The sensitive iconographer

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Fifty years after Satyajit Ray’s monumental debut ‘Pather Panchali’ stunned critics and enthralled audiences at home and abroad, Somak Ghoshal examines the legacy of a man who first showed the world the face of modern India.
The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. I feel that he is a ‘giant’ of the movie industry.” That is how Kurosawa, never a man fond of unnecessary flattery, described Satyajit Ray, a man who emerged from post-colonial Bengal to impress and inspire audiences and critics across the globe. Though all his films are in Bengali or Hindi, their subtly observed study of multitudinous shades of the human condition ranks them as universal in their appeal and acclaim. But Satyajit Ray also left a cinematic heritage that belongs as much to India, the country whose post-war legacy his work did much to reflect, evoke and define.
The reason for much of this can be seen in the socio-cultural milieu from which the director emerged. His grandfather was a distinguished writer, painter, and composer, while his father was an eminent poet and illustrator of nonsense literature in the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The family he grew up in, urban and middle-class, had embraced the Brahmo religion at a comparatively early stage, and the liberal, progressive outlook of Brahmo Samaj strongly influenced Ray’s mindset and work. Many of his films would reflect the reformist agendas of the Brahmo Samaj and a strong aversion to religious fanaticism, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), and Ganashatru (The Enemy of the People), to name a few. The liberal-humanist leanings of his family must have had a strong effect on Ray, who grew up within a well-wrought tradition of humanist education, interested in art, literature, music, and most importantly, film, both oriental and occidental.
Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road), Ray’s first film, is a testament to his importance, both as a director and an Indian cultural commentator. Beset by the bleakest financial difficulties and utilising a cast with little or no stage experience, it transformed the face of post-colonial Indian cinema, winning dozens of awards at global film festivals. Ray was criticised by his detractors for depicting the face of a povertystricken, newly independent nation; but he went on to make two sequels to this film, both superior human documents in themselves, to complete what is now known as the ‘Apu Trilogy’ after the eponymous hero, whose personal development forms the thread between the narratives. The films chart the maturation of Apu, the son of a priest and member of a poor family living in a rural India, into a man aware of the wider urban and technological world. Ironically, the transition for Ray was very much in the opposite direction. As he said, “While making Pather Panchali, I discovered rural life. I’d been city-born, city-bred, so I didn’t know the Bengali village firsthand. Talking to people, reacting to moods, to the landscape, to the sights and sounds – all this helped. But it’s not just people who have been brought up in villages who can make films about village life. An outside view is also able to penetrate.”
Shortly after the Pather Panchali Ray made Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) which he described to Marie Seton as “a sort of combination of comedy, fantasy, satire, farce and a touch of pathos”. It is the last of these epithets, pathos, that would come to haunt most of Ray’s later and best-known works.
Ray was making his films through the 60s, 70s and 80s when European cinema was at the height of its modernist phase. But while his admiring European contemporaries – Fellini, Hitchcock, Bergman, Pasolini – were shaping the rules of post-modern aesthetics, Ray worked in no fixed genre. He made a song and dance children’s fantasy film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), a detective crime fiction, Sonar Kella (The Fortress 1974), and historicals such as Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players 1977), also his first film in Hindi.
The ability to work in such a wide array of genres was evidence of Ray’s myriad-mindedness and rejection of fixed principles of filmmaking. His work was distinguished from the regular features of avant-garde cinema, in that it disliked the idea of a film that drew attention to its style rather than the content. This is why his work touches one as a subtle revelation of artistry in which he uncovered his attitude and sympathies in a manner that was, and will always be, accessible to the masses. It is worth mentioning that Ray is perhaps one of the very few filmmakers whose works appeal to the widest range of audiences, from the subalterns to the elites, in modern Bengal. Most of his films were commercial successes unlike the usual neglect that ‘intellectual’ cinema meets with at the box office. His films are devoid of sentimental messages or didacticism; instead there is always an attempt at re-evaluating the commonplace and quotidian by transforming the utterly mundane into the excitement of an adventure. Ray had the power and expertise to recognise and express the mythic in the ordinary.
In what has now become a legendary sequence in Pather Panchali, Apu, the child hero, is taken by his elder sister Durga to see a train for the first time. While they wait for the strange and sublime novelty railgari (Bengali for the train) they are mesmerised by the humming of the telegraph poles, and the wind sweeping over the fields, heralding the approach of the wonder. This wait, made poignant by the lingering presence of a childish wonder of the unknown, makes even a modern Indian or Western audience living in a technologically advanced society pause breathlessly.
Ray captures his audience by provoking feeling and response through his sensitivity as an artisan of film. Outlining and exploring the universal human constants such as death, love, separation and responding to changes within and without, Ray bridges the gulf of time and distance between his subject and his audiences through the intense detailing of personal moments of excited happiness and joy. Moreover, he has the extraordinary capacity of evoking the unsaid through gestures, powerful background music and long close-shots.
This ability to create a sense of intimate connection between people of vastly different cultures is Ray’s greatest achievement. Like most of his great contemporaries in world cinema he can create an awareness of the ordinary man, which isn’t achieved in the abstract but by using the simplest, most common and concrete details such as a gesture or a glance. There is a contemplative quality in the magnificent flow of images and sounds, an attitude of acceptance and detachment, which is the hallmark of his inner as well as outer vision. His compassionate work arises from the noblest of philosophical traditions, the true spirit of which is distinctly Indian and invokes a detached intrepidity, celebrates joy in birth and life and accepts death with grace. Ray succeeded in making Indian cinema something to be taken seriously, and in so doing, created a body of work of distinct range and richness.
The cinema of Satyajit Ray is that rarest blend of intellect and emotion. Though his approach is controlled and precise, his real skill is at evoking deep and sublime responses from his audience. His films display a finetuned sensitivity without descending into melodrama or excess; they invoke the universal and immutable language of all the great filmmakers. Three weeks before his death in April 1992 he recieved an Honorary Oscar “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures… which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world”, and the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), India’s highest civilian honour – fitting for a director whose meditations on the nature of the human condition displayed to the world the creative fertility of a newly formed nation forging its path.
ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005

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