Interview: Dhritiman Chaterji

‘We need criticism, not hagiography’: Dhritiman Chaterji on Satyajit Ray's relevance in today's world

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Dhritiman Chaterji. Photo: THANTHONI S

Ray on the set of ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger, 1991), directing Dhritiman Chaterji. Sandip Ray was the camera operator. Photo: Nemai Ghosh/courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay talks to Dhritiman Chaterji.

Dhritiman Chaterji burst upon the screen as the iconic young Siddhartha Chaudhuri in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), the first of the Calcutta trilogy. Fifty-one years later, Ray’s socio-political message remains as strong in the present times as when the films were first screened. In a conversation with Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Dhritiman Chaterji talked extensively on Ray’s relevance in today’s world and the need to do serious critical research on him, rather than just hagiography. Apart from Pratidwandi, Chaterji also acted in two of Ray’s later films—Ganashatru (1989) and Agantuk (1991). “Films like Pratidwandi and Ganashatru are as much a statement against the terrible politics we are going through now—the politics of communalism, authoritarianism, majoritarianism, and the narrow, semi-literate kind of nationalism,” he said. Excerpts:

When the Calcutta trilogy [Pratidwandi, 1970; Seemabaddha, 1971; and Jana Aranya, 1975] happened 50 years ago, a lot of people were saying that Satyajit Ray had become overtly political; but what is often overlooked is that Ray had just entered what is called the middle age in one’s life, and was, in a sense, straddling both the world of youthful enthusiasm and the realm of middle-aged reflections. He was going to be 50 when he made Pratidwandi. Even though we often view the “Calcutta” films as a reaction to what was happening in the world outside, in my opinion, these films had as much to do with what was happening within Ray at the age he was in. If he had made Pratidwandi at a later stage of his life—when he was making Ganashatru, Sakha Prasakha [1990] and Agantuk—I think we would have got a totally different kind of film.

But even 51 years after it was first screened, I find cinematically Pratidwandi has not aged in the slightest bit, nor has it become dated in its theme. The concerns voiced are still very relevant. I have found young audiences getting terribly excited about the scene in which there is talk on Vietnam. As they are listening to that conversation, they are using it as a point of reference to other issues—be it Donald Trump, Afghanistan, or the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] and the NRC [National Register of Citizens] agitation here. Films like Pratidwandi and Ganashatru are as much a statement against the terrible politics we are going through now—the politics of communalism, authoritarianism, majoritarianism, the narrow, semi-literate kind of nationalism. One wonders in these dire times why contemporary film-makers are not as politically articulate as the generation of Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen.

Also read: A Century of Ray

Even now, often in panel discussions I hear young people saying they just saw Pratidwandi and found it so relevant even after so many years. It is not because of the political content alone; it is relevant because the young protagonist Siddhartha’s aimlessness, confusion, indecision seem so vital and real and timeless. The defining characteristic of Siddhartha is retreat, not confrontation. It comes out best in that scene where the driver of an expensive car is being beaten up, and Siddhartha rushes in to also take part in the beating, but in the end he doesn’t land a single blow. As an actor, I tried to get into the scene, but really did not manage to push my way through the crowd, and so gave it up. Incidentally, I have still not read the book.

I recall during the time when the so-called “Calcutta trilogy” was being made, a book had come out containing a series of very high-quality writings on Ray’s films. [Professor] Supriya Chaudhuri had written a piece on Pratidwandi, in which she had made an interesting observation that the film was Ray responding to a lot of criticism levelled against him at that time that he was unwilling to confront contemporary reality. For example, magazines like Now, which was brought out by Samar Sen, were suggesting that Ray’s politics was lukewarm, especially when compared with Mrinal Sen’s and Ritwik Ghatak’s films. What Ray did in the three films of the Calcutta trilogy was a complete departure from his earlier films—content-wise and style-wise. In fact, in Pratidwandi, Ray used techniques that are normally associated with Mrinal Sen—the hand-held camera, jump cuts, freezes, etc. People did not expect this as Ray was more associated with the classical mode of narrative. In other words, Satyajit Ray was associated in everyone’s mind with Rabindranath Tagore, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.

‘A more critical approach’

There is a lot that has been written about Ray, but there has been very little criticism of his works, just as there has been very little criticism of Rabindranath Tagore. True, he had faced some criticism early on as I mentioned earlier, but in the Bengali mind Ray is on the same plane as Tagore. There has been hagiography, but no real biography. If Ray is to be kept relevant, then it is not another book of praise that is required, but critical writing and assessment in the truest sense. Otherwise, it will be difficult to keep the young people interested. Just the way Shakespeare, or for that matter, Sherlock Holmes have managed to remain popular and relevant, the same is required for Ray.

To some extent it has begun with the recent Netflix series on Ray’s story. There were four stories by three directors. Personally, I loved one of them; but it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction in keeping Ray’s legacy alive. Moreover, a lot of plans were made for the centenary celebrations, both by local organisations like the Ray Society and the Ministry of Culture, but unfortunately nothing could come about because of the pandemic situation. This is a pity, because it is necessary for people to get the opportunity to see Ray’s films again. While everything is available to the people online, sometimes a nudge in the right direction is also needed.

