THE ZOO (Satyajit Ray, 1967)

Like The Maltese Falcon, the absorbing, richly entertaining whodunit Chiriyakhana, from the novel by Sharadindu Bandopadhay, begins with a fascinating client: Nisanath Sen (Susil Majumdar, brilliant). In Calcutta, Sen hires python-owning private detective Byomkesh Bakshi (Uttam Kumar, wonderful—best actor, West Bengal Government Prize) to track down both the song “What Do You Know About Love?” in an old movie and the actress who sang it. Seems harmless; but the matter thus stirred up touches on an old murder and results in two new murders. Sen, a retired judge, confesses to doubt about the legal system he represented; as judge, he sent twenty-two men to the gallows. “After all, I am a human being,” he explains to Bakshi; he now wonders if anyone has the right to participate in taking the life of another human being. Sen wears sunglasses even indoors; is he hiding from his own corrosive doubt?
     As part of what he calls his atonement, Sen lives outside Calcutta in the Golap Colony, a farm community that consists of cows, roses and a sad collection of residents: the physically handicapped, criminals and “social outcasts.” For example, Dr. Bhujangadhar Das once committed illegal abortions. Invited by Sen, Bakshi, in one of his disguises (as Japanese horticulturist Okakura), surveys the colony and meets the residents—a stunning passage whose variety of shots and camera positions objectively correlate to Bakshi’s exhaustive study of the grounds and the people. Writer-director Satyajit Ray (best director, West Bengal Government Prize), India’s greatest filmmaker, has done exhilarating work. (Question: Would Okakura fool anyone in anything other than a black-and-white film?)
     Ray himself disparaged Chiriyakhana; but he was wrong. This is one of cinema’s detective delights. And one is haunted by the widow’s remark following Sen’s cold-blooded murder: “Everything is dark.”

One thought on “THE ZOO (Satyajit Ray, 1967)

  1. Ray’s cinematography has always been a treat to watch. Sonar Kella apparently was written after he visited Jaisalmer and saw the Fort there.

    I would also recommend watching “Kanchenjunga” purely for the shots of a foggy winter day in Darjeeling. I ran the whole DVD on fast forward and the effect was simply superb.

    Ray himself disparaged Chiriyakhana. It is interesting when as a viewer you think very highly of a certain work and the director disapproves of it him/herself. Happened with me when I thought Winter Light was one of Bergman’s best movies but he himself did not think too much of it.

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