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Distant Thunder

The poet William Blake wrote "To see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour" Satyajit Ray explores the world through a grain of rice in "Distant Thunder", and no other word but "masterpiece" will do for his creation.

It is a work of genius in which words, photography and music are in delicate harmony with the most profound observation on how people change as they face the threat of starvation. Ray, creator of the "Apu" trilogy, directed from his own screenplay and wrote the score, a hauntingly effective combination of Eastern and Western music.

The time is 1943 in Bengal when the shadows of war are only dimly apparent in the sight of British planes over the land. To the young women frolicking in the river, they are as romantic as the flight of cranes. The loveliest of the three is a newcomer to the village, where she and her husband are settling down to the duties and privileges of the only Brahmin family in the area.

Her husband seems a fussy, almost pompous chap with a faint air of disapproval for her innocent, gently flirtatious pleasure in telling him that her new friends find her beautiful. But when the moment comes and he clearly sees her pure generosity of spirit and sturdiness of character, his soft acknowledgment is the most tender imaginable avowal of love.

As a member of the highest caste in India, he has set himself up as school teacher and sometime doctor (he simply consults books for what he does not know - which is considerable ). He is also thinking about taking on the duties of priest. His wife quietly worries that he may be overcharging for his services and extending himself beyond his capacities. Babita is exquisite as the wife whose every glance seems imbued with a joyous affirmation of life.

The absurdities and injustices of India's rigid caste system, reinforced by poverty and illiteracy, are sketched in with unobtrusive but telling effect as the husband postures, bargains for his payments and goes off to a neighboring village to offer an anti-cholera prayer, and in leaving, warns the people not to bathe in the contaminated river or eat stale, fly-attracting food.

The ominous echo of war is heard in the village as the price of rice begins to skyrocket. Soumitra Chatterji is impressive as he almost imperceptibly matures while observing the hoarding, the dishonesty and the sad battle for survival when the rice finally disappears totally; his wife meanwhile sees her friend's hunger triumph over chastity.

There have been many moving memorials to the millions who died in Europe during World War Two, history records the terrible destruction unleashed by Japanese militarism, but only Ray's film stands as an eloquent indictment of a course of events that could, as a mere by-product, allow five million people to perish of hunger and disease.

San Francisco Chronicle June 2, 1976

 

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