SEATTLE FILM SOCIETY August 20, 1977
DISTANT THUNDER. Written and directed by Satyajit Ray. India, 1972. Music: Ray. Leading players: Soumitra Chatterji, Babita.
If you crossed an Italian neorealist film with a work by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, the result might be something like Distant Thunder. In a unique way, Indian director Satyajit Ray combines a social consciousness in a changing society with a slow narrative style to reveal nuances of character. The relaxed pace allows us to enter the world and experience the internal process and transformation of an individual. Rays films often play on the tension between traditional customs and the effects of urban modernization with a naturalness that has you wondering if his characters are real people or actors.
There are few directors who give you the sense of knowing the characters as Ray does. Soumitra Chatterji as the Brahmin in Distant Thunder is gradually revealed on several levels through his relationship with his wife, students, patients and townspeople. It is the visibility of his internal dialogue and the reassessment of his values and social position amidst the so-called manmade famine of 1943 that structure the movement of the film.
As the Brahmin's authority and stature in the community are rendered inconsequential by a hunger which levels all class distinctions, he is forced to give up the superiority which separates him from the peasants. With deliberate and dissecting camera movement, Ray establishes a set of polarities from the opening shots which mark the progression of Chatterji's character. His wife Babita is introduced via a hand rising above the swirling waters of a river. The course of the film literally flows in and around water, and the beginning of the famine is signaled by the cholera epidemic which prevents use of river water for drinking.
Similarly, the turning point in the pundits life occurs at the waters edge. Crushed by his impotence after watching a riot at the rice mill he retreats to the shore to reconsider his position. He has been undergoing a gradual disillusionment, and comments to his wife that he doesnt understand the inability of money to buy what they need. It is Babita who proves to be more resourceful, and her embodiment of the creative force is indicated by her closeness to water. After an attempted rape she throws herself into the cleansing river. She is the one who must ultimately become the provider for the family and the link to the community.
Opposed to the creative spirit expressed through the water imagery is a progression of fire symbols, signs of a burnt-out existence. The first indication of an interruption of natural forces comes in the opening moments as the townswomen, bathing, watch the flying ships overhead, harbingers of war and famine. Ray uses several closeups of insects and butterflies feeding on parched ground, but the most obvious use of fire is the badly burned body of the kiln worker. In this distorted social order he ironically becomes the supplier of grain. He is constantly seen lighting cigarettes, and smoking is a kind of social ritual throughout the film. Notice the discarded cigarette tossed in the stream as well as other instances of burning and clouding-over of life-giving water.
Just as Babita's contact with the natural forces signifies a sympathy and understanding of the other sufferers, the grotesque halfburned, half-normal face of the kiln worker exaggerates his isolation and separateness from the rest of society. He has too much face. To comprehend his place in the life of the community and move closer to its creative center, the Brahmin must humble himself and undergo a loss of face. We see his metamorphosis as Ray builds silhouettes against a vast sky. The first silhouette is that of the old beggar man who asks the Brahmin for food. Later, as he realizes his false dependence on the peasants, the Brahmin undergoes his loss of face and he too appears in silhouette. Throughout the film we find small forms outlined against a large background until the final climactic and powerful image of a community joined together against a disaster manufactured by an individual act somewhere in the distance.
Submitted by James Spee on July 18, 2007. I first saw this film at the Seattle Film Society showing 30 years ago and I still remember it vividly.