Unstated politics: The political statements in Satyajit Ray's films

Though Satyajit Ray never wore his politics on his sleeve, he never shied away from making strong statements in his films that left no confusion as to his own personal political stand.

Published : Oct 19, 2021 06:00 IST

Soumitra Chattopadhyay, who starred in 14 of Satyajit Ray’s 30 full-length feature films, once wrote a message for a very young fan on a DVD cover of Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980): “One day you will grow up and start seeing these films in new light. And some day your eyes will see the triumph of humanity in these works of art.” This little message by the Bengali screen and stage legend perhaps said more than what a whole chapter on Ray’s art and vision of film-making could. For all the acclaim that he received from the time Pather Panchali (1955) held the whole world in awe, throughout his life a niggling point of view never ceased to stalk Ray—that next to his great contemporaries Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, the political message in his films was at most tepid and non-confrontational. Such criticism was not just unfair but also deliberately blinkered. Although he never wore his politics on his sleeve, Ray never shied away from making strong statements in his films that left no confusion as to his personal political stand. As Soumitra Chattopadhyay’s message suggested, it was something that would grow on an individual with every fresh viewing of his films, and upon serious contemplation of his art. There is a theory that the “Calcutta trilogy” ( Pratidwandi , 1970; Seemabaddha , 1971; and Jana Aranya , 1975) was Ray’s answer to a point being repeatedly raised at that time by journalists and film scholars that he deliberately avoided addressing immediate political and social issues in his films. While Ray was undoubtedly more overtly political in the three Calcutta films, it would be incorrect to assert that he did not make strong political observations in his other films. However, Ray’s style was too subtle and cerebral for the kind of in-your-face politics that many wanted to see him espouse; and he was far too conscious of his audience’s expectations to thrust anything down their throats. It must be kept in mind that of the three great film-makers of the era—Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ghatak—Ray was the most popular in the mainstream and most aware of an audience’s need to be entertained in the cinema halls. Hence, his political message would be slipped in, almost surreptitiously, so as not to come in the way of the entertainment aspect of the narrative, through images, hints, ironies and metaphors. To Ray, the manner in which the message was communicated was as important as the message itself. His words in the Amal Bhattacharji Memorial lecture, which he delivered in 1982, made that very clear:

“Our critics too have shown a tendency to judge a film predominantly on what it says rather than how it says it. I have no wish to belittle content, but we must remember that the lousiest of films have been made on the loftiest of themes… Unless a film aims at deliberate obfuscation, or is unintelligible through sheer clumsiness of execution, what it says is usually clear to all. But what it says is only a partial index of a film-maker’s personality, because it is the manner of saying which indicates the artist. There are film-makers who are not overly concerned with what they say as long they can say it with style or finesse. One would sooner describe them as craftsmen, because it is difficult to think of an artist who is totally devoid of an attitude to life and society which he reveals in his work. Usually, the attitude is implicit in his choice of material. But his success in portraying it in terms of cinema is in direct ratio to the purity, power, and freshness of his language.” Right from the beginning, Ray’s politics was implicit in his choice of material. The actor Dhritiman Chaterji, who is known for his iconic role in Pratidwandi , said: “Why would anybody choose a story like Pather Panchali for his first film instead of a more mainstream story with bankable stars? After all, Pather Panchali is a subaltern story, a story of very poor rural India. But the fact that Ray chose that as his first film shows his commitment to his political belief.” In a conversation with Frontline , he pointed out that like most great artistes, Ray was as much a product of his time as he was the result of the amalgamation of cultural influences of his own family and that of Rabindranath Tagore. “He was only in his twenties when the country gained Independence, and it was a time of hope with Nehru, the Five Year Plans, and the belief in a progressive, secular, equitable India. In some people the situation led to pronounced Left-wing thinking, like Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Ray was a part of that environment, and it is that environment which formed his beliefs on life and society, as is evident in all his films,” said Chaterji. It should be remembered that in 1966 Ray led a silent procession in protest against the imprisonment without trial of Food Movement demonstrators. He also participated in a rally against the Vietnam War around the same time.

Also read: A Century of Ray

But Ray’s politics was not just restricted to the politics of the street. It was a reflection of the entire socio-politico-economic situation. His genius lay in the way in which he could seamlessly weave in multiple issues in one single film. Whether it was to silence critics or whether it was to express himself in a new way, never was Ray more overtly political than in his Calcutta trilogy. The turmoil of the 1970s, the naxal movement, the Emergency, and the violence and uncertainty that the city and its youth were going through were not only reflected in those three films, but also expressed in the outlook of the protagonists. Ray had departed from his old classical form of narrative and pulled no punches in his political message. That message could not have been made clearer in the famous scene in Pratidwandi where the protagonist Siddhartha is asked in a job interview what he thinks is the most significant development in the last 10 years. Siddhartha answers, the Vietnam War. The interviewer presses, “More important than the landing on the moon?” To which Siddhartha replies, “I think so, Sir.” He explains that the landing on the moon was “predictable”, but what was not predictable was the resistance of the Vietnamese people. “Ordinary people, peasants, and no one knew that they had it in them. This isn’t a matter of technology; it’s plain human courage and it just takes your breath away.” In the same interview, when asked if he is a communist, Siddhartha points out that one does not have to be a communist to admire Vietnam, though he does not deny being one.

