Category Archives: Bengali Cinema

Satyajit Ray: A re-appraisal, some interim thoughts

I’ve been reading criticism and biography of Ray and his early career and re-watching some of the films from 1966-75 and I think it would be useful to summarise some of my thinking at this stage.

First off I was surprised at just how much interest there still seems to be in Satyajit Ray. I must apologise for not noticing how much has been written recently and over the last couple of years by Omar and Shubhajit amongst others. They’ve provided lots of useful material and links to explore. I’m going to offer a list of observations and then possibly some responses to specific films.

1. Ray as ‘world cinema/art cinema auteur’. Ray’s emergence on the international scene from 1956 onwards was at a very auspicious time. He was recognised as one of the leading figures of what was a generally ‘humanist’ cinema encompassing great figures such as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Bergman, Fellini and Andrzej Wajda. This status enabled him to get wide distribution in Europe and North America in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, this same status also had some disadvantages in the way that it placed Ray’s films in relation to other forms of cinema.

2. It’s very difficult to ‘read’ Ray’s films without reference to the triangular relationship Bengali Cinema – ‘World Cinema’ – Indian Cinema. Most of the early work on Ray in the West dismissed ‘Indian Cinema’ out of hand and to some extent, the commercial industries across India ignored Ray until the later 1960s. To some extent, this problem still exists, though Ray’s reputation within West Bengal seems secured. The various attempts to analyse Ray’s output in terms of the ‘New Cinema’ that emerged in the 1970s in India are interesting markers of how the triangular relationship has developed. What has happened since parallel production has almost disappeared is an interesting point. When diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair make known their debt to Ray and Ritwik Ghatak does this help to establish the credentials of the younger directors? Does it help in re-casting ideas about Ray’s work alongside Ghatak’s and Mrinal Sen’s?

3. Following these two institutional ‘placings’ of Ray, how do we tackle the question of his ‘influences’ – the cinematic models he may be following? I’m struck again by the Kurosawa connection here. There are several parallels between what happened to Kurosawa and what happened to Ray when they began their careers (and equally there are big differences). Both men had family backgrounds and education that gave them access to both their own cultural traditions and those of the West/’international’ culture. Both had a form of aesthetic education, Kurosawa in painting, Ray in graphics. Both steeped themselves in foreign cinema and as a consequence when their films began to be recognised at Venice and other international festivals, they began to be seen as ‘Westernised’ – and by extension ‘less Japanese’ or ‘less Indian’. Interestingly, Marie Seton in her biography of Ray, Portrait of a Director (1971), makes several extended references to the similarities and differences between Indian and Japanese film culture, starting with the emergence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon at Venice in 1951. Identifying both countries as major film producers – numerically ahead of Hollywood – she sees both as producing formulaic films with only occasional notable titles, but she notes that Japan has an homogenous culture compared to the multi-lingual and multi-cultural Indian film industries. I would contest the easy dismissal of both industries as merely formulaic. While I would accept the difference created by the array of Indian languages, I would also emphasise that Indian and Japanese Cinema both draw upon a mixture of influences from native forms of music, dance, theatre and art often mixed with ideas from European and American art forms, especially Hollywood Cinema. It’s worth querying whether it might not be a good idea to study Ray in terms of Japanese and Chinese auteur directors of the 1940s-60s rather than European and American directors? There are two reasons why such a comparative study might be useful. Firstly, although India is a country of different language traditions, it does share certain social structures and cultural mores across both the sub-continent and other East and South-East Asian societies (e.g. family structures, the importance of arranged or ‘commercial’ marriages, strict social hierarchies, the importance of religious rituals etc.). Secondly – and especially re Bengal – so called ‘quality pictures’ in Japan and China have often been adapted from literary novels. Both Ray and Kurosawa have adapted well-known novels and short stories from their own literary compatriots as well as work from European or American sources.

4. How should we assess the development of Ray’s film aesthetics? I think it is fairly clear that too much weight was put by critics on the ‘look’ and sound of Ray’s first feature Pather Panchali (India 1955).  Unlike any of the Japanese masters of the 1950s (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kurosawa – who all served apprenticeships in the studio system) Ray began work as a novice in filmmaking practice (although of course already a serious student of film). The early style was unique partly because of the influence of Ray’s viewing of neo-realist films, but also partly because of budget restrictions and simple lack of expertise and the need to ‘learn by doing’ (allied to very intelligent decisions about breaking conventions). Clearly, as Ray’s career progressed, he developed a range of styles suited to different types of material and different production contexts. I suspect that changes in style were either accepted or rejected by critics partly in response to their feelings towards the subject matter rather than a conscious appreciation of Ray’s development of his own aesthetic voice. (I’m thinking here of the way that the more modernist tropes in Ray’s films appear in some of the later 1960s films with their shift to contemporary urban issues.) I haven’t yet analysed any of his films in detail on a shot-by-shot basis, so this is something that I need to do. (One problem is that the DVDs of the later films that I’ve seen are not great quality.)

