Sunday, May 05, 2013

Author, auteur, rationalist, fabulist: an essay on Satyajit Ray

[Did this profile of Satyajit Ray for the African magazine Cityscapes. Since the piece was meant for a largely non-Indian readership – including people who would know of Ray only in passing – there is necessarily some formality and simplification, including the setting down of biographical detail that is widely known in India. But I tried to avoid making it a dry, encyclopaedia-like piece and to discuss something I personally find intriguing, the divide between Ray’s “serious” work and his excursions into fantasy. As always, no attempt at being “comprehensive” here: it would be possible to write a hundred such essays about Ray without saying everything interesting there is to say about him.]

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The tall man – very tall by Indian standards – is moving about a cluttered room, monitoring elements of set design while his film crew get their equipment in place. Depending on whom he talks to, he alternates between English and his mother tongue Bengali, speaking both languages with casual fluency. He asks an actor to try a rehearsal without his false moustache, jokes and banters for a few seconds, but then shifts quickly back into the meter of the sombre professional, the father figure keeping a close watch on things. He sits on the floor at an uncomfortable, slanted angle and looks through the viewfinder of the bulky camera, placing a cloth over his head to shut out peripheral light; so pronounced is the difference in height between him and his assistants, it's akin to seeing Santa surrounded by his elves, examining the underside of his sleigh.



Satyajit Ray is multi-tasking in ways you would expect most directors to do during a shoot, but there is something poetically apt about this busy yet homely scene, which opens a 1985 documentary - made by Shyam Benegal - about his life and career. Ray was an auteur in the most precise sense of that versatile word. Apart from directing, he wrote most of the screenplays of his movies – some adapted from existing literary works, others from his own stories. He also composed music, drew detailed, artistic storyboards for sequences, designed costumes and promotional posters, and frequently wielded the camera. Above all, he brought his gently intelligent sensibility and a deep-rooted interest in people to nearly everything he did. He was, to take recourse to a cliché with much truth in it, a culmination of what has become known as the Bengali intellectual Renaissance.

The Indian state of West Bengal, from which Ray hailed, has long been associated with capacious scholarship and a well-rounded cultural education, with the towering figure in its modern history – certainly the one most well-known outside India – being the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a multitalented writer, artist and song composer. As a young man in the early 1940s, Ray studied art at Shantiniketan, the pastoral university established by Tagore, but this was just one episode in his cultural flowering. He was born – in 1921 – into a family well-steeped in the intellectual life: his grandfather Upendrakishore (a contemporary and friend of Tagore) was a leading writer, printer, composer and a pioneer of modern block-making; Ray’s father Sukumar Ray was a renowned illustrator and practitioner of nonsense verse whose work has delighted generations of young Bengalis (and now, increasingly through translation, young Indians across the country).

From this fecund soil emerged a sensibility so broad that it defies categorisation. If cinema had not struck the young Satyajit’s fancy (he was an enthusiast of Hollywood movies, interested initially in the stars and later in the directors) he might have made an honourable career in many other disciplines. He worked as a visualiser in an advertising agency and as a cover designer for books before embarking on his film career; even today, people who are familiar only with one aspect of his creative life are surprised to discover his many other talents. And for this reason, a useful way of looking at Ray is through the prism of the narrow perceptions that have sometimes been used to define or pigeonhole him. These usually come from those who are only familiar with his work in fragments: viewers from outside India, as well as non-Bengali Indians who may have seen only a few of his films.


Simplistic labels have been imposed on him ever since his debut feature Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) came to international attention and won a prize at the 1956 Cannes festival. Based on a celebrated early 20th century novel by BibhutibhushanBandopadhyaya, this subtle, deeply moving film is about a family of impoverished villagers, including a little boy named Apu, who would become the protagonist of the celebrated Apu Trilogy – travelling to Calcutta as an adolescent in Ray’s next film Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and finally coming of age in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Though Pather Panchali is rightly regarded a milestone in the history of Indian cinema, it was also the subject of misunderstandings among those who were not yet accustomed to dealing with directors and movies from this country. In a perceptive 1962 essay about a later Ray film Devi (The Goddess), the American critic Pauline Kael noted that some early Western reviewers had mistakenly believed Ray was a “primitive” artist and that Apu’s progress over the three films in some way represented the director’s own journey from rural to city life. Indeed, the critic Dwight Macdonald wrote of Apur Sansar that while Ray handled village life well enough, he was “not up to” telling the story of a young writer in a city, which is “a more complex theme” – the implication being that rural stories were somehow truer both to Ray’s own life experience and to the Indian condition in general.

