Parallels with contemporary film-makers

Subterranean parallels: Common threads between Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Mrinal Sen with Satyajit Ray in his study. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

Ray with Ritwik Ghatak. The garrulous Ray-Ghatak camp fighting was historically necessary to shed light on the subversive brilliance of the relatively short-lived genius apparently overshadowed by Ray’s eminence but is no more worth clinging to. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

In the decade that marks the birth centenaries of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, it is time to move beyond the apparent dissimilarities between the legends and appreciate the commonalities connecting their work and the common influences that shaped them.

For decades, the cine culture of West Bengal has shown a couple of apparently contradictory symptoms: upholding the ‘Ray-Ghatak-Sen’ triumvirate as a sort of holy pantheon within which the cinematic glory of the region is limited and, in more intellectual circuits, pitting Satyajit Ray against Ritwik Ghatak (and sometimes Mrinal Sen) as cultural icons. These symptoms had resonances beyond engagements with the medium, in the ambit of culture at large.

I am describing these two tendencies as symptoms because they can be read in depth to unravel subterranean cultural complexes. Of course, Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ghatak were powerful artists a linguistic-cultural community is bound to be proud of, but wallowing in the glory of this trio might also betray a sense of loss and lack in the cinematic culture of the present decades. Before the establishment of academic film studies in Kolkata, serious engagement with the popular melodramas of the 1950s and 1960s was scarce. Film-makers like Debaki Bose, Pramathesh Barua, Rajen Tarafdar, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, Asit Sen and Tarun Majumdar were respected but not revisited again and again and ‘recollected’ like the pantheon of three. Uttam Kumar’s death, the prolonged crisis in the Bengali film industry of the 1970s and 1980s and the resultant cinematic time warp at the weekend in television, which regularly telecast films of the earlier decades, led to the cultural construction of the swarnajug (the golden age) of Bengali cinema, that is, the 1950s and 1960s. But this sense of cultural utopia—‘we once had’—waned with the advent of post-Doordarshan television and globalisation. The sense of ‘golden days’ was not discarded, but it was shelved into a virtual museum, sometimes window-shopped by a newly fashioned nostalgia industry. Films which survived in the digital form stayed in popular memory, but the regional intelligentsia, when it recalled cinema of a certain value, reverted to the holy trio.

Apart from them being obvious stalwarts, why did these three giants of Indian cinema, born within five years of the 1920s, command a sort of monopoly over greatness in the Bengali cultural imaginary? Does the value lie in their work’s intrinsic artistic richness, or in the ‘value’ we have construed, projected in the works?

Also read: A Century of Ray

One can dare to admit that the trio has been valuable to us not only because they gathered international fame (in the case of Ghatak, it was posthumous and rather a recent phenomenon) but probably because they had strong influence nationally, beyond the linguistic boundary. When we remember Ray, Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, we remember them as Bengali cinematic thinkers followed by tomorrow’s India. In our cultural imaginary, the Apu Trilogy is a pioneering set of films, ushering in cinematic realism in a mass culture dominated by melodrama. Academic research in recent years, for example by Moinak Biswas of Jadavpur University, has shown that Pather Panchali (1955) can also be considered as a result (albeit with shifts and breaks) of a decade-long movement towards realism in cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. But the common, and non-academic, cultural perception has consistently stayed with the idea of Pather Panchali as a sort of unprecedented beginning. In a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, one can say that the Bengali cultural imaginary posits the film as a sort of moment of enlightenment, preceded by a dimmer cinematic medieval and followed by glorious luminescence spreading. This is important, as not only in the State but beyond it, Ray turned into a sort of torch-bearer.

Similarly, Mrinal Sen was the pioneer of the New Indian Cinema after his Bhuvan Shome (1969). But strangely, his preceding eight films are hardly recalled; a few of them do not even survive in DVDs. Ghatak’s films, except his Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), did not meet popular success, but he had the ‘value’ of being the legendary teacher at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, with ‘national followers’ like Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. He was the iconoclast figure pitted against the ‘conventional’ Ray (more on this later). Ghatak was like a messiah in the ‘avant-garde’ literary circles, that is, beyond the cinematic circuit, and therefore, veritably a leader. Only these three figures, as far as cinema is concerned, gave Bengalis the consolation of ‘influence beyond’ when plagues of parochialism were looming large. They gave us the consolation of ‘once upon a time’. Only they are the latter-half-of-twentieth-century greats about whom the nation and the world talk about.

