“Based on a short story” isn’t usually a good sign for a movie – it usually means there isn’t much character development, and an unsatisfying ending – and The Holy Man suffers from both. That’s not to say we don’t have some fun along the way, and it doesn’t mean the whole thing feels like a waste of time: more that it’d be nice if director Satyajit Ray gave us something to really chew on.
The star of the show here is Charuprakash Ghosh, giving a bombastic performance as the centuries-old Birinchi Baba. The mystic, whom Gurupada Mitter (Prasad Mukherjee) meets on a train accompanied by his daughter Buchki (Gitali Roy), impresses him and he promptly gets the Baba set up in his hometown, to become his disciple. He soon gathers followers, including Buckhi, who pledges herself as a chaste servant of the Baba and his ways.
She’s doing this to take (admittedly drastic) revenge on her boyfriend Satya (Satindra Bhattacharya). When he discovers what she’s done, he gathers a few friends together and they set about debunking Birinchi Baba.
It’s farcical, but it has interesting things to say about the nature of faith, and how a community can be taken in by a con man. When Birinchi Baba says that he taught Einstein E=MC2, giving him the keys to the theory of relativity, the crowd takes it in – the same way that religious believers, when confronted with science, can claim that science would not exist without the will of some deity.
The problem is that things seem to just happen – how Baba is revealed as a fraud just comes and goes. The relationship between Satya and Buckhi is never really elaborated, or even shown. It just is. A bit more story would have been fantastic – as fun as the scenes are between Satya and his friends, scheming against the baba; or the baba and his closest assistant thinking about the con they’re running and how they’ll spend their earnings; it doesn’t really add to the story. Not that those things should have been taken out, not at all – the film runs at 65 minutes, couldn’t a little more character development have found its way in?
The film is fun, but lightweight and slightly forgettable. Some of the Ray magic is there, but it’s gone again much too quickly. Fun while it lasts.