Updated: February 12, 2022 9:26:59 pm
Bert Cardullo, American author and film critic, once said, “Like Chekov, Ray refuses to take sides either with characters or ideologies; since he is interested above all in the complex human…there are no heroes or villains in his works, no simple winners or losers.”
Over the years, Satyajit Ray`s works have transformed into cinematic blueprints helping decode, interpret complexities of human lives; man-woman relationships, conjugality, questions of adulting, and loneliness. Four of his early films Apur Sansar (The World Of Apu), Devi (The Goddess), Kanchanjangha and Mahanagar (The Big City) establishes his idea of love, longing, intimacy that would later become a template associated to his long filmography.
The Apu Trilogy (1955-59)
“The narrative that Ray designed for Apu mirrored the progressive nationalistic narrative that Nehru and the post-Independence generation wished to compose for India”, writes Ray scholar Chandak Sengupta, in his 2009 essay, ‘Satyajit Ray : Liberalism and Its Vicissitude’.
Ray’s adult Apu believes in idealism, in the glory of being sensitive and imaginative. It is this idealism that propels him to commit to a wedding, by a quirk of fate when designated groom’s mental health fails on the day of the wedding .The fear of the bride being ostracised looms large and Apu’s friend, a cousin of Aparna (later Apu’s wife)pleads him to salvage the situation. Unprepared for conjugal life, Apu marries Aparna. Initially strangers, they soon bond beautifully, creating a camaraderie that’s more than intimacy.
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Aparna makes his world livable, fuller. His erratic world; his dreams and realities (financial distress and joblessness) is soothed by her presence. She repairs for his losses; both literal and emotional, his lack of inheritance, displacement from his native village to unknown cities (Banaras and later Kolkata).
In an essay written in the fall of 2009 for Cinéaste, Sengupta identifies this as the filmmaker’s proximity to Nehruvian thoughts. “Ray was not drawn to Nehru’s state socialism, centralised planning, or non-alignment with the two superpowers but on account of secularist nationalism, cosmopolitanism, interest in social reform, faith in reason, science and progress.”
An incisive look into Apu’s character will reflect these traces of Nehruvian cosmopolitanism and nationalism. For instance in a lyrical night scene, where Apu meets his college friend Pulu after long, (whose cousin is Aparna) and has had a full meal after days of starvation, Ray makes him orate an outline of his incomplete novel, a story of a rural boy and how one day he moves to a big city after his father’s death, how the city makes him open up, break away from his notions of village life steeped in conservatism, as he denies the family vocation of priesthood, developing a questioning mind.
This may be considered as a prelude to Apu’s, unexpectedly rejuvenated life, full of dreams and idealism that Sengupta mentions. Ray skillfully uses Apu and Aparna’s love as a tool to this rejuvenation, an answer to the personal crisis that his hero is plugged with, in post-independence Calcutta. Aparna’s love for Apu, their marital bliss is transformative rather than simply romantic. The director subtly uses marriage as an act of comradeship, a blooming support system for his lead characters. The cinematic language of discreet glances, slight body movements that Ray puts to use here for the first time is carried over to his next Devi.
Devi (The Goddess, 1960) is a film about insanity, an orthodox father-in-law and a young daughter-in-law who he believes is an incarnation of the Mother Goddess. The story of Devi straddles between the complex patriarchy of Bengal, where women are iconised yet remain unloved as mortal beings.
Interestingly, Devi evoked controversy. “But for Ray’s script being based on a story by a Hindu not a Brahmo author – late Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee – the attack made upon the film might well have been more personally abusive towards Ray as a Bramho. For a time Devi embarrassed the Union Government and resulted in disinclination to send the film abroad,” writes his biographer Marie Seaton.
Ray endeavours to retain his type of man-woman relationship, the one he had established in Apur Sansar – a narrative of deep intimacy, dependence and mutual progress; while setting this film in a landowning zamindar household of rural Bengal. He uses poignant cinematography to tell the grim tale of Dayamoyee and Umaprasad’s broken conjugal life.
In an early scene in the film, 17-year-old, newly-married Daya is shown expressing her longing for husband Umaprasad, who would soon go away to Kolkata for his studies. The camera captures them lying down in a huge, ornate wooden bed with Uma looking at Daya but not making eye contact. Ray emphasises intimacy by their desirous glances and by employing a simple prop (a bunch of pre-addressed love letters).
Glances and body language is later used again effectively in a heart wrenching scene of Umaprasad returning home prompted by an urgent letter. As he enters the humongous courtyard, Daya, now a human idol, is seated at a distance and makes eye contact with her husband. She tries to smile halfheartedly, a lone tear rolls down her cheek, affirming a mix of emotions; her confusion, derangement, acceptance of her helplessness.
The script attempts to restore their married life, by making Dayamoyee sense insanity in all of this but she is too broken. Ray’s idyllic conjugality is shattered thus, even interdependence that so well worked in Apur Sansar is interrupted as Dayamoyee remains in dilemma, unwilling to escape with her husband to Calcutta.
