Kanchenjunga is apparently one of Satyajit Ray’s least liked films. I know this because the master himself had mentioned in an interview the audience’s tepid response to the film when it first came out. Even though he was naturally disappointed by this reaction, he is proud of it and thinks highly of it. This is one of those Ray films that is looked upon as one of his minor works. I like to think otherwise. It may not be on the same level as some of his earlier films like the “Apu trilogy” or the “Calcutta trilogy” but I still think this is one of his better and most relevant films. Ray explores one of the most complicated subjects and dilemmas of every Indian youth: Marriage.
It’s a film that not only takes a look at the married and unmarried but also one that celebrates individuality and independence. Ray employed a narrative technique that was quite innovative for its time. It’s one of his original scripts and is not based on any novel or short story. I can’t really call this a “story” because what he shows here are moments that occur in a single day. The location is a beautiful Indian hill station called Darjeeling where Ray places his characters – members of a vacationing Bengali family. This is a wealthy family whose head is Indranath (played by Chhabi Biswas), an industrialist. His wife Labanya is played by Karuna Banerjee, who also played the mother in the first two films of the Apu trilogy. One of their daughters, Anima (Anubha Gupta) is married while the other Monisha (the ethereally beautiful Alaknanda Roy) is still young and unmarried. Monisha has just entered college and her parents are looking to get her married to somebody.
Her parents see a potential candidate in one Mr. Banerjee (N.Viswanathan). They arrange a meet-up in which we see Banerjee trying desperately to woo Monisha. It’s obvious that she isn’t that interested in him so it’s kind of painful to see him trying to impress her and almost beg her to be his wife. Monisha seems to be interested in a young, unemployed man named Ashok (Arun Mukherjee) who is the son of a man who used to be their family tutor. We can see that Ashok is fit to be her husband more than Banerjee. Then there is the married daughter Anima who seems to be trapped in an unhappy marriage. She is having an affair with someone else – through correspondence. She is trying to keep it from her husband Shankar (Haridhan Mukherjee). Meanwhile, Labanya’s brother Jagadish Chatterjee (Pahari Sanyal) goes bird watching.The only character that feels out of place is the one played by Anil Chatterjee, who plays Indranath’s son. His character feels unnecessary.
Ray takes these people through several conversations and long walks to give us an idea of their mindset, flaws and subtly shows us some of their similarities and a hint of the direction in which their lives could be headed in. When you see Monisha and Banerjee, you feel like you are seeing the young versions of Indranath and Labanya. Some of the conversations might feel unnecessary but there is a very good reason why Ray wrote them. You look at Indranath and his self-centered conversations and you feel bored. You begin to imagine what Labanya must’ve gone through all these years. Her melancholy face tells you all you need to know about how she feels towards her husband. There is a moment when she panics and tells her brother to convey a message to Monisha so that she won’t make the same mistake she did.
And Ray couldn’t have found a more apt place to shoot the film. He mentions in his biography that it was a longtime wish of his to shoot a film near Kanchenjunga. Nature is just like another character in the film, playing a major role in the life-changing decisions that some of the characters are about to take. Ashok tells Monisha about the conversation that took place between him and Indranath and how, instead of feeling intimidated by him, he felt a great sense of clarity and decided to stand up for himself. This is a novel experience for him, something that he would’ve never done if he were back in Calcutta. The effect a place can have on an individual is really something that we all can relate to. Ray ends the film on an optimistic note and this is my favorite part of the film.