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.