If so, this is a laughable idea. Ray was very much the product of a cosmopolitan setting and way of life: he lived in a big city, travelled abroad extensively before becoming a filmmaker, and spoke English with a clipped accent that contained traces of the British colonial influence. In choosing to film Bandopadhyaya’s novel with its village setting, he had stepped out of his personal comfort zone: the worlds he chronicled in later, urban films, such as Mahanagar (The Big City) and the Calcutta Trilogy of the 1970s were much more intimately familiar to him than the world of Apu’s penurious family was. These “city films” are diverse in their themes and subject matter, but the best of them are particularly insightful depictions of restive middle-class youngsters in a soft-socialist society increasingly besotted by the go-getting, capitalist way of life – a milieu that was conservative in some ways but forward-looking in other ways – and of how an individual might gradually get corrupted by a system.

However, there is a related point to be made here. If one is seeking a “quintessential Indian filmmaker” – meaning a director whose work represents the movie-going experience for a majority of Indians – Satyajit Ray was not that man. His films had a cool, formal polish, an organic consistency, which was far removed from the episodic structures and dramatic flourishes of commercial Indian cinema. He was influenced not by local moviemakers but by foreign directors ranging from Jean Renoir to Billy Wilder. And he had a sensibility rooted in classical Western and Bengali literature, which sometimes manifested itself in hidebound snobbery towards films that indulged “style” at the expense of “substance”, or theatrical melodrama over “realism”. In 1947, Ray and some of his friends co-founded Calcutta's first film society. “We were critical of most Indian cinema of the time,” he says in the documentary mentioned at the beginning of this piece, “We found most of our stuff shoddy, theatrical, commercial in a bad way.”

This may also be the time for a personal aside: the cinema of Ray was not the cinema of my childhood. Growing up in north India, I mainly watched the escapist entertainers of the Bombay film industry, latterly known as “Bollywood” – movies that mixed disparate tones and genres and contained narrative-disrupting song-and-dance sequences. It was only in my teens, in the early 1990s – around the time a feeble Ray, lying on his deathbed, was giving his halting acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar – that I entered his world. I had become interested in what we called “world cinema” – beginning with classic Hollywood, then the French, Italian and Japanese movie movements – and I saw Ray’s films as part of a tradition defined by exclusion: everything that was not mainstream Hindi cinema. I grew to love his work, but even today I feel a little lost when faced with specific Bengali references in his films; a little cut off by virtue of not understanding the language or having been born in that cultural tradition. (It doesn’t help that the subtitles on most Indian DVDs are execrable.) I also feel ambivalent about his condescension towards commercial Hindi cinema.

But given the cultural disconnect between my world and his, it is remarkable how accessible Ray’s films were in most ways that mattered. This may be because, as the critic-academic Robin Wood put it, “Ray's films usually deal with human fundamentals that undercut all cultural distinctions.” His best work hinges on instantly recognisable aspects of the human condition: from the loneliness of a bored housewife, dangerously drawn to her younger brother-in-law, in Charulata (one of Ray’s most accomplished films, based on a famous Tagore story) to four restless men making a languid, not properly thought out attempt to escape city life in Aranyer Dinratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). In his capacity to engage with the inner lives of many different types of people and to find the right expression for them, he is one of the most universally appealing of directors.

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In the memoirs of Ray’s wife Bijoya – recently published in English translation as Manik & I – there is a glimpse of the director as a privileged and mollycoddled man. One anecdote has Ray being startled that Bijoya knew how to replace a fused light-bulb herself, without having to call an electrician. In the no-nonsense style of the spouse who can deconstruct the myth around a great man, she writes: “He never once touched the air conditioner in our room. If he entered the room for a rest and couldn’t see me anywhere, he’d shout out, ‘Where are you? Please switch the AC on for me.’ Such was my husband.”

