1 September 2016
A peek into legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s life and works.
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (The Song of The Little Road, 1955), was the turning point in Indian cinema. Before it, songs and villains were the two staples of Hindi commercial films of Bombay, and those in the other regional languages. If the lead characters known as the hero and the heroin felt happy, sad, perplexed or just foot-loose they burst into song. This courtesy was sometimes extended to other supporting players, usually to comment on the action of the plot. Then of course, there was the story, if it could at all be called that, hinged as it was on the principle of blame. The characters were puppets in the hands of fate and its agents usually other members of the immediate or extended family or their own social group or quite another. The narrative was usually inspired by elements from two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In short, Indian cinema before the advent of Ray was folk-theatre in film that drew sustenance from myth, legend and religion.
There had hardly been a more auspicious film debut anywhere since Orson Welles’s epoch-making first film Citizen Kane in 1941, which did him more harm than good — a masterpiece at 26 and a life in exile since 1950, resulting from specious charges of extravagance and intransigence made by Hollywood. But Ray’s career graph was the exact opposite: growing appreciation and fame, a reputation for always completing a project well within a frugal budget, consistently making a reasonable profit for his producers and sometimes even more as in the case of eight of his films. Even the versatile and gifted Francois Truffaut of the French New-Wave who made as effective a first feature film as Four Hundred Blows (Les Quatre cents Coups) in 1959 as did his iconoclast colleague Jean Luc Goddard a year earlier with Breathless (A boute de soufflé), could hardly have matched the sheer maturity of Pather Panchali.
The debut film was adapted from Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopahyaya’s poetic saga of Bengali rural life in the early 1900s. The sprawling novel was pruned by the fledgling script writer, its essence retained with unusual skill. Ray had written a couple of feature film scripts earlier including the very ‘Hollywoodish’ – his own word – adaptation of Tagore’s Home and the World or Ghare-Baire which he was to direct late in his career. There were no songs in Pather Panchali or, for that matter, villains. Life with its ebbs and flows and its enduring majesty was the real hero on screen. The tragedies and the lighter moments in the lives of the members of an impoverished Brahmin family had a truthfulness rarely seen in cinema. Time and its passage, a cardinal principle of the medium, were captured with unusual fidelity. The film’s Wordsworthian tone, however unintentional, struck a chord in the hearts of Western audiences particularly in England and America. At home, too, it was a success with audiences in Calcutta even before it was awarded the prize for ‘The Best Human Document’ at the 1956 Cannes film festival. A young master had sprung full-grown from the head of Jove.
Panegyrics aside, it is necessary to point out that no other director had made a film of such quality without an actual apprenticeship in the craft of cinema. Ingmar Bergman had to direct 17 films before he made the excellent comedy Smiles of a Summer Night in 1956. Similarly Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, de Sica, Ford, Renoir, Hawks, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Ophuls, Lang, Kurosawa, Ozu, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Bresson and Resnais all had to graduate via lesser works to a truly ambitious one. Even Goddard, Truffaut and Rohmer had made shorts before they did longer fiction films. Ray was the only one who had never directed a film of any kind before.
As a boy and then later he had been a good still photographer. Along with Hari S Dasgupta, the America-returned pupil of the great Jean Renoir and another friend, Chidananda Dasgupta, Ray helped found the Calcutta Film Society in 1948. They screened foreign, mainly Russian classics. This experience supplemented the avid film-watching usually of Hollywood fare in the earlier years. Then on a 1949 trip to London at the behest of his employers DJ Keymer, a prominent English advertising agency based in India, he saw 99 films in three months. Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves made a deep impression and helped him choose filmmaking as his vocation in life.
Ray had in 1950, been an observer on the sets of the Hindi film Mashaal (The Torch) directed by his famous cousin Nitin Bose in Bombay for matinee idol Ashok Kumar’s production company Filmistan. He wrote in the same year the script for A Perfect Day an unusual ad film directed by Hari S Dasgupta, in which the consumption of a packet of Deluxe Tenor cigarettes is depicted with humour and, in the end, surreal wit. Those were more leisurely times and any product could be promoted on screen over 10 minutes as opposed to today’s 30 seconds. The director had graciously allowed his inexperienced friend to attend the shooting and editing of the film to help him get a feel of the medium. Later in the years of celebrity he wrote for Dasgupta the scripts for two prestigious documentaries: the first a 50 minute Technicolor extravaganza for the Tatas that showed the production of steel at the company’s plant in Jamshedpur and, the second, on the necessity of immunisation sponsored by Sandoz, the famous Swiss pharmaceutical company. These were not really written for money but as gratitude to a friend who had helped him gather first-hand experience of cinema. Earlier, as chief assistant director on Renoir’s The River shot in Barrackpore, near Calcutta, Dasgupta had introduced Satyajit to the great man. Dasgupta achieved eminence as a documentarist and had made a poetic, Flaherty-like reconstruction of a Bengali village bride’s return home for the annual Durga Pooja celebration. The film, Panchthupi, had a seminal influence and indeed was the inspiration for Ray’s Pather Panchali.
