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The River

An Eternal Flow

by Avinaba Chakraborty

The ‘Desi’ Family

TLR Rating: 8 Reels.



Satyajit Ray is a very common name to all the Indian movie enthusiasts out there. The man who was one of the pioneers of parallel cinema movement and brought international recognition which is still unmatched, is worshiped by many even today in India as well as abroad. But only those few people who are well aware of his struggling days, when he was trying to make a mark in this artistic world, know that it was ‘The River’ that drew him towards independent filmmaking. Arguably one of the most influential filmmakers in world cinema, Jean Renoir became a friend with Ray while filming this movie in India and encouraged him in making ‘Apu Trilogy’ and the rest is just history. Along with Ray, this film also gifted the world a highly acclaimed cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who was working as a production assistant back then. ‘The River’ plays a pivotal role to some sections of people in our society and this was probably the first movie which captured the essence of their daily life so brilliantly. Based on a novel of the same name by Rumer Godden, this film depicts the human’s relation with nature through a family drama in the background of colonial India.

When dance narrates the sweetest stories

The film revolved around Harriet, a teenage girl in an English family residing in West Bengal who owned a jute mill. She was recalling the story of a memorable year of her life in India when she found her first love in Captain John who had lost one leg in the war and her heartbreak when that man fell in love with her best friend Valerie. This is the central body of the story which is illustrated magnificently with many magical moments which add extra fragrance to the main theme. Like many of Renoir’s works, ‘The River’ is also more of a narration of colourful events than one distinct story and the alluring portrayal of festivals and rituals of Hinduism along with the inseparable spirituality of Indian life style made this film very charming indeed. Despite its slow pace, it will make the audience absorb this spirituality. The film is a depiction of two separate worlds; one was the world of this English family, their daily life and the other is the world of the common working class people and ‘The River’ along with various festivities seem like the links to these two worlds.

The Rangoli describes the culture of Indian society

Harriet was an animated character during her teen age just like most of us and she fell in love with the captain who was the cousin of their neighbor. Not only she but also all the blossoming female characters developed a love interest towards him; probably because he was a war hero and kids love heroes. On the other hand, Captain John was haunted by the war after losing his leg and despite his cheerful attitude, he was broken from inside. The most matured girl here was Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of his cousin who had married an Indian woman. After completing her schooling in America, she returned to her motherland and was attracted towards the Indian lifestyle. For two-thirds of the film, it feels like the story is just depicting the good old days of this family, who despite their Western origin, were well associated with all the Indian customs but their world fell apart when Harriet’s only brother Boggey died while trying to tame a cobra with a flute. Harriet felt guilty because she had not inform the elders about the cobra and tried to commit suicide by floating into the river aimlessly on a boat but was later rescued by the local fishermen. The film ended on a sweet note with Harriet along with Valerie and Melanie receiving letters from Captain John when her mother gave birth to another girl.

Too Curious a mind leads to unforeseen circumstances

While making a movie about human relationships, you must be careful about building the characters because they carry the entire film and like an experienced craftsman, Renoir was able to pull things off beautifully. Even the small characters like Kanu who was the friend of Boggey or the doorkeeper Ram Singh, will stay with you for a long time. We can see a young Jean Renoir himself in Captain John, who was also badly injured during First World War and just like the director, war was also tormenting this young gentleman. One strong part of the movie is also the acting performances; the ever caring Nan, the innocence of Harriet, the curiosity of Boggey towards Mother Nature or the maturity of Melanie never fails to attract the viewers. The film is full of magical moments; the dazzling Diwali celebration, the stories and poems by Harriet take us back to our childhood days when life was not as serious as it is now. Also along with the family we shed tears when Boggey died accidentally. The cinematography is probably the best you will see in any of Renoir’s films; the beautiful shots of Rangoli, the strong boatmen or the colourful markets and festivals are beyond any words.

The bride in all her finery

The simplicity of the film makes it more appealing to us. The eternal flow of our life like a river is the message carried out here, it has highs and lows in its path, but in the end we all should move on digesting everything that life throws in our way. These age old Indian philosophies are presented here in a more sophisticated fashion with colorful events. That’s why without having a distinct or conclusive story, this film created wonders back in the fifties.

The author is an electrical engineer, a movie buff and a big fan of Satyajit Ray.

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