Amusing and revealing though these stories are, they should also guard us against making facile connections between an artist’s work and his life; they take nothing away from Ray’s interest in people who were much less privileged, who did not share his background or personal concerns. In fact, “humanist” is a word that has often been used to describe Ray’s film work – so often that it has become a closed term, sufficient in itself. Roughly speaking, it can be taken to mean that he cared deeply about people and their circumstances, and that he chose empathy over judgement (his best films lack villain figures who can serve as easy explanations for why bad things happen). But I would argue that to properly understand this quality, one must recognise how complex and apparently contradictory he could be as an artist.

Consider, for instance, that the man who could be narrow-minded about genre films (in a book review, he airily dismissed Francois Truffaut’s efforts to present Alfred Hitchcock as a serious artist) was the same man who admitted in an essay that if he could take only one film to a desert island, it would be a Marx Brothers movie. The filmmaker known for his literariness and economy of expression also displayed a light, absurdist sense of humour and wrote many delightful stories in such commercially popular genres as science-fiction, detective fiction and horror.


Many of the perceptions of Ray swim around a basic idea: Satyajit Ray was a “serious” filmmaker. Now this statement is not in doubt if the word is used in its broad sense, to describe any rigorous artist who has achieved at a high level. But in a developing country like India, where cinema is often seen as having an overt social responsibility, very sharp lines tend to get drawn between “escapist” and “meaningful” films, and the word “serious” is sometimes used as an approving synonym for pedantry, humourlessness, absence of personal style or lack of interest in things that are not self-evidently a part of the “real” world. However, none of these qualities apply to Ray. There was nothing pedantic about his major work. His narratives are so fluid, it is possible to get so absorbed in his people’s lives, that one is scarcely conscious of watching an “art” film. And the identifiably weaker moments in his oeuvre are the laboured or self-conscious ones. For most of its running time, his 1971 film Seemabaddha (Company Limited) is an absorbing narrative about an upwardly mobile executive slowly being drawn into compromise and amorality. But the very last shot – where a key character literally vanishes into thin air, thereby identifying her as a symbol for the protagonist’s conscience – is one of the notable missteps in Ray’s career, a classic example of a filmmaker spoon-feeding an idea to his audience at the last moment, rather than letting the accumulation of events in the film speak for themselves (as they have been doing).

An offshoot of the “serious” tag is the idea that Ray was concerned only with content, not with form. But watch the films themselves and this notion quickly dissolves. Even Pather Panchali, his sparsest film on the surface – made when he was a young director with an inexperienced crew, learning on the job – is anything but a bland documentary account of life in an Indian village. It is full of beautifully realised, carefully composed sequences (many of which derive directly from Ray’s delicate storyboard drawings) and thoughtful use of sound and music.


There is clearer evidence of Ray the stylist in such films as his 1958 classic Jalsaghar (The Music Room), about a once-rich landlord now become a relic of a forgotten world. It is obvious right from the opening shot that Ray intended this to be a film of visual flourishes. (In an essay in his book Our Films, Their Films, he admitted that having won an award at Cannes shortly before making Jalsaghar, he had become a little self-conscious and allowed himself the indulgence of a crane for overhead shots.) There are carefully composed shots which draw attention to themselves – a chandelier reflected in a drinking glass, an unsettling zoom in to a spider scuttling across a portrait, a view of a stormy sky seen through the windows of the music room – as well as sequences that stress the contrast between the zamindar’s past glory and the delusions that now crowd his mind. One constantly gets the impression of a director trying to use the camera in inventive ways, as one does in other movies such as the 1966 Nayak (The Actor), with its stylistic nods to scenes from Federico Fellini’s Eight and a Half, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and other international films, and the 1970 Pratidwandi (The Adversary), which makes effective, ghostly use of negative film at key moments.

