Agantuk – A Strange New Idea

Yes. That’s not what Agantuk means. I know. It means ‘the stranger’ in Bengali.

It’s also the name of the last movie made by legendary director Satyajit Ray, who supposedly said after making it “I have nothing more to say“. The movie Agantuk was on Cahiers du Cinema’s top 10 list in 1991.

More about why I am reframing it later in the post.

Recommended by my colleague Aniket Sanyal, I watched and enjoyed Agantuk with our entire family recently. That is probably a greater complement that the Honorary Academy award Ray got in 1992 Oscars.

Because it included my 11 year old who hates anything slow, seems like “a black and white movie” and may have a hint of meaning to it. My father who is competing with my 11 year old in ensuring every minute is spent in enjoying life. My mother who watched it all afternoon – who sacrifices her siesta for nothing and no one. My 15 year old son who doesn’t enjoy anything that doesn’t go back / forth in time and doesn’t have multiple narratives twisting into each other – leaving only Nolan and Tarantino movies in contention. My romantic mystery writer wife who holds a philosophy that “real life is boring. who needs movies and books to be real?” And ‘Milo da Kat’. He slept quietly wagging his tail at regular intervals.

Agantuk is a delightful experience. Even if you don’t read rest of this blog, do watch the movie. It’s available on YouTube, with (auto generated) subtitles in English. In fact, the blog will make little sense if you read it without watching the movie. (And may still not make much sense even after you watch it !!) Also, I used spoilers generously.

With the simplicity that comes with complete command of his medium, Ray begins his story with a letter. The recipient, Anila (Mamata Shankar), is a typical middle-class housewife living with her husband, Sudhindra (Deepankar De), and son in Calcutta; the letter writer is an uncle who left India 35 years ago, following his wanderlust to the far corners of the globe. Or at least that’s who he claims to be.

Anila hasn’t actually seen her uncle since she was a baby, a fact that the uncle makes note of. Nevertheless, he calls on the family’s sense of “traditional Indian hospitality” and asks to be taken in until he takes up his travels once more

The uncle has been welcomed without hesitation into the homes and villages of native people around the world. By the time he arrives at his niece’s house, however, the family is already deeply suspicious. Though he seems to be exactly who he says he is, they are obsessed with verifying their guest’s true indentity—as if in doing so they might guarantee that their hospitality isn’t bestowed under false pretenses.

In the process, the uncle (played with sagacious charm by Utpal Dutt) turns out to be a wise and worldly man whose experiences call many of the family’s bourgeois assumptions into question.

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1995

I could cherish the movie just for Utpal Dutt – the pioneering figure of modern India cinema, great actor from Bengal and a father figure of theatre in India – who plays Monmoham Mitra. Utpal DA (as Bengalis lovingly call him) plays the protagonist as if he was possessed by Ray’s thoughts on inherent contradictions in ‘the concept of civilization and pursuit of progress in the modern world‘.

Watching the movie made me think of a parallel concept. Innovation. Disruptive Innovation.

About how people and organizations (applies to any institution including societies, families, schools and religious mechanisms) react to new ideas. To strange new ideas. We see debates all around when any new idea is brought in front of our established norms.

Here are some reactions to strange new ideas, from some very smart people.

The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad

President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, 1903

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers

Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Manmohan Mitra symbolizes a strange new idea. It first shocks your sensibilities.

Can you engage with strange new ideas without a visceral reaction?

Strange new ideas sound like magic. Hard to see the causal linkages.

They feel other worldly, given they may arise from experiences alien to your world (read industries, cultures, companies, generations) and contradict assumptions you take for granted.

Can you keep an open mind, even if it doesn’t add up?

Data can’t prove or disprove strange new ideas. As it’s too early to tell.

In fact, sociology has proven that when new data collides with old beliefs, belief trumps facts.

Can you engage without complete data or unambiguous proof, for a while?

Agantuk (Satyajit Ray, Bengali, 1992)
Some mock or try and shame the strange new idea
Agantuk ( Satyajit Ray) | Movie quotes, Satyajit ray, Books
A few go along, without real belief or commitment
This Scene From A Satyajit Ray Film Makes Perfect Sense Of Everything From  Religion To Humanity
Others use ‘logical’ arguments to destroy the idea

Not surprisingly, it is the children that are often open to whatever new ideas may bring.

What will it take to retain such a child like curiosity, even while you grow?

How do we protect our children from formal education taking such curiosity away?

The strange new idea may be your biggest gift. If only you are ready to receive it, with an open mind

Can you recount the gifts you rejected in your life, because they looked strange?

The point is not that every new strange idea needs to be adopted or admired. That can be very exhausting and distracting as well.

But, what will it take to inculcate a mindset of being open to the Agantuk – The Stanger New Idea at all times?

Published by SridharTuraga

A dad. A partner. A son. A problem solver. A learner. A teacher.

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