In a prolific career spanning more than four decades, actor Pahari Sanyal appeared in almost a hundred films, including Hindi and English. He was one of the most popular character actors on the Bengali screen and even with his short demeanour, was a scene stealer. Often seen as the archetypical father or elder brother in most of his later films, Pahari Sanyal was a powerhouse theatre actor as well.
But what perhaps became his best ever performance, was the role of an ornithologist that he played to perfection in Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962). The film itself is an underrated gem from the master filmmaker and also his first colour production. Shot entirely on location in Darjeeling, Kanchenjungha remains one of the best examples of class study in popular media in post-independence India. It was also Ray’s only film in what later came to be known as hyperlink cinema.
Pahari Sanyal, as Jagadish in Kanchenjungha, founders and stumbles on his way up and down the hills to follow a passionate hobby of bird-watching. Armed with a pair of binoculars, Jagadish is short on company, until he almost grabs the film’s protagonist Ashoke (played by Arun Mukherjee), who lends him a reluctant albeit patient ear to his bird-talk.
At one point of time during his conversation with Ashoke, and in probably the first mention of its kind in any Indian film, Jagadish voices his concern about the indiscriminate nuclear tests carried out by the world powers. He is deeply worried about the fate of migratory birds that he calls, “One of the profound mysteries of nature.” Jagadish fears the Arctic birds that fly more than 2,000 miles to the tropics in winter, may lose their way, courtesy the poisonous radioactive elements that increasingly dot the atmosphere. Or which could be even worse, Jagadish fears, the birds may drop dead in their flight path and may not arrive at all.
Ray, considered an auteur of world cinema, had predicted long back what is likely to happen in less than half a century’s time. Over the years, arrival of migratory birds has decreased in Bengal, because of the alarming rise in global temperatures. That aside, rampant urbanisation and filling up of wetlands, have had its impact on these petite creatures.
Kanchenjungha, brilliantly scripted by Ray, highlighted the long-term damages that nature was about to suffer. The world was at the height of the Cold War with the US and the then Soviet Union flexing muscles and trying to outsmart each other by carrying out these nuclear experiments. Kanchenjunga was probably the first Indian film that raised questions in the audience’s mind about the futility of these tests and Pahari Sanyal breathed life into the role of a character, who follows birds with almost childlike enthusiasm, and return with a career-defining performance.