Ray's modernity

How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chattopadhyay in ‘Charulata’. Chattopadhyay as Amal plays out the internal drama of a kind of bildungsroman, and Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata is the central figure who embodies the woman awakening to her constricted world. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

‘Mahapurush’ (1965) is the other side of upper-class modernity. It is a hilarious romp of two rogue Hindu saints duping a section of the Calcutta glitterati. Ray’s humour is of the sunny kind and is ever present in his fiction and films.

Alaknanda Roy and Arun Mukherjee in ‘Kanchenjungha’ (1962). It is not that Ray confined himself to the beginning of the modern in Bengali culture. In his third feature film, ‘Parash Pathor’ (1958), and his eighth, ‘Kanchenjungha’, Ray is plumb spank in contemporary times. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

The camera of Subrata Mitra (left) and the sets of Bansi Chandragupta, mavericks of enormous innovative talent, came up with technical solutions to the rigorous demands of Ray’s imagination. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

In 1961, Ray revived ‘Sandesh’, the children’s magazine his grandfather started in 1913. Here, the cover of the first issue of May 1961, naming Satyajit Ray and Subhas Mukhopadhyay as editors. Photo: Courtesy: SANDIP RAY

In 1961, Ray revived ‘Sandesh’, the children’s magazine his grandfather started in 1913. Here, the cover of the November 1965 issue. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

In 1961, Ray revived ‘Sandesh’, the children’s magazine his grandfather started in 1913. Here, the cover of the January 1981 issue. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Among the many things that Ray found time for was designing covers for the literary and cultural journal called ‘Ekshan’ edited by Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Nirmalya Acharya. Here is one example. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Among the many things that Ray found time for was designing covers for the literary and cultural journal called ‘Ekshan’ edited by Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Nirmalya Acharya. Here is one example. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Among the many things that Ray found time for was designing covers for the literary and cultural journal called ‘Ekshan’ edited by Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Nirmalya Acharya. Here is one example. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Satyajit Ray’s cinema, like Mrinal Sen’s and Ritwik Ghatak’s, is a major contribution to cultural modernity in India. Cinema comes of age in their hands.

Satyajit Ray was of the world, as were Chaplin and Bunuel and Renoir and Mizoguchi and Eisenstein and De Sica and Kurosawa and Godard and Pasolini, not to speak of other twentieth century masters, but he was of the breed who belonged to a particular developed culture and carried out the transfer of technology into a freshly evolved form. This is what happened to Russian and Japanese cinema, not to speak of the European continent. Cinema had to be separated off from commercial entertainment before it came of age. Filmic entertainment marches to the beat of a different drummer called the Market, a commonplace but unfathomable entity whose ways are known to be gross. The genius of Charles Chaplin had accomplished the transfer of entertainment into the world of art, but hardly anyone else managed it on such a scale.

Satyajit Ray was recognised by serious viewers of Pather Panchali (released on August 26, 1955) all over the world as a genius of the first order, but he did not really sell in the way that the run-of-the-mill hacks managed. Films make up a huge market, particularly in poor illiterate societies like India, because they are infinitely duplicable and therefore incredibly cheap to the consumer compared with live forms. And films have become common gazer-garbage in the age of television. But serious art demands a kind of acquired cultural capital which is scarce in developed or underdeveloped market societies; the distribution of wealth on a world scale does not encourage educational or cultural equity.

Hollywood, the worldwide provider, in the 1950s was still knocking around with mostly low-tier melodramatic films, hemmed in by censorship and McCarthyism, but the post-war influx of talent from Europe opened up possibilities; local talent was also emerging from generic torpor. Film-makers of the Soviet Union were astonishingly experimental, and Europe nursed a history of innovations. India produced a large popular repertoire of films in different languages; much of it followed theatrical entertainment, either the Western kind or the indigenous rural variety. It also used cheap visual tricks available to the filmic mode. The characteristic ensemble was a basket of entertainment with song and dance and magic spectacle and comic turns and villainy and damsels in distress and a male superhero, often with magical attributes endowed by supernatural agencies. The cosmic trash is still enormously popular, often with a touch of populist politics which would appeal to the hoi polloi.

