This is Satyajit Ray's second film in colour, and the Grand Prize winner at the Berlin Festival. The film is set in 1942, and its subject is the impact of war on an isolated Bengali village.
The Brahmin husband, Ganga. who has assumed leadership in the village, is respected by all as the priest, the doctor and the teacher in the school he himself set up. His wife Ananga, still childless, is friendly with the peasant women, and life for them both is pleasant enough.
One day an old Brahmin tells Ganga of a sudden rise in the price of rice in several neighbouring villages. Soon it becomes apparent that, despite a good harvest, the land is gripped by famine. As the price of rice shoots up, the whole aspect of life in the village changes. Peasants sell off their stocks and then face starvation; rice shops are looted; Ganga is reduced to selling his services to obtain enough food to survive. His wife is forced to dig for wild potatoes and finally to sell her favours to buy food for a starving friend.
At the height of the famine. Moti, an untouchable woman, comes to Ananga to beg for rice, and dies on her doorstep. Ganga has to decide whether to defy tradition in the face of drastic change, and burn the body.
The old traditions and strict forms of the caste system break down as the film moves through each understated crisis. As the social groups split apart. Ray shows his characters to be the victims of international forces beyond their comprehension or control.
'. . . marks a new departure in the style of the great Bengali filmmaker. The style here is epic and the delicately nuanced study of private relationships of earlier films here gives place to the grand gesture, stylized forms, a more externalized view of the personages.'
David Robinson, The Times
Golden Bear, Berlin