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The unique and universal in Satyajit Ray’s filmmaking

By Ramray Bhat

12 November 2013

Are Satyajit Ray’s films still relevant today?

Satyajit Ray
Photo credit: Silent Journo

The renowned lyricist and Hindi screen-playwright Javed Akhtar, when delivering the first Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture in 2009, explicated two reasons why he felt Ray’s films are still relevant today: firstly, his strong emphasis on the dignity of reel characters; secondly, his understated style. These comments stayed with me for a long time after I had watched a recording of Akhtar’s lecture. I could not bring myself to agree with him, and the more I thought about it, the stronger my disagreement grew.

In order to be fair to the argument, it is imperative to introduce the rationale that Akhtar presented. “When I think of [Ray], when I think of his films, certain words come to my mind. That is how I describe his work, his art to myself. The word is dignity, the word is understatement, compassion” said Akhtar. He used the example of Ray’s masterpiece Pather Panchali (A Song of the Little Road, 1955), a scene in which the child protagonist Apu throws a necklace into a pond. His late sister Durga had stolen this necklace from their neighbours. Apu, through this act, attempts to salvage some dignity for Durga. Akhtar’s other example was from Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975). Kauna takes the pseudonym Juthika as part of her sex-worker identity and insists on getting paid for her services (upon being hired inadvertently by her brother’s friend, the protagonist), thereby keeping her dignity intact in a rapacious patriarchal Kolkata.

Akhtar opines that this dignity is missing in the characters of today’s films. Since films, commercial or parallel, are essentially mirror images of the society in which they are made, this dignity is by extrapolation missing in today’s society. Why is that so? He points out at least two reasons.

The first is a blind emulation by a several thousand year-old Southasian civilisation of the relatively younger society of the United States, “a country that may have everything but obviously does not have history or tradition”. Given a normal propensity to deny the importance of what one lacks, US society has developed “a casual attitude, an aggressive attitude” which, in turn, is mimicked by Southasian communities.

The second reason Akhtar gives is the idiosyncratic coexistence in our subcontinent of vernacular and English-medium schools. The former produces students in touch with their roots, but diffident and awkward due to their lack of fluency in the English language; the latter churns out women and men who are outgoing and have some type of worldview, but who are oblivious to their traditions and heritage. Therefore “we are either producing roots, or branches, we are not producing complete trees”. This inadequacy leads to anger, frustration and loss of self-dignity.

The unimportance of being dignified 
Terming the reel characters of Ray’s films and the philosophy of life that underlies them as ‘dignified’ is not an uncommon, but requires critical appraisal.

Let us examine the first point on which the rationale is based: that films mirror the state of society as it is. This is at best an assumption that every film-maker, or for that matter every artist, has to make before creating their work. If the artist seeks merely to entertain, then yes, they will only create something that the audience will be comfortable with, and will react and relate to in a visceral fashion. But there is nothing remarkable about this ability.

Art however, goes much further than that – it mirrors, but it also asks questions of society. It makes people uncomfortable, it seeks to spawn curiosity, dissent, argument, and ultimately it yearns to transform. Ray once said that films can’t change society. However, in the same interview, he admitted to working within an environment that consisted of “backward…stupid…trashy” peers, and identified an audience that was “used to dross”. It was this crowd he was constantly trying to take along slowly by packing his films “with meaning and psychological inflections and shades” so as to “communicate a lot of things to many people”. In that sense he was attempting, albeit with a lyrical pace, to transform his viewers and their society, to make them think, and if nothing else, question why they should be subjected to dross from other quarters.