Ray-philes vs Ghatak-ians

This was the broader picture, evident from afar. If one zooms in, the other tendency would be evident: that of sort of rival camps between the Ray-philes and the Ghatak-ians. Any Bengali with above average cultural inclinations (and not only, this is important, inclined to cinema) comes of age being initiated into this rivalry. The redder and hotter one’s head is, the more would one pontificate that Ray was an overrated bourgeoise film-maker who shadowed the more revolutionary, less understood, tragically ignored Ghatak. Or, that Mrinal Sen was more topical (which means political) than Ray. In recent years, this pitting against has surged again and again in social media, often in its banal repetitiveness, and it reached a sort of nadir when the recently deceased Soumitra Chattopadhyay repeated twice how he once punched Ghatak. In his iteration, Soumitra Chattopadhyay said that he did this because Ghatak mouthed something foul about Ray, resurrecting the familiar binary of a civil, bhadralok Ray and the alcoholic, undisciplined Ghatak.

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

This rivalry spilled beyond the linguistic-cultural boundaries. On May 16, 1992, Dileep Padgaonkar, just after Ray’s demise, turned a book review into an impatient denunciation titled “Eulogising Ray to cover our lapses”. It began thus: “Incapable of making sound judgments in good time, they deify. This is perhaps the only explanation why Indians in general, and Bengalis in particular, have been going overboard in swiftly placing Satyajit Ray in the pantheon of their cultural demi-gods alongside Rabindranath Tagore ...” This was followed by an analysis of the bhadralok Bengali obsolescence and parochialism: “The Brahmo movement is now moribund but those who still claim to be Brahmos—their numbers are small and dwindling—represent a somewhat quaint mix of cosmopolitanism and nativism. The quaintness does not however detract from the fact that, unlike most educated Indians, they seem to be at ease with the world and, above all, with themselves.” It was also in 1992 that Geeta Kapur wrote an influential article in the erstwhile The Journal of Arts and Ideas which described Ray in his first decade of film-making almost as a Nehruvian ideologue by default, presenting in his Apu Trilogy a statist vision of modernity, founded on denial and disavowal of the traumas of nation-building. The perspective was implicitly of an ardent Ghatak aficionado. To any initiated Bengali on hindsight, these views are bound to evoke an amusing sign of familiarity with many local storms over teacups: one cannot appreciate both Ray and Ghatak in the same breath.

Nostalgia industry & Ghatak cult

But such passions many a times end up revealing ironies; cultural passions mutate strangely. The posthumous remembrance of Ray has led to a huge Ray nostalgia industry in Bengal (here one can even incorporate Hindi films like Kahaani or the recent Bulbbul which uncannily recalls Charulata, 1964, and Monihara, 1961, without being conscious of it). This nostalgia industry, most evident in the canon of films referred to in social media discussions, recalls his more feel-good and popular films, and is systematically oblivious of his more disturbing films like Postmaster (1961), Sadgati (1981), Ashani Sanket (1973), Kapurush (though remembering the other half of the double bill, Mahapurush, 1965) and especially Jana Aranya (1975). One of his classics which is perennially appreciated in the West, Jalsaghar (1958), is hardly recalled. Even unsettling readings of, for example, Aparajito (1956), Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) and Ghare Baire (1984) are ironed off in popular reminiscences. That he rather obsessively warned against rising majoritarian fundamentalism and religion-power-money nexus in the 1980s, starting from his last adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore until his rather verbose and weaker last three films, and even in his popular Jai Baba Felunath (1978), is not often recalled. Rather his films have been turned into reassuring cultural repositories and memories of plenitude and comfort. His detective novels have been repeatedly adapted on smaller and bigger screen, most of the time unimaginatively, and in devout faithfulness to the originals despite his precedence of departing significantly when he adapted a couple of them. References to him abound as if he is a sort of cultural ATM. The posthumous Ray industry has largely consisted of vacuous exercises in reiteration of cultural signifiers catalogued under his name.

On the other hand, the Ghatak cult remains consistently a culturally masculine ghetto despite his major films exploring the feminine experiences of tumultuous history. How did women receive or recall a film-maker who energised the melodramatic form so significantly? No one asked or searched; the cult of Ghatak breeds ‘anti-institutional’ men in Bengal, often artists without a medium. The shock of irony culminated, just before the onset of the pandemic, in the majoritarian political bastion of the country pointing out, in support of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, how Ghatak, in his films on the aftermath of Partition, articulated the plight of “Hindu” refugees. We had our Ray and Ghatak; we have conjured the spectres of our Ray and Ghatak too. It is only Mrinal Sen who enjoys a sort of respite in these processes of deification, partially because unlike the other two, his field of ‘influence’ is safely confined within cinema rather than having implications in the broader culture. And that, too, in a very restricted sense of ‘socially aware’ cinema (I have consciously not used the ‘political’ epithet). We remember Mrinal Sen because the Sottor (seventies) is our favourite imaginary. That Mrinal Sen is probably our singular ‘national’ film-maker who regularly ventured into film-making in other languages, that his post-1970s films show evidence of an intriguing late melancholia, a sense of loss of a cinematic energy he ushered in in the earlier decade, does not contribute to that imaginary of political action and masochism.

