MUBI Mondays: The Stranger (1991)
Utpal Dutt’s mesmerising performance9
Katherine McLaughlin | On 07, Sep 2020
On Mondays, two of our resident cinephiles highlight a film currently available on MUBI UK. We call it MUBI Mondays.
Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. His humanist films revolutionised Indian cinema and gained popularity with global audiences. From his multi-award winning Apu Trilogy, which began with Pather Panchali (1955), about a young boy on a journey of discovery, to his feminist depiction of middle-class family life in The Big City (1963), his characters feel honest and credible and even as bigger philosophical and political themes slip in, his films never become didactic or inaccessible.
Ray’s swansong, The Stranger, released in 1991, one year before his death, takes on a meditative quality, as the filmmaker casts his eye over his beloved Bengal and the meaning of civilisation in a materialistic world.
At the start of the film, a middle-class family in Calcutta are shocked to receive a letter from a long-lost uncle who they haven’t seen in 35 years. He is to return to the motherland and asks that the family host him for the duration of his stay. Anila (Mamata Shankar) hasn’t seen her uncle since she was two, has no idea what he looks like, and is instantly mortified by this imposition. Her husband, Suhindra (Dipankar Dey), suggests sending a telegram to turn down the visit, while their young son, Satyaki, (Bikram Bhattacharya) is thoroughly exhilarated by the prospect of meeting their uninvited guest.
What unfolds when uncle Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt) arrives is a mesmerising conversation with a worldly man and anthropologist who has travelled to Peru to view Machu Pichu, lived in the jungle with tribes, tasted the finest cuisine in Europe and experienced the hustle of city life in New York. He describes himself as an omnivore when sitting down to a delicious Bengali feast and is open to all experiences and cultures as a way to better understand the world. The family, deeply suspicious of his motivations and identity, enlist the help of their friends to quiz his credentials but Mitra isn’t playing ball – instead his playful parlour room discussions provoke fiery debate on matters such as religion, class, and the impact of innovative technology on human life.
Ray doesn’t let the audience in on the true motives of the stranger until the very end, with the film continually instilling doubt in his identity. Dutt in the central role – something of stand-in for Ray – turns in a riveting performance, a warm raconteur to his nephew, and a confrontational presence to the adults, as he slips in and out of their graces as each day passes.
It plays out a bit like a whodunnit or Hitchcockian thriller in that sense. As the characters converse over tea and delicious meals, moral conundrums, traditional songs and newspaper headlines sneak in to convey a real sense of time and place, despite the drama mainly playing out in one location.
Part of the beauty of Ray’s cinema is the way in which he disarmingly turns a simple concept into a hugely rewarding watch – the film is based on a short story he wrote in 1981 for a children’s magazine. He projects the thoughts of his relatable characters in ways that linger and are ripe for consideration long after the credits roll. The Stranger is a bittersweet and spirited swansong that speaks its mind and finds complex meaning through passionate debate and attentive observation.
The Stranger (1991) is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.