Neither of the reasons cited for a depleted ‘collective dignity’ are exclusive products of today’s times: vernacular-medium and English-medium schools and the respective mindsets associated with them existed even in Ray’s era. What’s worse, the argument makes it seem as if third world countries are actively gobbling up the pop culture of an at best, innocent, and at worst, patronising first world. This mindset ignores the fact that the US in particular has, since the beginning of the last century, relentlessly pursued a policy of cultural hegemony that seeks to ram its symbols, icons, values, memes and mores down the throats of poorer nations. It is therefore a tautological gaffe to prescribe a curricular amalgamation of the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’: a neocolonial first world’s advertised idea-system of ‘modern’ parasitises upon, and ultimately nullifies, the ‘traditional’. As screenwriter and director Saeed Akhtar Mirza has said: “The West owes a lot to many other civilisations…It has denied what we brought to modernity and coopted the word ‘modern’ to rule the world. The rest of the world is genuflecting to this idea.”

Ray’s films presage this untrammeled march of Western ideas of modernity and its attached value systems. Not only was he aware of it, he proactively constructed some of his filmic personae as macabre chimeras of the traditional and modern. A prime example is the vainglorious patriarch Indranath Roy from Kanchenjungha (1962). The ex-Rai bahadur talks and dresses in a modern fashion and commodifies animals and humans without a thought. In a traditional way he also expects reverence from anybody junior to him in age and station, and forcefully arranges marriages for his children. His imperiousness is the source of his dignity but is it to be appreciated? Ashok the protagonist in Kanchenjungha is much more a product of Akhtar’s “roots”, having attended a Bengali-medium college, and is diffident and even a tad prejudicial.

Ashok turns down Indranath Roy’s job offer, but not without some introspection: he says that had their meeting taken place in Calcutta, he would have taken up the job. However, the mountain atmosphere of Darjeeling has given wings to his dignity and made him courageous. He would not accept charity. Therefore, Satyajit Ray himself settles the fact that dignity is very contextual and very transient; what’s more, it has nothing to do with schooling or upbringing.

One cannot help noticing that more than the dignity of characters, it is the indignity of circumstances that threads through many of Ray’s movies, and is in some sense symptomatic of an insecure society of hierarchies and feudal traditions being dragged foot-first into modern times. Ray himself exemplifies the depiction of indignity in his magnum opus by saying: “I think that Pather Panchali is fairly ruthless in its depiction of poverty. The behavior of characters, the way that the mother behaves towards the old woman, is absolutely cruel. I don’t think anyone has shown such cruelty to old people within a family.”

Indir Thakrun, the family, the rural countryside are all weighed down by what Mrinal Sen has referred to in his films as “poverty – the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people” (emphasis added). That the characters in Pather Panchali find reasons to smile, laugh and grin does not dispel this indignity in any way. Durga dies of pneumonia. A young, bubbly, mischievous little girl who makes her mother’s life hell, who endears herself to Indir Thakrun, who is protective of her young brother, dies for lack of medicine and money. Can there be anything more undignified than this?

It is vital to understand, however, that this indignity is not the opposite of what is referred to above as dignity: the latter describes the character; the former qualifies the circumstances the characters find themselves in. One would actually be hard-pressed to identify a single character in a serious movie, past or present, who can uniformly be judged as undignified or dignified. As a character trait, dignity is not only overrated but an irrelevant and elitist obsession of a postcolonial bourgeoisie. Circumstantial indignity on the other hand is omnipresent, palpable and humiliating, not just to those who suffer it but those that stand by, trying their best to look away.

Satyajit Ray understood only too well that the difference between the formal structure of the cinematic and literary media meant that in two to three hours of reel time, one can only sculpt characters so much, unless one worked within an epic framework, which Ray almost never did (with the exception of the Apu trilogy). Instead, he constructed the circumstances surrounding his characters with exquisite care. Ray’s characters could rarely extricate themselves out of these situations. Except for the films Ray made for children, and his two comedies, Mahapurush (The Holy Man, 1965) and Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), the situations would be one of indignity and cruelty, with the characters being sufferers or witnesses. In each of the Calcutta trilogy films, Ray shows his city disemboweled under the onslaught of the antagonistic forces of corporate capitalism and militant leftism. Siddhartha’s siblings in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) represent these two opposite poles, and Siddhartha is caught in between. Kona and Somnath in Jana Aranya strike up a collaboration that anguishes them psychologically, but ‘the system’ does not leave them with any choice. In Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People, 1989), a well-known clinician Dr Ashoke Gupta is humiliated and declared public enemy number one for trying to warn the powers that be that the holy water of a temple is contaminated.

