Aranyer Din Ratri aka Days and Nights in The Forest, a beautiful chamber drama from film-maker Satyajit Ray (who does this sort of thing very well) opens with a motley quartet going on a holiday road trip to a forested area. They are friends, but each coming from a separate milieu and with a different temperament: Ashim the unofficial leader (Soumitra Chatterjee, the lead in many of Ray's films) is a suave and successful executive. The neat and shy Sunjoy is a conventional pen-pusher tied to the mores of middle-class existence. Hari, a cricketer is short tempered and impulsive, while an unemployed Shekhar is the joker of the group. They halt en route at a vacant government guest house, where they intend to spend a few days. The film chronicles this interval, revealing the character of these men and the interaction they have with other people, often provoking them into reflection or change.
We get an insight into their personalities in the initial period of their holiday, their sense of needing to break convention to feel some freedom from their daily routine – they bribe the caretaker to assign the guest room to them, refrain from shaving, launch drunken diatribes at the local arrack shop…the hedonistic lifestyle in short. These scenes are presented with a wholly observant attitude, never persuading the audience to either like or dislike the characters.
Things take a big turn when they run into a couple of charming ladies living at a nearby bungalow. Invited by the inordinately trustful and hospitable patriarch of the house, they meet the lovely enigmatic Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) and her cheerful but widowed sister-in-law Jaya (Kaberi Bose). This part of the film is a beautiful study of the mental processes of male-female relationships in modern society: The rituals of socially acceptable cordial behavior mixed with the low-key sensuality and courtship that occurs at the outset of growing acquaintance with the opposite sex. Both Aparna and Jaya are warm-natured, confident and sophisticated women, and one well identifies with the sense of yearning mixed with hesitation that develops within the men when they interact with them. In the while Hari gets passionately involved with a young tribal woman, Duli (Simi Garewal, of all people).
The last phase of the film is when their interactions have proceeded just beyond the preliminary stage. Ashim learns enough about Aparna for him to regard her as more than one of the city women he meets at so many parties, and observes aspects of her nature that lead him to feel guilt for his superficial self-oriented thinking. Sunjoy who grows increasingly comfortable in the company of Jaya gets a jarring moment; and Hari's heated pursuit of Duli ends in a rude blow. But this is not to say that the film ends on a dark note…not at all. Life for our characters goes on…and who knows what the future will bring?
Aranyer...'s main strength is the completely natural way it presents its characters and situations. We've seen courtship rituals and the associated comedy thousands of times on film…a shipload of Bollywood films in the gaudily colored 60's and the 90's onward was devoted to increasingly bizarre and tasteless depictions of social romantic behavior. But you need to see a film like this to appreciate really how intricate and touchingly fragile the whole ritual can be, and how the anticipation of the man-woman relationship relates to and affects the existing behavior and thought process of the persons involved. It takes the deft touch of Satyajit Ray to show it to us in this light.
Which brings me to the rare sour note in my experience: The `transformation' scene of Jaya, the details of which I will not spill for the benefit of those that have not yet seen the film. I understand that Ray wanted to force some kind of a confrontation of the issue of Jaya being a widow and the social constraints upon her, but the way he has done it appears to me as very contrived and gauche, and a huge letdown given the immense easy-going charm of Kaberi Bose's performance up to that point. On a slighter note, Simi Garewal's hilariously accented Bengali makes her tribal character a hard act to digest.
But on the whole Aranyer... is a terrific movie of its type, leisurely but always focused, personal but never self-indulgent.