Mahapurush (The Holy Man)
Love triangles are difficult to navigate even at the best of times but imagine if the competition for your heart’s desire was a priest who had his hooks into your lover’s father and had convinced her to take a vow of the initiation which would render her unattainable. Add into the mix the Holy Man who, in the words of one of the protagonists has “a vast knowledge, is steeped in history of several lands, has a fantastic memory, is a great talker, understands mass psychology, can convince people about almost everything, is a terrific actor” and you will find yourself in a very difficult situation indeed.
Such is the position that young Satyaranjan, a Calcutta lovebird finds himself in. Buchki, the object of his affections has, alongside most of the neighbourhood, fallen under the spell of a charismatic holy man who not only points the growing throng toward enlightenment but also regales them with stories of his meetings with the likes of Kashi, Albert Einstein, Jesus and the Bhuddha.
Help is at hand however in the form of a group of neighbourhood intellectuals who ruminate on Satyaranjan’s travails over games of chess and homegrown scientific experiments. They see his problem as worthy of their superior wit and embark on a plan to unmask this fake fakir and win back Buchki’s love.
As so often with Satyajit Ray‘s work this is a pitch perfect take on Bengali society. The story begins with the titular holy man as the main focus. We first see him aboard a departing train, throwing prasad to a multitude of followers then retiring to a carriage (first class of course) where he makes the aquaintance of a rich man returning from the holy city of Varanasi, still overcome by a spiritual emptiness. A few moments of mumbo jumbo from the holy man and a cleverly timed trick commanding the Sun to rise (“If I don’t do this every morning” he tells his awed companion, “the Sun would not come up.”) and the man is putty in his hands.
From that moment on, when the priest returns with the rich man and takes up a post in his mansion, Ray is back on familiar territory. His focus turns to the ins and outs of bourgeois Calcutta society with each of the rich man’s friend trying to outdo each other with their proclamations of piety (though often just barely disguised calls to get rich quick), while his servants trying to gouge a 10% cut from their gullible masters.
The holy man himself is, of course, a charlatan but we can forgive him because he oozes charm and is at least an expert performer, putting on nightly shows that culminate in his passing out and dramatic appearances of Hanuman and other Gods of the Hindu pantheon. Moreover his crimes are victimless and at least his followers are made to feel better about themselves.
This is one of the lightest of Ray’s works and at a slim 65 minutes also one of his shortest, but it still manages to be tender, clever and very entertaining.
The Holy Man aka Mahapurush – directed by Satyarjit Ray (1965)
A Hindu Holy Man embeds himself in the house of a rich client, presenting problems for a neighbourhood boy in love with the man’s daughter.