The world-renowned film director Goutam Ghose, who was close to Ray, told Frontline : “Ray never indulged in any kind of propaganda. But he certainly had a political mind. Many of his friends were Leftists, and you can see where his sympathies lay—the common people. You can see in the interview in Pratidwandi that his sympathies were with the peasants of Vietnam fighting against a superpower. He had a soft corner for struggling people, and those fighting for humanism.” Seldom would Ray resort to making direct political statements, yet he would get his point across powerfully through subtle suggestions in scenes and dialogues. In Seemabaddha , there is a scene where privileged corporate executives are having a party in a high-rise flat, while sounds of violence and bombs are wafting in from the distance. Those corporate executives sip their sherry, ogle the ladies in the room, and make all-too-serious conversation about the lamentable state of things. The irony cannot be missed. Seemabaddha is also the story of how the working class is monopolised and sometimes even made expendable to protect the interests and the reputation of a company.

It is in the last film of the trilogy, Jana Aranya , released at the height of the Emergency, that Ray is at his most cynical and politically scathing. Through images, passing references and bitter humour, he was unsparing of the time and practically held it up for ridicule. As unemployment, desperation, and rising anger stalk the streets of Calcutta where Somnath (played by Pradip Mukherjee) wanders with growing cynicism and disenchantment in search of a job, the huge wall graffiti of the naxal movement proclaiming “ Chin er Chairman amader Chairman ”(China’s Chairman is our Chairman), and “ bonduk er nol i shakti r utsa ” (the barrel of the gun is the source of power) not only indicates a huge churning in society, but also serves as a masterful touch of irony: a couple of scenes later the same graffiti is seen to be defaced beyond legibility with considerable violence. As small children of a family of street dwellers eat amidst the squalor on the road, another graffiti, this time of the ruling party, states “1971 is the Year of Victory” and the terms “democracy” and “governance” are highlighted. High on the wall there is an outline of a face that looks suspiciously like a caricature of Indira Gandhi. Ray drew the face himself. “No one else was tall enough to do it,” joked the 6’6 Ray later.

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray’s cinematic trilogies

In some of the dialogues, too, Ray sent across a strong political statement that might have taken quite a few by surprise at that time. Just as Siddhartha voices his support for the peasants of Vietnam in Pratidwandi , in Jana Aranya Somnath’s gentle, philosophical father, who had once been a Gandhian, wonders aloud upon hearing of the killing of three naxalites: “Only a great ideology can inspire courage like that [to be able to risk violent death].” Then he asks his son if he has any book from which he can learn of their political outlook. What can be most interesting and disturbing at the same time is the realisation of the continuation of certain traditions and practices in Bengal politics for the past five decades. There is a scene in Jana Aranya where a smug MLA brushes aside all culpability for the failings of his party by squarely placing the blame on the previous regimes; 45 years down the line, the narrative has not altered—neither in Bengal politics, nor at the Centre.

Political from the start

However, it was not as if Ray suddenly turned political in the Calcutta trilogy. He was political, right from the start when he took a stand against the politics of religion and superstition in Devi (1960), alienating a large section of orthodox Hindus. Some took to the streets in protest against what they considered an “insult” to the Hindu religion and its age-old practices. Decades later, when his health was failing, he found it necessary to make Ganashatru (1989) during the early stages of the revival of Hindutva riding on the shoulders of superstition and rumour. Ray’s film, based on Henrik Ibsen’s play, is about a doctor who dares to challenge the social and political establishments by pointing out that the sacred water from the temple consumed by thousands is contaminated. The message remains relevant in the present day when gomutra (cow urine) is being promoted by political and religious leaders as a preventive for COVID and myths are being given the status of historical facts.

Ray’s personal politics is always present just beneath the surface of the narrative, quietly, unobtrusively finding its way out and merging effortlessly with the main narrative. Take the case of Nayak (1966), a film whose political message most viewers would ignore. After all, it is an all-too-human story of the rise of a matinee idol. A passing section of the film tells of the friendship between the protagonist Arindam Mukherjee (played by the incomparable Uttam Kumar) and his old schoolmate Biresh (played by Premangshu Bose), a committed trade union leader. In the days preceding his stardom, while Biresh would address workers and labourers outside the factory gates, Arindam would be learning the lines for his upcoming performance.

