Film 'Agantuk' - a lesson to educated middle class

Radhakanta Barik

This  is a beautiful story giving a definition of a Bengli who wants to move around the world and having knowledge of every subject from the tribals to modern science and technology.  Another story is hidden in the main text which works as a sub text. The story about  doubting  everybody but fears the identity of an unknown. This is a wonderful creation of Ray who has a control over the narrative till the end. The main actor is Utpal Datta who is a really scholar knowing something on a subject under the sun but at the same time having command over the anthropology. His travel experience is rich and complex which gets articulated in the story. After visiting the world specifically USA and South America having deep knowledge of the indigenous communities there he has returned back to Calcutta where he starts his work in early stage on tribal community in Shantiniketan. 

He is well versed in his scholarship on the indigenous people of India and he has spent a lot of time in the early stage of his life. Seven years not small time. He gets engaged with these communities where he has a scholarly approach to life and culture of these communities. He is deeply influenced by humanism of these communities  who can teach to  a modern society. Their dance and music and food have a special place. Some communities eat beef to some eat rats and some eat snakes which he says that he is ‘sarvahari’ that is a radical view on the food habits of Bengali as each community having special food habits. An average Hindu Bengali is strictly confined to rice and fish whereas the average Muslim Bengali eats this and adds beef. Tribals in Bengal eat rat to pork to other items which are prohibited for a Hindu Bengali. An educated Bengali knows Shakespeare to medieval religious text which is the strength of the story. He cites hundred eight names for Krishna which he has learnt from his grandmother. He tells to his grandson who is eager to know this. Story telling starts from grandmother  to Shakespeare’s  Hamlet that is ‘to be or not to be’ a dilemma in an average educated Bengali person.  He knows the science and technology and its role in improving the quality of life without losing its roots in own ancient traditions. His knowledge is so vast and he spends time with children telling the magic and stories of Sun and Moon in a beautiful manner which impresses the small children. Learning is being done in a story telling manner where magician has a role to play. Science regarding Sun and Moon can be taught in an interesting manner as stories told by the grandmother.  The magical way he tells stories of moon and sun which makes the children much more interested and engrossed in the hearing stories. This happens so that the stranger may not be liked by his niece and her husband but their child is very much fond of his grandfather. His grand child goes close to him and calls his friends to spend some time with the stranger. He calls him as grandpa but whereas the woman feels hesitated to call him as uncle although he is her real uncle. Her husband does not call him uncle. Both in a dilemma about calling their own uncle as the uncle. This is where the hypocrisy of an educated family starts who feels hesitant regarding own relatives.

But his niece and her husband have doubts over everything about this person. Her niece trusts the story written in the first letter from her uncle regarding his coming but her husband doubts unnecessarily. He first checks his passport and but not convinced of his identity. Then he looks for friends who can help him in understanding and interrogating about his identity. The old man face two interrogations one from a lawyer who has knowledge of other countries and also science and technology, another a friend knows how to extract information from an unknown person.  The second one is a gentle person who talks in a milder manner and leaves the agenda unfinished. The other person being a lawyer doubts everybody as he feels this person his opponent in the court case. He  questions him and tells him to speak out his opinion on his choice of food where he claims that he eats everything under the sun and then the lawyer questions him that does he eat human flesh. The old man questions indirectly by telling that he has heard of taste of human flesh but has not got a chance to eat it.  Then he questions his perception of god where he agrees to the point that religion needs to be understood but without addicting to it and specifically the organized religion harms a society to grow. This is true in the case of India today.   He does not question the existence of God but he practices atheism. In a well organized dialogue between the stranger and the lawyer ends in his final words from the later that he has no right to create problems for the hosts but better to leave.  According to the stranger the adda is a part of popular culture of Bengal but it needs to happen on a higher philosophical level as it used to happen in ancient Greek thinking among the philosophers like Socrates, Plato and others. This brings out an element of intolerance in the lawyer whose failure in arguments on a rational basis ends to tell angry words which is not expected from him. He shows the weakness in the arguments of an average educated Bengali who loses temper while unable to argue with the stranger.  This is a duet between an enlightened person and average half educated person.  The stranger has developed a world view which is holistic after travelling all over the world and doing research into the cultural world of tribal communities.

The story goes beyond imagination that an average educated person having good income is interested in having more money. His niece’s husband has heard a story about the will being made by his wife’s uncle in her name. To know about the details he goes to an old lawyer who knows his uncle  as a friend but the lawyer is aware of such a will but he is too old to give details. This encourages the host to be little more enthusiastic of the stranger but the whole plot gets spoiled by his  lawyer friend who ends his argument with an arrogant sentence that he has to leave by next morning . In such a dilemma they go to sleep but the stranger uncle feels bad and leaves the house before sun rise to the tribal society  with whom he has worked as a young man. His visit to the tribal after a long gap gets a proper welcome and they provide a dance and music  and food for the guest. In the mean time his niece and her husband search for the stranger uncle and as they feel little humiliated of their knowledge and doubts. Then they go on searching and find him in a tribal world. In the dance his niece desires to dance with them and that convinced that she is his niece as she has inherited the cultural world view of his uncle. He comes back to their house and next day he leaves for Australia for his study. Leaves a paper for his niece where the copy of the will is there. But the young couple feels little humiliated of their narrowness and their uncle’s broad understanding of the world as a human being.

This story is told while camera is moving over the reading a letter and most of the story is being told in a house and courtyard while camera is moving over it telling the narrow vision an educated middle class person then  moves to another place  of  the open space under the sky where the tribals are dancing showing their rich humanism and cultural world. The tribals are poor in technology but rich in understanding the complexities of human culture.  It is a beautifully narrated story by Ray who has deep understanding of middle class in India and specifically the Bengali middle class.   Marget Mead’s concept of humanism from a tribal community has influenced here the story of Ray and he as director of the film narrates in such a manner which ends in sending the message of humanism.  Culture is interexchange able and not monopolized by any community and any linguistic group which is the underlying philosophy of the film 'Agantuk' by Satyajit Ray.

Prof Radhakanta Barik (retd), Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi

Back to Home Page

Nov 21, 2020

Prof. Radhakanta Barik

Your Comment if any