The only cinematic exercise the young Satyajit had undergone on his own was a vivid, accurate storyboard in ink and brush for a proposed documentary on the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shanker. His powers of observation were apparent even then, as was his understanding of music. He drew the finger positions on the sitar correctly to suggest the particular kind of note being played in each frame. Ray’s first film marked the beginning of other people’s careers as well. The original choice to do the camera, Nemai Ghosh, a card-carrying communist had had to leave Calcutta for Madras to earn a living after the Communist Party of India had been banned. Subrata Mitra, later to win enormous admiration from fellow professionals, especially abroad, had at 21 never operated a cine camera before. He had been an observer on Renoir’s The River and impressed the unit with his meticulously maintained lighting diary. As a still photographer, he had shown a flair composition. A tyro director had talked a fellow tyro much younger than himself into filming a full-length feature!
Bansi Chandragupta, the art director, had assisted Eugene Lourie on the Renoir film and brought his newly acquired knowledge of set construction and dressing to his first independent assignment, which had to have almost all its sets built on location in a village near Calcutta. The end result was, in retrospect, exceptional. Dulal Dutta, the editor, was the only full-time professional in the team. Ravi Shanker came back after the fine cut to create a haunting background score. The sitar for the famous scene of the sweet seller being followed by Apu, his sister Durga and a dog was actually played by the cameraman Subrata Mitra. Amongst the actors only Kanu Banerjee (Apu and Durga’s Brahmin priest father) Chunibala Devi (Indir Thakur, the aged relative) and Tulsi Chakravarti (Prasanna, the village grocer-cum school teacher) were trained professionals.
Ray’s first venture set him off on a path of continuous artistic and commercial success. His films, modestly budgeted even by Indian standards, always earned money steadily for the producers over a long period of time. Tarun Majumdar, the very competent Bengali commercial filmmaker, always thought of his illustrious senior as the most bankable of Bengali directors. A man who succeeded in the international art house circuit and in the commercial set-up of Bengal, particularly Calcutta. This was possible because of the lucidity of expression in his work that reached a wide variety of people. Subtlety in his case was a help and not a hindrance, contrary to the beliefs of the film distributors of Bombay who sabotaged the run of Shatranj Ke Khilari despite a respectable showing in Delhi and Lucknow: but that was much later, in 1977. The accessibility of his work meant continuous dignified employment and a middle-class existence, relatively free from financial worries.
It was a lonely life with hardly a confidante to share his ideas with. The quick disappearance of the uniquely gifted Ritwik Ghatak (see Himal November 2003) from the film scene was to Satyajit a personal loss. Between 1952 and ’62 Ghatak had directed six films, and four of them namely Ajaantrik, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha were destined to stand the test of time as was his penultimate film Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, made in 1972. Ritwik died of alcoholism and penury four years later. Ray felt his absence continuously and said so in a long interview given in the early Seventies to Calcutta, a fine but short-lived magazine devoted to culture.
Satyajit and Ritwik were the two masters in Indian cinema born out of the nation-building energies inspired by the freedom struggle. Both of them possessed a healthy eclecticism and were clearly benefited by their knowledge of the English language. At the same time each was rooted in the Bengali ethos and became a fine writer of Bengali prose (Ghatak, mainly in his early and late twenties and Ray in middle-age and later). Unlike his friend, Ray wrote exclusively for the teenager.
The mind’s loneliness
Lack of competition can be dangerous for even the most protean of artistes; it can lead to all kinds of complications. In Satyajit’s case, it was irritability and an inability to acknowledge the contribution to the success of his films by gifted collaborators like Subrata Mitra and Bansi Chandragupta. After Mitra left for good in 1966 following Nayak, his very able assistant Soumendu Roy took over. But Ray insisted on operating his own camera, and reduced a fine craftsman like Roy to a ‘lighting man’. He too left after Ghare-Baire (1983-84), unable to take curt orders from Sandip Ray, the director’s son, who he had looked upon as a nephew. Bansi Chandragupta had left much earlier only to return once, when requested by the director for Shatranj Ke Khilari.
Ghare-Baire was made when Ray, a habitual indoors-man and chain smoker, had the first of his three heart attacks. Son Sandip took over a part of the shooting and the entire post-production. Soumendu Roy and editor Dulal Dutta, despite being peremptorily ordered about by Ray Junior, stuck to their task with teeth gritted. But the film was uneven and even boring in places not being totally made by Ray himself. Ashok Bose’s art direction was just about adequate and an unheard-of lapse in detail concerning a tonsured widow in white with tweezed eye-brows, did raise quite a few. Casting Shatilekha Chatterjee, a stolid actress in the pivotal role of Bimala was the only mistake the director made in casting a part during his long career. Apologists of course tried to find hidden gems of wisdom in a competent but dull narration. The one high point in the film was the surprisingly sensitive portrait of Nikhilesh, the reasonable, decent, wronged, loving husband etched by Victor Banerjee.
