Saturday, July 30, 2005

Ray films 3: Seemabaddha, Mahanagar, Sonar Kella

Just rounding off my notes on the Ray films screened at Cinefan. Like I said before, these aren’t meant to be comprehensive write-ups. Feel the need to make that point again because a couple of office colleagues (Bongs, Ray devotees) told me they wished I’d written more about Pather Panchali and Charulata. Honestly, I wish I had too, and I know I could have. But – and this is something I’ll need to elaborate on again soon – I don’t always have the time or energy to treat blogging as a parallel activity. One of the things I find attractive about this medium is that it allows me to focus on just one aspect of a film or book rather than write a full, formal review. And though I will continue to post my official reviews here after they’ve appeared in print, it just isn’t possible to keep writing fresh (and structured) stuff exclusively for the blog.

Besides, my freelancing finally begins this Monday and I’m going to have a whole new set of responsibilities. So this might taper off a bit anyway.

(Also, with reference to the last two Ray posts, I think the comments that have come in have been far more informed and interesting than what I originally wrote. So JAP, Tridib, Blogisite, Some Ol’ Guy, keep them coming. And Bonatellis: would like to know what you wanted to share about Seemabaddha.)

Here go the snippets:

Seemabaddha: Gripping urban parable about an upwardly mobile sales manager working with a big foreign company in Calcutta, who finds that his bid to become the company director leads him into increasingly murky moral terrain. Most of the film deals with the relationship between the protagonist Shyamal and his visiting sister-in-law, played by Sharmila Tagore. ("I play the role of Conscience in this film," Sharmila-di told us in her introductory speech at Siri Fort, while I mulled the plaintive defence she had mounted for her deer-slaying husband at press conferences a few days earlier. But okay, that’s irrelevant I know.) She’s pretty good in the film, though the lanky Barun Chandra is superb as Shyamal. Reminded me in some scenes of the young, pre-Zanjeer Amitabh. I’ll shut up about this now.

As he so often does, Ray infuses dramatic tension in scenes that might not have seemed particularly significant on paper. I particularly love the way he implicates us, the audience, in the protagonist’s deepening amorality. Shyamal is very likable throughout the film and we’re with him most of the way, and then a turning point occurs towards the end. An elderly watchman is badly injured during a labour strike that was part of a plan set into motion by Shyamal and the labour officer. Initially Shyamal seems genuinely conscience-stricken, as we’d expect him to be – but then, a little while later he laughs casually when his co-conspirator makes a joke about how they would have sent a big bouquet of flowers to the watchman’s family if he’d died. A line has been crossed, and though it's a brief moment it's a chilling one.

I thought the last shot – of the Sharmila character vanishing as Shyamal holds his head in his hands – was a little heavy-handed, but the film was superb overall, taut and economical, like all of Ray’s best work.

Mahanagar: One of Ray’s first urban films and an underrated one, sandwiched as it is between films that were among his most acclaimed in the west (the "Apu Trilogy", Charulata). I thought the script was a bit weak in places (only by Ray’s own standards) but the characterisation is nearly flawless - fine performances by Madhabi Mukherjee as the housewife who takes up a job to help her family make ends meet, but then finds that said family is dismayed about her actually finding self-fulfillment in the job (to see Madhabi in this role after seeing Charulata is to watch a goddess put on a mortal’s clothes), as well as by Anil Chatterjee as her husband, and the 14-year-old Jaya Bhaduri as his sister.

My viewing experience was spoilt in part by terribly subtitles ridden with awkward sentences and typos: one read "I sometimes offer life to people on the road" (instead of "lift") and the same scene later had "I even pick up strangers in my ear".

Sonar Kella: Now officially my favourite Ray movie. Soumitra as Feluda is as cool as Mifune, Santosh Dutta as the pulp-writer Jotayu is superb and the camels rock, as they must. Everything that needs to be said about this film has been said before, so I’ll add only that I can see why Salman Rushdie (who cited the film version of The Wizard of Oz as one of the biggest artistic influences on his life) was such a big fan of this film. In an essay in Imaginary Homelands Rushdie mentions how, when he told Ray that Sonar Kella was one of his favourite movies, the director jumped up from his chair enthusiastically, in the manner of a father whose most underappreciated child has been praised.

P.S. if you want more indepth information on Ray and these movies, check this site.

15 comments:

  1. Oye...!!!!
    You gonna be freelancing??? You know what Jai, had it been anyone else, I would have said, God help you. But honestly, I see you getting through with it (happily). You freak out on writing, it's what you do, you shoulnd't have a problem. But yeah man, what lacks is motivation. I mean - passing today's work on to tomorrow and kicking off the cycle which tends to make you really laid back and lazy. keep that in mind... rest is fair...

    ReplyDelete
  2. If you liked Sonar Kella, I would seriously recommend you watch Joi Baba Felunath, the other Feluda movie, if you haven't seen it yet. In some ways, it is even more well-crafted. Plus, Maghanlal Meghraj is one of the most chilling screen villains of all time. Personally, this is one of my favourite Feluda books, along with Badshahi Aangti and Kailashe Kelenkari.

    While on the subject, please read some of Ray's short stories. Though written mainly for young readers, they are simply the best in narrative structure and complexity. Did you know some of them have a lot of fantasy elements? Hmm, I should blog on that. Have the entire collection of short stories with me, but you'll have to learn to read Bangla before you can read them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Joy me boy, SO good to find someone who agrees about JBP.

    Come to my arms, Map Person. I made much the same comment on Joy Orjoon's previous post, the Charulata one.

