Ray's trilogies

Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

Print edition : November 05, 2021

A scene from ‘Sakha Prasakha’. The second film in Ray’s last trilogy, 'Sakha Prasakha' delves into the internal lives of the protagonists, taking the theme of corruption to a more personal and emotional level. Photo: Nemai Ghosh/Courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

With Jawaharlal Nehru. Ray was a staunch admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru’s nationalist imagination, cosmopolitanism and modern outlook. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

An unpublished sketch of Nehru by Ray. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

The cover of ‘Discovery of India’ designed by Ray. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

The three trilogies that mark the beginning, middle and end of Satyajit Ray’s film-making career reflect his changing perception of the idea of India.

Born in 1921, the young Ray was witness to the turbulence and clamour of the nationalist movement, the Bengal famine, the trauma of Partition, communal riots and massive displacement of people. In his middle age, he witnessed the Bangladesh war, the influx of refugees, the rise of the naxalite movement, the Emergency, violent protests by youth on the streets of Calcutta and the brutal state repression that followed. His demise in 1992 came at a moment when India was going through profound transformations in national economy, politics and media through the entry of private television channels. But how such tumultuous events affect and seep into an artist’s work is an enigmatic question. Especially in the case of a film-maker like Ray, who was always known for his reticence with regard to political stands, both in his films and in public life. His silence on many issues was severely criticised, especially in comparison with his contemporaries like Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, who were vociferous about their political positions and affiliations, both in their films and public interventions.

But when one looks back, one can see the undercurrents of history and politics throughout his oeuvre: in films like Charulata, Ghare Bhaire and Shatranj ke Khilari, political events and discourses loom ominously over the narrative; in his Calcutta films, the turbulent political atmosphere of the times surface in the form of processions, graffiti and specific references to protests and violence in the streets of Calcutta. In his last films, social and political issues are posed at the deepest level, as a civilisational or human crisis. According to many Ray scholars, his films map the history of modern India from the perspective of an enlightened liberal. A staunch admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru’s nationalist imagination and modernising mission, Ray’s cosmopolitanism and eclectic outlook drew from Rabindranath Tagore also. This is how Ray explains these influences (in an interview to Folke Isaksson in 1970): “I understood him [Nehru] better, because I am also in a way a kind of product of East and West. A certain liberalism, a certain awareness of Western values and a fusion of Eastern and Western values was in Nehru. …I always understood what Nehru was doing, as I understood what Tagore was doing—because you can’t leave Tagore out of this, it’s a triangle.”

Through his narratives and protagonists, it is possible to trace the tendencies and ruptures in Ray’s social imagination and political vision. The Apu Trilogy was made a decade after historic events such as the freedom struggle, Independence, the Bengal famine and Partition. The Calcutta trilogy coincides with war, both within (repression of rebellious youth in Calcutta) and without (Bangladesh), growing unemployment and large-scale political corruption. The last trilogy was made at another critical juncture in the nation’s history—just before the New Economic Policies, globalisation and privatisation, and the rising tide of communal politics leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Also read: A Century of Ray

The three trilogies of Ray, made almost two decades apart, in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s—the Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959); the Calcutta trilogy: Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1975); and the last trilogy: Ganashatru (1989), Sakha Prasakha (1990) and Agantuk (1991)—also mark the beginning, middle and end of his oeuvre. These trilogies, from three periods in his life and in the history of the nation, reflect his intense and introspective engagements with the idea of India, the shift from youthful innocence and hope of the post-Independence decades, through despairing confrontations and compromises with establishments and mores in the 1970s, to a deep despair about degeneration at all levels by the 1990s.

Apu Trilogy: Innocence and hope

Recall some iconic scenes from this iconic trilogy: of Apu and Durga running through the kash grass thicket at the edge of their village to see the passing train; earlier, a night scene where Harihar, sitting on the veranda of their hut with a bunch of manuscripts, teaches his son Apu his first letters (Pather Panchali); the adolescent Apu, now a village priest, peeping from behind a tree at children of his age rushing to school; a little later, Apu proudly looking at the sundial he has made (Aparajito); Apu reciting poetry and talking about his autobiographical novel to his bosom friend Pulu as they walk along the city streets at night; and in the final scene of the trilogy, Apu striding forward with his young son Kajol on his shoulders to an uncertain but hopeful future (Apur Sansar). They are all filled with hope and expectation, curiosity and wonder.

All the three films in the trilogy end in departures, physical and metaphoric: of Harihar and family leaving Nischindipur for Benares; Apu leaving his village home for Calcutta after the death of his mother; and finally, Apu venturing on a new journey in life with his son. All these departures are openings to a larger world that resonate with new beginnings and hopes. Several tragedies and struggles form part of Apu’s coming of age—the death of those dear to him, poverty that drives his family from the village, his father’s sudden death in Benares, his mother’s struggle to survive, his own struggles as a working student and later as a young husband in Calcutta, and finally the sudden and untimely demise of his young wife followed by his leaving the city. Despite all this, there is an overwhelming atmosphere of hope and optimism that permeate the trilogy. All the tragic things that happen are only parts of the larger scheme of Apu’s journey through life and his ever-expanding world, always welcoming its umpteen uncertainties and accidents.