But for the most pronounced sense of Ray’s creative flair and versatility, one should consider a film that has long been among his most beloved and well-known works in Bengal, and at the same time among his most neglected, least-seen films outside India: the 1968 adventure classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha). Based on a story by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore about two lovable adventurer-musicians who foil a wicked magician’s plans in the fictitious land of Shundi, this film (along with its 1980 sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe) is an important pointer to Ray’s strong fabulist streak, and a conundrum for those who would construct pat narratives about him being the solemn antidote to Bollywood escapism – as a man who only told stark, grounded stories about the “real India”.

To watch Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is to marvel at how playful Ray could be. One of his grandest achievements as a filmmaker was this film’s mesmerising, six-minute-long ghost dance, featuring four varieties of ghosts representing archetypes from India’s colonial past – a scene that is immediately followed by a darkly poetic sequence where the King of Ghosts (speaking in rhyme, and in Ray’s own synthesiser-distorted voice) grants the two heroes a series of boons. However, this wonderful adventure story also has a strong undercurrent of pacifism, which finds expression in an uplifting climactic scene where hungry soldiers lay down their weapons and make a beeline for pots of sweets that Goopy and Bagha have conjured for them. The anti-war theme isn't underlined, but it is there for anyone to see.


The fantasy genre allowed him to display his warmth in its rawest, least guarded form, and this gentle, unselfconscious erudition is on view throughout his writings too. He wrote dozens of short stories for younger readers, most of them initially published in the popular children’s magazine Sandesh (founded by his grandfather in 1913, revived by Ray himself in the early 1960s) – but many non-Bengalis I know have experienced them for the first time as adults, and attest that their sharp characterisations, expert pacing, and eye for detail make nonsense of the idea that they are meant only for children. These stories often broaden the reader’s horizons, supplying a wealth of information about places and histories; but they invariably do this by embedding the information in the fabric of a well-paced narrative rather than presenting it in a professorial manner.

Along with tales about ghosts and monsters, there are some subtle but moving stories about people caught in a life-altering moment. In one of my favourite stories “The Class Friend”, a well-to-do middle-aged man, Mohit Sarkar, is unexpectedly visited by a former school friend named Joy, whom he has not seen in 30 years. Joy has had a hard life and has aged beyond recognition, though the anecdotes he relates seem to confirm his identity. However, when it becomes clear that he has come seeking financial assistance, the preoccupied and wary Mohit manages to rationalise that the man before him is an imposter; or even if it really is his old friend, the gap between them is now so great that he wants nothing to do with him.


By this time, the reader – accustomed to little subterfuges in Ray’s stories – doesn’t quite know what to expect, but the tale ends with an understated variation of the more pronounced twists in Ray’s supernatural work: after being rebuffed once, Joy sends his 14-year-old son to Mohit’s house to collect the money; Mohit looks at the boy and at last recognises the face of the friend he had known in a much more innocent time. This personal epiphany closes an ostensibly “simple” story that is really quite complex and mature in its cognisance of the self-deception of human beings and the cleansing power of memory. Importantly, it conveys all this with characteristic lightness of touch.

It is also, in a strange and moving way, a story about the importance of maintaining faith – which is perhaps a peculiar observation to make about a man who was himself a firm rationalist. One of Ray’s greatest films – the 1960 Devi, about a childlike old man who believes his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of a goddess – is as sharp an attack on the perniciousness of organised religion and the follies of those who unquestioningly fall under its sway as any Indian filmmaker has ever dared to make. In a fiery tribute to Ray shortly after his death in 1992, the actor-playwright Utpal Dutt held this film up as a shining rebuke to the maudlin religious movies and TV serials regularly made in India. And by all accounts, Ray lived his life by the precepts of the questioning spirit. But he also recognised the human need – especially the child’s need – for the regenerating power of fantasy and imagination. He was sceptical of charlatans posing as mystics, feeding off the vulnerabilities of insecure people – a common phenomenon in India – but he was also open to the idea that there are things that lie beyond our understanding, things that current science has not yet been able to reveal.

Hence the paranormal elements in his stories – as in “Two Magicians” which is, among other things, an elegy for an old-world mysticism buried by the trickery of modern-day conjurors. In another story “The Maths Teacher, Mr Pink and Tipu”, one might expect Ray to be on the side of a mathematics teacher who forbids a child from reading fairy-tales “that sow the seeds of superstition in a young mind”. But the teacher, for the purposes of the story, is an antagonist: our sympathies are with the little boy, Tipu, who is being denied the opportunity to immerse himself in the magical (in more than one sense) world of storytelling. And eventually it is a brush with the supernatural that brings the story the resolution we are hoping for.


