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I saw this movie a long time ago but it still sticks with me. It is one of those movies you don't forget once you have seen it, and also don't think too much about. Its a simple pastoral romance written by one of the greatest Bengali writers, Tarashankar. Ray always knew the importance of the story, and he chose wisely from writers like Bibhutibhushan, Tagore and others. In this movie, made in a retro sepia tone which promotes a feeling of otherworldliness and decrepitude at the same time, Ray sticks to the storyline and elicits some great performances from Soumitra, Waheeda Rahman, Robi Ghosh and the magnificent Charuprakash Ghosh, a Ray favorite, who nails the difficult role of the seedy bania as counterpoint to Soumitra's ramrod Punjabi taxi driver. The strange admixture of the arid rural landscapes, ramshackle Chevrolet cabs, drunken depot operators, nepotist petty officials, prostitutes, smugglers and Christians comes together in a sweeping narrative that never rests for a moment in its grand mission - to tell a story to a spellbound audience.
Satyajit Ray's 'Abhijaan' tells the story of taxi-driver Singhji
(Soumitra Chatterjee) who travels in his Chrysler with companion Rama.
A misogynist (due to his wife's abandonment) and an alcoholic, it
doesn't take long for Singhji to have his license revoked because of
his unproffesionalism. Thereafter, he soon arrives at a small town
while giving a paying lift to a sleazy businessman. The passenger
offers him a proposition due to which he decides to temporarily stay at
this town. During his stay, he unexpectedly reunites with an old friend
Joseph, and his sister Mary. Unexpectedly he receives visits from the
enigmatic mistress of the shady businessman, Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman),
who falls in love with him.
'Abhijaan' is another proof of why Ray is one of the best filmmakers in history. It is just as much character-driven as story driven. Ray effectively tackles different themes such as betrayal, alcoholism, corruption, sex, discrimination, prejudice and unrequited love. For example, in one dialogue he brilliantly tackled the theme of attempted suicide. The scene takes place during a conversation between Singhji and Gulabi where she describes her temptations to commit suicide and why she eventually steps back because of fear of missing out on life. I have only seen but very few movies that explore themes of suicide in such a brilliantly effective way (another example is Stephen Daldry's fantastic 'The Hours'). Most movies show characters succeeding, or the character being rescued or the aftermath on others but hardly is the theme further developed but here in just one line Ray skillfully explores this sensitive theme making it a powerful scene.
The discrimination against Indian Christians is also an interesting theme that Ray has introduced. I did not know that Indian Christians suffered so much discrimination (except during the British Raj) and it was interesting to see.
Ray is known for his ability to recognize talent. Soumitra Chatterjee is pretty much considered a regular in Ray films. He carries the film with sheer ease and delivers an incredible performance. Soumitra's display of the range of emotions and complexities of Singhji is amazing. The relationship between Singhji and Gulabi begins with reluctance and pity (even though he is aware that her attempts to visit him are not entirely honorable), then it shifts to lust but with every subsequent visit love develops. Waheeda Rehman can be counted on to deliver at least a good performance and here she is a total surprise, right from her first scene where she attempts to seduce Singhji and eventually revealing her vulnerable side sharing her dreams about her prince charming rescuing her and then marrying her, the dream that kept her alive and finally the scene where she confronts Singhji about his weakness and fatal path towards self destruction. While Singhji may have had mixed feelings for Gulabi, she has always looked at him with love, as a savior who will one day take her away from this state of purgatory and give her a new life. It is one of the most sympathetic performances of a prostitute that I have witnessed on screen. As Singhji's sidekick, Robi Ghosh is fun to watch. Gyanesh Mukherjee and Ruma Guha Thakur offer great support as the friend and potential love interest respectively.
In a way, the movie may remind one of Saratchandra's 'Devdas' except that Singhji isn't a guilt-ridden whining 'loser'. Even though he is about to embark a similar path of self destruction, to me his character is more human and the bond between him and Gulabi is more real than that of Devdas and Chandramukhi.
'Abhijaan' is another winner from the late genius called Satyajit Ray. I don't think there is more I need to say that has not already been said by someone else but if you haven't seen it then what are you waiting for?
I saw this somewhat slow, B&W 1962 film at London's National Film Theatre a couple of years ago, during their excellent Satyajit Ray retrospective. It displays the qualities which most Ray fans like about his earlier films: the camera is thoughtful, and the time it takes to reflect on the characters is useful time for the viewer to do the same. The story is interesting as well, and much of the scenery and dialogue provides a fascinating insight into 1960s Bengali life, e.g. references to quinine (an antimalarial compound whose chemical derivatives, which are more potent, are used in modern prophylactic antimalarial preparations). Highly recommended as an introduction to Ray's best era. I personally haven't seen his Apu trilogy e.g. Pather Panchali, but I know that they have been criticised for being too sentimental. Abhijaan is nothing of the sort: it is a well-made exploration into an eventful period of a 1960s Indian taxi driver's life.
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