Satyajit Ray series #4: Agantuk (aka The Stranger) (1991)

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A suburban housewife receives a letter from a man named Manmohan claiming to be her long lost uncle after 35 years. This “uncle” left home when she was a 2-yr old girl and hasn’t been heard from ever since. Now this new letter is treated with a bit of trepidation and suspicion by her husband who lets her know that he has no intention of entertaining him at his home. But, the wife somehow persuades him to welcome him and find out for himself whether he is a fraud or not. The husband also suggests the idea of bringing in a lawyer friend of his (played by the great Dhritiman Chatterjee), to “interrogate” this man.

This may sound like the beginning of a thriller but it’s definitely not one. What this premise does is give rise to a series of intellectually stimulating discussions that give a good workout for your brain. This “uncle” maybe a stand-in for Ray himself, imparting his knowledge and insight to the coming generation before saying goodbye. Here, the husband and wife and their friends treat the man suspiciously and doubt his intentions whereas their son, who is yet to be introduced to the harshness of the adult world, see the  man as devoid of any malice and instead see him as a wise old man with nothing but goodness in him. Through the film and the character of Manmohan, Ray makes a comment about the damaging effects of wealth and and how the pursuit of materialism have clouded our judgment. 

The film asks us to look back at where we came from and become aware of our cultural identity and makes the argument that science and technology alone won’t guarantee us progress.  The film makes me yearn for those days when family members used to get together and engage in deeply rewarding discussions on life, history and tradition. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of that these days. The style that Ray adopted for his final film is minimalist and the narrative is confined to just one or two settings. Most of the action takes place inside the home of the couple. We often see the careers of many legendary directors fizzle out towards the end but not Ray’s. This film may not rank among his strongest work but it’s a solid film nonetheless. It serves as a fitting conclusion to Ray’s remarkable body of work. The film is an Indo-French production and French actor Gerard Depardieu is one of it’s executive producers.

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