Cult Critic Deep Focus - Satyajit Ray

“In 1948 an unknown young Bengali wrote a newspaper article entitled ‘What is wrong with Indian films?’ He accused his nation’s directors of failing to grasp the new medium. He wrote, ‘It is incredible that a country that has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film-maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.” The author was Satyajit Ray, who within a few years would answer his own challenge by filming masterpieces of lyrical realism set in India. His first work and still his best known is the The Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959) – which follows the life of a boy from a village trying to make his way in the world.

“COSMIC” RAY: HOMAGE TO MAESTRO SATYAJIT RAY

By Shailik Bhaumik
Image (above), Satyajit Ray was an Indian Bengali filmmaker, widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

Satyajit Ray is India’s greatest filmmaker and his importance in the international world of cinema has long been recognised. His works present a remarkably insightful understanding of the relations between cultures, and his ideas remain pertinent to the great cultural debates in the contemporary world, not least in India. In emphasizing the need to honour the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. Indeed, opening doors was an important priority of Ray’s work. He was very much a product of his times and cultural heritage as well as his own creative self. His thirty-seven film oeuvre is at once a testimony to his diverse and multi-faceted creativity, and a record, a mirror image of sorts, of his times — the second half of the twentieth century in post-independent Bengal and India.

Viewed in this perspective, one can argue that all Satyajit Ray films are political; the degree of their political intensity increased as the social and economic crisis deepened in India. A parallel can be found in Tagore’s life. Ray left his last messages to the people of Bengal, India and the World in his last trilogy, his farewell films: Ganashatru (The Enemy of the People) Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree) and Agantuk (The Stranger). One can locate three major compositional periods in Ray’s work and life. The first period (1955-1964) was remarkable for its robust optimism, celebration of the human spirit as well as a certain satisfaction and self-confidence in assuming full auteurship.

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Satyajit Ray was not only directing and scripting, he was scoring the music and increasingly taking charge of the camera-work. During this period, he directed arguably his greatest films, following a trajectory that can be traced back to his family background, his education in art, music and letters, and to the East-West cultural confluence that captured what one can call “Calcutta Modern”. One must point out that this phase coincides with the first flush of independence in India or the idea of India that was being forged with yet to be tested forces of nationalism/internationalism, secularism, humanism and modernism of the Nehru era (1947-64).

From the mid-sixties through the seventies, all of the above came under a dark spell. There were two wars — one with China early on and one with Pakistan in 1965. Growing unemployment among the urban middle classes and an agricultural crisis created by a command economy had brought parts of the country face-to-face with famine. In addition, there was an increased disaffection and restlessness among the intelligentsia and politicians. The war in Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution in China had radicalized Calcutta’s urban youths and many of its artists, writers and filmmakers. Revolutionary violence and the violence of the counter-revolutionary forces gripped the city.

Calcutta, noted as a friendly and safe city, became a dangerous place to live. The Bangladesh War and the influx of millions of refugees fleeing Pakistani pogrom, filled Calcutta and its outskirts. The successful Indian Army operations, the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation were capped by India’s first nuclear test in 1974. The anti-Indira Gandhi agitation led to the imposition of the “Emergency” in 1975. This gave Indians a bitter taste of living under an authoritarian government. The Government clamped harsh and draconian measures on the citizens. Yet there were hardly any signs of protest: people followed orders, streets were cleaner, the economy showed growth and the trains were running on time. Ray, however, was troubled. The films he made during this period clearly projected a troubled vision of India.

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The “Calcutta Trilogy” Partidwandi, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya was a powerful portrait of alienation, waywardness and moral collapse among the urban youth. Aranyer Din Ratri, a major film, shows a rape scene; Ashani Sanket, a grim and poignant narrative on the Bengal Famine of 1943 was made during the Bangladesh war. This film shows rape as well. Shatranj Ke Khilari, made during the Emergency shows through irony and the metaphor of a chess game how the king of Oudh, more a poet, composer and singer than a ruler submitted to the British take-over, as his people subjected themselves to the alien rule fleeing from the villages as the British-Indian Army marched in.

The two short films Pikoo and Sadgati refused to equivocate or distance themselves from issues of adultery and untouchability. Even his so called “escapist” films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Sonar Kella, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Joi Baba Felunath, carried not-so-hidden messages against wars, crooks, goons and love of lucre and greed. In mid-life, at the height of his creative best, Ray seemed to have suffered a “crisis” — arguably a personal one, but certainly one in his world-view, the way he looked at people and things around him. Increasingly, he became a loner, isolating himself in his Bishop Lefroy Road apartment. He even seriously considered leaving Calcutta — his beloved cinematic city.

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The third and last phase saw Ray’s ‘crisis’ come full circle. He became even more isolated and distant, telling his tells in enunciator terms. Unlike the early Ray genres, his films became frankly ‘wordy,’ declaring a didactic Ray voice that sought social correctives through acts of enunciation in cinema in Ghare Baire. Based on a Tagore novel, Ray was recasting Tagore’s time-tested shibboleths against narrow nationalism, mix of religion and politics, demagogues and their dishonesties. Stricken by two heart attacks, Ray was now involuntarily isolated on doctor’s orders. When his condition somewhat stabilized in 1987, he begged his doctors to let him make a film or two: modest family dramas shot indoors under their watchful eyes.

Before he passed on, he made three such pluvies (or movies that were more plays than movies) marking the years 1988, 1989 and 1990 as if he was counting time and using the medium for the message. Ganashatru addressed the questions of the late Capitalist corruption, and manipulation of religion, people, politics and environment. It is Ray’s contemporary Indian version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. Shakha Prashakha also addresses issues of the late Capitalism as it impacts family values corroding traditional generational bonding on the inside, and the fetishization of “black” money as the individuated upwardly ambitious try to make a living on the outside.

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To the protagonist-enunciator, who like Ray, is a heart patient, “honesty” becomes an obsessive compulsion mediated in the mood swings of music and madness. The signifier is a son who suffers the swings, seldom talks and is dysfunctional. The third in this trilogy is Agantuk. An emotionally charged film, Ray literally plants his own voice in it. He briefly sings three times in place of the enunciator-protagonist. There is little doubt that the protagonist is Ray himself. Ray is a transnational. His global concerns and questions are articulated locally and nationally as the post-Cold War era is ushered in. Issues that are brought up implicate Ray and his visions: Who is an artist? How do his loved ones measure it? In monetary terms? Who is civilized and who is “primitive”? The world-traveller and the ethnographer reveal his tells at last. He is against narrowness of all sorts, against boundaries, borders and barriers. “Don’t be a frog in the well,” he tells his young grandnephew as he moves on to his next destination.

Although revered as one of the world’s great filmmakers, Satyajit Ray is described either in narrowly nationalistic terms or as an artist whose critique of modernity is largely derived from European ideas. Rarely is he seen as an influential modernist in his own right whose contributions to world cinema remain unsurpassed. Ray’s films illumined lives. No one made films on such diverse subjects before him the way he did; and it remains to be seen whether another director would do so in the future. Whatever Ray was, it is impossible, as he said himself, to label him or put him in a pigeonhole.

 

Cult Critic Mise en SceneShailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film ‘Dasein’, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.

 

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