In a scene from his final film Agantuk (The Stranger), Satyajit Ray captures the theatrics of a Bengali sit-down meal. Anila has never met her uncle Manmohan Mitra, who left home to see the world 35 years ago. His sudden visit has now sparked a controversy as his identity is questionable. Albeit, like a good host, she puts out a lavish spread.
It is a traditional Bengali menu. Palong shaak-er ghonto or a mishmash cooked with spinach, sweet pumpkin and lentil dumplings, daal and bhaaja or lentils with a side of something fried, maach-er jhol or fish curry followed by maangsho or goat meat curry. There’s also goyna bori, the artistic dried lentil crisps from Midnapore. “First daal and then fish,” says Manmohan, reassuring her that he has not forgotten the Bengali way of eating, i.e. course-wise. Eventually he goes for the meat instead of fish, saying: “We cannot talk freely if we have to pick bones.”
Ray’s protagonist, played by the legendary Utpal Dutt, is a world traveller who has spent three decades sampling a buffet of cultures. Yet, Manmohan’s affinity for his roots is unmistakable. For someone who has been away from home, he does not falter eating with his hands. It says a lot about the character who retains his bond with a culture he could have chosen to forget.
In a classic scene, Manmohan is interrogated on his many life experiences. His eyes light up when he starts talking about his time spent with the tribal communities around the world. When asked if as an omnivore, he has consumed human flesh, Manmohan surprises his hosts: “Shunechi noro mangsho khete shushadu, kintu amar shei shoubhagya hoyni.” (I have heard human meat is delicious, but I have not had the good fortune of tasting it.) Where does he place cannibalism in the context of civilisation then, he is asked. “Barbaric,” he screams. “A civilised society is one where a man can destroy an entire city with a press of a button,” he says, his voice now dripping with sarcasm.
References to food are common in Agantuk, a film that challenges our notions of human civilisation. Through his swansong, Ray wanted to express his liberal, often iconoclastic worldview through Manmohan. Apparently, on the last day of the shoot, he stood up and announced: “That’s it! That’s all there is. I don’t have anything more to say.” He had already said it all.
In Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), Ray shows how hunger shapes the lives and relationships in a poor Brahmin family in 1950s Bengal. In the fictional village of Nishchindipur lives Harihar with his wife Sarbajaya, children Apu and Durga, and his widowed sister Indir Thakuran. The income is meager, the rations are limited.
The film begins with little Durga stealing a lone guava from the orchard of a wealthy neighbour. When her mother Sarbajaya learns of it, she blames it on her sister-in-law Indir, who has been sneaking salt and spices from the kitchen for the odd indulgent meal. (Bengali Hindu widows of the time were forbidden from enjoying food with ‘too much’ flavour.) Sarbajaya is upset that Indir’s habits are rubbing off on her daughter. But this is only one of the flashpoints—the friction between Sarbajaya and her aged sister-in-law comes largely from the fact that the family has an extra mouth to feed.
The conflict between hunger and morality comes up later again. When rain clouds gather, and the monsoons bring respite from the sweltering heat, Ray paints the picture of a joyous landscape. While the children play in the rain, Sarbajaya hurriedly makes her way home carrying kochu shaak or colocasia leaves foraged from the marshes. This time, it is she who picks up a fallen fruit, and hides it between the folds of her sari lest she gets caught.
Food and gender collide in Mahanagar (The Big City), a 1963 film that revolves around the lives of a lower middle-class Bengali family. Arati is the ‘ideal’ wife, mother and daughter-in-law who carries out her household duties. But when the family is plunged into a financial crisis, she decides to apply for a job. While the in-laws eventually come around, it is Arati’s husband Subrata who has an issue. The man who is initially supportive turns insecure when he loses his bank job. Arati shines at work, and is now the sole breadwinner for the family.
On the morning of her first day of work, for the first time, the couple sits together to eat—a practice rare for the time in India. And later in the film, in one poignant scene, Ray shows how economic realities have reversed both the social hierarchy and gender roles. It is now the mother-in-law who is serving her son’s wife. And although it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss moment, we see Maa plating up the maach-er muro or the head of the fish for Arati, an honour reserved for the man of the house.
Cut to 1990. Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) is a film that tells the story of an upper middle class family that has reunited after years. Ray brings us a six-minute scene, where actors are shown eating a full-course meal—rare for an Indian film. Times have changed by now, gender equations have evolved. We see men and women dining together.
Satyajit Ray came from an illustrious family of children’s writers. Food humour often made a large part of his father Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol—a collection of ‘nonsense verse’. No wonder the family-run popular children’s magazine Sandesh was also named after Bengal’s favourite sweet. It was in the same magazine that Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne was first published, a story that Ray adapted for the screen in 1969. The fantasy adventure is about two tone-deaf musicians Goopy and Bagha, who are blessed with three boons—unlimited food, ability to travel wherever, and musical prowess. This time Ray uses food as a political device, albeit farcical. A war is brewing in the fictional land of ‘Shundi’. Just when the king prepares to launch an attack, good samaritans Goopy and Bagha step in. The mood on the battlefield suddenly shifts when pots filled with roshogolla waft down from the sky. The starving soldiers quickly reassess their priorities and run to fill their empty stomachs. If only peace was this easy.
Satyajit Ray was a widely travelled man, and his experiences shaped his life and his craft. In 1950, on a trip to London, Ray watched around 100 films over six months, including Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist drama Bicycle Thieves, which left a profound impact on him. Like Manmohan, he allowed his experiences to shape the understanding of his own culture and returned home to capture what he knew best—the lives and stories of his own people. He found beauty in the ordinary, and meaning in simplicity. And like a true Bengali, he saw food as a way to appreciate humanity.