There is no doubt that majority of the hardcore cineastes in India must have seen or at least heard of his 1970 film Aranyer Din Ratri (aka Days and Nights in the Forest). But chances of this film catching the attention of cineastes outside India are slim. Well, few have heard of it but they haven’t been able to get their hands on a copy of this relatively underrated gem from the master. When someone from the west asks me what it is about, I tell them this: It’s like The Hangover directed by Satyajit Ray.
The film, based on a novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhyay, has a premise similar to Todd Phillip’s 2009 hit. But the difference between both films is that one is much classier than the other – and I’m sure you can guess which one I’m talking about. Aranyer Din Ratri begins with four friends: Asim (Soumitra Chatterjee), Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee), Hari (Samit Bhanja) and Shekhar (the ever exuberant Rabi Ghosh) – all bachelors somewhere in their 20s-30s – taking a trip to a remote forest area in Bihar to escape from the mundane banalities of their city life. They wish to spend some time in this place unrestrained by any rules.
There they meet another vacationing group, a family of three – Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), and Jaya (Kaberi Bose), and their father. Asim tries to make a move on Aparna but finds to his embarrassment that his tricks won’t work on her. He is intimidated by her intelligence, sophistication, and mysterious nature. Meanwhile, Hari gets involved with a local tribal girl Duli (Simi Garewal). The first half of the film is replete with fun and games. There are enough comical situations thanks to Shekhar, who is the joker of the group, and Hari who is constantly irked at Shekhar’s taunts. All the four actors share a great chemistry with each other and their natural banter makes you feel like you know these characters.
Despite the fact that Aranyer Din Ratri was made in 1970, the film along with Ray’s other films from the 70s, most notably his Calcutta trilogy, carried subjects and themes that speak to even the present generation. Ray’s films were way ahead of their time and youngsters of today will find that the characters in many of his films speak in a manner that is not very different from the way they speak now. Anyone who harbors a constant urge to liberate themselves from their automated existence which comprises the silly rules, monotonous chores, chaotic schedules and pointless parties and dash off to some far away place where there are no smartphones, newspapers and television sets will find these characters very relatable.
The film is quite similar to another film of Ray, his 1962 film Kanchenjungha. Both films were about characters who spend some time at an idyllic vacation spot and see themselves slowly undergoing a transformation. The character of Asim, for instance, is someone who Bengalis may not have related to much back then but today’s youth most definitely will. There are few differences from the novel, apparently, as Ray had his own ideas about how he wanted the characters to be. Like I said before, there are several hilarious sequences in the film and most of them involves the men getting involved in some silly shenanigans, especially when they are drunk, and the two women turning up at the wrong time and witnessing it all.
There is one instance where Shekhar tries to show off his English speaking skills which are mocked by Hari later. Ray takes his time to reveal each character’s hidden insecurities, yearnings, and sensitive sides. There is one sequence, in particular, a memory game, that reveals the characters’ psychologies. We learn that Asim finds Aparna appealing because he sees in her the kind of woman that he is exactly looking for – someone who is “not interested in attending parties”. (Now, this is one sentiment I share with Asim). Meanwhile, Sanjoy is taken aback by the bold advances of Jaya, who happens to be a lonely and frustrated widow. Hari learns his own lesson the hard way and the one person who is free from all these tensions is, naturally, Shekhar.