It was time to accept the fact that the mind was tiring sooner than before, because the body could no longer take the strain of a punishing work schedule Satyajit had maintained without a second thought since his mid-twenties. Apart from writing the script of his films and composing the music, he directed and held the camera. Then there was the additional responsibility of publishing Sandesh since its revival in 1961. The very entertaining and informative children’s magazine had enjoyed immense popularity under the stewardship of his late father, Sukumar Ray, who gave it stature immediately after the Great War of 1914-18 until his untimely death in 1923. Satyajit, 38 years later, roped in friends to write and himself devised games and puzzles for the magazine and tried various stratagems to keep the costs down. Inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective Sherlock Holmes and his indefatigable assistant Dr. Watson, Satyajit created the private investigator Pradosh Mitter, A.K.A. Feluda and his juvenile assistant Topshey to amuse middle and early senior school kids. Every year a who-done-it featuring this duo appeared like clock-work to coincide with the Durga Puja season in autumn. It was inevitable that health and quality would both be eventually affected. Ray was obviously working far too much, perhaps in a vain attempt to ward off loneliness.
There was from early youth a matter-of-fact acceptance of his many gifts, and at the same time a paradoxical shyness and diffidence in acknowledging them. Satyajit learned to draw very well as a student in 1940-41 at Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s pastoral university. He also sang in a fine natural baritone and had an unusual ear for music, which became yet more receptive since his attachment to his cousin Bijoya in his adolescence. He was to marry her in 1949, and she, to be his best friend, most trusted associate and the one person who perhaps knew a little bit more about music than he did. She had been a child prodigy and was expected to be an outstanding exponent of Hindustani music. A curiosity about Western classical music led to a keen interest and then a surprising degree of proficiency, so much so that her barrister father saw in his daughter a future Galle Curci. It was Bijoya who taught the lad Satyajit how to read music. It was her coaxing that made him cut a private disc of an Atul Prasad (one of the finer West Bengal musicians) song.
While at Shantiniketan, Satyajit made the acquaintance of Prof. Alex Aronson, a Jewish academic in exile from Hitler’s Germany. Aronson had a formidable collection of 78 rpm discs of Western classical music. Together they discovered an old, unused piano in bad shape that had once belonged to Tagore. Satyajit tinkered on it and soon became a competent two-finger pianist. In the last years of his career, he was to use a Rowland Synthesizer to compose the music for his films. It was, in his case, both a compromise and a convenience, used as he was to the rounded tones of the acoustic piano. Apart from Bijoya, Adi Gazdar, a practicing medical doctor and a knowledgeable and skilful pianist, also helped Satyajit in his musical studies. Alok Nath De, the fine flautist and arranger in Bengali films, did pass on valuable tips on orchestration, tonal characteristics of various instruments and about vocal colours.
Ray could apply everything he had learned to the music in his own productions. After a spirited first collaboration with Ravi Shanker in Pather Panchali, he found it increasingly difficult to work with him. One time associations with Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar, both famous instrumentalists in the Hindustani style, did not prove fruitful as they were unable to compose music to suit the limited time frame of a given scene. Ray’s background score for Kanchenjungha (1962) was evocative. The film was an exceptionally successful experiment in using real time as screen time to give glimpses into the lives of various members of an upper-class Bengali family on vacation, spending an afternoon in picturesque Darjeeling. The music had to reflect the thoughts and desires of the characters and tacitly comment on them occasionally. The composer’s efforts were commensurate with his ambitions.
The high point of his career were the songs in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (the adventures of Goopi and Bagha, 1968). The sparkling musical fantasy for children based on a story by Satyajit’s grandfather Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury, had catchy tunes with words to match. Every song was a hit and the album a best seller. This was not the first time he had tasted success. Four years earlier, his music for Merchant Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah became very popular and the LP sold 500,000 copies. He grasped the intricacies of composing quickly and by the time he came to do the music for ‘Satyajit Ray Presents’, a TV serial based on his stories directed by his son Sandip, he was in full command of his abilities. The haunting signature tune to the initial thirteen episodes summed up the key theme linking all the stories – that life is full of surprises and uncertainties.
An active desire to appreciate other kinds of artistic activity than his own also helped him have a generous world-view akin to Chekhov’s. Like the Russian master, Ray was also a moralist with a strong sense of right and wrong. This awareness also informed his cinema. His Brahmo Samaj background and widowed mother Suprava Ray’s loving but watchful upbringing in his formative years instilled in him a sense of independence. Satyajit realised early the necessity of earning an honest living and enjoying it.
There was also a keen sense of the absurd in him. He laughed uproariously when he found that a certain viewer had caught his joke in the final shot of the Monihara episode in Teen Kanya (Three Daughters/ Two Daughters, 1961). The seedy looking narrator walks away after telling his story of a neurotic woman obsessed with jewellery who comes back as a spirit to drive her husband mad; the camera gently tilts down to his ganja chillum at the end of the scene, suggesting that the whole thing was the figment of the poor fellow’s imagination.
