared at by the bus drivers when he buys wine in the wine shop.
To Sukhanram’s house where Narsingh brings a bag of money to repay, with interest, the Rs 200/- for his car repairs. Sukhan does not wish to take the money. Flattering Narsingh, he broaches the subject of a partnership:
‘… Mr Narsingh, you’re a chhatri, aren’t you?’
‘Chhatris are spirited people, aren’t they?’
‘They like adventure?’
‘They take risks?’
‘Good. I have need of someone who likes adventure, who takes risks, who is brave… .’
Sukhan goes to his safe and brings out a harmless-looking container. ‘Do you know what this contains?’ Narsingh sniffs the tin and says it smells like ghee. But, in fact, it contains opium. ‘All you have to do is to transport such tins to an address I’ll give you… .’ Narsingh wants to know what’s the risk. ‘Don’t get caught, and there’s no risk.’ To encourage Narsingh, Sukhan talks about a partnership and a nice girl to marry. He tells Narsingh to come back in half an hour, reminding him he has left his bag of money. Narsingh collects it. Sukhan suggests, ‘If you should feel the need of female company, just let me know. The bazaar women are no good here.’
Narsingh finds Gulabi in his room. Much upset, she says: ‘If you should ever decide to go away from here, take me away with you and drop me at my native village. It was bad enough there, but here it is a thousand times worse. It is like a living death… .’ She leaves him with an imploring look. Bewildered, Narsingh shakes her off his mind. He orders Rama to get the car ready.
This sequence was to have opened in a Shyamnagar cinema during a stunt film. But when the film was being shot at the main location of Dubrajpur, a tent cinema was operating there, also the impoverished Tara Circus which was grounded for debt. Ray utilized both as setting for subsequent action.
The conversation between Narsingh and Josef — about a partnership in a transport business which Josef is so eager for — was set in the circus tent. [….]
They then go to the wine shop. Narsingh is wearing new trousers. Leaving Rama and Josef outside, he goes in to buy a couple of bottles. The resentful Rameshwar, and several others, taunt Narsingh: ‘We’d need such pants too if we were to mix in such good company… .’ ‘… and Christian girls too … .’ ‘You know the girl we mean … the one that’s so friendly with the lame man, but pretends that she’s your girl. She’s… .’
Narsingh knocks out the drunken driver and leaves the shop. A horde of drivers follow him and a fight breaks out. Narsingh is badly beaten up and taken by Josef and Rama to Josef’s house.
Ray was to shoot a greater number of shots for this scene than for any other throughout his work. [….]
At Josef’s house, Neeli is very sympathetic. Josef asks what it was that made Narsingh lose his temper. Josef’s mother has come into the room. Narsingh, hesitating, then admits: ‘Oh, something about the lame boy and… and… her… .’ He points to Neeli.
Josef’s mother says: ‘I wouldn’t have fought for his sake. He’s a no good boy all right… .’
Josef says: ‘Oh mother — you don’t have to talk like that… .’
Mother says sternly: ‘I know what I’m saying… .’
Neeli leaves the room abruptly without saying a word. Narsingh determinedly gets up to leave, puzzled by the domestic ‘scene’.
To Sukhan’s compound. Rama has driven the car. Gulabi is watching from a window. Narsingh collapses on the bed in his room. His pride in his strength is as much hurt as his body: ‘There were six of them. That’s why they dared to do this to me… . The cowards. Jealous… the whole lot of them… jealous.’
Rama interjects: ‘They are a bad lot, Guruji… there are too many bad people in this place… .’
‘But I’ll show them — the bad ones… . I’ll make them ten times more jealous … . Wait till the company is formed… .’
‘What company, Guruji?’
The big transport agency… with me as partner… . I’ll let you drive a bus then… .’ His voice becomes thick with drowsiness.
Gulabi has come anxiously into the room. Rama, who cannot speak her Hindi dialect (Narsingh can), instructs her in sign language to look after Narsingh. Rama leaves her alone with Narsingh. She sits by the charpoy, her fingers passing over his hair. Her expression denotes her love. He stirs, moves restlessly but does not wake. He mumbles in his sleep, ‘Neeli, Neeli… .’ Lines of pain and disappointment show on Gulabi’s face, yet she patiently waits.
Narsingh calls for Neeli to take her to school. She asks him if he will do something for her. He will gladly do anything. ‘Do you think you could come with your car and meet me in front of the cemetery at about ten this evening? It’s very important.’
‘Of course,’ says Narsingh with no suspicion of what is involved.
The cemetery became an area of the rock formation on the edge of Dubrajpur.
Leaving Neeli, Narsingh passes a pond. In response to what he supposes to be Neeli’s interest in him, he decides to ‘drown’ his wine bottle. Rama takes it to throw away. Instead, he pockets it and throws in a stone.
