Abhijan (Masters of Cinema) Review

Eureka’s Masters of Cinema present a restored edition of Satyajit Ray’s 1962 film, available for the first time on DVD in the West. A simple morality tale of a humble taxi driver seeking to regain his position and status in society, Ray’s artistry makes the film something greater.

Disillusioned that his wife has ran away on him and embittered that, despite the noble warrior blood of his ancestors running through his veins he can only get employment as a taxi driver, Narsingh’s increasingly drunk and reckless behaviour even gets him sacked from that lowly job. Travelling to Shyamnagar in his beloved 1930s Chrysler however, Singhji (Soumitra Chatterjee – Apu in Ray’s The World of Apu) meets a wealthy businessman Sukhanram (Charuprakash Ghosh) on the road, his cart overturned. Sukhanram offers Singhji money and influence, knowing that not only can the town can make good use of a taxi service, but it will come in useful for his own various legal and illegal business transactions.

The decision to take up work with Sukhanram is a difficult one for Singhji, who has very strong ideas on mixing with people with lower castes, on transporting women in his taxi, of consorting with those who have converted to Christianity. He appears to have no strong religious beliefs of his own, but is rather more guided by his notions about his own position – wishing to rise above his humble employment into the warrior role that is his family’s past. His principles then are easily swayed, particularly when, having been fired from his job and having no friends in the new village, he needs to regain some money and status.

Singhji consequently accepts the hospitality of the businessman while he also make friends with Josef (Gyanesh Mukherjee), a former neighbour from his home village, a lower caste family who have since converted to Christianity. In this way, and through a number of similar parallels in Abhijan (‘The Expedition’), Satyajit Ray, as a measure of his great artistry as a director, takes a storyline that is little more than a simple morality tale and makes it into something much more complex. The most obvious example is the use of the “Uncle and Nephew” stones that stand outside the village, which people believe represent the weight of sin on man, and where a number of key scenes in the film take place. There is also some more conventional and obvious use of objects in the gleaming cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun that Singhji accepts from Sukhanram, and of course in the tin of ghee which holds a weighty significance. But much more is also expressed in the characters.

First of all, Ray draws a complex, yet illuminating contrast between the two women he comes into contact with in each of these places. Josef’s sister Neeli (Ruma Guha Thakurta) teaches him English and also the Christian belief that it is behaviour, not caste and blood, that determines whether a person is inferior or not. At Sukhanram’s house he encounters Gulabi (the famous Bollywood actress Waheeda Rehman – extraordinarily good here and stunningly beautiful), one of the women bought into prostitution by the businessman, whose activities even stretch to women trafficking. She is the fallen woman, who places temptation in his way to treat her as other men do, or to behave with greater respect and dignity. As well as having a social point to make about the respective circumstances of each of the women, they also represent the internal emotional conflict that is warring within Singhji’s mind

That struggle is also reflected in the range between the businessman Sukhanram and Singhji’s servant and sidekick Rama (Robi Ghosh). Sukhanram represents Singhji’s ambitions, to regain the wealth, position and influence that he believes his ancestry merits. In order to achieve this however, he must give up everything he really is, represented in Rama, and even more so in the Chrysler. When he decides to accept the businessman’s offer of partnership and transport opium for him in a tin of ghee, Rama reminds him of his humble position as a taxi driver and what he has to give up. And it is the Chrysler that is the symbol of everything he has – his freewill, his integrity, his link to his past, his conscience – everything that he must give this up if he is to rise in status. Crucially, this conscience that is the Chrysler, starts to trouble him just as he is on the point of making a decision from which there is no turning back.

DVDAbhijan is released in the UK by Eureka and is #27 in their Masters of Cinema catalogue. The DVD is not region encoded and is in NTSC format.

VideoAbhijan has been restored from the original elements by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the work done is marvellous. There are a certain number of issues with contrast, the tone of some scenes lying somewhere in the mid-range of the greyscale with blacks looking rather flat and soft. Other scenes however have perfect tone and contrast and look exceptionally strong, clear and detailed, while others go to the opposite extreme and look rather polarised. The reason for these problem scenes are usefully explained in the accompanying booklet as limitations inherent within the original materials, with certain scenes having to be drawn from other 35mm print sources – so the film is hardly ever going to look better than this. And thankfully, those issues are infrequent, the image for the larger part of the film looking clear and detailed, with scarcely any damage. There are a few minor digital artefacts in the form of compression artefacts causing a little shimmer in backgrounds and a hint of edge-enhancement or haloing – but these likewise have little impact on the quality of the transfer presented here.

AudioSeverely damaged original elements affect the soundtrack to a greater degree, with it apparently having to be taken in its entirety from a 35mm print. This is fine however and reasonably clear, if a little dull. There is little problem with background noise, although noise reduction has obviously been heavily applied and can be noticed in what seems like complete drop-out of sound during one or two silent passages. Again, there is little else that would draw ones attention to the state of the materials and for the most part this is a more than adequate soundtrack.

SubtitlesOptional English subtitles are provided and are in a clear, white font, that is possibly slightly on the larger side. Extra features are in English and contain no subtitles for the hard of hearing.

ExtrasInterview with Prof. Dilip Basu (20:48)Faculty Director of the Satyajit Ray Film & Study Centre, Dilip Basu provides a useful analysis of Abhijan. He talks about the unique subject and casting of the film, its use of location, the social commentary and class issues confronted, and its place in Ray’s body of work. One of the important themes he sees in the film is its call for religious tolerance in a multicultural society. This kind of feature is much more accessible and informative than the academic commentary tracks on some Masters of Cinema releases.

Ray FASC Documentary (15:13)The Ray Film & Study Centre also provide a documentary film put together by Dilip Basu for the 50th Anniversary of Pather Pachali at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. It features an interview with Ray talking about his beginnings in cinema, and includes anecdotes, sketches and storyboards for his film. The film celebrates his other work through a montage of memorable moments from his films, footage of his acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Oscar on his deathbed in 1992 and makes an appeal for the preservation of his films.

The DVD also comes with a thick booklet. It’s not terribly informative, the majority of it being given over to an examination of Ray’s initial draft of the screenplay and Ray’s own sketches and notes on the film. Also included however is useful information on the restoration of the film and some comments on making the film from Waheeda Rehman in 2003.

OverallAbhijan seems like a straightforward story with romance, action, car chases and fight sequences – a morality tale of a man who has to make the choice between right and wrong and remain true to his nature rather than who he thinks he ought to be – but there is a lot more to the film than this. That Ray uses every object and character at his disposal to represent various complex aspects of the decisions to be made here is evident, but I suspect that there are even more subtleties and nuances in the social, religious and use of locations that stretch beyond my limited understanding of the film. As ever with Masters of Cinema’s releases, it is a joy to discover yet another classic film that has scarcely had the widespread recognition it deserves, and to see it treated so well in this restored print.


Updated: Jun 07, 2006

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