I recently saw Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960) and was reminded of why I fell in love with the filmmaker in the first place. Although I find critiques of organized religion uninteresting more than anything, that film works because of its beautiful photography and the fact that the religious subtext of the film plays with one of Ray’s other frequently revisited themes, women in India, a subject far more interesting to me. Mahapurush is also a religious critique, but the tone is far more silly and it doesn’t have the thematic or photographic high points of a film like Devi. It still manages to work, but it might be the least essential film I’ve seen from Ray so far.
Gurupada Mitter, still reeling from the death of his wife, meets Birinchi Baba on a train. Perhaps because of his vulnerability, Gurupada believes in the tall tales he is told by Birinchi. He later decides to follow Birinchi, seeing him as something of a holy man. The obvious problem is that Gurupada’s decision-making is affected by the recent tragedy, and he can’t see that Birinchi is an obvious phoney. Meanwhile, Gurupada’s daughter, Buchki is upset with boyfriend, Satya. Satya seems to be the only one who sees Birinchi as a false prophet, but nobody seems to listen.
It’s important to note that there isn’t really a hint of pathos in this particular film, which is certainly a rarity for Ray. Almost all of the characters are upper class and in an outstanding financial position. This isn’t really a huge problem with the film, because it’s aspirations are nothing beyond a religious farce. At its best, the film resembles one of Luis Bunuel’s catholic comedies. Unfortunately, the film never gets to that level of absurdity, instead it mostly just revels in the silliness of the Baba character and his assistant, the latter of which is played by Robi Ghosh, a frequent provider of comic relief in Ray’s work.
I will give Ray’s screenplay some credit for being humorous, but saying it’s funny is something of a stretch. Admittedly, much of the humor is based in the language, puns that can’t be translated to English and references beyond the grasp of most western viewers. Still, there are a few bits that are memorable. Birinchi references the Biblical allusion of the near-impossibility of a wealthy man to get into Heaven. He asks “why?” and cries out for the sad rich men of the world. It’s a silly sequence, one that encapsulates the film’s overall tone: this is sort of trivial, but isn’t kind of amusing? By having Gurupada be a lawyer, one could argue that Ray is suggesting that even modern “intellectual” men can fall victim to the allure of spirituality. However, we’re never asked to feel for Gurupada being tricked, we’re immediately invited to laugh at him for falling for such a ruse.
Ray seems to understand that the film’s content isn’t exactly important or meaningful. There are some visual allusions to bigger things (including one really obvious one to cultural imperialism) but the filmmaker seems fine giving us a message in a light, unassuming way. It’s not a great film at all, but it’s certainly not a bad one. It seems to me that Ray’s prolific nature allowed him to frequently touch upon topics more than once, sometimes in a different tone. Ray himself made better movies about the same sort of thing as Mahapurush but it’s interesting to revisit familiar thematic territory. It’s an interesting film in how it fits in with the rest of Ray’s career, but otherwise, nothing really special.