5. Finally we come to the knotty question of the ideological in Ray’s work. This is what has drawn me back to his films since I know that I turned away from them when I became interested in ideas about Third Cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t think that I’ve changed by political standpoint, but I do recognise now that I have more approaches available to consider different kinds of films and I hope to look at Ray’s work in different ways. Until I read Seton’s biography I wasn’t really aware of Ray’s early life or of his specific connections to aspects of Bengali culture and politics. I’m not surprised to discover his socially liberal-left politics but I am fearful of how much I need to find out about Bengali politics in the 1960s/70s in order to evaluate Ray’s response.

Satyajit Ray: Abhijan (The Expedition) (India 1962)

Waheeda Rehman as Gulabi

I don’t remember this getting a release in the UK and I only came across it with the release of the Masters of Cinema DVD a couple of years ago.

The protagonist of the film is ‘Singhji’ a taxi driver in West Bengal who holds dear his Rajput ancestry as a descendant of traditional warriors. He considers himself to be a warrior amongst drivers and it is fitting that he should drive a glamorous car – a 1930s Chrysler. The film is presumably ‘contemporary’ but Singhji comes across as a stylish character despite his ancient vehicle. His status also includes command of a faithful retainer – a mechanic, come watchman, come conductor – who perches on the running board as Singjhi drives across the eerily barren landscape (reminiscent in some ways of the river bed/plain in Ghatak’s Subarnarekha). The DVD tells us that this is actually the Bengal/Bihar border. The local landmark of two stones balanced one on top of the other is quite well-known as the ‘Uncle and Nephew’.

The disrupting incident is a rash action by Singhji which leads to his licence being revoked. Forced to look elsewhere for work, he gives a lift to a businessman who recognises the possibilities of using his services and offers him a deal – to become his part-time driver. In return, the businessman will help him get a new licence. Clearly the deal will involve something illegal but Singhji decides to stay and take up the offer after he meets an old acquaintance from his village – a low-caste man who has converted to Christianity in order to escape the constrictions of caste. This man’s family and the other characters that Singhji meets are the catalysts for a series of moral dilemmas that the warrior-rebel must face.

The film feels like a humanist character study and I could imagine it as the kind of story that might have interested Kurosawa. I’ve seen analyses that discuss the film as an ‘action’ film or as something akin to the generic stories of popular cinema. However, there is relatively little action spread across the film’s 150 mins. Certainly there are some chase sequences and some scuffles that may indeed be inspired by John Ford, but this is still basically a character study, albeit one framed in a structure that fits the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars scenario with Singhji as the stranger in town who confronts the existing relationships in the community and takes sides.

According to the excellent support documentation that comes with the DVD, Abhijan was the most popular of Ray’s films in Bengal. It began as a commercial film that was chosen as a directing project by a group of Ray’s acquaintances. Ray initially supplied the script, but when they decided that they couldn’t manage the shoot, Ray stepped in to direct and as the MoC blurb has it his “mastery turned a starkly conventional plot into a subtly nuanced story”. Abhijan is an adaptation of a novel by the Bengali writer Tarashankar Banerjee. Ray had already made one film based on a Banerjee novel – Jalsagar (The Music Room) in 1958. One reason for the Abhijan‘s popularity might have been the presence of Waheeda Rehman, one of the great stars of Hindi Cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, often in association with Guru Dutt as actor or director. She plays a prostitute who in different ways challenges Singhji’s misogyny and his self-despair. As well as his sense of failure – a warrior reduced to a driver’s role – Singhji has ‘lost’ his wife and turned to alcohol. The role is played by one of Ray’s best known players, Soumitra Chatterjee. The beard that he wears for the role of a Rajput changes his appearance profoundly and I didn’t recognise him. Most of the rest of the leading players in the cast also appeared in other Ray films before or after Abhijan.

