The Stranger, 1991

Anila Bose (Mamata Shankar) receives a curious letter sent from New Delhi, affectionately referring to her as “baby”, presumably from her uncle, Manmohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt). Having left Calcutta immediately after his graduation when Anila was only two years old, Manmohan is eager to reunite with his sole surviving relative, imploring on her sense of traditional Indian hospitality to receive him into their household. Anila’s husband Sudhindra (Depankar De) is skeptical of the upcoming visit, convinced that the author’s impeccable Bengali could not possibly have been written by anyone who has spent the last 35 years traveling through Western countries as her uncle has reputed to have done, and urges her to send a telegram immediately in order to avert his intended visit under the pretense of leaving for a family vacation. Yet despite Sudhindra’s reservations, Anila is intrigued by the possibility of meeting her long lost uncle, and strikes a compromise with her husband to accept the stranger’s visit, and agrees to make an expedient assessment of his identity and ulterior motive. However, Manmohan’s charm proves to be infectious, as Anila and her son Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya) soon find themselves captivated by his cultural sophistication and congeniality. Sudhindra returns home to find that Anila and Satyaki have already lost their objectivity towards the charismatic stranger, but reserves judgment on Manmohan’s true identity until friends can surreptitiously question him. However, when a pragmatic and discourteous associate named Pritish (Dhritiman Chatterjee) seizes the opportunity to condemn Manmohan’s personal beliefs and nomadic way of life, the family inadvertently alienate their captivating and enlightening guest.

The final film by Satyajit Ray, and one of only a few color films throughout his career, The Stranger is a compelling, provocative, and insightful film on the nature of humanity and social interaction. Visually, Ray captures Anila and Sudhindra using predominantly static, interior shots and graceful, slow pans to subtly reflect their self-imposed entrapment as a result of conforming to civilized behavior and societal norms, often at the expense of their ancestral heritage: the long shot of the living room as Anila reads Manmohan’s letter to her family; Sudhindra’s inability to leave the office to lend support for Manmohan’s arrival; Pritish’s caustic inquisition. In contrast, Manmohan’s wanderlust is reflected through exterior shots of his train trip to Calcutta, taxicab ride to Anila and Sudhindra’s home, and a park visit with Satyaki and his friends, punctuated by a glider plane in the background. As Manmohan amusingly assesses the contribution of civilization through the creation of the longest word in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, floccinaucinihilipilification – a jest word meaning to render something of little of no value – it is a reflection of his own life coming to full circle. Manmohan sought to refine his art studies, only to realize innate beauty in primitive cave paintings. He traveled to the West in order to advance his knowledge of civilization, and discovered that the essence of humanity resided in the customs of ancient tribes. Through the iconoclastic and erudite Manmohan, Ray encapsulates his profound concern for the preservation of humanity and cultural legacy in an increasingly modern and impersonal world: the union of savagery and civilization, tradition and westernization, obligation and compassion. It is a compelling final statement from a thoughtful artist and an enlightened human being.

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