THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (Satyajit Ray, 1958)

Tulsi Chakraborty excels as Paresh Dutta, an insignificant bank clerk who rises in wealth and popularity, but also draws police scrutiny as a likely smuggler, after discovering a marble, a so-called “atom bomb,” that upon touching it turns iron into gold in Parash Pathar, Satyajit Ray’s lovely Capraesque fable about serendipity and satirical comedy about greed, from the short story by Parasuram (Rajsekhar Bose). Ray himself described the film as a “combination of comedy, fantasy, satire and farce, with a touch of pathos”—as one might describe the 1936 British film by Lothar Medes from H.G. Wells, The Man Who Could Work Miracles. If you enjoy the latter film (as I do), you will probably also enjoy Ray’s. On the other hand, this is a distinctly minor work made the same year as Ray’s brilliant The Music Room.
     Declaring its delight in visual trickery, the film opens with a scene in fast motion, an overhead shot of automobile and foot traffic in Calcutta—ironically, a glimpse of the human rat race at the workday’s 5 o’clock close. (More speeded-up action will return later on.) It is fun watching various things made of iron, including spent grenades, turn with a sharp cut into gold; and it is even a bit haunting when the gold reverts to iron. Underneath these shifts in substance may lurk an antiwar film of sorts.
     This reversion occurs in tandem with the fate of the “stone,” which Dutta’s secretary has eaten, to be rid of it, and which the young man’s stomach, x-rays show, is actually digesting. When it is gone, so is the gold!
     Count no man lucky, then, until his secretary’s lunch has been fully digested. Didn’t Sophocles say this, or something like this, somewhere?
     Music by Ravi Shankar.

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