Satyajit could sincerely appreciate a film even if it differed completely from his own style. Coming down the staircase of Archana cinema in 1977 after a screening of Andrei Tarkovski’s immortal Andrei Rublev during the International Film Festival in New Delhi, he expressed his innermost feelings simply by saying “I wish I had made this film”. Tarkovski’s hymn to the human spirit had by some quirk of fate been funded by the rigid commissars of the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Ray’s own attitude towards communism, especially its Indian version, was at best ambivalent. In artistic matters he felt differently. Constantine Stanislavski, the aristocratic pioneer of poetic realism in early 20th century Russian Theatre was someone he admired. Sergei Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece BattleshipPotenkin and his final film in 1946-48, the two-part Ivan the Terrible, the last one in colour, made a deep impression.
The director had genuine admiration for many of the members of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), the cultural wing of the undivided Communist Party of India. The organisation had come into being following the Bengal Famine of 1943 that killed five million people. It made farmers and industrial workers aware of their rights as citizens and at the same time made a dent in the consciousness of certain sections amongst the educated middle-class. Satyajit was impressed by the rousing vocals of the IPTA song squads, the pictures of Sunil Janah, the Party photographer and the linocuts, drawings and paintings of Chittoprasad which passionately championed the cause of the have-nots. At the same time, he understood that the CPI, despite its best intentions, was completely incapable of ever taking charge of the Indian state.
Satyajit’s own predilections were broadly liberal and certainly humanist. His films like his beliefs were both true because they were beautiful and beautiful because they were true, thus bringing together Tagore and Gandhi without intending to consciously. This interplay of truth and beauty gave his best work an organic wholeness. To those who pursue extreme ideologies like rampant, violent capitalism or draconian communism, such clear, innocent faith and the promise of renewal might even seem embarrassing.
Starry-eyed lyricism was never a part of Satyajit’s vision, as suggested by many a stilted critic of the times. There was from the beginning, alongside the idealism, deep knowledge about human nature and conduct in which kindness, cruelty, expediency and sacrifice overlap at certain moments. In Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), for instance, Apu after having lost sister Durga and father Hari to the grim reaper leaves his widowed mother Sarbajaya behind in their village home on his matriculation, to study in Calcutta after receiving a scholarship. What would be considered as ‘taking wing’ in the West, even now, in many quarters in India is seen as a grave dereliction of duty. However, Ray invests this moment in the film with an air of inevitability, rather than as a fall from grace.
Apu’s destiny will take him away to a future full of discovery, uncertainty, even grief, where restlessness will hold sway over moments of respite and happiness shall come as if by accident. He marries Aparna, his teenage bride fortuitously, having gone to attend her wedding in a village at the invitation of his friend who happens to be her cousin. Just before the ceremony, it is discovered that the prospective groom is mad. Apu steps in gallantly to the rescue. The marriage is a quiet delight but ends abruptly as Aparna dies in childbirth leaving behind their baby son, Kajol. Having been robbed of his happiness by this sudden twist of fate, Apu loses his sense of logic and refuses to see the baby, born in the home of his maternal grandparents.
Wanderlust takes over and Apu travels to distant places carrying his sorrow and restlessness within him for the next five years. Wisdom ultimately prevails to restore balance. Apu is reconciled with his kindergarten-age son. Father and child become friends after some hesitation, and embark on a journey of discovery. Life has extracted a heavy price before parting with one of its simplest truths—that loving and sharing is the key to happiness and contentment. By equating a human being’s life with the four seasons, Ray brought to the early films a folk wisdom that has withstood the onslaught of the trends of critical analysis bent upon ‘demystifying’ every phenomena of existence including the most difficult and complex of all, that of the relations between human beings.
Freudian anguish first made its appearance in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) to startle the director’s admirers. His technique too had changed to accommodate his subject matter. The protagonist Siddhartha, caught in the process of trying to get a job to keep up appearances in an orphaned middle-class family with depleted resources, has to sacrifice his ego and his left-wing ideals. His process of growing up involves loosing all his illusions including his love for Keya, a girl from the Westernised upper-middle class that is deeply attached to social climbing and the benefits it brings. Ray used black and white negative images and abrupt jump cuts along with discordant sound to portray the alienation of the wounded Siddhartha.
In a pivotal scene, he is asked in an interview for a job what he considers to be the most significant event of the times.
“The war in Vietnam, Sir”, replies Siddhartha to the surprise of the member of the selection committee.
“Even more important than the [American] moon landing?”
“Yes sir”, he insists, saying that it was a logical outcome of the development of science in the 20th century, whereas Vietnam stood for the victory of a supremely courageous people who overcame their poverty to defeat the mightiest nation in the world. Siddhartha does not get the job and ends up as the representative of a small pharmaceutical company whose products he pushes in rural and small-town Bengal.
