High Museum of Art: Films


Thoughts about Hollywood and Satyajit Ray’s The Stranger by Linda Dubler
Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray

In Our Films, Their Films, a collection of his essays published posthumously in 1994, India filmmaker Satyajit Ray wrote about the great French director, Jean Renoir. As part of his tribute, he asked Renoir, who had fled to California from France to escape the Nazis, what was wrong with Hollywood. Renoir named the star system, the endless codes of censorship, and the tendency to regard film as a mass produced commodity as three major factors. He then added that he felt the best movies are created in times of stress:

“Look what the war has done to Italian films. Look at Brief Encounter. I don’t think a great film like that would have been possible without all those air raids London had to suffer. I think what Hollywood needs is a really good bombing.”

Of course, in Hollywood parlance, a bomb has a totally different meaning. But I can see what Renoir is getting at. Hollywood is fat, dumb, and happy — happiest of all during the “high seasons,” summer and the holidays. What would Ray –or Renoir, for that matter– have thought of movies like G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?

Ray’s final film, The Stranger, showing at the High tonight (August 22) in the Hill Auditorium at 8 p.m., doesn’t have a single robot or explosion. It doesn’t have the acuity and passion of his masterpiece trilogy, The World of Apu, either. But the director was ill when he made it. What it does have is Ray’s customary compassion and seemingly effortless technique.

The plot is simple — a variation on the stranger among us. A well-to-do Calcutta housewife named Anila receives a letter from a man claiming to be her uncle who disappeared 35 years ago, when she was a toddler. In it, he asks if he may come and stay with her for a few days. Her husband is immediately suspicious. Uncertain, Anila nonetheless allows Uncle Mitra into their home. He turns out to be a total charmer with extraordinary tales about his world travels. Still, he must deal with a stream of interrogators as family, friends, and neighbors try to find the truth.

What strikes me most about The Stranger is, if you didn’t know Ray was 70 when he made it, you’d mistake it for a young man’s work. The film has a kind of Sixties idealism in its plea for universal brotherhood and fascination with simpler cultures. Anila’s uncle is an exemplar of these attitudes, and they are again embodied in her young son, who is enchanted by the elderly man’s stories about America’s Indians.

That small boy was played by Vikram Bhattacharjee, who is now a 28-year-old research scientist living in Philadelphia, PA. Bhattacharjee’s family moved to the Atlanta suburbs when he was ten, and he’ll be present at the High’s screening to share him reminiscences of working with India’s most acclaimed director.

Eleanor Ringel Cater


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