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

One interesting aspect about Ray’s choice of literature for making into film was that he preferred to fall back on older works, though the Calcutta trilogy films were based on contemporary books. In 1982, Ray delivered the Amal Bhattacharya Memorial Lecture, which I attended. It was absolutely fascinating. One of the topics that had come up was the cinematic adaptability of contemporary Bengali literature, and Ray felt that much of contemporary Bengali literature was not adaptable due to its lack of physical details. He believed that cinema was not created out of abstract ideas. This led to a prolonged jousting between Ray and Buddhadeb Guha [popular Bengali author who passed away in 2021] and it was on the verge of getting nasty with legal notices, etc. But the fact is, Ray believed in the “here and now” and the simple things. The best example is the Apu Trilogy. If you read the book, the descriptions of the village, the fruits, etc., are so vivid, and Ray captures that on film. The sociologist Ashis Nandy once said that nobody had shown an Indian village as vividly and as honestly as Ray in Pather Panchali. This was remarkable, given the fact that Ray, apart from his not-so-long stay in Santiniketan, was essentially an urban person.

After Pratidwandi, my next work with Ray was in Ganashatru, nearly 20 years later. Ganashatru came after Ray recovered from a long illness. The doctors had told him to take rest, but he was itching to get back to work. Certain social issues had precipitated the making of Ganashatru. At that time Hindutva was rearing its head with rumours floating about of Ganesha idols drinking milk, temples springing up, etc. Ray was getting increasingly disturbed by all these events and he decided to make a film on Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. A lot of restrictions were placed on him for health reasons during the shooting. He would have to shoot indoors, not strain himself, his cardiologist would be on the set, there would always be an ambulance outside, etc. The end result was a film that still remains relevant and contemporary even after 30 years.

Following the shooting of Ganashatru, I did a very long, free-flowing interview with him, in which he talked about a wide range of topics—the movies he wished to have made, issues relating to the environment, spiritualism, contemporary politics, and so on. At that time I was living in Chennai. He told me that in spite of all the problems that Calcutta was saddled with, he would never be able to live anywhere other than Calcutta. While speaking on spiritualism, he told me: “I just can’t see an old man with a flowing beard up there. But there are various people whose judgment I trust, and they believe that there are things that exist beyond the realm of rationalism. I can’t dismiss it because of the respect I have for those people, but personally I find it very difficult to believe in a god.” After his illness, he felt there were certain things he had to communicate, get out of his system— call it intimations of mortality if you will—and it was thus that Sakha Prasakha and Agantuk came about.

Also read: Film time, family time: Sandip Ray on Satyajit Ray

I had a small role in Agantuk, in which I am interrogating the main character played by Utpal Dutt. Ray called me over to his residence to read out my scene to me. He was lying in bed, but he was so enthusiastic about the film that instead of reading out just my part, he read the whole script out to me. His wife [Bijoya Ray] was gently protesting and kept reminding him of the doctor’s orders. Ray was always an avid reader, and his literary interests were varied. During his illness, his forced inactivity gave him even more time to read and he was at that time reading the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. This led him to contemplate on concepts like primitivism, modernity, which found expression in the character played by Utpal Dutt. In fact, he had told Utpal Dutt: “The character you are playing is actually me, so keep that in mind when you are interpreting the role.” If we decode the film, then we hear Satyajit Ray himself expressing his own beliefs and values.

Artistic vision

When he directed me in Pratidwandi, Ray was at his most powerful—physically, mentally and creatively. The film was a very dynamic one and Ray was physically extremely active. But for the last three films, the situation had altered drastically. Not only was his physical work restricted under the doctor’s orders—he could not even operate the camera, which he had been doing for a long time. He was also not able to work for too long at a stretch. Ray always believed in working sensible hours; but for the last three films, even the sensible hours were curtailed. But what had not changed was his clarity of outlook and his precision in doing things.

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

Before starting his shoot, Ray had a habit of calling all the main people associated with the film and reading out the script to them. So sure was he about what he was going to do, he practically acted out the entire script. That way those listening to him could visualise their respective roles and tasks. In his last three films, even if he was physically frail, the clarity of his artistic vision had not diminished in any way. He knew exactly what he wanted; he just needed somebody else to execute it.

Before the filming of Ganashatru began, he asked the wardrobe person to get the size of my shoes. When the shoes arrived, I realised that the heels were made a little higher so I looked taller in them. It was never necessary to do that before so I wondered why. Later while shooting the scene in which Soumitrada [Soumitra Chattopadhyay] and I are on the stage together for the debate, I realised why he had ordered such shoes. He was doing a tracking shot which covered both of us. So, even before the filming had begun he knew the framing of the scene would work best if there was not much of a height difference between the actors. That’s what I mean when I say his precision in visualising was as sharp as ever.

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