Open anguish, even despair, is seen for the first time in the director’s work was muted and even subtly diverted in the next film Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). The film is an intimate set-piece about the gradual loss of values and hence humanity in the educated middle-class protagonist Shyamal Chatterjee’s rise in the corporate world. The presence of the Naxalites so palpably felt in Pratidwandi is suggested through sounds of distant bomb blasts in the sound track and the gentle queries of Tutul, the sister-in-law from Patna on a brief visit to Calcutta. The ambitious lead character has to break a strike in the company’s factory in order to get a leg up in the corporate ladder. He sells his soul without much ado to the sorrow of the adoring Tutul, who silently takes note of his fall. The photography is gray, in keeping with the mood of the film.
The folly of man’s ambition and nature’s benign bounty is juxtaposed in Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), which revolves around the man-made famine of 1943. The verdant countryside with plants and flowers blooming and ripe paddy in the fields serves ultimately as an epiphany in the course of events soon to become tragic beyond comprehension. Asani Sanket came at a time before ‘Development Studies’ had taken hold, and it left many Ray admirers, especially in the West, uneasy with its deeply felt, dignified treatment of an overwhelming, senseless tragedy that could have been avoided.
Perhaps to recover from the emotional exhaustion of the previous film, Satyajit made the next year in 1974, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), a thriller for slightly older children between twelve and fifteen, featuring his detective Prodosh Mitter a.k.a. Feluda and his devoted assistant Topshey. The story is about a precocious little boy, Mukul, who recalls his previous birth in a desert town that has a golden fortress. A parapsychologist gets interested and takes him on a trip to investigate the matter. A pair of comical villains upset his plans thinking there is a huge treasure to be discovered, till Feluda and company come to the rescue. Made with the panache and joy that informed cinema in its formative years, Sonar Kella wore in its virtues lightly.
The next film Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975) marked a return to black and white and despondence over the loss of basic values in contemporary Bengali/Indian social life. This was the darkest film he had ever made, and Satyajit called it his most ruthless film. He observed in Bengali: Eta Amaar Shob Cheye O Nirmam Chhabi. The nation had plunged into despair over the complete disregard for democracy by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the ruling Congress party, who had declared a national emergency to quell the gathering opposition to her lust for power and the institutionalisation of corruption.
Somnath, an educated young man, decides to become a small businessman after failing to get a reasonable job despite his best efforts. He is befriended by Bishuda who teaches him the ropes. The elderly fixer offers his protégé a banana on a particular occasion and without intended innuendo, asks him, “Have you ever tried eating your own banana?” Setting the tone for the story. The aspiring entrepreneur makes steady progress to the amusement of his worldly-wise older brother and bewilderment of his retired, old, upright father.
The hour of reckoning comes and Somnath is tested. His path to progress is blocked by a randy Marwari who can give him a profitable contract provided he gets him a girl to appease his appetite. At first he does not understand what is required of him and seeks the advice of Adak Babu, a veteran of the commercial market and familiar with its codes. He promptly directs Somnath to one Natabar Mitra, a comic scoundrel by inclination, who advices acquiescence. But finding a girl for a libidinous tycoon is not easy.
The first attempt to rope in a sexy, compliant housewife fails because her drunken husband returns unexpectedly. The second, ends in farce when Mitra and Somnath go to a respectable lady to find her two daughters ‘otherwise occupied’ and are set upon by a frolicsome dog, a big German Shepherd, while she holds forth on a former boss of her elder one’s who took her to Hong Kong on business and promptly put her to ‘work’.
The third and final piece begins on a bizarre comic note with a pimp from rural Bengal reading from the Kirtibasi Ramayana about the betrayal of Sita and the coming of the cad and turn-coat Vibhishana, and ends with Somnath escorting Kauna/Juthika who happens to be his best friend Sukumar’s sister, operating as a prostitute to the hotel room of the businessman who shall help awaken the lad’s sleeping destiny. When he returns home after the ordeal Somnath tells his father that the contract is in the bag. The old man smiles in relief. But the audience has other ideas. An earlier scene comes to mind when his father asks him, “Tell me son why should they award you a contract? On what basis?” Bhombol, Somnath’s elder brother promptly interjects, “On the basis of his bribe of course!”
Jana Aranya is a story of innocence lost. It is also about the eclipse of stable middle-class values and the triumph of heartless materialism. Sometime at the beginning of the film Somnath and Sukumar as young, frustrated job aspirants are seen sitting by the Ochterlony monument indulging in light-hearted banter.
Sukumar : “they ask irrelevant questions….”
Somnath : “for instance?”
Sukumar : “who was Ramachandra’s sister? As if knowing the answer would guarantee the job”.
Somnath : “I know the answer to that one. Shanta. Shanta was the name of Rama’s sister”.