The thema of indignity is not restricted to the above-mentioned films: it is starkly apparent in most of Ray’s stories, from Kapurush (The Coward, 1965) to Pratidwandi, and from Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) to Sadgati (The Deliverance, 1981). It was in fact explored fully by the auteur triumvirate of twentieth century Calcutta: Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Sen gives a historical materialist perspective of the debasement of the city’s destitute in Calcutta 71 (1972), where he shows that decade after decade, the same class is plagued by the same problems resulting in the very same pains. Ray’s depictions differed in that he focused more on the effect of the political situation over the psyche of an individual, implicitly allowing the audience to extrapolate it to the class or cohort level. With rare exceptions, he hardly concerned himself with what gave rise to the political situations in the first place.

Understated styles in films
Akhtar’s second reason for the continued relevance of Ray today, one which finds resonance amongst Ray’s fans, is his understatement. Several examples buttress this point, and the one stated by Akhtar is the running of a generator inJalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), which disturbs the zamindar Biswambhar Roy’s enjoyment of music. It is meant to signify the unstoppable and rude penetration of modernity into traditionally personal spaces. The generator is not shown but its effect is unambiguously felt.

Ray was particularly adept at depicting a lot through his mise-en-scène and thus doing away with dialogue. He did this masterfully in Pratidwandi, where Siddhartha, an intelligent youth seeking employment feels suffocated by the madness that surrounds him in 1960s Calcutta. His restless eyes plead for some empathy but he cannot communicate his thoughts with anybody, especially those he loves most: his sister who is determined to work her way up an immanently patriarchal corporate ladder at any cost, and his brother who has lost faith in the system and has become a militant Marxist-Leninist. The arbitrary questions that he is asked in his interviews serve only to accentuate the anarchy that surrounds him. Throughout the film, Siddhartha keeps searching for an elusive bird, whose call stands as a symbol for his childhood when his surroundings were less hostile and he could relate better to his loved ones. In the last scene Siddhartha finally hears the bird’s call: both of them have abandoned an adversarial city, or have actually been abandoned by the city itself. The bird, however, is never shown in the film.

This mode of subtlety is rare in Ray’s later films, however. In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People, 1990), Shakha Prasakha (The Branches of the Tree, 1990) and Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991), there is nothing much left unsaid. It may be for this reason that many consider these films inferior to Ray’s earlier works. There is definitely more verbosity in these later films, making them rather top-heavy, although in Agantuk, the episodic arguments and dialogues are well-presented.

Subtlety can, however, be achieved in many different ways in the filmic medium. One can produce dramatic effect with some nifty editing and detailed mise-en-scène. One can also choose multilayered narratives and work in literary and sociopolitical references. For example, Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar (E-flat, 1961) was a very subtle allegory on the fractures in the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the larger mainstream communist movement in 1960s India. The documentary filmmaker Pramod Pati took symbolism, subtextual narratives and surrealism to uncharted heights with his shorts Claxplosion and Explorer (both 1968). Mrinal Sen flirted with cinematic tempo to astounding effect in Calcutta 71 imperceptibly yanking up the chaos as the film reaches its climax. In Govind Nihalani’s Party (1984), the audience gets to know the protagonist Amrit only through conversations taking place between the guests; Amrit is only seen in the very last minutes, and even then, merely in a dream sequence. Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (The Morning Breeze, 1995), a poetic film, subtly conjoins the fate of the fragile secular fabric of pre-Babri Masjid India with the life of a Muslim poet on his deathbed. As the poet passes away, we are aware (without Mirza’s saying as much) that the country has taken the plunge into a riotous abyss. On a lighter note, understatement might have been taken a bit too seriously by Kumar Shahani, whose Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972), has very little happening for long periods of reel time.