It would be easy to overlook these works, or to clearly demarcate them from the rest of Ray’s achievements, as if they constituted his own brand of self-indulgent escapism that did not belong in the same moral universe as his more grounded work. But I think that would be a mistake. To appreciate the wholeness of his vision, one should look at each film and story as a vital part of an organic career, rather than resort to distinctions such as “for mature viewers” and “for children”. The wide-eyed sense of wonder, the surrealism and nonsense verse of Goopy Gyne, are as much a part of his legacy – and his artistic sensibility– as the clear-sighted rationalism of Devi, or the starkness of the Apu Trilogy, are. The apparent paradoxes in his work are not paradoxes at all but indicative of a well-rounded, inclusive understanding of the frailties, needs and potentials of human beings – and ultimately, perhaps, this is what “humanist” really means.

[Some earlier posts on Ray and his work: an essay on Nemai Ghosh's photos of Ray; Goopy and Bagha; the restored Jalsaghar; Beyond the World of Apu; Devi; Professor Shonku]

40 comments:

  1. Nice piece.

    I do like Ray a lot. But I don't regard him anymore as this numero uno Indian artist who is a few light years ahead of commercial Indian film-makers. Possibly because I have grown out of my previous condescension for mainstream Indian cinema!

    I also feel ambivalent about his condescension towards commercial Hindi cinema

    Same here. A lot of this disdain derives from the old snobbish attitude of the intelligentsia towards "commercial culture" in general.

    I can't possibly condescend towards commercial Indian cinema of the 50s/60s which I am growing to like very much. I do agree mainstream cinema grew stale starting in the 70s rehashing the same old melodramatic devices.

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  2. But I don't regard him anymore as this numero uno Indian artist who is a few light years ahead of commercial Indian film-makers.

    Agree. In any case, given his reputation as our preeminent film artist, there is plenty of structural unevenness, even carelessness, in many of his films. And as I've indicated here, I'm constantly surprised by his limited view (as presented in his writings) of what good cinema should be. Lots of silly statements like the one about Jalsaghar being made to demonstrate how songs and dances could be incorporated into a narrative (as opposed to how they were used in Hindi films), as well as conditional, half-baked praise for old Hollywood.

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  3. as well as conditional, half-baked praise for old Hollywood

    To clarify: "conditional" based on things like genre and subject matter. Which is a strange way of assessing cinema - especially given that Ray had a special fondness for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne himself. (Rushdie has that nice story about Ray jumping up from his chair in excitement when Rushdie told him GGBB was his favourite of his films.)

    This could, of course, mean that Ray himself might not agree with the thesis I've presented in this piece; and that he thought of his more obviously "serious" work as superior in some fundamental way.

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  4. Lots of silly statements like the one about Jalsaghar being made to demonstrate how songs and dances could be incorporated into a narrative

    Very amused to read this. He was probably heavily influenced by the "neorealism" of the Italian school - a movement towards which I am extremely ambivalent.

    Also the amount of self-hate among our Indian artists is remarkable. One of the great Indian show business traditions is the "duet" - the songs involving boys chasing girls. This tradition has contributed so many magical moments over the past 100 years. Sadly it has now turned extinct and replaced with the regressive "item number" - a poor excuse for soft-porn.

    Back to Ray, I think this disdain for melodrama and Hollywood was in tune with his times. I am sure all of us have grown up looking down upon the "mainstream" at some point. What changed me was classic Hollywood which exposed me to termite art - the art of Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk, John Stahl among others.

    It is because of these names that I am better able to appreciate 50s/60s Hindi cinema today!

