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‘The Stranger’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1995

"Agantuk" ("The Stranger") was Satyajit Ray's last film, and it shows all the virtues of a master artist in full maturity.

With the simplicity that comes with complete command of his medium, Ray begins his story with a letter. The recipient, Anila (Mamata Shankar), is a typical middle-class housewife living with her husband, Sudhindra (Deepankar De), and son in Calcutta; the letter writer is an uncle who left India 35 years ago, following his wanderlust to the far corners of the globe. Or at least that's who he claims to be. Anila hasn't actually seen her uncle since she was a baby, a fact that the uncle makes note of. Nevertheless, he calls on the family's sense of "traditional Indian hospitality" and asks to be taken in until he takes up his travels once more.

In laying out these details, Ray—by far India's most renowned director—works in the unhurried, observant style that made him one of the cinema's most respected filmmakers. His focus, as always, is the human elements. But he is also interested in ideas, and in that sense, "Agantuk" is more conceptual, more Shavian and less naturalistic than most of his earlier work.

His prime subject of exploration here reflects the interests of his protagonist—namely, the contrast between civilized and primitive, or so-called "savage," cultures. The uncle has been welcomed without hesitation into the homes and villages of native people around the world. By the time he arrives at his niece's house, however, the family is already deeply suspicious. Though he seems to be exactly who he says he is, they are obsessed with verifying their guest's true indentity—as if in doing so they might guarantee that their hospitality isn't bestowed under false pretenses.

In the process, the uncle (played with sagacious charm by Utpal Dutt) turns out to be a wise and worldly man whose experiences call many of the family's bourgeois assumptions into question.

Completed only months before Ray's death, "Agantuk" is small and concentrated. It doesn't traffic in melodrama or come to any grand resolutions. But as the uncle watches his niece dance with a group of native women in the movie's final scene, we feel the film's thematic pieces all falling into place. It's a beautiful film, and a fitting swan song.

Agantuk is not rated.

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