Also read: Vision of a land: Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's Bengal in Satyajit Ray's cinema

Through the trilogy, we see Apu’s world—physical, emotional and intellectual—expanding. From the village and its feudal settings, Benares and its religious atmosphere, and the priestly duties that he ‘inherits’ from his uncle, Apu breaks free to eventually move to the city of Calcutta. In his mind journeys, too, he is always yearning for something higher and beyond, sublime and transcendental—in his thoughts, relationships, wanderings, and through his writing. Through imagination and daydreaming, he makes the poor, petty and small world he lives in expansive enough for him to find refuge, solace and excitement. The sundial he makes and the globe he receives as a prize in Aparajito in many ways represent Apu’s keen awareness and curiosity about the inexorable passage of time and his wanderlust.

Calcutta trilogy: Confrontations & compromises

If the Apu Trilogy is suffused with journeys and departures in space and time, in the Calcutta trilogy the characters are almost trapped in the space of the city; time seems to have frozen, evoking the sense of an ending. According to Suranjan Ganguly: “The Calcutta trilogy [films]… chronicle the moral and spiritual collapse of this new urban India. For Nehru, it was the city, more than anything else, that stood for India’s future and the growth of its modernity. The trilogy will show the betrayal of that dream and the death of a whole cultural ethos” (Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern, page 114).

Siddhartha of Pratidwandi is a medical college dropout who is indecisive within family, friendships and love, unable to live up to or live in them. Steeped in emotional, economic and ideological conflicts, he fumes against the injustices around him but is not able to garner the emotional, philosophical or political conviction to act or react. The film ends in an ambivalent manner, evoking childhood and death, nostalgia, and also a sense of realism. We see Siddhartha leaving the city for a small town faraway where, while witnessing a funeral procession, he hears the bird call of his childhood days after a long time. It could be a moment of realisation or redemption for him when he finally ‘buries’ his father and becomes an individual. For, the film begins with his father’s death (shown in negative), an event that upsets his life. In the final scene he is witnessing another funeral, but this time he is detached and self-reflexive. Like the Siddhartha of history, he is finally liberated from one cycle of or in life, and turns a new leaf.

Unlike Siddhartha, Shyamalendu, the protagonist of Seemabaddha, is one who is able to overcome such moral qualms. A young man from a small town who has made his way up to Calcutta professionally, the city prods and fertilizes his ‘unlimited’ ambitions. In his pursuit of a life of comfort and luxury, everything else—values, ethics and justice—becomes secondary. At the end of the film, we see a pensive Shyamalendu, realising in a flash that he has sacrificed his soul to become what he is. But he has already travelled too far to make any amends. He also knows he has forever lost Tutul—his sister-in-law and also his muse from his innocent and idealist past.

In Jana Aranya, the fall of Somnath, the middle-class protagonist, is all the more tragic and stark. According to Chidananda Dasgupta, the film “epitomises not only the mood of the seventies, but the failure of earlier values celebrated in so many of Ray’s films” (The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, page 106). As the protagonist’s father says at one point: “If a young man does not find a job, he can only become a revolutionary or go to the dogs.” For Somnath, becoming a revolutionary is out of the question, and he does not want to live a life of poverty either. He chooses the middle path, that of a middleman ready to sell anything to earn his commission. The city and its tentacles of corruption embrace him, and there is no looking back. As Dasgupta says, one cannot miss the ominous resonances of the Tagore song in the film, “Darkness is gathering over the forest”.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

In this trilogy, the city of Calcutta throbs in all its sprawling ugliness and melancholic beauty. “Ray’s repeated effort to come to terms with the new post-Tagore, post-Independence generation… reaches its peak in Jana Aranya. There is now a determined attempt to come face to face with the reality of the times, without hesitation or obliqueness. For the first time, Calcutta comes to life. Its grime and dirt are established.… The crowds are seen not from above as in Pratidwandi, but at eye-level” (Dasgupta, ibid.). For Ray, Calcutta was the most stimulating city in the world, where he preferred to live, “right in the present, in the heart of this monstrous, teeming, bewildering city, and try to orchestrate its dizzying contrasts of sight and sound and milieu”. If for Apu the city of Calcutta was a destination of learning and freedom, it has become in the Calcutta trilogy films a vortex of agitation and corruption; it envelops and often traps the protagonists with its inescapable and fatal lure. According to Rochona Majumdar, these films are devoid of any “preconceived or clearly conceivable future”, thus making the present heterotelic, with multiple historical trajectories glimpsed in the same moment.

