Written by Tanushree Ghosh
Sixty years ago, 13-year-old Aparna crossed the threshold as a child bride in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar into a new life, never to look back. “The character had become very popular, then Debi happened, that sealed it for me,” says Sharmila Tagore, ahead of inaugurating ‘Revisiting Ray’ — a two-day retrospective on the master craftsman comprising conferences, exhibitions, and screenings. Organised by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), the retrospective will open on May 15 in the Capital.
“Both the girls were illiterate and young, one dies at childbirth, while one is trapped in a war between the 19th century rational thought and the entrenched, dogmatic belief, superstition and blind faith,” she says. Doyamoyee (Debi) was “a complex role.” She adds, “I used to feel burdened with the heavy garland, constant chanting around me, sitting for long hours. Subrata (Mitra, the cinematographer) used to take a long time to light up. Nobody spoke to me on the sets, I believe Manikda had instructed everyone to isolate me. I felt drained.”
The conference will host exhibitions of Ray’s artwork (film posters, calligraphy art, book covers, sketches), photographs of Ray by his “Boswell with camera” Nemai Ghosh (DAG is parallelly showcasing 54 of these at NMML till May 30, 9am-5.30pm) and panel discussions on his portrayal of Bengal, gender, children, engagement with science fiction and film societies. His contemporaries Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli, Amol Palekar, Suresh Jindal will speak too, and there will also be a screening of Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977). “Language was a problem and the prints of his Bengali films weren’t of good quality. We approached the Bengal government who asked us to pay royalty to buy the films, instead we curated a seminar,” says Shakti Sinha, director, NMML.
Tagore, who worked with Ray in five films, turned down his offer for Kanchenjungha because she was in the middle of her school exams. She says, “His children’s films were truly children’s films. Whether in Pikoo, Mahanagar, Durga, Apu and Kajal in the Apu Trilogy, in Feluda, wherever children appeared in his films, the child looks and behaves like one, not as a paaka, as we say in Bengali, or precocious kid speaking like grown-ups, like Daisy Irani’s roles as a child actor. In his silent short, Two, a rich and poor boy show that a child can be both creative and destructive.”
Children’s writing came to him naturally, flowing from his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray and father Sukumar Ray. “Ray, who looked upon himself as a writer in Bengali, is very much present in our psyche through his writing, very popular in Bengal and Bangladesh, and still a bestseller. Outside Bengal, if his works are translated, they will sell, because his writing is not outdated or time-bound,” says poet-novelist-academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who will chair two sessions, on children (12pm; Day 1) and gender (3.45pm; Day 2).
“Detective Feluda is the hero of the times, for all young people. Of course, I like him,” says Dev Sen, “but I like Professor Shonku more because he’s so absurd. Can you imagine a scientist with his cat and his cook going into space?”
The sci-fi hero not only makes his way into the just-released book Travails With The Alien: The Film That Was Never Made And Other Adventures With Science Fiction, but will also be seen on the big screen, end of the year, in Professor Shonku O El Dorado.
“Another character I love in Feluda stories is Jatayu (Lalmohan Ganguly),” says Dev Sen, “because he has an absurd streak. Though he writes bestselling crime thrillers, he has this childlike simplicity and innocence, is weak and nervous, and his responses and comments are funny.”
Ray sketched for Dev Sen’s stories in Sandesh and illustrated her first children’s book, Ichhamoti (1999). After reviving his grandfather’s children’s magazine Sandesh in 1961, Ray started illustrating and writing in it. He also “wrote in Desh and Anandamela 1970s onwards, gaining popularity among young adults and adults alike.”
“He was a designer before he became a writer,” Dev Sen says. He designed the covers of Sandesh and the journals and books of noted writers, including the journal Ekkhon, co-edited by Soumitra Chatterjee, who caught Ray’s fancy and was given his debut role in Apur Sansar, the third in the Apu Trilogy, which “nobody has been able to surpass,” says Tagore.
The second in that trilogy, Aparajito, is CS Venkiteswaran’s favourite. “It haunts me. The mother, the dark quality and different approach of the film,” says the film critic, who will speak about the film society movement on Day 2 (1.30pm), and how post-’90s, cultural studies merged with film criticism and shifted the focus to commercial/popular cinema, away from the offbeat/serious/art cinema. “Ray wrote a book, Our Films Their Films. My talk takes off from there,” he says.
Ray’s films (1950s-’90s), with their Italian neorealist influence, “captured the sociopolitical India, the great hopes and dreams, the biography of a nation”. “His disillusionment with Indian democracy is apparent in his last films, including Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha,” says Venkiteswaran.
Tagore, who spoke last month at the Annual Satyajit Ray Memorial Lectures in Kolkata, says, “There are many things one can learn from his films if they wish to. His nuances and metaphors live on in other people’s films. People pay tribute through their films, like Goutam Ghose did in Abar Aranye (which takes off from Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri).” Kaushik Ganguly’s Apur Panchali (on the real life of Pather Panchali’s Apu) comes to mind.
Venkiteswaran reminisces how in the ’70s-’80s, parallel cinema would be aired on Doordarshan and feels a dedicated channel on national television is the need of the hour. Perhaps, then, the works of past masters can only be made accessible through the digitising/archiving efforts of independent bodies such as the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, which is collaborating with NMML for the retrospective.