Taken together, these examples show that Indian filmmakers from a diverse set of ideologies and styles all used understatement in their own way. The upshot of the counterargument is that subtlety or understatement of one sort or the other is the hallmark of any and every artist and cannot be held as accentuating the relevance of a given filmmaker.

The relevance of Ray
What, then, sets Satyajit Ray apart from the other legends of Indian cinema, and therefore what makes his oeuvre particularly relevant today? Several factors come to mind but I will elucidate on what I consider the most important: his ability to tell a great story with a very firm grasp on its pace and structure. Even the fiction written by Ray in Bengali, while not possessing literary panache, consists of extraordinary stories. The ease with which he could conceive story plots both in literary and cinematic language was an important factor in his ability to translate terrific literature into film. Ray chose from the crème de la crème of Bengali literature: Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury, Rabindranath Tagore, Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay. For his two Hindi films (Shatranj ke Khiladi and Sadgati) Ray adapted the stories of Munshi Premchand, considered one of the finest writers of modern Hindi literature.

Ray built the skeletal structure of his screenplays with one predominant literary piece; he then built several layers on top of it referencing other literary sources. One sparkling example is Parash Pathar by Rajsekhar Basu (from which Ray’s film of the same name was adapted). Ray adds wit to this charming satire by borrowing the poetry of his father and the humourist litterateur Sukumar Ray. There is a Bengali verse from Sukumar Ray’s play Shabdakalpadruma, transliterated as:

“Holdey sabuj orang-otang
Eint patkel chit patang
Muskil asan uray mali
Dharmatolay Karmakhali”

An English translation that comes close to capturing its humour is by Sukanta Chaudhuri in his Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray:

“A green and gold orang-outang,
Rock and stones that jolt and bang,
A smelly skunk and izzy tizzy,
No admission, very busy.”

Ray did not use this verse as a flippant reference to his lineage; rather it is an important plot point that hurtles the film towards its climax. Ray used another couplet from Sukumar Ray’s novella HaJaBaRaLa to chilling effect in the film Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) displaying yet again his ability to transform literary material into filmic form, evoking emotional reactions that are distinct from those evinced by their written counterpart.

Ritwik Ghatak lauds this talent of Ray’s, especially in the context of the latter’s Pather Panchali: “It is true that this film was also based on a famous novel. But for the first time, the story was narrated in the filmic idiom. The language was sound. Artistic truth was upheld. The fundamental difference between the two art forms was delineated.” Ghatak’s praise is significant given that the novel Pather Panchali is considered one of the finest pieces of modern literature to come out of Bengal. The British poet-come-critic Martin Seymour-Smith has gone on to state, “probably nothing in twentieth-century Indian literature, in prose or poetry, comes to the level of Pather Panchali”, hailing its author Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay as “perhaps the best of all modern Indian novelists”. That Satyajit Ray chose supremely refined literary material as the basis of his screenplay and managed to retell the story exquisitely in a completely new idiom speaks volumes for his filmmaking prowess.

An exception to Ray’s fastidiousness in the adaptation of literary material is Chiriyakhana (The Zoo, 1967), where Ray interchanged the traits and histories of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi and his friend Ajit, making the former a bachelor who cheerfully partakes in libations and the latter a married man. Given its needlessness, one can only infer this distortion to be a product of Ray’s wicked humour, meant to rattle literary purists, as the reception of the film later showed.

An unusual characteristic of Ray’s films was his control over the pace of the proceedings. They would be neither frenetic like Hitchcock, nor episodic, like the films of Ghatak and, in many instances, Shyam Benegal. There were also very few incursions into the abstract, unlike the works of European art house maestros. The pacing came in for criticism from international critics, but it made his films organic: one would find it very difficult to excise any part out of the whole. He commonly employed a loosely-adhered-to three-act structure, with smart and sensitive use of climate, moods and economic turns to signify the major shifts.

