In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Japan, having successfully secured and occupied Singapore, advanced the emperor’s ambitious military operation to India’s neighboring country of Burma. In response to the nation’s aggressive Asian campaign, the British sought to regain and reinforce strategic Allied positions in the Pacific by stemming the tide of Japanese militarism, deploying troops to the region and, with them, diverting resources from the populous imperial colony. It is within the global uncertainty of this turbulent human history that a well-respected, educated man, Gangacharan Chakravarti (Soumitra Chatterjee) has decided to settle in a small, remote village of Natungaon in Bengal with his attractive young wife Ananga (Babita). As the only Brahmin residents in the entire rural village, Gangacharan and his wife are in an opportune position to exploit the immeasurable privileges afforded their socially prominent caste. To this end, Gangacharan has decided to open the first elementary school in the village in order to supplement his comfortable income as the only doctor in the area, and to further take advantage of his fluency in Sanskrit to serve as the town’s ceremonial priest. His knowledge of modern science and traditional ritual soon proves auspicious when he is summoned to perform a sacred ceremony for a remote village in the naive hope that his prayers would spare the townspeople from a rampant outbreak of cholera that has already reached epidemic proportions in a neighboring village. Dispensing practical advice on disinfection and hygiene in an indigenously more palatable form of a mystical protection ritual, the humble villagers spare no expense in expressing their gratitude to the priest by showering him with a wagonload of food and assorted presents for his trip home. However, traces of the war’s far-reaching effects into the lives of the unsuspecting villagers begin to surface when Ananga is stopped on the roadside by an indigent, elderly brahmin who begins to insinuate himself into the deferential, younger brahmin’s graces by soliciting handouts and free meals on the pretense of visiting him to seek advice. As the rice shortage leads to soaring inflation and widespread rationing, the villagers soon resort to acts of self-denial, theft, banditry, and even violence as austerity, want, and despair become inextricably symptomatic of their increasingly subhuman daily existence.
Adapted from the novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, Distant Thunder is a provocative and compelling examination of the devastating humanitarian crisis that resulted from the British government’s deliberate re-appropriation of food and critical supplies to support the Pacific War campaign that lead to the man-made famine of Bengal in 1943 and ultimately resulted in the death of over two million people. From the opening image of a series of fighter planes flying in formation as they cast a shadow on the river while Ananga bathes (a curious sight that the heroine likens to a flock of cranes in flight), Satyajit Ray presents an implicit (and figuratively obtrusive) correlation, not only between a distant, foreign war and a politically isolated (if not disenfranchised) domestic population, but more importantly, the violation of nature through conceptually abstract, but integrally man-made devices. Ray further illustrates the violation of nature, not only through the repeated imagery of warplanes flying overhead (a seeming metaphor for imperial sovereignty over their native land), but also through anecdotal references to the skyrocketing price of rice, the appearance of an inscrutable disfigured man near a pottery kiln (whose scars were unintentionally self-induced – and therefore, essentially man-made – resulting from accidentally exploded fireworks), and escalating incidents of base human behavior. However, by focusing on Gangacharan and Ananga’s humbling plight and continued perseverance, Ray transcends a purely social critique of the man-made famine in favor of presenting the resulting social egalitarianism that eschews class segregation in times of mutual hardship and common injustice. In the end, it is overwhelming sense of human interconnectedness that renews hope for the young, struggling couple: an enlightened awareness and true sense of place borne of compassion, altruism, sacrifice, and engaged social responsibility.
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