The last trilogy: Decadence and despair

The last three films of Ray—all shot almost entirely indoors as he was suffering from a heart condition—deal with crucial social and political issues pointing to even gloomier visions about society and individuals. These films are all about human relationships and the ethical, social and political ecologies that engulf them. Environmental degradation, loss of scientific temper, rise of communalism and obscurantism, the diabolic nexus between politics and money power, erosion of larger visions about life and culture, the withdrawal of individuals into their own petty worlds and interests, and an alarming disconnect of the middle class from the vital sources of life, history and culture—all figure ominously in these films.

In Ganashatru Dr Ashoke Gupta fights a despairing battle against the rising forces of obscurantism and superstition that collude with communal, economic and media interests to pollute the environment, control public opinion, and loot the people. These forces gang up to stop him from telling the truth and threaten him into silence. As the grim plot thickens, he finds himself alone with a few rays of hope around him, like his daughter and the young journalist who resigns his job and joins him.

According to the film critic Gaston Roberge, while Ganashatru dealt with the external environment, Sakha Prasakha delves into the internal lives of the protagonists, taking the theme of corruption to a more personal and emotional level. The narrative setting is a family get-together following the sudden illness of the family patriarch. It is a gathering of four generations, and as it progresses we become privy to the compromises and corruption that have crept into their lives. In a world where “dishonest money” has become the sole means, meaning and measure of all things, the conscientious ones, like Prasanta and Pratap, have to either resign from society or withdraw into a world of their own. In the end, we see the heartbroken patriarch holding the hands of Prasanta—the most intelligent among his sons and one who has become silent, seeking refuge in music—close to his chest saying “Shanti, shanti …”, which sounds more like a cry of pain. Coincidentally, the role of Anandamohan Majumdar, the father, is played by Ajit Banerjee, the Ray lookalike, and Prasanta by Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Ray’s favourite actor and alter ego. One is tempted to describe it as a meeting between the director and his actor. It is Ray’s final adieu, a sort of pensive farewell gesture about a whole world and its ethos coming to an end between them.

Also read: ‘I am not conscious of being a humanist’

Agantuk, which one could consider as Ray’s swansong, is about returns of many kinds: its protagonist, Manomohan Mitra, returns to his niece’s house in his home town Calcutta after a lapse of 35 years. It is the return of the epic hero to his own home, city, culture and roots, after he has travelled the world. But the home or city he is returning to is not the one he left behind. What he encounters at ‘home’ is distrust and suspicion followed by a series of tests to prove his identity. Soon, the interrogation turns into a brutally honest stocktaking about Calcutta and its claims to high culture. At another level, it is also about Manomohan’s personal life and vision that embrace the whole world: his enchantment with the bison drawing at Altamira cave, the primal wonder at eclipses, and his wanderings amidst primeval tribes in various continents to understand their rituals and customs. His is a journey in search of the meaning of life and the essence of humanity. In the end, he leaves the city and seeks refuge in a Santhal village, which is yet another return to a primal or pristine site of civilisation.

In all the three films in the last trilogy, an atmosphere of despair and degeneration looms over the narratives. There are only glimmers of hope, which are feeble and far between. The idealist brothers in Sakha Prasakha, the young journalist and Aloke’s daughter in Ganashatru, and Manomohan Mitra’s niece in Agantuk who dances with the tribals are the solitary rays of hope amidst the overwhelming gloom.

Changing perceptions

If the first trilogy is about the growing up of young Apu, the protagonists of the Calcutta films are all young men trying to find their feet in the city. In the last trilogy, most protagonists are old, infirm and past their prime or at the fag end of their careers. All these films, in a way, look back and take stock. If it is all about moving around and exploring the world for Apu, the protagonists of the Calcutta trilogy are caught in the web of the city, unable either to effectively confront or comfortably inhabit it. If Apu’s journeys are marked by optimism and expansion—from village to city, illiteracy to education, rural idiocy to urban thrills—in the case of the protagonists of the Calcutta trilogy, the urban space they occupy proves to be a chimera, caught as they are in its contradictory pulls and ethical confusions. In the last trilogy, all the exciting journeys seem to have come to an end. The city no longer enchants, and ruminations about the past or painful realisations about the present preoccupy the characters. As the central characters grow older, wiser and ‘worldlier’, we see a certain sense of despair about the world seeping into the narratives—of promises betrayed, hopes abandoned, dreams gone awry.

Also read: ‘He lived life cinema’

What makes Ray’s engagements heart-wrenching is that they do not offer easy diagnoses or solutions; they are equally trenchant in their critique of the individual and society, instance and context, the Home and the World. Even while they dwell upon the rottenness of both, there is an undying passion for humanity and feeling for civilisational roots that pulsates through them.

Manomohan Mitra, the world-traveller and scholar of human civilisations in Agantuk, warns his grandnephew Satyaki never to end up as a “koop manduk” (frog in the well). Ray’s advice that our nation direly needs to heed today.