His aesthetic sensibilities of cinematic form led him to launch an eloquent but brutal tirade on Mrinal Sen and Ashish Barman, respectively the director and screen-playwright of Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds, 1965), for what he perceived to be jadedness in the topicality of the film, which was otherwise adorned by audacious editing and other devices. The debate was played out in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ column of The Statesman and reveals a side of Ray that cannot be deduced from his films. The point of organicism of plot became a jousting issue between Ray and Sen for several years. In a private letter to a friend, Ray said “None of them [art house filmmakers], even Mrinal [Sen] knows the art of storytelling”. He would find fault with Sen’s “occasional spiky syntax” in Bhuvan Shome (1969) and would be angered by Sen’s tongue-in-cheek statement that even he, the director, did not know what had happened to Chinu, a woman and sole bread earner for a middle-class Bengali family who goes missing for an evening in Ek Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, 1979).

Ray was too clever not to have gotten the point: the film was not about where and why Chinu went missing, but about the fragility of trust and understanding between family members and neighbours in the wake of changing traditions and the daily struggle for existence. Rather, Ray could not tolerate the fact that a fellow filmmaker could be callous about his control over the plot and its characters. Ray’s intolerance towards the attempts of the surrealist duo Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani to experiment with the formalism of filmic narration is documented in his book Our Films, Their Films. Ray is at his sarcastic best in ripping apart Kaul’s Duvidha (1973): “He has not only done away with most of the clichés of narrative cinema, but with most of its axioms too. Surprisingly enough, he has not discarded narrative itself.”

It would be comforting to his admirers to construe his harsh impatience with his contemporaries as more of concern and an attempt at trying to correct the course, for there has not been anyone since Ray with a more masterful control over the process of transforming a screenplay into cinematic form. The Indian art house movement has historically indulged in fecund experimentation with cinematic form and structure. From Pramod Pati, Mani Kaul, and Ritwik Ghatak in the past to Ashoke Viswanathan and Qaushiq Mukherjee more recently, Indian filmmakers have never shied away from subordinating narratives to form. Ray has stood for the opposite: if he experimented with the structure at all, it was only to flesh out the narrative further, something which is epitomised in two films for which he wrote the screenplays himself: Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and Kanchenjungha.
Ray was also remarkable in his ability to cut across genres: he made films for children, was at ease with action and suspense, whodunnit, comedy, period pieces, horror, romance and tragedy, inner city conflicts and neorealist tales. Such diversity of genres is rare and puts Ray in a very small but exalted bracket of filmmakers – one can think of Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick abroad, and Tapan Sinha in India. In this way Ray was able to reach people across generations, aesthetic tastes and interests. The ability to transition between genres equipped him with a sense of unpredictability. In gaining this space, he could not maintain long temporal relationships with the subjects that he tackled in his films. Thus it is difficult to identify any overarching worldview or theme in his body of work. In this respect, he was very different from Ghatak, for instance, who is forever remembered for his obsession with the geopolitical, social and psychological consequences of the partition of Bengal, or Yasujirō Ozu for his ability to persistently focus on intergenerational discomfort and the frictional relationship between tradition and modernity in Japanese society. This may also be the reason why Ray has repeatedly been accused of being apolitical. His penchant for keeping the story privileged over the filmic structure and style made his films more contextual and less propagandic, especially in comparison to some of his peers.
The contribution by Satyajit Ray to the canon of post-independence Indian cinema is indelible and unmatched. It is, however, the job of the audience to try and uncover what is still relevant in his work, what can be enjoyed, empathised with, and emulated. Subjective veneration, coupled with a forced search for metanarratives, amounts to doing disservice to the filmmaker’s achievements. There is no single ideology or ideation that can be associated with Ray and which we have to shoehorn into his films and then hold up to the world. It is therefore more correct to understand Ray as, first and foremost, a storyteller par excellence with the ability to regale, and reach out to people separated by age, culture, nationality and education. In the conspicuous rarity of such abilities among the artists of today, he remains sorely missed.
~ Ramray Bhat is a biologist at the Berkeley Lab, California, with interests in politics, film and culture.
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