Realism, humanism and lyricism

It is true that the thin stratum of the intellectual elite in independent India demanded something realist and modernist from cinema. Nearly everyone will agree that Pather Panchali marked not only the emergence of a cinematic genius but also the beginning of a new era in film-making in India. People noted the spatial configuration of the man-nature relationship, the deep sympathy for the underdog, the subtle historical narrative, and the insight into the arc of desire and fear which marks the child’s entry into the world. It made the international fraternity sit up and take notice. The world was generous in its praise, but large numbers of ordinary people were also moved by it. The realism, the humanism, the lyricism appealed to everyone. But the Indian, particularly the Bengali, viewer had special reasons for feeling that the film addressed some of the deepest concerns and values of one’s existence. People were living in very difficult times in the partitioned Bengal of the 1950s. Poverty, joblessness, scarcity, disease, hunger, injustice and oppression stalked this part of the country. Ray was proposing that it was important to look at the conditions for the production of anxiety and despair, pleasure and hope, solidarity and division. He placed the ordinary man and woman at the centre of his narrative and brought children to the fore.

Also read: A Century of Ray

Children’s journal

From 1955 to 1983, when he suffered a debilitating heart attack during the making of Ghare Baire, Ray made 23 full-length features, 7 short fiction films and 4 documentaries. He also made three features and a documentary on his father, Sukumar Ray, after his recovery. From very early in his career, he ran a children’s journal, was a popular writer of fiction for young readers, wrote articles and short essays, joined discussions in public forums and kept up a voluminous correspondence with all and sundry; he met innumerable people, both famous and ordinary; he helped other film-makers generously and silently, gave many interviews, and talked on radio and television about classical music and other topics. In fact, he was the most eminent personality in the cultural universe of the subcontinent. No one except Rabindranath Tagore in the earlier part of the century had enjoyed that kind of status nationally and internationally.

The artistic and technical conditions for the production of Pather Panchali have been documented with great good humour by Ray himself. The camera of Subrata Mitra and the sets of Bansi Chandragupta, mavericks of enormous innovative talent, came up with technical solutions to the rigorous demands of Ray’s imagination. Ray’s job was to think up ways of forging a new consensus on the protocols of realism. He had to persuade the viewer to adjust her sights and her narrative desire to the new representational regime. This was done by offering a richness of detail—both natural and social—which the filmgoer had seldom seen represented. Ray was teaching us how to discover our own world which we had lost to the conventions of studio melodrama. The Hindustani classical music of Ravi Shankar enriched the realist visuals. A kind of defamiliarisation was taking place in the process of watching the film-text in 1955: the available conventions of film-making had been abandoned and something rich and strange had taken their place. Aparajito (1956) shifts the Apu story to the urban context, first to Benares and then to Calcutta. It is an unforgettable film, further signposting Ray’s enhanced command of the medium; sequences on the Benares steps on the river Ganga are justly celebrated. Apur Sansar (1959) has absolutely stunning camerawork. Apu explains the writerly mission of his life in youthfully resonant accents, turning to his friend from time to time to transform what is an internal monologue to something like a manifesto addressed to the world. Soumitra Chattopadhyay recalled in 1966 that this scene was “rehearsed on the studio floor twenty to twenty-five times before it was rehearsed again on location. This scene took a week or so.”

Sharmila Tagore in Devi (1960) was all eyes, her small child-bride body moving in slow rhythm to the dictates of familial patriarchy, whereas Soumitra had to play the role of a modernising young man standing up to inherited bigotry. Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career; and this was the first explicit instance. Ray’s cinema, like Mrinal Sen’s and Ritwik Ghatak’s, is a major contribution to cultural modernity in India. Cinema comes of age in their hands. What is not very often kept in mind is the trajectory of cultural modernity in Bengal, which describes a separate curve from most of the rest of India. One even sees fairly ludicrous attempts to link the state-convened economic and cultural modernisation of the Nehruvian era to the cultural goals of modern Bengal. In fact, Ray was engaged in bringing cinema in line with the revolutionary developments in Bengali culture from the nineteenth century onwards.

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

Consider the single example of Ray’s own family. The grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury came to Calcutta in the 1880s as a college student and later on started several modern enterprises in education and culture: printing, publishing, children’s literature, scientific and technical work, photography, women’s education, social and religious reform. The father, Sukumar, was a genius who extended the possibilities of children’s literature in radically new directions. The family was very close to Rabindranath Tagore; Sukumar was in London on a scholarship when Tagore was visiting Europe and America in 1912-13 prior to his getting the Nobel Prize, and in fact he joined the Tagore entourage from Italy on the voyage home. Tagore attended Sukumar’s wedding with Suprabha, in spite of his busy schedule after the Prize. Sukumar and P.C. Mahalanobis, his friend, urged Tagore as a leader of the Brahmo Samaj to improve its work of reform. Satyajit Ray himself went to the Tagore-founded Santiniketan to study art after obtaining his degree from Presidency College.

