To explain why Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), playing this Wednesday in Doc Films’s valuable Satyajit Ray retrospective, is a masterpiece is a bit like explaining why flowers are beautiful: the film’s glories are so natural and self-evident that describing them feels redundant. One of the airiest of great movies, Days and Nights seems lightweight and plotless—yet it reveals countless insights into its characters, setting, and theme. Along with Aparajito (1956), Charulata (1964), and The Home and the World (1984), it represents the epitome of Ray’s talents—his ability to divine universal meaning from observations of local behavior, his nuanced approach to character, the way he makes time’s passing seem mellifluous—yet it displays these talents so modestly that you may not recognize them at first. The closest Western equivalent may be Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in that it’s an ensemble comedy-drama about romance and class relations that requires multiple viewings to reveal its true mastery. Ray’s screenplay (a free adaptation of a novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay) is, up until its climax, a carefully plotted collection of nonevents, and his direction focuses on character and setting. The insights seem offhanded and casual despite being profound.
The insights of Days and Nights emerge from a series of contrasts—between urban and rural life, men and women, innocence and corruption, love and lust—that Ray organizes symphonically. Ray biographer Andrew Robinson has likened the achievement to Mozart’s music in its “unobtrusive patterning of motifs, wonderful range of voices, and capacity to be serious by being humorous.” The film’s most musical quality, however, may be its harmoniousness. Ray looks at a group of characters throughout—there’s no single hero, but rather several subjects whose development we’re meant to consider in tandem. Frequently filming in medium shot, Ray encourages viewers to look at the characters collectively; this visual approach works hand-in-hand with Ray’s understated storytelling. The complexities, both visual and thematic, emerge from interactions between the characters and between the characters and their environment.
Sometimes Days and Nights doesn’t even feel like a narrative, but rather a sociological survey of 20-something professionals from Kolkata at the end of the 1960s. The film begins as four men drive through the northeast Indian countryside, bickering about the plans for the trip they’re taking there. These men are Ashim (Soumitra Chattopadhyay), Sanjoy (Subhendu Chattopadhyay), Shekhar (Robi Ghosh), and Hari (Shamit Bhanja). Back in Kolkata all are overworked and unlucky in love, but Ray doesn’t reveal these details just yet. The opening scenes emphasize the landscape, the men’s camaraderie, and their manner of conversation (note how these educated folk freely intersperse English words into their Bengali).
Ray interrupts the laid-back vibe with a short, shocking flashback of Hari having a violent argument with his girlfriend; this hints at subsequent disruptions to the cheerful tone. The next occurs only a few minutes later when the men, stopping in a village, talk down to the naive local, Lakha, whom they recruit to take them to a bungalow in the Palamu forest. One senses the arrogance of the urbanites, even if they don’t. They’re more self-aware, though, when they arrive at the bungalow and bribe their way into a room after they admit they don’t have permission from the local government to stay there. “Thank God for corruption,” Ashim cynically quips after the groundskeeper accepts his bribe.
This scene reflects the pervasiveness of corruption among the Kolkata business class, though less in the fact of the bribe than in Ashim’s nonchalant view of it. Ray subtly condemns the corruption of his group of heroes in subsequent scenes that show the men getting drunk at the village bar and making fools of themselves in front of the locals. (Their lofty behavior in front of the people who serve them at the bungalow is revealing as well.) Yet these men never come across as caricatures or even bad people. Ray seldom put villains in his films because, as a great humanist, he saw the best in almost everyone. Such is the case with the men of Days and Nights—their sensitivity and good humor shine through even when they act boorishly. When the two beautiful women staying at the summer home next door arrive, the heroes prove themselves gracious and chivalrous as well.
Ray’s women were generally wiser than his male characters, and in Days and Nights, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) and Jaya (Kaberi Basu) demonstrate good manners and common sense in their interactions with the villagers as well as the heroes, whom they generally view with bemusement. The film’s second half dramatizes the growing familiarity between the men and women, and the developments unfold casually, allowing the chemistry between the six characters to reverberate and the tensions between them to simmer. Ray doesn’t depict anything spectacular (the interactions consist of some strolls through the forest, a game of badminton, and the like), yet his subtle manipulation of pacing and visual composition are constantly fascinating. The film reaches its zenith during an afternoon picnic on the men’s third day in the forest. Sitting under a tree, the women teach the men a memory game where the players sit in a circle and take turns adding to a list of famous people’s names. Ray stages and edits the game dynamically; each turn reveals some fundamental quality of the person speaking. (The director often referred to the sequence as one of his crowning achievements.)
Ray expands on the polyphony of the memory game scene in the crosscutting of the film’s final half-hour, when the characters split up after the picnic and wander around a local carnival. Shekhar gambles, Hari propositions a local woman for sex, Ashim goes for a walk with Aparna, and Sanjoy has an intimate conversation with Jaya. Two of these subplots end to the male characters’ satisfaction, while two do not, and in cutting between them all, Ray manages to evoke the complexity of life itself. The emotional revelations of this section transcend the characters’ class and educa tional backgrounds and speak to universal truths about sex, power, and romantic longing. What makes Days and Nights such a magical experience is that these truths seem to materialize out of thin air. v