Twenty-four years after the death of Satyajit Ray, I write this article in a Kolkata that prepares itself for a tribute to the master on his approaching birth anniversary. I write this in a nation that is celebrating a hundred years of its cinema. I write this as a member of the ‘new generation’.
In such a setting, where does Bengal’s most famous film director’s legacy fit in?
How is Ray the auteur, the Ray of humanism, the Ray of writing, art and music, still pertinent? What do I find in his films that I go back to them repeatedly, only to discover the profundity of his genius all over again?
Satyajit Ray, to me, is a poet whose medium is cinema.
I can only speak for myself, and what I have found in his vast body of work. As a student of literature, the smooth, lyrical flow of his films and the subtlety of his character studies are possibly the attributes that attract me the most to his works. Nayak (The Hero), with Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore in the lead, is by far my favourite, and it is certainly due to the Prufrock-like study of character found in it. I have not yet watched a film so touching in its exploration of the individual- in this case, that of a man, poised on the brink of a fall, aware of it, fighting it, burdened with guilt and the weight of ambition. The way the film has been crafted calls to mind a Chekhovian short story, with its share of unity of time and study of phases of the consciousness. The very concept of this man encountering a strong, almost disdainful and yet sympathetic woman on a train journey who is the only one to get a glimpse behind the mask of the Hero- the mask portrayed by the motif of the sunglasses worn by Arindam- has delightfully Romantic connotations.
Seemabaddha (Company Limited), starring Barun Chanda and Sharmila Tagore, is another of my early favourites. I first watched it when I was twelve. The very last part of the film, which shows Shyamal, the protagonist, labouriously climbing the stairs to his destination, all alone, after discovering that the elevator is out of order acts as a metaphor for the message of the film- a message that raises questions about the eternal tussle between morals and ambition. Seen through the innocent eyes of Tutul, Shyamal’s fall hit me as almost as hard as it hit Tutul herself. For a twelve-year old to get so involved in a film that deals with such a mature issue speaks volumes about the universality of Ray’s style and the deceptive simplicity which characterizes it.
The versatility of his genius holds me to Ray’s work.
Even without considering his works outside the sphere of cinema, the sheer variety of topics he dealt with in his films, ranging from fantasy to detective films to historical drama to contemporary issues of Indian life, is staggering. His relationship with Rabindranath Tagore intrigues me. It is one of the most symbiotic relationships in art. Ray shares Tagore’s humanism and tendency to explore the individual and their relationships rather than a class, an event or a particular emotion. His adaptations of Tagore’s stories, especially Charulata and the Teen Kanya trilogy, are, to me, inseparable from the original works themselves.
“Who else will compete?” asked the writer of Satyajit Ray’s obituary in The Independent.
Who will rival the quality of his works, born of meticulous planning and a thriving creative vision? Strangely enough, the most-often criticized aspects of his style, such as an apparently slow pace like a “majestic snail” and his interest in the “characters” rather than the “dramatic patterns” expected by viewers, are what draw me to his films. His films are said to not produce any solutions to the conflicts portrayed in them. I never even realised the apparent sluggishness, perhaps because I was more used to the narrative style of Indian cinema than the New York Times reviewer who commented on it. Moreover, the pace never felt unnecessary- every single element felt just right, evenly tempered and part of a well-woven tapestry. It is, in fact, this economy that I appreciated the most in his films.
Another, more controversial accusation that I recently learnt of is that he ‘glorifies and exports poverty’, thus romanticizing rural India rather than portraying reality. But it was Apu’s resilience, the dreams in his eyes in spite of his very real poverty that struck a chord with the young me when I first watched Apur Sansar. The memorable scene of Apu describing the plot of his novel to Pulu is one of the earliest and most vivid impressions of his films on me, and my favourite sequence from the film.
Ray’s works are not all impeccable.
Like any other artist, some, such as the ones after 1983, fall short of his prime. But it is for the astonishing array of his best works that I am an admirer of Ray. It is for his ability to flawlessly merge the “highest form of commercial art”, without compromising on his artistic vision. And, most importantly, it is for his enduring portrayal of human emotions, sympathetic rather than judgmental, that I appreciate Satyajit Ray’s genius, for like many prominent proponents of Art, including Oscar Wilde and W H Auden, I believe that the role of an artist is to “ask questions, not to answer them”.