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  5. @ Shrikanth and Jai - I am not too sure about this and I might be totally wrong. However, still think I should mention it here. Now, when Ray commented on Hindi films of 50s and 60s, I would imagine his comments were for films in general. Agree, there were a lot of good films then, but I am sure, there were even more bad films. For instance, there was lot of naach-gaana in Shammi Kapoor's films, which Kiran Nagarkar beautifully writes about in his book 'Raavan and Eddie', which not only Ray even Nagarkar couldn't help but ridicule. I have this gut feeling (again not backed by any study) that if you take any year of Bollywood starting 50s, for every decent film, there would be 5 sub-par even in best of those years (Again it is subjective which is decent and which is sub par).

    In a similar way, I hear so many people talking about how Bollywood today is so good and etc. Now, I can't deny there are some good films. However, at the end of every year, I ask myself after all how many good Bollywood films I watched and the count is never more than 5. Are we justified in saying that Bollywood indeed is going through some structural changes and for good? I wonder. Similarly, Ray was right in terms of ridiculing Hindi films for whatever they were. For instance, I was watching Abhimaan. I could not watch it for more than half an hour. The house of Amitabh's aunt was neatly painted, as if just before Mukherjee started shooting, orders were given to clean up the place. I just couldnt believe that such neatly painted houses exist and coming from Mukherjee, I was quite disappointed.

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  6. Pessimist Fool: speaking for myself, I'm talking about Ray's patronising attitude to commercial and genre cinema in general, not towards the weaker entries in that cinema. I mentioned his review of the Hitchcock book, for example. (I've written about that at greater length in this post, btw.) And in the context of Hindi cinema, there is his inability to appreciate the episodic structures and melodramatic idioms of Hindi cinema and how they flowed from tropes of Parsi theatre; he didn't have a taste for high drama of that sort, which is fine - but when one turns it into a moral statement or indicates that high-quality cinema has to be a certain way, it becomes a problem.

    I don't know that it makes much sense to get into discussions about specific films here (that can go on forever, plus we might simply have completely different tastes) but very quickly about Abhimaan: I agree that art direction was not a strong point of Mukherjee's cinema (this also came up during my long interview with Dibakar Banerjee, btw), but that is just one aspect of the film. If we start nitpicking along such lines, one can easily find inadequacies in even Ray's best work.

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  7. ...which not only Ray even Nagarkar couldn't help but ridicule

    Again, this is somewhat beside the point as far as I'm concerned. Many people express snobbery towards commercial Hindi cinema, and from what I know of Nagarkar (through a close friend of his who learnt a lot about cinema from him), he has a very narrow view of what "good" or "serious" cinema is. So no surprise there.

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  8. Jai - Yeah, I agree with your point specially this part, "but when one turns it into a moral statement or indicates that high-quality cinema has to be a certain way, it becomes a problem.' No one has a right to dictate that a certain thing has to be done in a "certain" way

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  9. @ Jai - Your comment on Nagarkar is interesting. Now, I know one side to his personality! And that "no surprises there" is funny :)

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  10. Agree, there were a lot of good films then, but I am sure, there were even more bad films

    Very correct. But that's the nature of any bustling commercial film industry. Even in classic Hollywood there were dozens of ordinary films for every great film! Even in exceptional years such as 1939, 1941 and 1946.

    Having said that one cannot simply dismiss all those forgettable movies. It is with the help of those countless failed experiments in genres that melodramatic devices developed. Same with Hollywood. Genres like the musical, Western, Gangster film evolved thanks to the movie-churning industry. You see this gradual evolution in a genre like the Western from Stagecoach in 1939 to The Searchers in 1956. The latter stands on the shoulders of numerous less remembered films!

    To me it appears men like Ray don't entirely appreciate this complex commercial movie apparatus.

    I was watching Sunghursh yesterday and couldn't help feeling that it owes some little debt to Mann's The Man from Laramie in the same way that Gunga Jumna and Deewar owe a debt to Wellman's Public Enemy. I suspect these Indian filmmamkers haven't even seen these Hollywood films. It's almost an unconscious transmission of genre expertise across generations (the way Vedas got transmitted for millenia)

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  11. @ Shrikant...


    To me it appears men like Ray don't entirely appreciate this complex commercial movie apparatus.


    There is another frequently overlooked aspect to mainstream cinema. It is a 'job-creator' and generally free of societal ills of race/caste issues and in many ways meritocratic.


