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Satyajit Ray's documentaries: A mixed bag

The annual festival in front of the palace monastery in Gangtok, which Ray filmed for the documentary “Sikkim” (1969-70). | Photo Credit: CREDIT
Vidyarthy Chatterjee 21 October 2021 06:00 IST
Updated: 25 October 2021 19:54 IST

When it came to documentaries, with the exception of The Inner Eye on the blind painting genius Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay, Satyajit Ray did not scale those scintillating heights that he did with many of his fictional features.

Between 1961 and 1987, Satyajit Ray directed five documentaries and six short films. In 1961, Ray observed the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore by making a documentary on the poet for the Films Division of the Government of India, and an omnibus feature film called Teen Kanya, which brought together three short films adapted from well-known Tagore short stories—Monihara, Samapti and The Postmaster.

Monihara, counted among Ray’s “zamindar” films by his biographer, Marie Seton, is about a wealthy childless couple and the violent death of the wife at the hands of a mendacious male relative out to get his hands on her jewels. The story is related by the ghost of the murdered woman that comes to take possession of an expensive necklace bought for her by her husband. A story of trust betrayed, Monihara, was, however, left out of the ‘umbrella’ film when Teen Kanya was shown in the West as Two Daughters.

Samapti was more successful in engaging the attention of the cinephile than Monihara. A part-hilarious, part-introspective coming-of-age story of a teenaged, tomboyish, rural girl married to an older, understanding young man from the city, Samapti marked the beginning of Aparna Sen’s acting career. Soumitra Chattopadhyay, as the husband, was seen to have an advantage, but the show seemed to have been stolen by Aparna Sen, bubbling with energy and mischief.

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

However, the robe of honour was reserved for The Postmaster, set in a woebegone Bengal village notorious for its rains and seasonal outbreaks of malaria. A young postmaster comes to the village not without enthusiasm and hires a small local girl to cook his meals and do sundry household chores. But no sooner has he taken charge than he is stricken with malaria, which puts the fear of god in him. The pathos of his leaving his post once he has recovered and the effect it has on the little girl, who has grown fond of him, is moving beyond words. The redoubtable but unfortunately underrated Anil Chatterjee as the postmaster and Chandana Banerjee as his little helper came up with performances that one still remembers with nostalgia sixty years later.

Documentary on Tagore

One would have normally expected Ray’s documentary on Tagore to be a gift of gratitude to be savoured, considering the director’s admiration for the poet and his knowledge of practically everything worth knowing about the great man. But unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. While the film went down well with the larger audience, it was savaged by viewers of intellectual and artistic pedigree. Complete with enactments of episodes from the poet’s long and productive life, Rabindranath failed to set the Ganga on fire. Ritwik Ghatak, otherwise a great admirer of Ray at his best, was practically unstoppable in his well-argued and strongly stated criticism. Ghatak’s expectations from Ray were known to be very high, hence his disappointment at finding his contemporary failing to deliver the goods this one important time.

Ghatak said: “I have seen the longer version of Satyajit Ray’s Rabindranath. As it seems to be the most serious attempt so far made in our country, it demands a bit of space. As a whole, the film fails to convey the tensions of a turbulent artist struggling through his life, above all, against mediocrity. Too much space has been absolutely wasted on a sort of tourist vision of old-time Calcutta, the family tree, the Brahmo Samaj. By dwelling on Debendranath etc., the balance has been completely spoilt. One could do away with the first 2,000 ft of the film without losing a single point about Tagore …I also did not like the way the ‘Crisis of Civilisation’—almost Tagore’s last testament—has been illustrated by the footage of Europe ravaged by the Hitlerite hordes. It betrays a certain lack of taste—the way the thing has been played up (which is tantamount to playing to the gallery, it seemed to me). There were also certain factual mistakes, such as the ones on Tagore’s taking to painting.”

But Ghatak did not fail to recognise those elements in Rabindranath that acted as a saving grace. “The film had its brilliant moments, too. Above all, the mental state that one arrives at, at the end of the film, is definitely all-embracing. The use of certain songs sung by Tagore himself, on the empty verandah of his Jorasanko house is masterly. The use of certain portraits at certain judiciously chosen moments is a sign of supreme artistic temperament and judgement.”

Also read: Cinema, for Satyajit Ray, was all about salvation

However, in his closing lines about Rabindranath, Ghatak sounds sad for being unable to be consistently enthusiastic about the film. “I wish I could be more generous to this, the only genuine creative documentary made till now in India. It is rather a pity that the film is not entirely as satisfying as it could be. It was made in haste—that was a mistake, I think—and is not a product of deep brooding and concentration. But Tagore is a tough customer, one should remember that, too.”

