Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tartuffes Everywhere: Satyajit Ray’s The Holy Man

The world is awash in fake holy men, pious hypocrites, and snake-handling demagogues, and they’re all a litigious bunch, so I will confine my examples here to the dead, because the dead can’t be libeled and the dead can’t sue.  For every person who finds him or herself confused and afraid and drowning in the isolation of the human condition, there’s an asshole out there willing to exploit them with a mantra and a blessing in exchange for a check or credit card.  In America we have televangelists: ugly, bitter old white men who rant about the gays and the feminists and use your donations to build megachurches and megahouses for themselves; or charismatic black Baptists who call themselves “bishops” and who only interrupt their condemnations of homosexuality in order to engage in it.  India, by contrast, is a land of gurus, wonderworkers who have gone into the Himalayas and received special wisdom from immortal demigods and who have returned to civilization to spread the word and buy Rolls-Royces.  They dazzle rich and poor alike with their recollections of their past lives and their leger-de-main magic tricks, like the late Sai Baba, who could “materialize” coins and wrist-watches (but apparently not large quantities of food for poor people).  Or there was Pete Townshend’s guru of choice, Meher Baba, whose blessedness couldn’t prevent him from repeatedly getting into several terrible car accidents.
This all brings me around to Bengali master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s The Holy Man (Mahapurush) (1965), about a travelling huckster named Baba Birinchi who insinuates himself Tartuffe-like into a well-to-do family and begins exploiting their friends and neighbors.  Now, Birinchi doesn’t attempt the “miracles” of Sai Baba, but he instead dazzles with anecdotes from his lengthy life history (he claims to be well over two thousand years old): we hear how he taught Einstein the theory of relativity; how he intimidated Plato with is wisdom; how he knew the Gautama Buddha when the latter was a child; how Manu presented his laws to him for review; and how he knew Lord Vishnu when He was incarnated as a Boar.  His celebrity friends remind one of the late Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon, who claimed to have been visited by Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Confucius.

Now, Baba Birinchi’s arrival on the scene ends up seriously impeding the romantic plans of a young man named Satya, who is attempting to court the young lady of the house into which Birinchi has inserted himself.  It will be up to Satya’s older, less love-addled friends to unmask Birinchi for the hypocrite that he is and drive him from the scene. 

As a side-note, this movie has some of the loveliest black-and-white cinematography that I’ve ever seen, and serves as a reminder that black-and-white was at its best just as color film was about to supplant it.  I would also like to mention that I have seen lamentably few Indian movies, and about half of them were directed by Ray.  If anyone has suggestions for Indian films that I should see, please mention them in the comments.


  1. 3 idiots;
    dilwale dulhania le jayenge (ddlj);
    1942: a love story;
    rang de basanti;
    devdas (the version with shahrukh khan);
    kal ho naa ho (well it's one of my favs but probably not as cinematically brilliant as you want it);
    kuch kuch hota hai;
    dil se;
    umrao jaan (1981 version);
    dil chahta hai;
    my name is khan;
    peepli live (i wrote one of my bengali papers on this);
    rab na bana di jodi;
    escape from the taliban (based on a true story/book