Earlier, the first modern Bengali novel, Durgeshnandini by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, came out in 1865 and became an immediate trendsetter all over India. There were intellectual stalwarts like Rammohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and a good many others who worked at the national effort at the Enlightenment. Rabindranath Tagore bestrode the world of Bengal like a colossus. His lyric poetry and essays—as also his fiction, drama, music and painting—set the standards of cultural modernity in the twentieth century. The best modern novelists, Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay and Manik Bandyopadhyay, and the best modern poets, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das and Sudhindranath Datta, were active in the first half of the twentieth century. The political turmoil of the freedom movement, itself an index of modernity, had generated vigorous cultural activities, and this was true of the later leftist movements which emerged out of the armed freedom struggles and workers’ and peasants’ movements. It is not possible to separate Ray and his creative work from this history. He was, in fact, quite comfortable with the Left Front government. It is lucky that he did not survive to suffer the regime of proto-fascist braggadocio and gangster chic.

In step with the times

It is not that Ray confined himself to the beginning of the modern in Bengali culture. In his third feature film, Parash Pathor (1958), and his eighth, Kanchenjungha (1962), Ray is plumb spank in contemporary times. Abhijan (1962) and Mahanagar (1963) are classics set in the modern era, and he is engaged with unquiet times in the films he made in the 1970s, starting with Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). But Mahapurush (1965) is the other side of upper-class modernity. It is a hilarious romp of two rogue Hindu saints duping a section of the Calcutta glitterati. Ray’s humour is of the sunny kind and it is ever present in his fiction and films; his crime films, starting with Chiriakhana (1967), are full of fun. The two films he made in Hindi are gems. Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), based on Premchand’s story, is about imperialist aggression and the correspondingly shambolic feudal submission. Sadgati (1981), based once again on Premchand, is a searing indictment of Brahminical oppression.

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

I have kept Charulata (1964) for the last because it is a masterpiece and stands out as an exemplary film-text. Based on the Tagore story Nastanirh (The Broken Nest), it illustrates once again the penchant Ray had for Bengal’s historical quest for freedom and enlightenment. Ray and Tagore, the two greatest geniuses of twentieth century India, had come together to offer what is arguably the best film in the Ray oeuvre. Soumitra Chattopadhyay as Amal plays out the internal drama of a kind of bildungsroman, in which he comes of age through a harrowing emotional tangle which leaves all the three parties bruised, and Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata is the central figure who embodies the woman awakening to her constricted world. She is confined to her palatial house after marriage and watches street scenes through a pair of opera glasses; at one point she turns the glasses on her own husband when he visits his library and does not notice Charu standing by. The woman’s desire for enlightenment clashes with the confines of the male-governed universe and historically demolishes her freedom.

A word should be added about what a complete artist Ray was. In the later stages of his career, he handled nearly everything about the film project: script, music, sets, camerawork, editing and publicity material; he had his own team of assistants, but everything was under his personal control. His handling of actors, including children, was superb. Tulsi Chakravarti in Parash Pathor, Chhabi Biswas in Jalsaghar and Uttam Kumar in Nayak simply stand out. Most were theatre actors, including Soumitra Chattopadhyay. Utpal Dutt, Rabi Ghosh, Santosh Dutta, Madhabi Mukherjee et al. served his projects memorably. Every single face, speaking and non-speaking, was chosen carefully. He got the best out of everyone, including technicians. His legendary courtesy and patience and good humour made working for him a memorable experience.

Ray stood for reason and progress and freedom and enlightenment. He revived the children’s journal his grandfather founded as an enlightening project; the noted left-wing poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay was the first co-editor of the revived Sandesh. Ray wrote books and made films to broaden and deepen childhood imagination. He was a realist in art. He was not into direct politics as some of his contemporaries were, but he was able to go deep into the analysis of oppression and unfreedom. He was able to welcome the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, but he had to abandon the project of making a documentary on it. In a way it is symbolic that he departed in the earlier part of the year 1992, in the latter part of which the Babri Masjid was demolished. He did not have to watch an India which is overrun by vicious little twats who want to set up a regime of regressive bigotry and crony capitalism and imperial hegemony.

Mihir Bhattacharya taught English literature and film studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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