The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 7, 2000

The colossus of Indian cinema

Satyajit Ray was a product of the Bengal renaissance, which brought to the fore a rational spirit that had a bearing on the superstitious beliefs and social practices of our society. The outlook of such a spirit, within whose milieu Stayajit grew, was broadly international while being firmly nationalist in essence. A very decisive influence on his personality, within such an environ, was the Ray family’s closeness to Rabindranath Tagore and his thought, says Abhilaksh Likhi

EVER since the 50s, when Ray’s first film Pather Panchali catapulted Indian Cinema to the international circuit, its impact has been more significant than just critical acclaim. It marked the evolution of cinema in India as a recognised forum of creative expression. More importantly, however, it enabled a realisation to dawn within the country that cinema too had the potential to be a communicative art form. This attitude was inspired as much by the feeling that if someone of Ray’s family and social background could actually be making films then it could not be a questionable and disreputable profession.

Born to a noted satirist and writer Sukmar Ray, Satyajit Ray was a product of the Bengal renaissance, bringing to the fore a rational spirit that had a bearing on the superstitious beliefs and age-old social practices of our society. The outlook of such a spirit, within whose milieu Stayajit grew, was broadly international while being firmly nationalist in essence. A very decisive influence on his personality, within such an environ, was also the Ray family’s closeness to Rabindranath Tagore and his thought.

  Satyajit Ray’s films are an enduring legacyWithin the backdrop of such a socio-cultural milieu, Satyajit Ray made 31 feature films and four documentaries, between 1955 and 1992. Contrary to popular perception, the themes tackled have been extremely varied and his core commitment to Indian traditions, customs and behavior deeprooted. Nevertheless, his ultimate and overriding concern has always remained the human condition, investing his films with a poet’s universality. Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), Ray’s first film, was first in many senses — the village as a setting, signifying possibly a quest for the ‘real’ India and in a more personal sense psychologically; Italian neo-realism as a cinematic idiom with outdoor locales and non-professional actors and a classical music score composed by maestro Ravi Shankar.

Based on B.B. Bandopadhyaha’s famous novel, the film initiated the Apu Triology — Aparjito, (1956) and Apur Sansar, (1959) — featuring young Apu and his impoverished family in the Bengali village of Nischintpur in the early 20th century. But at the same time, Ray’s use of a meagre plot to elaborate a strikingly innovative narrative also unearthed his penchant for realist detail and artistic expression that indeed caught the fancy of the international audience.

For instance, in Pather Panchali, the final scene of the family leaving in the cart showed the three faces of the father, mother and son, virtually summing up the film’s achievement: the father’s self-pity evoking a long tradition of the pitiable protagonist in Bengali melodrama and the mother’s expression hiding a tragedy too grim for words. Apu, in sharp contrast, stares without expression into the distance suggesting curiosity as well as apprehension at what the future would bring for him and the family.

For many who saw the film then flow, spontaneity and rhythm of life pulsated before their eyes. They did not see depiction of poverty as is blatantly preached by many but an intense imagery that pointed towards a positive vision of hope.

Aparjito (Unvanquished) on the other hand, was a more extensively plotted film in terms of melodrama and in it Ray used with greater freedom a directly romantic kind of symbolism depicted by scenes like the mother festooning the house with lights for the Divali festival shortly before her husband’s death. The latter being accompanied by an outstanding shot of rising pigeons at dawn. For Ray, as he himself stated, the shot was beautiful only if was right in its context and this rightness had little to do with what appeared beautiful to the eye. Besides, with the help of his regular art director Bansi Chandragupt and cameraman Subrata Mitra, he pioneered in Aparjito the use of ‘bounce lights’ to suggest the ambience of the Banaras houses in studio sets.

In Apur Sansar (the world of Apu), the scenes of a young married couple living in poverty were Ray’s first major location shots in contemporary Calcutta, soon to become a lief motif in his later films. Herein he also elaborated his way of weaving a complex and suggestive usage of urban imagery into the cinematic narrative as is shown in the classic sequences where Apu brings his bride to their new home or the squalid room above a railway line or even the couple’s visit to the movie followed by the cabride backhome.

