Gangacharan (Soumitra Chatterjee) has become the new Brahmin of a village in the Bengal region of India. He serves as the village’s teacher, doctor and religious figure. All of his work in the community has given him a high status, and the residents of the village cater to nearly any of his whims.
But in 1943, after the Japanese have come to occupy Burma, rice prices begin to rise due to the war. Famine strikes in Bengal and food shortages lead the villagers to take desperate measures to stay alive.
Gangacharan struggles to maintain his comfortable lifestyle while his wife, Ananga (Babita), is more keen to use what little they have to help others in the community.
Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (English: Distant Thunder, 1973) is a fictional portrayal of the effects of a very real but often forgotten event of World War II: the Bengal famine of 1943, which is estimated to have led to the deaths of over five million people according to a title card at the end of the film. Ashani Sanket is based on the novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.
I don’t typically give full reviews of post-1970 films, but this one is so beautiful that I had to share it. I’ll tell you right off the bat that it gets a score of 5/5! Everything about it is well done: the acting, the sound (including music), the visual execution, the story itself. Even though I viewed it on a very worn VHS tape, it was easy to see that the film was beautifully executed in the visual sense. (I’m on the hunt for a higher-quality copy.)
As one may assume the film would be based on its subject matter, Ashani Sanket is extremely high on emotional impact. The painstaking desperation of the situation is made plain for the viewer.
More striking than any of the film’s technical elements are the messages it sends. Caste conflict is dealt with very directly, and the question of whether or not to use what little you have to provide aid to others is a central focus of the film, particularly in the contrast between Ananga and her husband. She is willing to give up her own food to feed an elderly man who comes to their house for help; her husband is more focused on his own well-being and his wife’s.
Also strongly portrayed is the impact of European/Western influence on the lives of these people. Military airplanes often fly overhead in the beginning of the film, disrupting the calm of the village. Ironically, the people marvel at these “flying ships” (as they’re called in the subtitles) and see them as a thing of beauty when they’re what ultimately ends up causing all of the trouble in Bengal. Britain controlled India during the war, and the famine was no accident of nature: it was a man-made atrocity that resulted from the war.
The story unfolds at a bit of a slow pace, but this doesn’t hamper the film at all because it works for the purpose of realism and is aligned with the slow pace of life for the characters. This aspect of the film brings to life for the viewer the frustration that the people of Bengal must have felt while waiting for some kind of improvement or change to hit as they struggled to stay alive during the famine.
Dark, dramatic and harrowing, Ashani Sanket is one of the greatest films I’ve discovered this year (and probably even in my lifetime). It provides an astonishing, emotional viewing experience and will stick with you long after watching.