Children who grew up in the 90s will remember something called tracing paper. One would use it to recreate pieces of art, posters of Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla and all the other important things in life. It gave us that moderate sense of achievement that I now know as the feeble glow of mediocrity. Bengali boys never seem to outgrow that feeling. Therefore, we have yet another film that tells us about the brilliance of Satyajit Ray. Ray, for the uninitiated, is probably the last (and some would say the only) Bengali renaissance man. He was an author, essayist, music composer, calligrapher, and magazine editor, among other things. But most importantly he brought ‘Oskaar’ to us long before the award was overshadowed by Will Smith and his anger management issues.
Thanks to him, winning an Oscar became an achievable (though slightly frowned-upon) dream in Bengali households. Just like winning a Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel is, thanks to reluctant Bengalis like Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Abhijit Banerjee.
Therefore, a Ray tribute film, like the recently-released Aparajito, is actually another excuse for grown up men (and women) to recreate their favourite Ray moments with varying degree of incompetence. Just like many of us 1990s kids would wrap yellow and blue dupattas around our waist and lip sync to Morni Baga Ma Bole from Yash Chopra’s Lamhe.
Over the years, there have been Ray tribute films of different shades and stripes. The earliest of them being the 2010 Srijit Mukherji film, Autograph. Conceptually, the film at least tried to do something new. It re-examined the dynamics between central characters of the 1966 Ray film, Nayak, in totally different circumstances. It was of course a roaring success both at the box office and among the quality-starved Bengali film critics. Inadvertently, it spawned a sub-genre that threatens to spoil our fond memories of Ray films forever. Then there were others like Apur Panchali (which was the biopic of the child actor from Pather Panchali) and the more recent Abhijaan (the biopic of Ray’s favourite lead actor Soumitra Chatterjee that tried to recreate a number of Ray moments).
In Aparajito (named after the second instalment of Ray’s iconic Apu trilogy), director Anik Dutta traces the journey of making Satyajit Ray’s debut film, Pather Panchali. Lead actor Jeetu Kamal has a striking resemblance to Satyajit Ray while his famous baritone is adequately created by Chandrashish Roy. The sets and costumes pass muster. That’s all it took for the film to gain a staggering 9.5 rating on IMDB. A good point and a half ahead of the Ray original.
The fact that Anik Dutta makes a film about struggles of making a seminal film — that had everything stacked against it — appear like a cakewalk, doesn’t seem to be a consideration at all.
Really, every roadblock that Ray (bizarrely named Aparajito here) is confronted with has a lightning quick resolution. Before even a furrow is formed on his (famous) forehead, a solution magically appears.
But the most alarming aspect of these tribute films is the way Ray’s cinematic achievements are co-opted by the makers. They fetishize his iconic scenes, recreate them with tracing paper finesse and somehow take great pride in doing so. Obviously, the sentimental, nostalgia-charged Bengali audience buys into all this. We have very little choice. It’s either this or Hoichoi originals like ‘Dupur Thakurpo’ or ‘Mahabharat Murders’. There is no Rituparno Ghosh to fall back on. The celebrated filmmaker whose early films paid homage to Ray thematically passed away in 2013. Be it using pujo as a leitmotif or the brilliant use of conversations as dramatic flashpoints in films like Asukh, Ghosh was a very informed student of Ray. As someone who was not overwhelmed by Ray’s brilliance, Ghosh (at times) took us to places that Ray rarely visited.
None of the current crop of filmmakers can make such tall claims.
Once we are done with the Ray fiesta this year, we have a host of Mrinal Sen tributes. It is his birth centenary next year. So brace yourself for another round of very imaginatively titled films based on Mrinal Sen filmography. Or brilliant insights into their filmmaking process sourced from Wikipedia. Someone needs to tell Bengali filmmakers that the best tribute that they can offer to these Masters is to make a good, original film. If I have to see one more recreation of the Pather Panchali train sequence, I will quietly relinquish my Hoichoi subscription.