It is there for all to see that when it came to documentaries, with the exception of The Inner Eye (1972) on the blind painting genius of Santiniketan, Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay, Ray did not scale those scintillating heights that he did with many of his fictional features. If Ghatak found enough reason to complain about Rabindranath, more than one film-maker down the years have expressed disappointment with Ray’s Bala.

‘Bala’

In 1976, Ray directed a documentary on the celebrated Bharatanatyam exponent Balasaraswati, which is commonly counted as being of little, if any, consequence whether in cinematic terms, or in terms of bringing to the fore the uniqueness of the subject and the discipline in which she excelled. Practically no one in the film fraternity or in classical dance circles saw anything in Bala to commend it.

In this connection, Girish Karnad has made some interesting comments. In his acerbic memoirs titled This Life at Play, Karnad remarks: “Narayan Menon, director of Bombay’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), produced a documentary film on Balasaraswati. Bala’s condition for participating in the film was that it had to be directed by Satyajit Ray. Ray agreed and asked for a sum of one lakh. Bala insisted that she, too, be paid a lakh. Today, that film bears witness to the clash of egos between two great artists. It is a fine example of how not to make a film about an artist.”

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

Karnad then goes on to reveal some of the deficiencies in the film which did not escape the notice of anyone even faintly acquainted with the necessities and nuances of such an ancient classical dance form as Bharatanatyam. Karnad writes: “As Bala dances in the sand in front of the temples of Mahabalipuram, her sari keeps billowing in the sea breeze like a sail. When the soundtrack has the line ‘He showed his mother the three worlds in his mouth’, the visuals have Bala milking a cow. The film even finds a way to make the laughable assertion that the name Bharata comes from the initial sounds of bhava, raga and tala. Ray ignored every suggestion Bala had and did as his own genius indicated. Later, Bala would explode every time the film was mentioned. Still, when she died, this was the film broadcast on Doordarshan.” Truth to tell, today, no one takes the trouble of mentioning Bala, let alone recalling it with any seriousness.

‘Sikkim’

Ten years after Rabindranath, in 1971, Ray directed Sikkim, which was to cause him considerable trouble with the censors. With a certificate of exhibition denied for political reasons, the film remained unseen for long. When released for public exhibition after a lapse of many years, the film aroused a certain amount of interest but not enough to make it a subject of prolonged or profound discussion. Doubtless, done by a master, Sikkim has its moments as it engages with the daily doings of the people of the hill State who appear to live in a constant state of communion with nature, but that is about all that the cinephile remembers.

‘The Inner Eye’

Between Sikkim and Bala, Ray directed what is commonly regarded to be his most outstanding work in the genre of documentary. The Inner Eye (1972) is a fulsome tribute to Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay, who had been Ray’s teacher at Kala Bhavan, Tagore’s art school. The film was a stroke of genius in that Ray succeeded in entering with confidence and mastery the inner world of the painter who had gone completely blind and yet had lost none of his flair for artistic creation by exerting a magical sense of touch. It is by far Ray’s most satisfying incursion into the admittedly difficult terrain of the creative documentary. This is certainly not a so-called biopic, in the sense that it transcends mere enumeration of facts or incidents about a person. The Inner Eye is rightly counted as the only occasion when the documentary could bring out the director’s deepest reserves of observation and powers of creation.

Also read: ‘A man who knew too much’: Goutam Ghose on Satyajit Ray

Ray used to address Benode Behari as “Benode-da” ever since 1940 when he went to Santiniketan to learn art under him. Thirty-one years later, in 1971, Ray wrote a piece called “Benode-da” in the well-known Bengali literary magazine Desh, where he recounted a conversation that he had with his former teacher in preparation for the film. The last few lines of the conversation would give the reader an idea of what art meant to Benode Behari and how his words had an effect on Ray when he made the film. The master asked: “You will show khoaai in your film, won’t you?” (Khoaai is dry, eroded earth found in Birbhum, around Santiniketan.) The pupil said: “I certainly wanted to—but all the khoaai seems to have vanished.” To which, the master said, “There is one place where it still exists. Taltorh. Near Prantik station. And you will find some more if you go towards Cheep Sahib’s bungalow. Don’t leave the khoaai out. A stretch of khoaai, and in the middle of it, a solitary palm tree. That’s all. If you wish to look for my spirit, the basic essence of all that my life stands for, you will find it there. You could say, I am it!” Indeed, you can feel the spirit of the artist, the vision of the sightless magician, working wonders within you as Ray makes his camera move effortlessly over the barren grandeur of his Benode-da’s khoaai.