    Ray would have noticed the above qualities. But his issues - the general condescension towards mainstream cinema - is warranted. Our mainstream cinema is hopelessly regressive - from the Chopra's/Kapoors/Reddy's/Rao's/AVMs to the Karan Johar's. For every SATYAKAM there are hundreds of mainstream regressive pap reinforcing every bloody stereotype you can imagine. This is counter-intuitive to the relative openness of cinema industry - and this valid even now.


    This is where mainstream Hollywood shines brighter. You had "To Kill A Mockingbird" win Oscars the same time when the Civil Rights Movement was hitting the peak. Remember "Guess who's coming to Dinner". They were mainstream, they were not a GARAM HAWA or ANKUR.


    Where is an Indian equivalent? Even the Priyadarshan film "AAKROSH" had to made in the 80s or 90s - not in 21st century. This is where our mainstream stars fade in comparison to the Western actors they imitated..Dev Anand might have copied Gregory Peck...but the political agenda Peck promoted with his films is absent. But then what can you expect from a Raj Kapoor / Dev Anand types whose greatest contribution is copying Western film stars? The newest entrant to this field is the 'great Kamal Hassan' - he can easily create a blockbuster which is more than "killing terrorists in Afghanistan".


    If Indian mainstream cinema was more politically and socially conscious - let it have the mainstream pap, but at least there should be more of reflection of contemporary India - then a Satyajit Ray and many others would not have been this dismissive. It is not purely a snobbish attitude from the elite. Our cinema and film-makers deserves it.

    Adding to the above though...is there any mainstream Dalit filmmaker in Indian mainstream cinema? (Only the Tamil filmmaker Thangar Bachan comes to mind - there might be other newcomers.) Where is our first Dalit superstar? Let the above changes happen. Then lets talk about "unfairly maligned mainstream morons."


    Lets hope Pooja Bhatt will discover a Dalit 'Sunny Leone' from the innards of Madhya Pradesh.

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  12. Anon: again, though I hesitate to pick on individual films as examples...

    Remember "Guess who's coming to Dinner"

    Yes. A very poor film in most ways, perfectly representative of the sort of film that Farber called elephant art, and definitely not the kind of mainstream Hollywood movie Shrikanth and I are referring to here (though again, I can't speak for Shrikanth's view of this particular film). And personally I don't think most of Peck's "political agenda" movies have stood the test of time as great films.

    In any case, Ray was certainly not only critical of the films that you call "mainstream pap" - he was often critical, in a bull-headed and unnuanced way, of much better films simply because they were popular or genre movies.

    But in any case, I sense that your overall feelings about mainstream cinema are very different from mine, so let's try to avoid continuing this discussion to a point where we are simply speaking different languages?

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  13. But his issues - the general condescension towards mainstream cinema - is warranted. Our mainstream cinema is hopelessly regressive

    I remember arguing with Jai on this blog that mainstream Bollywood has traditionally in fact been more radical and progressive than even classic Hollywood! Guess you're judging old films using the moral lenses of a 21st cen yuppie. Anyway, I desist from further argument in this regard as I've been admonished in the past for overdoing the "ahistorical lens" argument.

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  14. Dev Anand might have copied Gregory Peck...but the political agenda Peck promoted with his films is absent

    I find Dev Anand far more enjoyable than Peck - a terribly overrated figure mainly because he dared to espouse liberal causes in an era when Hollywood was more conservative and more Republican than it is today. Also I don't see any similarity at all between Dev and Peck!

    Adding to the above though...is there any mainstream Dalit filmmaker in Indian mainstream cinema?

    Quota system in movies as well? Hey - it's just that some groups tend to do better in showbiz than others. No shame in that. For eg: Punjabis have traditionally done better than Marwari baniyas in showbiz. Just as the latter may be better at shopkeeping than the former. Each community has its genius. This is true in every country. For eg: African Americans may play better basketball than Indian Americans but the latter write better software.

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  15. Jai: just to clarify, did you say that GUESS WHO'S COMING FOR DINNER is a bad film?

    I mean, I know this is not directly related to your blog post, but can you make a statement or two in the defense of your claim, please?

