Dir. by Satyajit Ray - 1 hr. 5 min.
Full Movie (no subtitles)
by Clayton Hollifield
My ignorance of Indian cinema is nearly entire. I've seen spoofs of Bollywood dance numbers, and whatever is playing on the TV of my local Indian buffet while I'm happily munching on samosas. It's not that I'm anti-Indian cinema, but I just don't even know where to start. I've heard of "The Holy Man" director Satyajit Ray only because some of his songs were included on the soundtrack to "The Darjeeling Limited." Still, that fact, combined with the short run time, and this film's availability on Hulu's Criterion Collection films seems as good as any place to start.
Birinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh) is a round-faced guru who throws cookies into crowds and lets people touch his feet for good luck. He, and his dim-witted assistant (Robi Ghosh) are travelling via train, and their cabin-mate, Gurupada Mitter (Prasad Mukherjee) begs for help, as the death of his wife has left him distraught. The Baba basically installs himself in Gurupada's house, orating to ever-larger audiences, who are wooed by his tales of interacting with everyone from Jesus to Einstein. A few of the locals see through Baba's act, and plot to drive him out of the town before he ruins his host financially.
One of the things that I found fascinating about "The Holy Man" is that it wasn't off-putting at all. Again, in all of my ignorance, I kept half-expecting a song-and-dance number to break out, but "The Holy Man" was more in line with some of Akira Kurosawa's lower-key work (like parts of "High and Low"), or something like Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing." The visuals weren't fanciful (other than being a glimpse into a completely different culture, which was fun), but "The Holy Man" was approached in a matter-of-fact, low-key manner, which felt very familiar to me (I consider that a positive). The plot was very relatable, as well; it's easy to understand how desperate, troubled people might fall for what appears to be the answer to their prayers, and the notion of using religion as a cloak for criminal ulterior motives is universal.
There were a lot of things that I liked about "The Holy Man." First, the technical aspects were all handled well, and the film is in great shape. I've seen enough foreign films to know that sometimes you have to trade technical smoothness to get at something different; no trade-off was required here. It looks like a film made in the '60s, not a low-budget indie film that was strung together. Secondly, the acting was good all the way around, and Charuprakash Ghosh was really good as a charismatic holy con-man. He has a unique, expressive face, and a sense of flamboyance that befits someone putting on a show for the locals. The cast, on the whole, were enjoyable (and represented an array of general types of people - it's not like a Hollywood film, where everyone can appear to have arrived on-set directly from the same gym and same hair-stylists).
"The Holy Man" was a comfortable introduction to Satyajit Ray's work, at the least. I wouldn't hesitate to watch another film by him; perhaps a little research will yield what is considered his best handful of films - there's no point in dancing around the periphery of someone's creative output until you know whether or not you really dig the work. The plot was tight, and the short run-time made this really easy to get through (I will sometimes hedge my bets with unknown material and choose whatever's shortest, just in case I really don't like it). I don't know where this films falls in Ray's work, but you could do a lot worse than to spend roughly an hour taking in "The Holy Man."
3.5 / 5 - Streaming