Ray has long been regarded as a great humanist director, and he is a humanist in the sense that his works tend to move toward the establishment of certain central human values and experiences, rather than in providing a social critique. This, and the decision to concentrate on the Brahmins’ perspective, leads Ray into certain contradictions. Here our assessment of Distant Thunder differs from critics who have concentrated on Ray’s humanism. Andrew Robinson argues that the real themes of Distant Thunder are not the famine itself but moral issues and even the causes of the famine: “In Distant Thunder it is the attitudes that give rise to mass death that he examines, rather than the stinking corpses. Distant Thunder is not really about famine as such, but about its causes.”
In contrast to Robinson’s views, we hold that the naturalist treatment of famine in Distant Thunder redirects its political engagement from the structural to the phenomenological and toward a construction of Indian humanism. Although Distant Thunder registers some information about the effects of the famine, its views of how the war between the imperial powers contributed to famine is vague; it does not mention the diversion of gain or the profiteering by middlemen selling rice to the colonial authorities Distant Thunder provides an idealized romantic picture of colonial Bengal—one insufficienty contexualized. In paraticular in Distant Thunder the idealized region of Bengal becomes the myth of the nation, its mythic structure underlining the nation’s philosophical humanism. Most of Robinson’s readings of Distant Thunder seem to be attempts to valorize Ray’s work, simply reproducing Ray’s views of his own films. Robinson relates Ananga [pictured in screencaps above] to the Lakshmi myth, saying that “where Doyamoyee (in The Goddess) has a face which personifies the goddess Durga, Ananga’s round peach-like features call to mind Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune, and idea loaded with connotations for any Bengali brought up in an atmosphere of orthodox, of a type interwoven with the concept of Golden Bengal.”
The figure of goddess Lakshmi, usually associated with wealth, may serve to underline the spiritual wealth of Bengal and India itself and to create a sense of pathos as she is overwhelmed by the circumstances of the famine. But poverty and starvation, which always go together with unemployment and poor economic conditions, were salient features in the largely subsistence colonial rural economy of Bengal prior to the famine. In fact in Distant Thunder famine becomes a signifier of the patriarchal Brahmin’s resilience and endurance, epitomized by the woman Ananga, sensuously and romantically chaste. For Ray, the conditions and impact of colonial rule and class are obscured in the representation of th e periphery (here, the rural milieu), even as the film pursues an ideology where the periphery becomes the mythic and philosophical hub of the nation.
[ DHARMSENA PATHIRAJA and DAVID HANAN | Center, Periphery, Famine in Distant Thunder and In Search of Famine ]