Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri) is a particularly watchable Satyajit Ray film.
Its themes – a road trip, a quartet of young men, the clash between urban and rural society – are such recognisable ones, but beyond that there’s a completeness about the narrative.
The Bengali director allows the story to unfold with a satisfying sense of momentum and the film has a French new wave feel about it, thanks to the beautiful way in which it was shot (and the western habits of the main characters).
Screened on Channel 4 a few years ago it was accompanied then by a short introduction from Sharmila Tagore, who plays the female lead Aparna.
“Ray was essentially a Bengali, but more than that he was a Calcutta person and his Calcutta was changing. He wanted to understand this new generation – who live in a vacuum, as he sees it,” she said then.
The 1970 film is about four Calcutta friends who travel to the forests of Palamau for a holiday, but once there city and country attitudes clash.
Based on a story by Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay (as was Ray’s 1971 film The Adversary), it sees the friends attempt to leave their day-to-day city lives behind with often comic results.
So they refuse to shave, bribe a guest house’s caretaker to let them stay without a booking and get drunk at the local arrack shop. But for most of the film it looks as though their experience of the countryside will be that of a shallow tourist.
Then as the developing relationship between Soumitra Chatterjee’s Ashim and Tagore’s Aparna draws the second half of the film along, a deeper appreciation of Palamau’s rural inhabitants – and themselves – begins to dawn.
Aparna is central to this. A cipher with a knowing smile and beehive hairdo, she mocks Ashim’s childish behavour, forcing him to grow up a bit.
“In Ray’s films, all the women are of superior moral sensibility, while the men are like helpless children,” Tagore explained.
“[The film] also talks about the cultural imperialism he feels that Calcutta is suffering from. That they’re more English than the English. And in fact, when you see these four boys looking at a sunset, instead of enjoying the sunset they’re thinking of an American film.“
It is this sense that gives Days and Nights in the Forest a very different feel from Ray’s most famous portrayal of rural life, Pather Panchali.
Both are unsentimental, but with Days and Nights in the Forest there is a sense of being, like the characters, on the outside looking in. In fact, at times the viewer feels as out of depth as the four friends who have travelled to the forest to get away from their city lives.
Overall it’s an accomplished, enjoyable film, in which the lighthearted moments, of which there are many, resonate just as much as the serious.