DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

DISTANT THUNDER (ASHANI SANKET) (director/writer: Satyajit Ray; screenwriter: based on the novel by Bibhuti Bhusan Bannerji; cinematographer: Soumendu Roy; editor:  Dulal Dutta; music:  Satyajit Ray; cast: Soumitra Chatterji (Gangacharan), Babita (Ananga), Sandhya Roy (Chhutki), Govinda Chakravarty (Dinabandhu), Romesh Mukerji (Biswas), Chitra Banerjee (Moti), Debatosh Ghosh (Adhar), Anil Ganguly (Nibaran); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mrs. Sarbani Bhattacharya; Angel; 1973-India-in Bengali with English subtitles)

"A gentle humanist film that informs the world that over five million died of starvation and epidemics in Bengal."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great lyrical director from India, Satyajit Ray ("Pather-Panchali"/"Aparajito"/"The Middleman"), helms a gentle humanist film that informs the world that over five million died of starvation and epidemics in Bengal, over a distant war that many in the Indian population were not completely aware of why it was fought. The tragedy became known as the man-made famine of 1943. Ray adapted the screenplay from the novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee.

At the onset of World War II, with India on the Allies side, an educated Brahmin, fluent in Sanskrit, Gangacharan Chakravarti (Soumitra Chatterjee), settles in the remote small Bengali village of Natungaon as its only Brahmin, becoming its doctor, ceremonial priest and elementary school head, with his devoted, attractive and sensitive wife Ananga (Babita) by his side. They are happy in the beginning living a privileged life among the peasants because of their high caste status and Gangacharan being respected for giving sound hygienic advice while conducting religious services in a nearby village plagued with a cholera outbreak. But the war soon effects every one in the region greatly, as the country's resources are drained for the war effort and as a result rice prices soar and rice becomes difficult to obtain. The couple must now readjust the way they live and survive only by working for their meals as hard as do the peasants. They also must endure an upsurge in violence, as villagers loot the rice suppliers. Ananga is attacked in the forest while gathering wild potatoes with her peasant friend Chhutki (Sandhya Roy), who kills the attacker with her tool for digging potatoes. And an untouchable dies from starvation outside their house and Gangacharan breaks tradition by touching her body for burial. Also beggars become common-place in their village, even a Brahmin from another village free-loads off them.

The sympathetic couple's humbling plight and enlightenment is simply told by Ray with an artful sense of compassion for their fight for survival and also for their political awakening that the peasants are stuck in an antiquated caste system, where they are devalued as fellow human beings and their life opportunities are restricted.

REVIEWED ON 3/8/2014       GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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