Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 29 April 2007
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
Reviews: The Chess Players
There’s a complicated history to the production of Abhijan, which explains the rather mixed results of the final film. Of course, it’s great to have access to any of Ray’s films – in spite of his importance, the availability of his work in any format is very limited, and his profile seems to have dropped accordingly – but to be frank, although Abhijan shares the virtues of Ray’s filmmaking, the close and subtle attention to his protagonists’ character, emotional interactions, and social environment, and the fine craft he brings to that portrayal, the film suffers from some significant flaws and is in no way the equal of The World of Apu, The Music Room, or Charulata.
Originally, Ray had never intended to direct this film. A producer friend had acquired the rights to the novel by Tarashankar Banerjee (author, too, of The Music Room) and planned to direct it, and Ray helped out by writing the screenplay and, once production of his own Kanchenjunga was over, by acting in an advisory capacity. The story goes that even on the first day of shooting Ray was on set simply as an advisor, even if by the end of the day he had taken on the job of director.
Abhijan was Ray’s biggest box-office success in his native Bengal, and that success in connecting with a wider mass-audience no doubt is because of a far more melodramatic tone to the story (particularly at the end) than is usual with Ray and very explicit, even over-determined characterisations. The film’s protagonist Singhji (as his name appears in the subtitles, although in other sources he’s referred to as Narsingh—I guess this is related to variations in names in Bengali) is played by Ray’s favoured actor Soumitra Chatterjee, whose roles included the leads in The World of Apu, Devi, Charulata, and Home and the World. Done up in a patently false beard, it’s a curious performance that lacks the conviction of his other roles for Ray, perhaps simply because of Singhji’s maudlin, rather unsympathetic character.
Singhji is a proud and irascible figure. A champion driver, he’s the owner of a vintage 1930 Chrysler which he puts to work as a taxi. But he’s a frustrated and resentful man too, for he’s all too conscious that his lowly social position stands in dramatic contrast to his high caste status—he’s a Rajput, of the Hindu warrior caste. The rage he feels within himself is expressed through excessive drinking and equally excessive driving. Any competition on the road – a bus or even a passing train – is taken as a personal affront and a challenge, which is taken up with an obsessiveness and intensity. Look at the way he stiffly tosses away his cigarette and the fixed look to his face as he races the train in an early scene of the film.
That reckless race leads him to lose the right to operate a taxi service in the district, but he’s incapable of recognising the mistake he’s made and the responsibility he bears for that mistake. Instead, he’s full of a sense of outrage, injustice, and humiliation, aware that the officer punishing him is of a lower caste, and frustrated by an inclination to abase himself to this man, in order to save his job, and an arrogant refusal to do so because of the warrior blood that flows through his veins. All that’s left for him is the ineffectual act of giving vent to his feelings by throwing dirt at his own car, turning his anger against himself as he so often does.
Singhji’s sense of resentment and humiliation is repeated when he ends up in the small town of Shymnagar on the Bihar-West Bengal border. Due to a chance encounter on the night road he’s employed by the crooked businessman Suhkanram, who runs profitable sidelines in drug-running and prostitution, and Singhji is all too bitterly aware of his status as a servant in his relationship with Sukhanram. The situation is made no better even when Sukhanram proposes that he and Singhji form a taxi service business partnership, for at the finalising meeting at the lawyer’s Singhji is made offensively conscious of his inferior position.
Throughout Abhijan Ray surrounds Singhji with a number of characters whose purpose is to underline Singhji’s self-deception and to challenge the morality of his actions. First, there’s Singhji’s side-kick Rama, a small-built rather comical character. If anything, Rama seems to have a closer connection to the Chrysler than Singhji himself, guarding it in Singhji’s absence and constantly cleaning and polishing it. He’s Singhji’s back-up man, driving the taxi when Singhji’s too drunk to do so. He’s also absolutely clear-sighted about the situation Singhji has got himself into, telling Singhji that Sukhanram is a “snake.” And he is hurt and betrayed by Singhji’s willingness to sell the Chrysler in favour of a business partnership with Sukhanram. Rama is a constant reminder of the symbolic value of the Chrysler in Singhji’s life, the index of Singhji’s true self-worth and the link with the authentic relationships he has with other people in contrast to the relationship of deceit and corruption that he is trying to form with Sukhanram.