The drifting conjugality of Devi, unwanted breakdown of an affable relationship, surrendering to the circumstances is fairly similar to Bergman’s, ‘Scenes From A Marriage’ and ‘Persona’, both of which deals with distinct psychotic flashback, indicator of something irreparable in the lives of apparently compatible women and men. Interestingly, Bergman was both curious enamoured by Dayamoyee’s haunting face, played by fifteen year old actor Sharmila Tagore. He had asked Ray where he found his female lead; when both met at Cannes for their film screenings.
Devi haunts one with a lingering question; what is a perfect relationship? Is it the comforting quotidian conjugality, or the societal demands?
What begins in Devi as a question, Kachanjungha (1962), the first original screenplay of Satyajit Ray willfully takes it further, intertwining it with class, cosmopolitanism, social security.
“The outwardly calm Ray has reached a restless point,” notes Seaton.
This restlessness is revealed through a story of a family vacation in the hill town of Darjeeling, with three differently aged couples negotiating, pondering on questions of life, marriage, love and more. Ray’s screenplay weaves these couples as entwined; parents Raibahadur Indranath Rai Chowdhury and wife Suprabha, their 19-year-old daughter Manisha, pursued by an ambitious engineer (addressed as Banerjee), and Anima, Manisha’s elder sister and her husband whose marriage is falling apart.
In the film there are evocative double meaning dialogues often leading to claustrophobic situations between the couples. As the story progresses, Manisha gets bolder, and is able to speak her mind. She retorts to her suitor, displaying her aversion to the idea of excess prevalent in courtships among the affluent.
Fast forward, Manisha shows a subtle interest in Ashok, a young unemployed man from a lower middle class background. Through the silent streets that circumambulate the town, they keep meeting each other. Ray reaffirms the idea of spontaneity, of something ‘glorious’ that love or attraction must have as an attribute. One can’t help but think of Apu and Aparna’s first interactions, their days of intense, magnificent but short lived conjugality, impaired by abject poverty and Aparna’s death. In Kanchanjangha, love is reestablished as a ‘pure’, unadulterated and unconditional emotion, that was incomplete in Apur Sansar.
Ray doesn’t quite end here though. He extends the idea of ‘purity’ in marriage and questions extra marital affairs. In a rather tense moment between Anima and her husband, with the later probing his wife’s affair, the idea of purity in a relationship is brought back. Here it acquires a newer form of interdependence; the couple creating a resolve to continue their marriage, as they prioritise the emotional needs of their young daughter to whom her parents mean the world and likewise.
Interdependence therefore must exist in the universe of conjugality, that which lacked in Dayamoyee and Umaprasad’s relationship reestablishes itself in Kachanjungha and would remain the key theme in man-woman relationship of Mahanagar (The Big City).
“Anxieties about ‘fruits of independence’ began to be expressed in Ray’s films especially Kanchanjungha and The Big City…” remarks Chandak Sengupta in his essay.
And yet Ray’s idealism is not lost as he tries to balance by deviating from the climax of the original story penned by Narendranath Mitra, while telling his version of a realistic story of a middle class married couple; Subrata and Aarti. The couple battle out their financial distress and Aarti is compelled to step out of home, taking up a job of a sales girl.
In an interview with India Today in1983, Ray remarked “the most important reality of post – Independence India is disparity. Disparity of income, disparity of opportunities, disparity of wealth. All other problems are secondary to it.”
In Subrata and Aarti’s struggle, he unhesitatingly brings forth the disparity factor.
His Nehruvian inclinations are noticeably reduced with notions like the city as ‘saviour and progressive’ takes a beating.
“The ensuing erosion of Nehru’s authority, the efflorescence of Marxist politics, unemployment and the decay of urban economies all heralded a period of disillusionment of the liberals”, remarks Sengupta about what Bengal by and large was going through during the early years of 1960’s.
Disrupted by realities, love and conjugality take a backseat, yet Ray tries to hold on to the third of his joining dots – interdependence which eventually brings him back to his kind of relationship goal; glorious, heartwarming, humane. As the story moves forward, Aarti springs back to support her husband and takes up responsibilities of a large family after he loses his job. Subrata reciprocates rather awkwardly by helping his homemaker wife file her job applications.
The film ends with both of them losing their jobs.
In a long climax scene, Aarti meets her husband at the entrance of her office, breaks down as she reveals her decisive act of leaving the job, seeks her husband’s validation. Subrata takes time to process the suddenness of all this and appears thoughtful. And then comes the sparkling cinematic moment. For the first time, the missing physicality of their relationship is established – they hug each other, reconciling to their stark realities.
They decide to give it a ‘try’ again.
By now the ‘conjugal’ has transformed into something more rounded, beyond desirous glances, upholding the power of the persistent liberal Ray narrative.
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