By the time the story ends the characters are swept away in a wave of existential despair. Satyajit, for all his Brahmo correctness including the use of a Rabindra Sangeet in counterpoint to the gradually unfolding tragedy, cannot ultimately avoid retaining, however reluctantly, the cynicism of a Bertold Brecht and the hopelessness of a Samuel Beckett in his tableaux of contemporary Bengali life.
Satyajit’s obvious versatility and ease along with the capability of doing consistently fine work, with of course a few exceptions, puzzled those looking for an auteur. Many such theorists saw him as a slightly more sophisticated version of a master craftsman like David Lean or Carol Reed. Unlike the two Englishmen, Ray was never a director for hire. Every project—except for the who-done-it Chiriyakhana (The Zoo, 1967) which he did for the financial benefit of his unit members – was chosen consciously.
It was difficult for the ‘Film Society types’ of his times, as it is for their successors in ours, to understand how a man could make so many films disparate in subject matter yet sublimally linked by a vision of the world. Clarity of thought and feeling were present in all of them, including the lesser ones. This classical trait is what flummoxes the post-modernists who usually tend to look upon life as a series of accidents on which to improvise. They forget that nature has its own rhythms and patterns that can be felt but not quite intellectually comprehended. There is indeed a grand design that holds together all living phenomenon and endows them with life and energy.
People still wonder how the same director could have made a profoundly moving comedy-fantasy like Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1951); a tragic study of crumbling feudalism, like Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958); Kanchenjungha (1962) an elegant, probing portrait of a Bengali upper-class family in real time; Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) that chronicles so sensitively the struggles of a barely middle-class conservative family in Calcutta trying to not slip down the social ladder by letting the daughter-in-law of the house go to work; Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969) — the first, a period-piece about a neglected wife in an enlightened Zamindar family at the end of the 19th century and the second, a contemporary seriocomedy, both of them echoing the most positive of Chekovian sentiments; effervescent children’s films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Sonar Kella; moving shorts about the world of children, namely Two (a.k.a The Parable of Two, 1964) and Pikoo (a.k.a. Pikoo’s Day, 1980); exemplary documentaries The Inner Eye (1972) on his teacher the painter Binode Bihari Mukherjee gone blind in late middle-age, and Sukumar Ray (1987) about his amazingly gifted father — both films object lessons in maintaining the right balance between intimacy and distance to convey essential facts about the subject; and, finally, his wise swan song Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991), a last will and testament disguised as a story of a globe-trotter returning home after 35 years to a family (or its remnants) that is wary of acknowledging him.
The film ‘scholars’ argue that only a maverick can be so profligate in his tastes and output, pointing out that filmmakers post-World War II, or even before, ‘made’ the same film over and over again. They trot out names like Renoir, Mizoguchi, Bunuel, Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard, Tarkovski, Jansco; all of them, the pundits argue, had a vision of the world — but Ray? Yes, he did too like the three Hollywood masters John Ford, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. It was a difference of touch. Satyajit’s, like theirs, was light, and his tone too was conversational. These days heaviness is often mistaken for profundity by the so-called cinephile.
In his public dealings, Satyajit was straight-forward, a quality, rarely seen in a celebrity in a Banana Republic, that too in a country like India, its largest and most repugnant example. He always valued work and this respect for honest effort permeates his cinema as well. Satyajit’s characters do things. They are usually curious people. Even Bishambar Ray, the impecunious, egocentric zamindar in Jalsaghar , who is loathe to move, when the occasion demands is goaded into action. It is only understandable that Satyajit should have found the slow, showy, intellectual films of Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul thoroughly pretentious. He had no use for a film or filmmaker who was unable to attract a paying audience, however small. He had himself after all proved in the course of a long career that it was possible to have one’s cake and eat it too.
Not since Renoir, Ophuls and Ford had there been a director who has got such harmonious, believable performances from his actors. No one, save Vittorio de Sica and Francois Truffaut, equalled his handling of children. Despite his height or perhaps because of it– he was six four-and-a-half — he was able to impress people. He also had a way of instilling confidence in actors and making them perform beyond their capabilities.
Chabi Biswas, a mercurial, theatrical but powerful actor and a ‘difficult’ man to get along with, gave three memorable performances in Jalsaghar, Devi (1960) and Kanchenjungha. Ray knew how to harness Biswas’ creative energy. In all the three films, the actor played a tyrant with feet of clay, yet each one with distinct individuality. It was the writing as much as the direction that was responsible for such varied and rich performances. When the actor died in a car accident in 1962, Ray declared that it was no longer possible to write certain kinds of roles because there would not be an actor available to play them.
Soumitra Chatterjee, a young theatre enthusiast went to international fame working with Ray in fifteen films beginning in 1959 as an impressionable young man in Apur Sansar and ending with Shakha Prashakha (Branches of a Tree, 1990) in which he plays a brilliant man, brain-damaged in a road accident. Chatterjee did a range of entirely plausible characters from the droll bridegroom Amulya in Sampati to Narsingh the shabby cabdriver touched by romance in Abhijan; to the effete dabbler Amal in Charulata; graduating to even more complex characters like Asim, the inwardly insecure sophisticate in Aranyer Din Ratri and Prodosh Mitter, the tough, sharp but humane private investigator in Sonar Kella.
