Kanchenjungha, the third highest mountain in the world, is the highest mountain in India. It’s a fitting analogy for the heights the characters strive for in Satyajit Ray’s 1962 film of the same name. They labor to understand their relationships and the power of personal choice. “Kanchenjungha” tells the story of a family’s visit to the hill station of Darjeeling, India, where the mountain rises high above the misty hills. The Bengali language film stars Chhabi Biswas as Indranath Choudhuri, the patriarch of a wealthy family that balances between tradition and modernism. Besides going to Darjeeling for holiday, Indranath wants to give consent to a marriage for his daughter Monisha (Aleknanda Roy), who is scheduled to meet her proposed fiance for the first time during their stay.
The story unfolds as various members of the family walk around the hills of Darjeeling. Monisha hears advice from her brother-in-law, that she should follow her own desires. It becomes obvious that Monisha doesn’t feel a strong attraction to her suitor, and when they begin their awkward walk along the path, she welcomes interruptions from a bird watching uncle and a young idealistic student who’s meant to represent the strength and naivety of modern India. Monisha and the student, Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee), develop a bond, and his presence forces her to think seriously about her position and her happiness. Ashoke’s shows his independence when he turns down a position offered by Indranath, who feels insulted and bewildered by the young man’s refusal. In Indranath’s mind, young men should not be foolish enough to turn down once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Satyajit Ray’s first color film offers excellent visuals of Darjeeling, and effectively shows both the mountain’s grandeur and the spooky mists that cling to the hills. The mists become a metaphor for a India. Those that can see the future more clearly through the misty present know that the younger generation desires opportunities based on personal choice. In this rather talky movie, the familial tensions juxtapose the traditional and famous venue of Darjeeling. It’s a jarring effect enhanced by the film’s color photography. A true debate ensues regarding duty to parents, personal choice and freedom (expressed by Ashoke) to explore the future unbridled by traditional mores.
Indranath, old enough to see it all yet willing to conjure new beliefs, openly gives credit to advances brought about by the British colonization. Yet, his own successful choices in life rely heavily on tradition and the strength of the family. One gets the feeling that the old patriarch will see even more rapid changes in his lifetime. He learns in this film that things do not always go as planned.