Ajantrik (1958, Ritwik Ghatak)

Bengali movie with a couple of red herrings. Starts out following a man and his idiot nephew on their way to the nephew’s wedding. They hopped the wrong train and have to take a taxi – the worst, forty-year-old beat-up jalopy, full of holes and loose parts, which manages to get them to their destination safely. But instead of following them to the wedding, the movie stays with the cab driver, the real protagonist. His car is the laughing stock of town, and the movie laughs with them, adding kooky sound effects, having the car respond and telegraph its mood via headlights-as-eyes facial expressions when the owner speaks to it. The comic trappings are another red herring – the movie is a realist social drama in a comedy’s clothing, about the cab driver’s attachment to the car, his financial and emotional struggle to keep it running in spite of its obvious imminent collapse. And I’m so glad it wasn’t the story of the uncle and nephew going to their wedding – looked like The Hidden Fortress all over again.

Not the stars of the film:

The stars of the film (man and car):

Taxi driver is called Bimal, and he calls his car Jagaddal (I can’t figure out the meaning of that name or the film’s title). A boy named Sultan is his friend/assistant/hanger-on, who helps get him fares. The only recurring fare is a young woman who runs off with her boyfriend, then gets a ride some days (months?) later to the train station, alone and ashamed. Bimal judges her, but makes up by buying her train ticket.

I fell asleep in the middle, continued the next night. But first I watched an episode of The Story of Film which gave away the ending – thanks a lot. The only time I’ve ever seen Ajantrik mentioned anywhere, and it’s right in the middle of my watching it. It’s a good ending – the car (which was Bimal’s best friend, making him a local laughing stock) finally gives up the ghost, sold for scrap metal, but Bimal smiles again seeing a child playing with the horn.

This came out the year after Aparajito and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, all part of the Indian New Wave or “parallel cinema” movement. Wikipedia claims it influenced Ray’s Abhijan (and therefore Taxi Driver) but also the Herbie series, a mixed distinction.

This Just In: an old issue of Film Quarterly gives the English title as Non-Machine.