To the vehicle stand. Since Narsingh is a little late his regular passengers are restive. Josef intercepts him to say he’s worried about Neeli and the attitude of the bus drivers. Narsingh says no harm can come to her while he is around.
To the taxi on the way to Panchmati. Narsingh is driving fairly recklessly.
To a change of landscape with Rameshwar’s bus in the distance half a mile ahead. Rama gets excited. Narsingh impassively begins to overtake the bus. The distance begins to shorten. Narsingh sounds his new electric horn three times. Rameshwar keeps to the middle of the road. Narsingh comes right up against the bus. Then he performs his special feat of miraculously swerving off the road, into a field, and he passes the bus.
The original concept of Bijoy Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray was that this race should be shot from a helicopter. But after protracted negotiations and repeated delays to secure a date, Ray had to think of an alternative means of shooting the scene.
Rama throws the bottle on to the road to puncture the bus tyre. The bus stops in a cloud of dust.
To cinema (tent cinema) with typical sequence of Hindi film dance. At 9.30 p.m. Narsingh gets up, giving Rama money for a meal.
A place near the rocks (to which Ray transplanted the cemetery scene). Narsingh picks his way through boulders and comes to one where Josef, Neeli and he have scratched their names. He waits, then hears irregular footsteps. Neeli appears. Behind her is the man on crutches. Narsingh reacts with incomprehension.
In the film itself, an additional emotional dimension is given by Ray’s music intensifying over this scene.
Neeli, pleadingly, explains to Narsingh that they have waited ten years to get married. Now they are running away from her mother’s objections. She asks Narsingh to drive them ten miles to the train.
Narsingh is almost hysterical. Yet he agrees and savagely drives them as Neeli begs of him.
To Sukhan’s compound to which Narsingh returns drunk. Gulabi is watching from a window. Seeing her, he mumbles: ‘Women are only good for one thing… .’ and asks Rama to tell Gulabi to come to his room.
Narsingh, flinging himself on the bed in his room, says: ‘What happened to your blood, chhatri? What happened to your blood?’
He begins to scratch himself on his veins.
‘Why didn’t it boil? You could have killed that man… that puny man with one leg and no courage… . Why didn’t you do it?… I know why… . You are respectable, Narsingh… too respectable, for a chhatri… but not enough for her… .’
Rama brings Gulabi, who gazes at him lovingly. He says to her: ‘God knows what kind of a woman you are. Tonight I don’t care.’ He pulls her towards him.
When the dawn comes they are still together. She is sitting beside the charpoy. Gulabi has removed her heavy silver bangles as symbolization of their having made love. She fingers one of them gently. Narsingh smokes.
In the original scenario, a long scene followed with each of them telling the other about the past. Ray omitted this. It only becomes clear that Gulabi would never leave a man she loves. Again, she asks Narsingh to take her away. Narsingh mentions the partnership with Sukhan, to which Gulabi replies that Sukhan will sell her.
Having completed the eighth sequence, Satyajit ran out of inspiration as to how to continue and conclude the scenario. He had made numerous deletions and changes. He had convincingly resolved the situation where Gulabi becomes the stimulant for Narsingh’s moral regeneration. But he was not ready for the last lap of the writing. His interest switched away to his own picnic story which became Kanchenjunga. The moment he finished Kanchenjunga’s scenario, he went resolutely ahead with the direction. Arrangements for the production, his first in colour, went with great speed. He had persistently rejected the idea of directing Abhijan himself.
Bijoy Chatterjee, in preparing to direct Abhijan, tested Soumitra Chatterjee for the character of Narsingh. Since Soumitra’s natural appearance was far too refined and gentle for him to look anything like the rough, uprooted Rajput, the make-up expert went to work radically to alter Soumitra’s appearance. The first test photographs indicated how far his personality could be changed. He was eager to play such a character part.
Even while Satyaiit was working on the first eight sequences, Bijoy Chatterjee was concerned to find the right location for Abhijan. He had the town of Dubrajpur in mind and induced Bansi Chandragupta to go and see the place with him. The town and its surroundings titillated Bansi’s imagination. They were impressed by the photogenic aspects of the massive rocks nearby.
During the shooting of Kanchenjunga in Darjeeling, Bijoy Chatterjee spent almost the whole period of direction there. But he was discretion itself in refraining from pressing Ray to complete the script. Indeed, he spent a great deal of time letting off his pent-up enthusiasm about Abhijan in explaining every detail of the original novel to me. While Bijoy supposed he would have to direct the film, he still had hopes that Satyajit might change his mind and take it on.