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

Biresh wanted his friend to be more aware of the reality around him and not remain in the land of make-believe and stage lights. “If only with your good looks and your voice you addressed the workers, it would have such an impact,” Biresh told him. On one occasion when goons backed by the police arrived at a demonstration of workers organised by Biresh, Arindam did not hesitate to jump into the fray for the sake of his old friend. This was before his stardom. A few years later, after Biresh is released from prison, he comes to Arindam—who is by then an established matinee idol—and tries to persuade him to use his stardom to boost the flagging morale of striking workers. Arindam refuses outright, and instead offers his friend money. “Don’t you have any feelings for these people who have been striking for the last 24 days?” Biresh asks. But Arindam has already chosen his path and will not allow anything to come in the way of his success. He cuts a sorry figure next to his “unsuccessful” friend, who fights for the rights of the poor and the deprived. “I don’t know what I was afraid of that day, but I did realise that I had fallen in Biresh’s estimate,” Arindam admits later. In that little passing scene, the primary aim of which is to highlight the change that has come over Arindam, Ray also shows where his sympathies lie as Biresh tries to soothe the striking workers amid the dust kicked off by Arindam’s departing car.

Always with the underdog

Time and again, Ray made it clear where he stood in the scheme of things—it was with the underdog, the rebel, the outcast, the rejected and the oppressed. Time and again, he showed the hostility of the existing system towards them and their betrayal in the hands of those who claimed to uphold their cause. In Sadgati (1981), the harrowing image of the ‘Chamar’ Dukhia’s corpse rotting in the sun and the rain, with the upper caste not willing to touch it and the lower caste refusing to remove it as a mark of protest, exposes not just the still-existing evils in society, but also the self-serving hypocrisy of different sections. Finally, as the dead body starts to stink, the Brahmin who was responsible for Dukhia’s death drags it with a rope around its leg like some rotting animal carcass and dumps it amidst remains of dead animals. In that stark and brutal ending, Ray makes his most powerful political comment on caste politics and the continuing atrocities on Dalits.

Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, an eminent director in his own right, talking about the politics in his father’s film, told Frontline : “It is often said of Baba that he avoided politics in his films. That’s not really true…. Baba always preferred politics to remain in the background of his films. In the foreground he wanted a solid story. Besides, he used to say that if he expressed his own political thoughts explicitly in his films, they wouldn’t get past the censor board. He would rather put it across in the wrappings of a fairy tale. That way, he said what he had to but no one had any grounds for objecting. Also, he did not want his films to be dated, stamped as belonging to a particular time. He wanted to make the film in such a way that it would be enjoyed 20 years later too.”

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

Forty years after Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) was made, lines from the movie were being chanted and used on posters and placards against the government as the country erupted in outrage against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Through a delightful fairy tale narrated in couplets and verses, Hirak Rajar Deshe shows the oppression of the working class in a totalitarian regime. Emaciated workers toil in dark mines and caverns digging out precious stones for the unscrupulous lord of the Kingdom of Diamonds; soldiers walk zombie-like at the order of their master; any sign of poverty is swept aside to keep up appearances for the outside world; independent thought is ruthlessly subdued; and the citizens are brainwashed with a sinister machine through a process known as “ magaj dholai ” (brainwash). While on the one hand it was a scathing metaphor of the Emergency period, on the other hand it cleverly presented a timeless aspect of authoritarianism, making it all the more relevant in the current day and age.

While it is true that Ray was never a member of any political party and he never openly expressed his support for any ideology, it is quite obvious that he was a pronounced Leftist in his personal politics. This repeatedly manifested itself in his films, often in subtle ways. It is no coincidence that in Sakha Prasakha (1990), a story on the disintegration of human values and corruption of the human soul in the relentless pursuit of money and pleasures, it is a communist and a mentally broken loner who stands for morality and conscience. Ray was always on the side of the rebel, the one who opposes injustice, like Arati (played by Madhabi Mukherjee) in Mahanagar (1963), who quits her job in spite of being in the good books of her boss because she feels her colleague Edith has been wronged, though the boss had even offered to provide her unemployed husband a much-needed job. The husband (played by Anil Chatterjee), instead of despairing or getting angry with Arati, salutes her saying he would not have had the guts to do what she did. Assured of his support, Arati says, “You know, in this moment of misery and uncertainty, I feel happy.” While Ray quietly addressed issues of unemployment and poverty and juxtaposed them with human pride and the struggle to maintain dignity in adversity, he was also always knocking away at the class barrier, as one can see in the unlikely friendship blossoming between the rich industrialist’s daughter and the impoverished, unemployed young man who turns down her father’s rather insulting offer of a job in Kanchenjungha (1962).

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

In 1982, Cineaste magazine of the United States asked Ray a question which he was perhaps by then quite sick of answering: “You’ve often said that you don’t think it’s right, important, or necessary for an artist to provide answers or make judgments, to say that this is right and this is wrong. You’ve stayed away from major political statements.”

To which Ray replied: “I have made political statements more clearly than anyone else, including Mrinal Sen. In Middleman [ Jana Aranya ] I included a long conversation in which a Congressite discusses the tasks ahead. He talks nonsense, he tells lies, but his very presence is significant. If any other director had made that film, that scene would not have been allowed. But there are definitely restrictions on what a director can say. You know that certain statements and portrayals will never get past the censors. So why make them?”

But the fact is, Ray had found the way to bypass the censors and make scathing political statements and get away with it, simply because like all truly great artists, he realised that what he had to say was as important as the manner in which he said it.

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