Plot: A Brahmin, Ganga (Soumitra Chatterji), and his wife Ananga (Babita) arrive in a small lower-caste Bengali village in 1942, where the husband works as resident intellectual (teacher, doctor, priest). The war goes on in the sky, but daily life proceeds as if it weren't. But then a rice shortage brings the war home, and the crisis precipitates desperate behaviors. It also awakens Ganga to the cruelty of the caste system he has always taken for granted. However, even cross-caste generosity cannot deal with the massive famine, as the end title suggests: "Over five million people in Bengal starved or died in epidemics because of the man-made famine of 1943."
Style: Satyajit Ray, India's best known filmmaker internationally and much beloved at home, is justly noted for his ability to evoke interior crisis in human relationships, and to find the human experience behind large events. Distant Thunder, perhaps his most explicitly political film before his much-later interpretation of Enemy of the People, also unassumingly enters the lives of its characters without arch reflexiveness or expressionistic indulgence.
Background on director/film: Born in 1921 into an immensely creative and artistic Bengali family long involved in the cultural reform movement Brahmo Samaj, Ray was a pioneer of India's "new generation"--filmmakers who eschewed the gigantic mainstream entertainment film industry in Bombay for a regional focus and authorial approach. With his Apu Trilogy films, made betwee 1950 and 1959, he paid respect to his mentor Jean Renoir, the great French humanist and filmmaker, and to the cultural traditions, including the literary traditions embodied in the novels by Bhibuti Bhusan Banerjee, of Bengal. The first in the trilogy, Pather Panchali, about a boy growing up in a Bengali village, was heralded, after some controversy, at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Ray has experimented with form but never diverged dramatically from his focus on character in the crucible of circumstance; nor has he been fascinated with the potential of the form to comment on itself. Satyajit Ray was given an honorary Academy Award in 1992.
Distant Thunder was his second color film, and the first film on a rural subject in ten years. He had apparently harbored guilt about his wilful ignorance of the famine at the time it occurred, and was moved by the novel, also by Bhibuti Bhusan Banerjee.
Production context: India is a major worldwide producer of entertainment films and has been since colonial times, not only dominating the screens at home but also in many places of the middle East, Asia and Africa; Indian videos do a thriving business wherever there are Indian communities in the world. The "new generation" that grew up in the '60s benefitted from government subsidies, from the growth of regional intellectual elites and participation in an international culture of art films.
The subject of the film, the 1943-44 famine, was a grim aspect of late colonialism and world war. The war disrupted economic patterns, and hoarding and corruption ensued.
Importance: Distant Thunder was praised by western critics, but also seen as a touch melodramatic. In India it was heralded and also controversial. Bengali social critic and filmmker Mrinal Sen's In Search of Hunger, about a film project on this subject, was widely seen as a savage critique of Ray's filmic liberalism.Further reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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