It always took less time for Ray to search for suitable material in the existing body of Bengali literature to make a film. Once he could empathise with it and shape it into a cinematic vision of his own, the film had to be judged independently on its own merit without reference to the author of the work.

Ray’s emerging personal stamp of his deeply expressionist style was also evident in his critique of decadent colonial feudalism in Jalsagar (The Music Room). In a painstakingly reconstructed period setting, a genre to which he returns again later, Jalsagar, is often compared to Guru Dutt’s film on the same theme, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam both portraying the feudal elite in sensual terms reclining amidst silk cushions and smoking hookahs. Ray’s film, however, uses the metaphor more occasionally like the shots of rain announcing death, an insect trapped in a glass, a decaying palace and the upturned boat at the end of the patriarch’s life.

With the same consistency and style in Devi (Goddess). Ray unfolds a psychological portrait of a young woman and her zamindar father-in-law set in the mid-19th century. The film is also remembered for Mitra’s remarkable camera work, contrasting the purely psychological exposition with two breathtaking crane shots that show the immersion of the goddess during the Puja festival and capture the manic hold exerted by the Durga/Kali legend in Bengal, Teen Kanya, (Three Daugthers) on the other hand constitutes one of three short films about female protagonists, adapted from three Tagore stories for which Ray composed his own music score with more emphasis on musicalised sound effects.

Exploring further the depth of a woman’s heart within the artistic and intellectual ambience of Tagore’s writing, Ray narrated the story of Charulata (The Lonely wife), a bored and neglected upper class wife. This film which he calls his best work was without doubt quintessensal Ray. The floral motifs, the Victorian-Indian style of dressing and the look in Charulata’s eyes, all express greater depth than words can convey. The freeze fames at the end of the film, as Charulata reunites with her husband, were inspired by the ending of French new wave director Francois Truffaut’s film, Less Quatre Cents Coups (1959).

In stark contrast, thematically, is Kunchenjunga Ray’s first colour film and his first original script set in real time and shot over an afternoon in Darjeeling. The most significant aspect of the film is the mobilisation of a suspense formula in which something dramatic always seems to about to happen but never does. In the end, the only crime committed, in this indirect tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, is the wealthy patriarch’s insistence on exerting a ‘traditional authority’ in a new, independent and industrial era.

Films like Nayak (Hero), Chidiakhana (Zoo) Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the forest) exploit the structure of the suspense thriller genre with consummate skill, usually featuring a small number of characters, each minutely defined to the last detail. All of them undergo in a given time frame a relatively insignificant experience that in some way changes them.

What Ray always strove for was a film style, a sort of iconography of cinema that was originally and recongnizally Indian. In this context, Mahanagar (The Big City) was Ray’s first major incursion into the Calcutta environment after the brief sequence in Apur Sansar. Different characters, in this film stand for different ideologies; the father-in-law expects feudal loyalty from his former students, the enterpreneur espouses ruthless ethics and the sales girl exemplifies the orthodox bias against working women as ‘westernised’ and with lose morals. The film ends with an almost socialist message as the camera cranes up to show the couple striding with determination into the teeming crowds in the street.

With the Calcutta triology, Ray’s psychological-realist style expanded into a different realm. Films like Pratidwandi, (The Adversary), Seemabadha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) depicted the turmoil of characters set in the turbulent days of the Naxalbari peasant insurrection, student revolts in Calcutta crushed by police violence, a new form of naked profiteering, corrupt bureaucracy and chronic unemployment. The shooting style changed accordingly from the slow movements and long beautifully controlled takes into abrupt cuts, hand held shots, getting closer into action, trying to find a core of truth and pain, under the surface shrewdness.

