Anila Bose was only two years old when, 35 years ago, Manomohan Mitra, her uncle, left home to travel the world. Now someone claiming to be him visits, having cited the Indian tradition of extending hospitality even to a stranger. Most suspicious is Anila’s husband, businessman Sudhindra, who checks Uncle’s passport; with something akin to relish, Uncle quips that in this time of globalization passports can be readily counterfeited. Only Anila and Sudhindra’s young son has greeted Uncle with an open, welcoming heart.
Through surrogates, particularly wily friend Prithwish Sen Gupta, the Boses test the authenticity of Uncle’s identity—but principally as a defense of their bourgeois complacency, which Uncle’s adventurous life-experiences and commitment to India’s tribal past contest. Regardless of who he is, Uncle compels Anila and Sudhindra to look back and around—around, that is, outside themselves, and not just around the house.
Writer-director Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk, his final film, is sentimental and pedestrian in one aspect of its narrative involving a monetary inheritance; on the other hand, it is rich and overflowing with feeling in other aspects. The duel of wits between Uncle and the Boses’ identity-prodding friends may try one’s patience a bit, but the discussions of primitive India versus “science and technology,” “progress” and “civilization” are not without interest. Above all, a tribal dance that Anila herself unexpectedly joins constitutes one of the most visually thrilling, emotionally powerful scenes in Ray’s œuvre.
The structure of the narrative consigns almost all scenes to enclosed spaces, primarily, interiors of the Boses’ home, while tight (though soft, fluent) closeups of Anila, as though the camera were probing her identity, “crowd space,” all this bringing a passion of release to the outdoors dance.
Best film, direction: India’s National Film Awards. International critics’ prize: Venice.
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