Satyajit always knew that his actors would have to behave in front of the camera rather than consciously act. His was a style of filmmaking where the energising happened below the surface, much like the steady flow of quiet waters. Similarly, his direction of children was never apparent. He would before every shot take them aside and talk to them in a conspirational whisper. He was their friend. Being able to gain the confidence of children was there from the beginning. Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali were perhaps the first children in Indian cinema who behaved their age. The roll call of natural, charming child performers in Satyajit’s films is long: Uma Dasgupta and Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali; Pinaki Sengupta (the adolescent Apu, Aparajito); Aloke Chakravarti (Kajol, Apur Sansar); Aparna Dasgupta (Mrin Moyee, Samapti); Prasenjit Sarkar (Pintu, Mahanagar); Kushal Chakravarti (Mukul, Sonar Kella); Shatanu Bagchi (Mistaken Mukul, Sonar Kella); Vikram Bhattacharya (Satyaki, Agantuk ); Arjan Guha Thakurta (Pikoo, Pikoo’s Day).
Actresses like Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar, Devi, Seemabaddha and Madhavi Mukherjee in Mahanagar, Charulata, Kapurush-O-Mahapurush, gave to Satyajit some of the finest performances of their careers. Robi Ghosh was amply rewarded with roles that enabled him to play comedy with different shades of emotion in Abhijan, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Aranyer Din Ratri, Jana Aranya and Hirak Rajar Deshe. Tulsi Chakravarti, after playing Prasanna the village grocer turned school teacher in Pather Panchali, was unforgettable in the role of the bumbling, funny, pathetic, elderly clerk Paresh Chandra Dutta in Parash Pathar. The cameos too were cast meticulously: elderly musicians who turn up one evening at the village post master’s house in Post Master or the deaf old solicitor in Agantuk leave an indelible impression. Satyajit loved actors as much as de Sica, Fellini or Bergman, and his players, in turn, amply returned his love.
The master’s technique including in the handling of actors, was subtle, unobtrusive. There was hardly any moment of sudden drama or emotional outbursts. Feelings and ideas always went through the process of distillation. Although he favoured Western musical structures to build his films on, for instance the rondo in Charulata, the quality of emotion that shaped the content was completely Indian; reminiscent of certain melodic structures that came alive by the judicious use of komal or soft swaras. Towards the end, Satyajit’s film language became a shade too functional, restricted as he was by failing health, though he used this limitation to great advantage in his last film. Agantuk was pure cinema despite the heavy emphasis on dialogue. The ideas were expressed and carried forward through cinematic plasticity. The same cannot be said of Gana Shatru (An Enemy of the People, 1989) an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1904 play and Shakha Proshakha: both looked like competent TV plays although the latter did have a few moments of genuine cinema.
The magnificent Ray
The concern for social and political transformation did figure gently but strongly in Satyajit’s films. He was never an overtly political man in his private life unlike Ritwik Ghatak, who was a card-carrying member of the CPI and a stalwart of IPTA. That, however, did not mean that he did not care about what was happening to the society he lived in. He once said to his old friend Kironmoy Raha at a private meeting in 1977 after the end of the state of emergency at which this writer was present: “It is good that Jyoti Babu (the CPI-M leader) and his colleagues have decided to oppose the Congress, but why are they supporting the Janata Party?” He had been able to see right away that a coalition government with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh at its helm was bound to collapse sooner than later. Sure enough, Indira Gandhi and her Congress returned to power within two years, with the Janata government able neither to administer the country nor to stick together.
The director was fortunate enough to escape the fate of being a selfish, callous, debauched spendthrift like so many members of the Bengali feudal class. This can be ascribed to his family’s unswerving dedication to artistic and scientific pursuits. His grandfather Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury’s versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata for Bengali children still attract attention because of their verve and wit. When he died in 1915, Upendra Kishore was 52. He had by then made a reputation as an artist, photographer, author, illustrator and founder-editor of the peerless children’s magazine, Sandesh. His son Sukumar, Satyajit’s father, became in his tragically short life of 34 years a master writer and illustrator for children and an exponent of nonsense verse the equal of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Sukumar was also the inventor of the half-tone block in printing and had studied photography and printing technology in Manchester, England.
