When Aranyer Din Ratri was first released in Calcutta in 1969, it was reported that the viewers were put off by the seemingly random flow of events and kept looking for a story that would bind all the incidents together. Ray rued in an interview in Sight & Sound,
"the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands."
He likened the structure of the film to a fugue, in which different elements appear and reappear developed, interwoven, transformed, and subtly balanced against each other. He had applied the same technique in an earlier film of his called Kanchanjunga (1962) where a set of familiar characters are pitted against each other in unfamiliar surroundings within a tight span of time and are forced to look at themselves as they interact with each other. It is a very familiar premise in world cinema that finds its manifestations in classics like Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), one of Ray's favourites or Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962,) to name a few.
At a surface level the film is very light-hearted. But below it seethes with tensions and cross currents that reflects an extremely complex pattern and intrigue and clash of egos. Ashim (played by Ray's favourite actor Soumitra Chatterjee), the most affluent and assured of the young men, is attracted to the poised and intelligent Mini (Sharmila Tagore). Jaya (Kaberi Bose), the young widow, tries to seduce the shy and hypocritical Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee) but the labour welfare officer fails to live up to her expectations and fails to perform. Hari (Samit Bhanja), the handsome but blunt sportsman, seduces a Santhali woman, Duli (played by Simi Garewal), and is badly beaten by one of her fellow-villagers whom he had earlier beaten on the false charges of stealing his purse. Sekhar (another of Ray's favourite actors, the roly-poly Robi Ghosh) gambles compulsively and plays the fool. While all of them are engaged in their respective pursuits, they fail or refuse to take notice of the bungalow caretaker's wife who is seriously ill at their backyard. It is left to the sensitive and beautiful Mini to point this out to Ashim who does not quite like the poignant reminder of a world that he does now want to keep link with except when he wants it for his own selfish interests. In an earlier sequence of the film, he had brow beaten the character into accepting a bribe so that they could occupy his bungalow and had exclaimed in English, “Thank god for corruption." In fact, one of the overriding themes of the film is the clash of polarities as represented by the urban and the rural; the rich and the poor; the sophisticated and the tribal; the corrupt and the innocent. But Ray, being the compassionate master that he is, refers to the theme obliquely, in swift and deft brush strokes and does not address it as an agenda like the so-called art filmmakers of the 70s who made an issue out of it. It stays at the level of subtext. We retain our sympathies with the characters despite their double standards and narrow mindedness; the characters come across as rounded and believable, and a reflection of ourselves maybe in many cases.
Like in most Ray films, the female characters come across as more sensitive and intelligent and a moral touchstone that brings the male characters into sharp relief and puts them in their place as they are forced to look at themselves in a new light, often humiliating. The sophisticated Sharmila Tagore with her cool and intelligent screen persona often fulfilled this role in many of Ray's films like Nayak (1966) and Seemabaddha (1971) as she does in this film.
This Ray classic is replete with memorable scenes that have been written by Ray himself as he did all his films. Within 5 minutes of the beginning before the credits roll, all the four major characters are introduced as they drive in Ashim's car through the jungles of Bihar. It is the amongst the most brilliant exposition of characters through swift exchanges of dialogues and small actions that set the characters from each other in terms of their likes and orientations and social and economic positions and acts as a subtle indicator of what is to come.
No discussion of the film would be complete without the memory game sequence that is played out by the six major characters. Each player has to choose the name of a famous person and also remember, in sequence, all the previous choices. Subtle and elegantly structured, each character reveals himself or herself in the way he or she plays. Ray's mastery of the misce-en-scene comes out in full steam as he cuts between the different characters and tracks from character to character as they engage in this wonderful game that throbs with sexual undercurrents. It is a brilliant piece of cinema played out in a surefire style and marks him out amongst the masters of world cinema.
Mention must also be made of the wonderful cross cutting sequence towards the end of the film when all the four male characters are engaged in their respective pursuits. With a tribal fair as its central setting, the director intercuts between the different sets of characters: Ashim trying to forge a relationship with Mini; the voluptuous Jaya trying to seduce Sanjay; Hari running amongst the wilderness with the svelte and dusky tribal girl before they end up making love under the trees and Sekhar gambling away with borrowed money. The entire sequence is interspersed with shots of tribal women dancing to primitive rhythm as the central characters are engaged in their primitive pursuits. It is another piece of beautiful cinema that raises the film to extraordinary levels of artistic expression as the music rises to a crescendo.
Bansi Chandragupta's re-construction of the interiors of the forest bungalow and the country liquor shop and recreation of the tribal fair are other highlights of the film that point to a superb craftsmanship in the annals of realistic cinema. His teaming with Ray was a winning companionship that is sorely missed in Ray's last films after Bansi's death.
This is a film of extraordinary subtlety, refinement and depth. A classic of world cinema by one of the cinema's greatest directors, it continues to impact viewers over different generations.