The final film from the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, The Stranger (Agantuk) opens on an affluent middle-class family in contemporary Calcutta receiving a letter from a man who claims be the long-lost uncle of wife and mother Anila. Manomohan Mitra is a stranger to them all, having left home to explore the world when his niece was just two years old. Where Anila is apprehensive, her son Satyaki is excited at the prospect of the mysterious stranger bringing something new to their conventional lives, and her husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious, not simply of ulterior motives but of the uncle's very identity. And when he arrives in time for the holiday weekend, he doesn't make confirmation easy, even calling himself "Nemo," Latin for "no one," when dinner guests arrive.
The Stranger was a personal project for Ray. He based the screenplay on his own short story "Atithi" ("The Guest"), originally written for a children's magazine. The main character, a worldly anthropologist with wide-ranging knowledge, deeply held beliefs about faith and religion and a measured approach to science and technology, echoes many of the statements made by Ray in interviews. Befitting the philosophy of Manomohan, who has embraced simplicity and argues that modern civilization can learn much from the Indigenous cultures of the world, he directs in a simple, unadorned style. Ray produced the film (he turned to France for some of the film's financing; French actor Gérard Depardieu was one of the executive producers), composed the score and designed the theatrical poster. He even provides the singing voice for Manomohan, dubbing himself over scenes where the character offers a cappella excerpts of traditional Indian songs.
Ray even weaves personal experiences into the film. Manomohan explains that while studying art at college, he was transformed after seeing a photograph of the famous prehistoric bison painting in the Cave of Altamira in Spain. Realizing that he could never produce a work of such power, purity, and honesty, he gave up painting to explore the world. It's an echo of Ray's own reaction after seeing the prehistoric paintings at Ellora Caves and being so profoundly moved that he abandoned his plans to become a painter. Where Ray stayed in India and turned to graphic design and, later, filmmaking, his cinematic alter-ego Manomohan was gripped by wanderlust.
For the central role of Manomohan, Ray cast Utpal Dutt, a respected director, playwright and actor of stage and screen whose career reaches back to the 1940s. Adept at both drama and comedy, Dutt draws on both to portray the character, who debates philosophy with a series of visitors with a sharp wit, then turns teacher to joyfully share his observations with young Satyaki and his friends and encourage their sense of wonder. Author Bhaskar Chattopadhyay proclaimed it "one of the best performances of his career."
Ray was in ill health for much of filming. He suffered a heart attack in 1983 and had slowed greatly in the intervening years. According to Ray's wife Bijoya, after the final shot of the film was completed and the production wrapped, Ray turned to her and said "That’s it. That’s all there is. I don’t have anything more to say." He died on April 23, 1992 at the age of 70, six months after The Stranger won the FIPRESCI award at the Venice Film Festival and less than a month after receiving an honorary Academy Award. Utpal Dutt passed away a year after Ray. The film serves as a touching epitaph for both artists.
Satyajit Ray: Interviews, ed. Bert Cardullo. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
"Agantuk: Through Utpal Dutt's character, Satyajit Ray articulated his views on civilisation's illusory nature," Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. First Post, March 18, 2018
"If You Watch Only One Satyajit Ray Film, Make It ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger)!," Abhi U, Youth Ki Awaaz, May 21, 2020.