The Rays were truly enlightened representatives of the Bengali aristocracy whose finest representative was the great thinker-artiste Rabindranath Tagore. It was only natural that Satyajit should retain a curiosity about the decadent Indian feudal classes, with their refinement, love for music and painting and other pleasures of a leisurely life. At 37, he had done Jalsaghar on a dying, bankrupt Bengali zamindar, adapted from Tara Shankar Bandhopadhyaya’s novella. Then, at 56, in 1977, he completed his first film in Hindi, Shatranj ke Khilari a many-layered satire based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. The story deals with the annexation of Avadh by the British in 1857 and the overthrow of the popular, artistically gifted Nawab Wajid Ali Shah that led to the first war of independence. The two effete zamindars around whom the story revolves, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, are addicted to chess and continue to play the game even when the British forces march into Lucknow, the royal capital. They symbolise for the director the reason for the abject failure of the local elite to confront and neutralise the British. In a larger sense, beyond the immediate confines of the story and the film inspired by it, Satyajit appears to suggest the reasons for the success of British rule in India for a hundred and ninety years.
Man’s place in a fast-changing, largely amoral world pre-occupied Satyajit, and this also is evident in his literary exercises. The one short-story that represents his deepest concerns is, “McKenzie Fruit”. It is perhaps the truest portrait of his inner self. Nishikanto Babu, a retired school master, goes to Karimganj in rural Bengal to his friend’s for a holiday. One day, while out on a stroll he discovers a tree growing in the compound of an abandoned bungalow formerly owned by an Englishman. He has never before seen the tree nor the fruit growing in abundance on it. Out of sheer curiosity he plucks one. Eating it he discovers to his delight the nagging arthritic pains in the joints disappear within a day. Nishikanto Babu offers the fruit to a scabied dog and it gets cured.
Unable to believe his luck, the school master writes to leading scientific organisations at home and abroad about the strange tree and, its miraculous fruit. They reply asking for details, and he sends samples of the fruit for laboratory analysis. The reports come back confirming his discovery: that yes it indeed has miraculous curative properties. He then makes the mistake of sharing his knowledge with his host, where a local acquaintance, a jolly landlord fallen on bad days, happens to be present.
Events overtake Nishikanto Babu too quickly. The bungalow and its large compound of god-sent trees is fenced off and now in the control of a city businessman who wants to export the fruit at a premium, in partnership with the formerly indigent landlord. Suddenly, nature’s gift is appropriated for commercial gain by the unscrupulous. The school master can do nothing to prevent this monumental injustice; business after all is considered a legitimate part of democracy. He however has in the end a solitary fruit in his safe-keeping and it incredibly retains its freshness over time.
The tale of McKenzie Fruit has the simplicity, transparency and profundity of a fable. Satyajit had earlier written a film script that evoked a similar response. “The Alien” was meant to be science fiction, but added the purity and lyricism associated with juvenile literature. The story was about an alien from outer space who comes to a remote Bengali village where Bajoria a wealthy Marwari businessman has engaged Devlin, an American expert, to drill for water during a period of drought in an attempt to prove his own piety. The visitor from ‘outside’ befriends Haba, an orphan and with him perceives what life is like in the world of humans.
The project of The Alien was destined not to take off, but the script was generously circulated by one of the prospective producers — Columbia British — and the executive producer Mike Wilson. Early in his career, Stephen Spielberg must have come across it to make his finest film E. T., whose basis was the central idea of Satyajit’s screenplay. The Alien, as written, for its sheer breadth of vision and poetic intensity, promised to be a far greater film than any in the sci-fi genre and the only one in which knowledge was to be used for a positive, creative purpose. Had Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando not backed out after protracted negotiations, the film as made by Satyajit would have surely been made and may in all probability have been a towering achievement.
The alien leaves the earth on his spaceship along with his human friend singing ‘a simple folk-song about flowers, rivers and paddy fields taught to him by Haba’, (writes Marie Seton in Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray). ‘In a state of weightlessness and suspended animation, the boy floats in the cabin, together with the other earthly specimens he has helped his ‘friend’ collect – a frog, a firefly, a snake, a lotus, a squirrel and a bulbul bird all of which are also in a condition of suspension. Inevitably, the conception of the Alien suggests that only those who are as little children can enter another plane, or planetary existence’. In the same essay, the alien is described in his farewell to the earth as seen seated cross-legged on the floor of the cabin of his spaceship, Buddha-like with a glow of red sunlight on his face and a halo above it.
This striving for perfection in an imperfect world and fulfilment through purity of purpose was the hallmark of Satyajit’s children’s fiction and his best films. An uncompromising idealism and a healthy contempt for money and therefore capitalism marked his life and work. He never asked his producers to pay him separately for composing the music for his films and only charged a consolidated fee for writing and direction. His un-worldliness sometimes exasperated his wife Bijoya, who is known to have said, ‘he does not understand how difficult it is to run a household’. All his life he lived in a rented flat and his most prized possessions were his books and records.
Royalties from his writings brought in enough to support him and the family for a year in case he did not make a film. He said so in an interview to Gowri Ram Narayan of The Hindu. Satyajit’s greatest contribution as an artiste was to foster a healthy curiosity about the world and the pursuit of truth and beauty under the most trying conditions. He was in that sense a unique and whole individual in an increasingly fragmented world.
~ Partha Chatterjee is a filmmaker and writer on cinema based in New Delhi.
This article was originally published in Himal Southasian, May 2004.