The second male figure is Joseph, who he meets once he moves to Shymnagar. Joseph’s character is another approach to the film’s social theme of caste distinction. His is a low-caste family who has escaped the status that the Hindu caste system would assign to them by converting to Christianity. In a scene at a circus Ray gives him a speech that stresses the director’s humanist credo, his belief in the similarities, the connections between people over and above creed and caste.
Joseph is an honest and uncalculating man who forms a genuine friendship with Singhji. His actions are never self-serving, show a real concern for Singhji (more, really, than Singhji shows for him), and he is the one who forces the moral issues at stake on Singhji. This occurs first symbolically in the visit the two make to the “Uncle and Nephew” stones outside town. In this barren, empty location two giant rocks stand, one on top of the other, with the lower rock representing the sinner carrying the burden of sin. At the end of the film it is here that the confrontation between Joseph and Singhji takes place after Joseph rejects Singhji as a friend once he realises that Singhji is using his taxi to smuggle opium for Sukhanram’s drug-running racket. This ends with Singhji striking Joseph, but that brief and violent outcome only underlines Singhji’s moral defeat and drives him to action to redeem his shame.
The two male figures of Rama and Joseph are balanced by two female ones. First, Joseph’s sister Neeli is the one character in the film that immediately attracts Singhji’s wholehearted admiration, not only for her beauty but also for her obvious intelligence and strength of character. In fact, Singhji seems rather too obviously smitten right from his first meeting with her in a pretty conventional plot development. But his interest in her makes him willing to change himself, to give up his excessive daytime drinking and even to be receptive to what she has to say about her Christian faith. In an outdoor scene with church bells ringing softly on the soundtrack Neeli gives a key statement, which carries with it resonance for the choices facing Singhji at the end of the film: “Behaviour determines whether one is inferior or superior.”
Still, Neeli also reflects Singhji’s blindness to the reality of the situation around him. He never recognises the relationship between Neeli and the crippled Ajoy, and he misunderstands Neeli’s declaration of friendship and the assignation she makes with him at the rocks. The dynamics of their relationship are reversed with Gulabi, Sukhanram’s “maidservant”, a village girl that the businessman has prostituted. Gulabi is warm and loving and clearly attracted to Singhji, whereas he looks down on her when he doesn’t simply ignore her—until he orders Rama to bring her to his room for sex as some kind of compensation for/revenge on Neeli.
Gulabi is played – a feature which makes Abhijan unusual in Ray’s oeuvre – by the great Bollywood actress Waheeda Rehman, who provides the film’s best scene, emotionally and cinematically. On the morning after their night together, Gulabi tells Singhji of her sad life, sings a little (Rehman’s own voice, and not playback as in her Bollywood films), and expresses her feelings for and devotion to Singhji. Ray’s staging of this long scene shows how central Gulabi is to the film at this point. Singhji sits listening on the left, a pillar divides the frame into two, and Gulabi starts talking in her space on the right as the camera slowly tracks in on her. This tale of her village past, the story leading up to her decision not to kill herself, and the expression of her romantic yearning make for the most heartfelt moment of the film.
Abhijan concludes in a flurry of melodramatic action, important for the moral lesson that Singhji has to draw from the situation he has placed himself in, but it’s still one last sign of the uneven tone of the film as a whole. Ray doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the material or able to develop effectively those aspects which are less characteristic of his work. He always works best when his concern is with the subtleties of interaction between his characters and the best parts of Abhijan are those kinds of scenes, above all those with Joseph and Gulabi. But other parts of the film appear simply clumsy—some of the shot changes and editing, some of the scenes in the car (whose artificiality grates with Ray’s usual subtle realism), and a particularly ineptly staged fight scene. So, if Abhijan is less than a complete success, it’s because of those aspects that are alien to Ray’s sensibilities and which he never completely masters.