Back in Calcutta after the shooting of Kanchenjunga, with a wait for the bulk of the rushes, Bijoy and Bansi took advantage of Satyajit’s disquiet when not at work. They persuaded him to drive with them to look at the Bihar-Bengal border town of Dubrajpur. The scenario was still unfinished. Though Dubrajpur is only some twenty miles from Santineketan, Ray had never been there. They went directly to the rock formation on the edge of the town.
These rocks, forming roughly a mile square in area, are grim, scarred and humped. They are reputed to be a geological mystery. The rocks appear as if they had been flung down from the heavens rather than heaved up from the earth. Boulders mount up like magnified piles of stones uneven in size to form a wall against the sky. Suddenly, single palm trees spring from crevices, while the floor of this mysterious natural amphitheatre is scattered with giant chips of rock smoothly rounded as if pebbles had expanded their size a millionfold.
A legend exists to explain this enigmatic cluster of stones. It is said that when Hanuman, the Holy Monkey of the Ramayana, was flying southward from the Himalayas to bombard the Demon King Ravana with a mountain — Ravana had abducted Sita but, nobly, had not raped her — Hanuman was carrying a second mountain perched on his second superman (or super-monkey) shoulder. Finding the weight too great, he tossed it off. The discarded mountain shattered into fragments on the edge of what is now Dubrajpur.
Hanuman dropping a mountain, or a landshift eons ago, no cinematic-minded artist could remain coolly indifferent to such a dramatic landscape. The impact on Satyajit was immediate. He was captivated by the rocks. At once he visualized them as an alternative to the cemetery location he had introduced into Abhijan’s scenario.
‘You didn’t tell me what a tremendous thing they are,’ Satyajit said to Bijoy. ‘This must play a bigger role. It can’t be passed over so easily. It’s one of the best locations I’ve ever seen.’
Turning about to view the shots which might be devised within this bizarre expanse of stone, Ray began to snap photograph after photograph. The other two kept quiet while he repeatedly clicked his camera, absorbed in his enthusiasm.
They stayed the night in Dubrajpur. Bansi and Bijoy waited about, talked, slept, conscious that Satyajit, who had shut himself up in his room, had become enthralled with the rocks. So affected was he by them that he went to work with furious haste to complete the scenario which had lain unfinished for several months. The last two sequences took shape. At five o’clock in the morning, Satyajit strode out of his room, announcing: ‘I must check up on the lighting!’ He returned to the rocks and photographed them at different hours throughout that day to have a record of the play of light.
Possibly it was the first sight of one particularly huge, rounded and isolated boulder which struck him as a powerful symbol for the idea of ‘the burden of sin’ which weaves its way through Abhijan. At some point this boulder emerged as an individual motif introduced when Josef and Narsingh first walk across the rocks area to Josef’s house. It dominated Ray’s imagination throughout the making of the film. He went so far as to create two symbolic scenes around it. [In the first scene,] the symbolic boulder is sighted and the camera moves forward in the rhythm of walking. Narsingh climbs up and pits his strength against the immovable monolith only to discover his own weakness on the physical level. In the second scene towards the end of the film, the boulder suddenly confronts the distraught Narsingh who has blindly knocked Josef down for trying to restrain him from smuggling the opium tin. Here the rock became symbolic of spiritual force. It shocked Narsingh out of his state of corruption.
These two initially symbolic scenes should be kept in mind, for what Ray finally did with them serves as an insight into his character as a man and as an artist.
At this stage, they discovered several other locations in Dubrajpur — the Marwari house as mentioned earlier; the wedge-shaped facade for the wine shop and the vehicle stand; also a thatched building near the rocks which became the location of Neeli’s school. Here there were swarms of children to incorporate into a scene with the one-legged Bannerji.
On the drive back to Calcutta from Dubrajpur, Ray began to notice the arresting visual features of the road as they reared into view of the car’s headlights. The roads round Dubrajpur were to become, both by daylight and after dark, a vital feature of the taxi driver’s story.
Before they reached Calcutta, Bijoy Chatterjee ventured to ask Satyaiit if he would be willing to direct Abhijan. Ray now agreed and Bijoy’s ambitions as a producer soared. Outwardly casual, an inner conviction about the story had driven Biioy with a dogged patience. From start to finish he had enormous faith in Abhijan. He celebrated its financial success in Bengal by getting married.
Marie Seton (d. 1985) authored the biographies Paul Robeson (1958), Panditji: A Portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru (1967), and Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography (1978); she also edited a reconstructed version of Eisenstein’s unfinished film ¡Que viva Mexico! (conceived 1930-32). The above excerpt has been reprinted from her book Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971, revised 1978) — ISBN 0-14302-972-X. Published by Penguin Books India.