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

These cultural symptoms have ceased to become indices of passion and have turned more into a fruitless inertia, blocking newer ways of assessment of these artists. The half-decade initiated last year by the pandemic will be bookended by the centenary years of Ray and Ghatak. Mrinal Sen’s centenary will fall in between. In our reassessments, we can ponder about how the spirit of the 1940s, the decade when these stalwarts spent their formative youth, was functional in their works. We need to revisit and understand how they, along with many other film-makers and artists, shaped their unique visions and fashioned the youngest medium of their times to articulate their expressions. Rather than obsessively harping on where they are different, we can delve into similarities, correspondences, and exchanges. We can study how Bhuvan Shome and Biswambhar Roy of Jalsaghar, or, to stretch one’s imagination, the patriarchs played by Chhabi Biswas in Kanchenjungha (1962) or Devi (1960) are similar relics of a bygone obsolescence, or why Karuna Banerjee’s Sarbajaya had to be referred to in Mrinal Sen’s Interview, or how Ghatak’s regular Bijan Bhattacharya (especially as Nita’s father in Meghe Dhaka Tara) reappears as the father in Mrinal Sen’s Padatik (1973) as an embodiment of an erstwhile Leftist sensibility.

Ray and Ghatak: correspondences

The correspondences between Ray and Ghatak might be richer. In an available video in YouTube, Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay has discussed at length how Devi and Meghe Dhaka Tara are almost like sibling films, coming into being simultaneously. To me, the correspondence between the Apu Trilogy and Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (1962, released in 1965) is more striking. The imagery of the young children (the girl a bit taller than the boy) in Ghatak’s film recalls Apu and Durga; the way the children suddenly encounter the train in Pather Panchali has resonances in the children discovering the broken plane in Subarnarekha; even the rattling advent and departure of the train in Ray’s film, followed by Indir Thakrun’s death, echoes in the lost mother’s death underlined by a similar advent of a locomotive in Ghatak’s film. Apu wrote an unfinished autobiographical novel, Abhiram also kept one unfinished in the latter film; and there is the enigmatic coda of the weary man and the boy with a future in both the films.

I am also intrigued by another rather enigmatic set of similarities: in Subarnarekha, relations between siblings had hidden monsters beneath them; in each film of Ray’s ‘urban trilogy’ it is a sister on whom disturbing erotic nuances are projected. The mildest one is the sister-in-law in Seemabaddha (1971), the more disturbing one is the erotic enigma of Siddhartha’s sister in Pratidwandi (1970), and the culmination is in the pimping of a sister figure in Jana Aranya. Each of these dark films about the decay of Bengal pitches the sister as a screen on which male desire is played off in a twisted way. There are correspondences between the legends; we do not know the methods of reading them.

Also read: A letter from Satyajit Ray

In these centenary years, we need to rediscover the sensibility which led to the exceptional command over cinematic craft and brilliance of vision evident in the works of these stalwarts as markers of a modernity which has been lost by now. This assessment of an erstwhile modern should be done with the assessment of the context and an understanding of how the sensibility not only connects the three, but also other stalwarts. For example, one should understand how Ray, when studying the stardom of Uttam Kumar in his Nayak (1966) also finds a kindred spirit in the superstar: the way he has gravitated towards the realistic in cinema has a parallel in a similar journey Uttam Kumar has undergone in terms of film-acting.

I have not repeated much documented praises by one stalwart of the other, or the infamous critical squabbles like those between Ray and Mrinal Sen. The Ray-Sen camp fighting among cinephiles has lost its steam; the more garrulous Ray-Ghatak camp fighting was historically necessary to shed light on the subversive brilliance of the relatively short-lived genius apparently overshadowed by Ray’s eminence but is no more worth clinging to. Bengal’s cinephilia needs to outgrow these symptoms. What overshadowed Ghatak’s subversive aesthetic strategies was not Ray, but the dominance of the misunderstood realist paradigm he stood for. Ray had been internationally famous, but closer home, Ray was hardly the undisputed doyen of Bengali cinema during his times. If we look back, until the 1980s, views, often dogmatic and belligerently critical of Ray were much more commonplace than we assume. Even Mrinal Sen’s films were met with critical impatience in his most famous decade. These discursive wars have no value, sans the historical, any more. Rather, in my opinion, they have been reified into fruitlessness in recent years, betraying a rather indulgent and wallowing perspective on the best age of our cinema whose achievements are far from being fully fathomed.

Anindya Sengupta is faculty member and current head of the Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University.