Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Beyond the World of Apu

John W Hood’s Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray, published by Orient Longman, is a very low-profile book – I can find hardly anything on it online – but a very rewarding one. The essays here are elegantly and carefully written, and create a pleasantly reflective mood that somehow mirrors the experience of watching Ray’s cinema.

Ray was a multifaceted filmmaker and his oeuvre covered many themes, settings and styles, ranging from the stark but affectionate rural narrative of Pather Panchali to the cynical corporate-life urbanity of Seemabaddha, and from the wordy clash of ideologies in Ghare Baire to the imaginative visual flourishes of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe. For the sake of convenience, Hood arranges the 29 films into nine broad chapters with such titles as “The Calcutta Triptych”, “The Urban Middle Class”, “The Tribute to Tagore” and “The Cry Against Tradition”. This arrangement isn’t always satisfying – it’s more cosmetic than organic, as Hood himself admits, and at least one of the classifications, the chapter “An Early Pastiche”, is arbitrary – but it serves the purpose well enough. Besides, any impression that Beyond the World of Apu might be a disjointed or incoherent work vanishes when you actually get down to the essays on the individual films – it’s here that Hood’s love for Ray’s cinema makes itself felt.

The format of these essays is misleadingly simple: at first glance, they appear to be lengthy plot synopses with a few comments thrown in here and there. But to read them more closely is to be impressed by Hood’s rigorous attention to detail in watching each film (this is comparable to Tim Dirks’ astonishingly detailed Greatest Films website), making notes on it, discussing sequences and characters at length and observing thematic connections or contrasts between different works.

This in-depth treatment also means that Hood can avoid emphatic black-and-white judgements. Though he stresses the importance of acknowledging that not every Ray film is a masterpiece (and categorically names the ones that he considers the director’s lesser works), he gives himself the space to discuss the strong points of the flawed films as well as the less satisfactory aspects of the masterpieces. He doesn’t gloss over any film, but at the same time his respect for Ray’s artistry never encumbers his critical faculties – he observes, for instance, that with the exception of Uttam Kumar’s performance in Nayak, Ray’s films are full of “hackneyed images of drunkenness” (and, on at least one occasion, a trite portrayal of mental illness and senility), and that some of the later works are verbose and pedantic. Though I disagreed with him on some specifics about the films, most of the arguments he uses to back up his opinions are difficult to quibble with. (One notable exception: discussing one of Ray’s late, lesser works Shakha Prashakha, Hood points to the excessive use of English words and phrases as a flaw because of “the sometimes heavy Indianness of their enunciation”. This didn’t make much sense to me; in real life, the sort of people depicted in the film do use a lot of English words and phrases, and speak them in heavy Indian accents.)

But in essence, this isn’t the sort of film writing that sets out to be instructive or didactic: Hood is first and foremost a movie-lover articulately engaging with the career of a filmmaker he greatly admires. And that’s an appropriate approach to this particular director, for the beauty of Ray’s best work lies in observation rather than judgement; in the interplay between characters and in little details and vignettes that add texture to a narrative. (Personally speaking, I have a hard time pointing to a single favourite scene – or even two or three favourite scenes – in a cherished Ray film: the overall experience is so much more satisfying than its composite parts.)

In his Introduction, Hood clearly states his objectives. “[This book] aims to be no more than a critical examination of 29 works of art, based simply on the texts themselves. It is not in any way biographical, nor does it make any claim to offer film history.” Beyond the World of Apu is a fine demonstration of these assertions. In its ordered structuring and clear setting out of goals, it resembles a lengthy specialised thesis in places, but it’s also an accessible work that avoids academic jargon or the sort of “critspeak” that might distance the casual (but engaged) viewer of Ray’s films. My own litmus test for the book’s effectiveness was that I was equally engrossed by the essays on the films I haven’t seen (or remember dimly) as on the ones I have seen. Hood’s book lacks the intensely personal touch of Robin Wood’s The Apu Trilogy (sadly out of print now), but as a comprehensive study of Ray’s career it belongs in the top tier. Despite its occasional formalness, this is a warm and inclusive work of movie analysis, a fitting tribute to the art of a man whose work is characterised by affection and empathy for the human spirit.

[Did a version of this review for the New Sunday Express]

8 comments:

  1. Interesting book, I hope it is available in book stores. After reading Seton's biography of him, I was intrigued a whole lot but have only watched two movies of his Gopi Gyne Bagha Byne and Joi Baba Felunath. (Former courtesy DD and Mom who screened a retrospective on Ray in the early 90's and a film buff for a mum and the latter thanks to Zee Studio).

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  2. Thanks for telling us abt the book - wud look fwd to reading it.btw,read thru ur earlier post on Ray. In case ur still looking for 'Chiriakhana' dvd, its easiliy available in CR Park. Ray thought Chiriakhana was his worst movie and I tend to agree with it. wats ur take on the same?

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  3. Err... I know this is your blog and you can do just what you want with it, but curious: Why exactly do you play around with the dates of posts? Very disconcerting to come here and find a post I've read a few days previously on top!

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  4. Sudipto: still haven't seen Chiriakhana (have read the Byomkesh Bakshi story it was based on though, and agree that a standard-issue detective story like that wouldn't give a great director much leeway to bring his own artistry to the table).

    Anon: just curious, why do you find it so disconcerting? If there are any new posts you haven't seen, surely it's just a matter of scrolling down a bit.

    (For the record, the reason this one's date was changed was because I had somewhat indiscreetly published it before the print review came out - so I republished it subsequently. But there can be other reasons for my toying around with dates too: sometimes I might simply want a particular post to be on top for a longer time.)

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  5. For the reader who visits regularly and expects to find the new stuff on top - a bit like a news site, I guess - it's a bit of deja vu to find a previously read post. "Haven't I read this before?"...scroll down... "And oh, HERE's the new stuff!" Not exactly rocket science, just... disconcerting!

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  6. Hi Jai,
    I think one of the best books on Ray is Andrew Robinson's "The Inner Eye".

    It has also got a fantastic collection of rare Photographs.

    P.S. even I was very confused about the date thing!
    :)

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  7. Jai,
    Sorry for this late comment. It would be great if you could do a detailed review (like you do for other movies) on other Ray films like 'Agantuk' and 'Shakha Proshakha'. Just a suggestion :-)

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  8. Like many Bengalis of my age group, I have grown up watching these movies. Recently I watched some of them once again and realized that watching these at different stage of life gives different meaning. As a child, I viewed “Pather Panchali” from Apu’s standpoint. This time, I realized it from his father’s perspective.

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