    And why no Nayak? Have you seen it, J'wock?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Joy Orjoon Babu :-D
    You cannot round off a trip of the 'serious' Shottojit Rai films without "pratiddwandi." Pleej to see, if thou hast not already. A finer, more nuanced de-construction(hey, I am bong after all, and we love our derrida almost as much as our pheluda) of the self/other dialectic amidst the morass of middle class mundanities has seldom been made.
    The marauder,
    Cannot but agree on all of that you've said. Maganlal is all the more chilling because of the grotesque, bloated comic aspect of his character. Those who exult about Utpal Dotto's comic prowess in Hindi ought to see JBP. About the stories, wish at least one film had been made out of Prof. S. But even some of the one of stories: bonkubabur bondhu, potolbabu film star...*dissolves in nostalgic sighs* Among the pheluda stories, one of the most chilling tales, my favourite (if I can indulge in so gross a travesty- they're all timeless anyhow) in fact, is "gorosthane shabdhaan." Please blog on the short stories, and you have the entire collection? Do expect unexpected guests at odd hours of the night, leaving horribly, heartrendingly empty book shelves in their wake. muahahaha.
    and oh, in case you hadn't seen, prufrock uncle invites "map person" to his willing arms. tee hee.

    ReplyDelete
  5. JAP: yes, have seen Nayak. Kaashyapeya: haven't seen The Adversary (which, ahem, is the title I know it by). But was only blogging about the films I'd seen/re-seen at Cinefan anyway. Will try to find a pretext to blog about the others sometime.

    Marauder: as was clarified over prolonged SMS-ing session yesterday, I have read many of Ray's short stories, especially the supernatural ones. Will look out for others that might be available in translation.

    Conman: "freelancing" is a misnomer in some ways, as I'll still be doing around the same amount of work for BS, plus going to office twice a week at least. But it does give me more flexibility, plus the option to write for others if I'm comfortable with taking up extra work.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ahem,
    'this what the man himself called it in english I suppose. Try to read the recent Enakshi Chattopadhyay translation of the Sunil Gangopadhyay novel. Did recently act in an English play based on that, also called, ahem, The Adversary

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am glad that you pointed out the heavy-handed ending of Semabaddho. It did seem so (I watched it years ago) and Sharmila returning the watch seemed so clichéd. But Jai, if my memory serves me right, the last shot was that of Shyamal from an angle above the ceiling fan that was whirring lazily, kind of reflecting Shyamal's deflated spirit. Poignant, as Shaymal worked for an MNC fan company. Will have to check it out.

    Would have loved to comment on the endings in Ray films but will reserve it for the second coming of Ray on your blog!

    There seems to be unanimity among commentators that Joi Baba Felunath is more well-crafted. It is, I feel. The camera captures the heart of Benares -- the dingy lanes, rabri/paan and the Ganga. This was the only case in which Feluda almost contemplated quitting his profession. Rivetting stuff. But the gun part, where Feluda pins Maganlal against the wall and sprays bullets all around, is not there in the book. Gave a dramatic edge, though. The knife scene... I think you should watch it Jai.

    All said, Sonar Kella does have its high points. The famous Feluda music began from this film. Especially the scene where Lalmohan Babu does his hilarious stretching bit after riding a camel. The music is out of the world. Or his banglisised hindi in the train. Has you in splits...

    Jai, will be missing the Ray posts. Enjoyed commenting on them. I should also thank Tridib here since he brought my notice to the Ray festival on Jabberwock. Why don’t you start a series on Hitchcock?

    PS: Best of luck for the freelancing plunge.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Blogisite: thanks. Don't think it's a good idea for me to start a Hitchcock series though...there's just too much I can say on all the films, and I won't know how to stop. Will consider it though!

    ReplyDelete
  9. hope this doesn't break your heart but did u know the author of Shimabaddha is a PR ... works for the RPG Group in Calcutta ...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Nahhiiiinnnnnnn!!! *slain jabberwock's anguished last cry echoes across the skies*

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jabberwock:

    Tiny factual error. Jaya played the role of Anil Chatterjee's sister, not daughter.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks - someone else had pointed it out too, a while back. Will change it now.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am probably posting a comment here two years too late, but I just came across your Ray post, and being a Ray devotee (yeah, I am Bong), I felt obliged. My favorite three Ray films are Seemabadha, Jana Aranya and Pratidandhi, not specifically in that order. So, if you haven't seen Jana Aranya I really recommend it.

    I liked JBF a lot, but liked Sonar Kella more. The cinematography is absolutely mind blowing. I guess Rajasthan's yellow sand is a lot easier to capture than Benaras' gullies. So, in a sense, it is not fair to compare the two films in terms of cinematography.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Came to your blog after a really long time and was pleasantly surprised to see you write on Ray's works. 9 years ago, many of Ray's works were shown in CA at the stanford theatre and I was so hooked on them, I saw 2 films the same day to get maximum leverage. Madhabi Mukherjee even did a guest appearance. I fell in love with Saumitra! and I started thinking I could really understand bengali after watching so many films together.

    Oh..sorry for the nostalgic tirade. I first started to comment, because I wanted to point out to you that Jaya Bhaduri was Anil's sister in the film, not his daughter. They did have one other child, I think a son.

    Ray's films are education in film making and how black and white medium can be wonderfully used.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Came to your blog after a really long time and was pleasantly surprised to see you write on Ray's works. 9 years ago, many of Ray's works were shown in CA at the stanford theatre and I was so hooked on them, I saw 2 films the same day to get maximum leverage. Madhabi Mukherjee even did a guest appearance. I fell in love with Saumitra! and I started thinking I could really understand bengali after watching so many films together.

    Oh..sorry for the nostalgic tirade. I first started to comment, because I wanted to point out to you that Jaya Bhaduri was Anil's sister in the film, not his daughter. They did have one other child, I think a son.

    Ray's films are education in film making and how black and white medium can be wonderfully used.

    ReplyDelete