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Two decades of missing Ray

Satyajit Ray showed us not just the trajectories of lives lived,but also the fates that could have been

Written by Karna Basu |
May 9, 2012 12:16:10 am

Satyajit Ray showed us not just the trajectories of lives lived,but also the fates that could have been

Movies ruined my childhood Sundays. By early evening,the streets would go quiet as friends retreated to darkened drawing rooms for the weekly screening on Doordarshan. I wanted to practise my off-spin but was left to do origami instead. Cinema was my enemy,and it had won. That I became skilled in the art of paper-folding was of little consolation.

Everything changed when Pather Panchali was shown on TV one evening soon after Satyajit Ray’s death,in 1992. For the first time,I found a film that I couldn’t turn away from. The fact that a scratchy black-and-white film about rural Bengal could seduce a lowbrow kid nearly 40 years after it was made is a testament to Ray’s genius. Now,around Ray’s 92nd birth anniversary,and 20 years after his death,it is worth reflecting on his contributions and legacy.

A viewer of Ray’s films need not notice the cuts,or that a room is actually a set,or that the sound was recorded after the image. It is easy to sink into the drama — Siddhartha barging into the interview hall in a self-destructive rage (Pratidwandi),a bewildered Bhupati being congratulated by his friends on the news of his wife’s literary success (Charulata),and Aparna’s tears when she first arrives at Apu’s flat as an adolescent victim of cruel fate and stifling norms (Apur Sansar).

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It is rarely noted that Ray was also a uniquely funny filmmaker. In Aranyer Din Ratri,Rabi Ghosh delivers pitch-perfect one liners,building a levity that will collapse in the darkness and destruction that follows. In Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne,the conjurer is so inept that the chair he has conjured collapses under his own weight.

Ray’s oeuvre,barring some late work,can be viewed as a meditation on the individual. His films are faithful to the inner and outer lives of their protagonists. These men,women and children must negotiate the conflicting forces of desire and duty while their choices remain circumscribed by social convention. The heroes are flawed,as seen in Apu’s inability to forgive his son for Aparna’s death during childbirth. The villains possess valuable traits,such as the conman in Mahapurush,who excels at making outlandish claims that are not easily disproven.

While this basic feature of Ray’s films — the way characters are fleshed out in their complexity — might appear to be a clichéd requirement of any good cinema,it is not. There are many filmmakers,from Jean-Luc Godard to Wong Kar-wai,who create brilliant work without focusing on the individual narrative. Ray,by charting the delicate twists and turns of circumstance,showed us not just the trajectories of lives lived,but also the fates that could have been. The hopeful ambiguity of Charulata’s final scene is a haunting reminder of the alternate ways in which the real-life Kadambari Devi’s life could have unfolded in place of her tragic suicide.

Ray was self-taught and has written extensively about his education. This makes him a film student’s ideal filmmaker. One can see how he learned the art of continuity editing from early American directors,and then upended the rules by opening scenes with close ups instead of sweeping establishing shots,inserting animation,or as in Apur Sansar,lingering on an empty sky for 21 seconds. His writings explain how the scene as viewed by the audience is completely divorced from its construction. The construction is decidedly less romantic — the filmmaker has to take apart the image in his head and reconstruct it in a clinical manner,relying heavily on the skills of the cast and crew.

Ray’s influence continues to be visible today. In the Western mind,he alone provides a counterpoint to the fanciful frivolity of Bollywood. At a recent New York retrospective of his less-lauded late films,the halls remained packed. The American city of Memphis has replaced Kolkata in Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue,a melancholy retelling of Charulata. And lighting techniques invented by Ray’s early cinematographer,Subrata Mitra,have been a boon for low-budget filmmakers.

Much of the criticism directed at Ray by his contemporaries — that he was too bourgeois and apolitical — has faded. He was not as staunch a social realist as,say,Ritwik Ghatak or Vittorio De Sica. But through detail and gesture,he had much to say about the constraints faced by women,the hazards of faith,and the despair of poverty.

In light of Ray’s potential to inspire and instruct,it is natural to wonder why so much of Indian cinema lacks artistic vigour (obvious,and less obvious,exceptions aside). It is naïve to argue that this is simply a reflection of audience preference. Preferences,after all,are themselves are a product of what is available. One hopes that Ray’s innovative spirit will have a lasting influence on filmmakers,just as his films have stayed with his audience. For those of us who grew up on Satyajit Ray,Kolkata will forever exist in his evocative shades of black-and-white,no matter how fast the city turns from red to blue.

The writer teaches economics at Hunter College,New York

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