Sukumar Ray

It was in 1987 that Ray made his last documentary film—on his father, the inimitable, irrepressible Sukumar Ray, who died young at the height of his literary, artistic and intellectual powers. His early death shattered a generation of admiring contemporaries and caused deep anguish to Tagore. Sukumar Ray is remembered with awe even today in countless Bengali homes as an absurdist of extraordinary depth and range. His nonsense rhymes and other illustrated writings are steeped in gentle criticism of individual follies and social mores. This Edward Lear of Bengali letters is deep in intent even as he looks and ‘reads’ innocuous and funny.

Ray’s documentary homage to the life, times, and labours of his illustrious father is informative and entertaining in the enactments from his writings, but it cannot be said to be a memorable commemoration. It is, at best, a faithful reconstruction of a singularly distinguished life, albeit uplifted at places by virtue of thoughtful engagement with the creative. Ray was but a child when Sukumar Ray died and had had to depend on the latter’s literary corpus, or on the reminiscences of elderly relatives and others for his knowledge of his father. Perhaps, what the documentary misses out on is that sense of intimacy that builds up between a parent and his or her child when they have lived together over at least some period of time. Also, one would do well to remember that Sukumar Ray was made (for the Culture Ministry of the Government of West Bengal) at a time when the director was not in the best of health; arguably, the extra effort put in to raise the cinematic quality of the documentary shows.

Short films

It is generally agreed that Ray made three short films, not counting the Teen Kanya stories, at least two of which explored child psychology and behaviour. Two (1964, a.k.a. The Parable of Two), commissioned by the oil company Esso, is about two little boys, one belonging to a rich family and the other poor, and their unlikely friendship after initial hiccups. One has an excess of expensive toys to play with but is alone and lonely at home, while the other has to make do with rudimentary playthings and is perfectly at home with the ordinary world outside the rich boy’s window. The relationship starts on an uncertain note, but by the time the film ends, it seems to be on more solid ground.

India was still a young nation when the film was made, full of hope and idealism and perceived possibilities of the gap between classes being stopped from widening. Perhaps, Ray, in his own way, intended to express this optimistic mood by means of bringing together two young lads from conflicting social backgrounds. Again, made primarily for young children, perhaps Ray was trying to placate his small son, Sandip, who would often complain to his father that he made films only for grown-ups. Whatever be the case, Two had a mixed reception, the more serious-minded arguing that it was sentimental and simplistic.

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

Sixteen years after Two, a featurette by the name of Pikoo (a.k.a. Pikoo’s Diary) came to be made by Ray for French television. Pikoo is the only child of rich parents and lives in a big house where everything is available save the company of his father and mother who are not on the best of terms. Pikoo appears to roam the house aimlessly, but he is an observant and intelligent child. He has a drawing book which he fills with images of things he sees around him. His curiosity about people makes him enter his bedridden grandfather’s room once in a while and have a word with him. Starved of company, he also visits the outhouse where a menial working for the family lives, and watches with interest the man having a meagre meal.

Right from Pather Panchali, Ray had shown an interest in exploring the ties that bind the old and the very young. Pikoo’s daily diary showing his closeness to the aged or the ageing, at times straddling the classes, is worth mulling over. Ray’s life-long love of children and his empathy with them, especially with those in difficult situations, is at the centre of whatever little happens in the daily life of this privileged Calcutta boy. The curse of class is yet to enter his untainted soul, all that he craves for is human company. In a sense, Pikoo anticipated the drawbacks of the nuclear family of our present benighted times.

Premchand appears to have been Ray’s favourite Hindi writer: he made both his Hindi films from well-known short stories by the father of Hindi prose in his social-realist avatar. In 1981, Ray gave film life to Sadgati, a heart-wrenching account of caste tyranny somewhere in the Hindi-speaking heartland. Made for Doordarshan, this featurette gave ample scope to Mohan Agashe and Om Puri to give visual shape to the inhumanity of caste in the role of a Brahmin aggressor and his helpless ‘untouchable’ victim, respectively. If Satyajit Ray is counted among the world’s major film-makers of the second half of the 20th century, it is perhaps not due to his shorts or documentaries. His documentaries, in particular, with the brilliant exception of The Inner Eye, left much to be desired.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a veteran film critic based in Kolkata.

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