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
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,
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