Sunday, May 11, 2014

Joi Baba Felunath (1979)

When it comes to Ray, one can't expect to give more brilliant commentary than has already been given. But I think it's still valuable to reflect on the points where one's own wheel meets the legendary road.

Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) could have easily been slipped into my childhood family marathons of the Granada Sherlock Holmes (with Jeremy Brett) and I would barely have noticed. Opium habits and stolen collectibles aside, the sepia-toned backgrounds and use of elongated shadows, and even the bare-boned and striking use of background music during "chase scenes"  brought to mind the 1980's TV series. (So much so, that I couldn't help but wonder if the good production folks at Granada took a page or two from Ray's playbook, which would certainly be the closing of a full-meta-circle.) As such, I didn't feel so much knocked off my feet by it, but rather as if I'd run into an old friend who'd grown up a bit since we last met.

This is probably my favorite Ray film thus far, if only because the plot is attuned to concerns of entertainment value over social commentary. And as usual, when I say "favorite," I mean re-watchability. Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), for example, was entertaining once. Despite it's social commentary, the story doesn't care over-much for any one character, so I didn't feel the need to get too emotionally involved. But an easy watch does not a re-watch make.

Joi Baba Felunath cares just enough, and yet, doesn't ever pull out the comfortable rug from beneath the audience's feet. Sure, you're in for a certain number of callous murders, but all the remaining characters seem to be eating steady meals, so what are a few fictional corpses at the end of the night? All the better to go with your wine and your friend and your giant bowl of popcorn. And now that I think of it, this is probably the first film of Satyajit Ray's I've seen which wasn't particularly message oriented. If there is one pervasive message here, it's in the quiet and nostalgic conjuration of an older way; not the endorsement of a lost social order, but in the loving close-up of the old-fashioned personality of Detective Feluda himself.

Some of Ray's favorite icons do appear, nonetheless. Like in Devi (1960), in which one feels the potential force of obsessive human devotion (and its material objects) with an every growing dread . . . here too the Durga statue and the Ganesha miniature loom larger and more menacing in the narrative than their material stature should command.

But in this story, Devi aur Deva are merely set pieces on the greater symbolic chessboard of Varanasi. And their treatment by camera and character alike is not so much with an attitude of devotion or fear, as it is that of awe and lust for possession . . .  reminiscent of that shown for other prized fictional objects (like Collin's Moonstone). So, I think it would be erroneous to assume that this film aims first at religion or religious issues. The plot hinges on a domino effect of miscommunication, distrust, and deception . . . and of course, greed . . . until even Feluda must forgo his upright methods and fight fire with fire. [Mild Spoiler: I enjoyed the bit at the end when we and Feluda's companions believe for a second that the need to "possess" has rubbed off on the great detective, too!]

I love the fact that in his mystery films, Ray chooses to take his keen social scientist's eye and train it on the most obviously crooked branches of human nature. And in doing so, he gives us those rare things (in my experience of his films at least): justice and closure. To a brain trained on filmi arcs of khoon for khoon and ultimate insaaf, a full stop will almost always be more welcome than an ellipsis.

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