By the end of 70s, Ray’s command and control over a perfectly balanced structure of a film stood unchallenged even by a contemporary filmmaker like Mrinal Sen whose films were perhaps more a direct comment on current politics. Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) saw Ray return to the village setting in colour with the backdrop of the catastrophic 1943 Bengal famine. In sharp contrast to Ray’s ruralism of the 50s, this film is close to Shyam Benegal’s Ankur in its use of realist plotting and performance within a melodramatic narrative. The use of colour has often been criticised but also defended as an appropriate device to emphasise the artificial nature of a man-made tragedy.

His only foray outside Bengal was in a period film Shatranj ke Khiladi, also termed his so called Hindi debut and set in 1865 at the court of Wajid Ali Shah in Lucknow. The most remarkable aspect of its treatment is the parallel cutting between the court proceedings and an apolitical duo playing chess in the wilderness.

Contrary to popular impression, Ray’s skill in filming musical fantasies within the comic genre is a feat that he accomplished in Paras Pathar (The philospher’s stone) and Abijaan (Expedition) as early as the 60s.

Films like Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Joi Baba Felunath’ (The Elephant God) featured the detective ‘Feluda’ from the stories that Satyajit Ray had himself, published and illustrated since 1965 in his magazine Sandesh . Herein Ray perfected a cinematic motif where soaring imagination and sparkling wit were the hallmarks of his narrative.

Ray came out of a self imposed semi-retirement in the late 80s following a prolonged illness, to adopt a controversial Tagore novel a film — Gaire Baire (Home and the World), a triple story set during the Partition of Bengal, interweaving the diaries of a nationalist zamindar, his wife and their guest. He also adapted Ibsen’s An Enemy of People (Ganashatru) and filmed two melodramas — Shakha Paroskha (Branches of a Tree) and Aguntuk (The Stranger), signifying sharply the collapse of traditional values and rise of corruption.

Ganashatru, set in contemporary Calcutta voices the concerns of Dr Ashok Gupta who protests when the holy water in a temple turns out to be contaminated by bad plumbing and produces a jaundice epidemic. As a precursor to these ‘value trilogies, Ray’s outstanding film craft is also forthcoming in short films like Sadgati about the inhumanity of casteism.

Whether it was the art of screenplay writing or film direction, for Stayajit Ray it was always a challenge to film a Tagore classic or a well-known piece of work by a writer of the post-Tagore period. Certain elements in the story attracted him to it in the first place but he would not hesitate to reconstruct some others to meet the requirements of the cinematic frame. With a meticulous blend of the language that was a part of the character’s daily speech and its socio-cultural environment, he would seek to infuse the story-telling with a musical score that was a combination of eastern and western music. Beginning with Teen Kanya, his own music compositions are marked with an astounding precision in matching the exact length of a musical piece with the film sequence. "Clothed in a certain orchestral colour", is how he put it. And this is not to belittle his talent to design and sketch story boards for most of his films. Inspired by the films of Jean Renoir, John Ford, and Akira Kurosawa, Ray’s cinema encompasses clarity, restraint and proportion in equal measure.

After Ray, contemporary Indian Cinema in the decade of 90s has won tremendous international attention, success as well as critical acclaim. Film-makers like Rituparno Ghosh, Shekhar Kapoor, and Murli Nair have made sensitive, intelligent and reflective films that reveal remarkable insights into their characters. For instance, like Ray, Rituparno Ghosh for his latest film Bariwali (The lady of the House) that won the NEPTEC Award at the Berlin Film Festival recently has worked on the story, screenplay direction and lyrics himself. In fact, Ghosh draws on an abiding theme of both Bengali literature and cinema including Ray’s own works. The consequence of the opening up of a cloistered woman’s world, that has been the subject of Ray’s most memorable films has also deeply affected Ghosh as is evident in his earlier film Asookh (The Malaise).

Yes, the Oscar for life time achievement came late in Stayajit Ray’s career. It was the only major international film award to have stayed out of his way all those years. But for a filmmaker whose versatility showed through the emotional impact of the simple poetry of his images, admiration and success came naturally to his cinema both in India and abroad.

His films would indeed continue to inspire filmmakers in India to further delineate various facts of artistic expression that transcend geographical boundaries and make a cinematic impact on the international audiences at large.