Ruma Guha Thakurta as Neeli (sister of Singhji’s Christian friend) and Soumitra Chatterjee as Singhji

I found the film fascinating, not so much for the character study itself, but for the formal, aesthetic qualities. The opening is striking with a carefully framed medium close-up of a man commenting on Singhji’s predicament – with Singhji himself seen only in the mirror located behind the man’s head. I’ve already commented on the use of landscape which inevitably made me think of Ford and Kurosawa, but also of one of the earliest neo-realist films, Ossessione (Italy 1942) set in the flatlands of the Po Valley. Perhaps this is the key to Ray’s early cinema. A blending of different but related realist visual styles using Black and White cinematography produces something which in the end is not realist as such but does carry a powerful sense of a ‘lived in’ landscape. Cinematographer Soumendu Roy had already worked on Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) for Ray and would go on to shoot several more films for him. I also feel compelled to mention the music – composed by Ray himself as it usually was from the early 1960s onwards.

Looking for comments on the film, I turned to Richard Roud’s Critical Dictionary of Major Filmmakers published in 1980 by Martin, Secker & Warburg. I was immediately taken aback by the stance of John Russell Taylor who wrote the long entry on Ray. This was the period before serious attention was paid to Indian Cinema by Western critics. Taylor dismisses all the rest of Indian Cinema as “trashy, theatrical, sentimental and fantasticated”. Ray is a singular figure who stands outside such nonsense. But Abhijan shows what might happen if Ray sullies himself with the commercial Indian Cinema. Commenting on the fact that Abhijan has been little seen in the West, Taylor opines that this seems “reasonable in the case of Abhijan, a picaresque adventure story centring on a taxi driver, his romantic and dramatic entanglements . . . and which has little to commend it apart from the interest of seeing him handle a subject much closer to the Indian commercial norm than any of his other films”. This seems to me a good example of how prejudice clouds judgement. For Taylor, any suggestion that the film was ‘commercial’ automatically places it beyond the pale. Presumably he simply didn’t see the strength of performances, camerawork, music and overall direction? ‘Picaresque’ suggests a protagonist who has a series of adventures – not necessarily linked by anything other than the central character. This isn’t the case with Abhijan. Singhji only has one ‘adventure’ as such and although he responds to several characters, they are all in the same story.

Unlike the 1970s critics, I’m reluctant to jump to any immediate conclusions about Ray’s films. I am struck though by the thought that in one sense Singhji is a modern/modernist character who slides around issues of class and caste (and religion). He allows an individualist focus in the narrative and I return again to that Yojimbo/Man With No Name conception. And I still don’t really understand the English title of the film.

The MoC DVD is very good and well worth the money. The print has been digitally restored.

Re-visiting Satyajit Ray

One of the Ray photos on the excellent website of the Satyajit Ray Society (see below) – a must visit resource.

Like many others of my generation, my first taste of Indian Cinema came via Satyajit Ray. I can’t remember when I first saw his films, but certainly by the early 1970s I had seen most of the early work and I saw the later 1970s films as they were released. But by 1981, when I first visited India, I had begun to be interested in the more overtly ‘political’ films of the New Wave/parallel cinema and in classic Hindi Cinema. I turned away from the humanist art cinema of Europe and its Indian equivalent. In the last ten years I’ve come to realise just how much I misunderstood Ray and how his films produced their meanings. My recent trip to Kolkata has prompted me to reconsider Ray in the context of Bengali Cinema.

Ray’s story is fairly well-known, so I won’t rehearse it in detail here. Suffice to say, Satyajit Ray (1921-92) was one of the first genuine auteurs – a multi-talented man capable of writing music, designing title cards (and even his own typeface), writing, directing, producing, photographing and editing films – a total of 40 features, shorts and documentaries. He professed an admiration of Hollywood but was initially influenced by the realism of Jean Renoir and the Italian neo-realists. Mostly Ray worked in Bengali language cinema. During the 1960s he explored various forms of modernism in developing his filmmaking approach. He thought of himself as making ‘political’ statements in some of his films, but his connection to the New Wave/parallel cinema trends in Indian Cinema is open to a wide range of interpretation. What is clear though is that in the fierce intellectual climate of Bengali film culture, Ray was an undoubted major figure and for cineastes worldwide he was one of the ‘masters of cinema’ and acknowledged as such by peers like Kurosawa Akira.

Here are a few of the accessible overviews of Ray as a filmmaker:

Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata

Senses of Cinema

Manas at UCLA

Satyajit Ray Film and Study Centre

Culturazzi (3 part overview by Shubhajit Lahiri)

AllMovie

This will be a long-term project and will also extend to consideration of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I hope to discuss several of the films and to collate links to other scholars. Perhaps others can join in?