    Otherwise, its exactly the same kind of passive disdain that you've accused Ray of having against mainstream movies.

    Cheers.

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  16. Otherwise, its exactly the same kind of passive disdain that you've accused Ray of having against mainstream movies.

    A movie lover: how? The disdain I was talking about is towards an entire category or "type" of film, while my feelings about GWCTD is a criticism of one particular movie.

    Obviously not going to do a detailed review here, but: I thought it was a drab, static film, weighed down by its own social consciousness. (This, by the way, is an accusation often leveled at Stanley Kramer's work, and I don't always agree with it - for instance, I like both Inherit the Wind and Judgement at Nuremberg and thought the strong points of those films made up for the message-mongering. But I didn't feel that way about GWCTD.)

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  17. @ Shrikant


    Quota system in movies as well? Hey - it's just that some groups tend to do better in showbiz than others. No shame in that.


    That's an easy and cheap shot - at best a straw man argument.


    The issue is not Punjabi versus Marwari vs Gujarathi. It is easy for a fair skinned Muslim to play a Raj or Kumar. But for a Dalit to play a lead role in a mainstream Indian cinema...will that happen? And this is not a question posed by a 21st century yuppie. But this is the context you should use while discussing Prakash Jha using Saif Ali Khan as a Dalit!


    Hollywood - even with its demons during McCarthy era - was more open and willing to change/experiment. There is no way one can argue mainstream Indian cinema - Tamil/Hindi/Malayalam/Telugu - was more open/liberal/tolerant than the West. The sort of feel good sugarcoating you are doing is also shown by the Academics - listen to any seminar on Media / Entertainment which happens in the West. This is the inescapable 'truism' which makes someone like Satyajit Ray look at mainstream cinema in disgust. All he could see were imitators - and these imitators imitated the style of their Western counterparts - starting with Raj Kapoor imitating Chaplin. And now you are asking "we have to be tolerant and admire their genuis".


    Remember Vittorio De Sica - the very famous actor in Italian cinema? Post war Italy and post independence India are more or less the same - a conservative and Catholic country can produce a De Sica - and what can India produce - Raj Kapoor - a class A imitator!!!

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  18. @ Jai Arjun



    Obviously not going to do a detailed review here, but: I thought it was a drab, static film, weighed down by its own social consciousness.



    I used Guess Who's Coming To Dinner as an example of mainstream Hollywood tackling a very sensitive subject. I did not say it was a good film. It does not matter. What matters is "mainstream".

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  19. An offshoot of the “serious” tag is the idea that Ray was concerned only with content, not with form

    I know this somehow sounds right. But I've always felt otherwise. In comparison with messy Indian mainstream cinema I see a formal excellence and internal consistency in Ray's work (by Indian standards!) but I am not awed by the "content" of his films.

    There are several messy "bollywood" melodramas that make me think harder than Ray's best work. But what probably distinguishes Ray is the greater formal accomplishment of his films.

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  20. Jai - That classic misstep in Seemabandha. Is it the scene when Sharmila Tagore leaves her wrist-watch and leaves? I watched this film some three years ago and I remember I could not understand the relationship between the protagonist and Tagore's character well. I kept on imagining there would be something sexual. But, there wasn't (it seems). Today, when I look at it I think I liked the way he maintained that balance without giving any extra information to audience to easily judge that relationship. I couldn't understand that scene of her leaving that wrist-watch. A friend later explained, it was her "rejection" of the protagonist. It seemed logical enough to me, then. However, I feel like rewatching Calcutta trilogy. I guess by that time Ray was little too influenced by Europeans. The camera work of Pratidwandi was significantly different from his other films for instance. Couple of scenes in Pratidwandi like he looking at a female crossing the road and it immediately cutting to his medical prof explaining a woman's anatomy could be a case of little bit of hammering. But, I loved it then. Need to re-watch these films...

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  21. Anonymous: not sure what you're saying. My comment was a response to the comment by A Movie Lover.

    Also, you did say "mainstream Hollywood shines brighter" and then used GWCTD as an example of that brightness.

    Either way, let's roll up this particular strand of the discussion now?

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  22. Rushdie has that nice story about Ray jumping up from his chair in excitement when Rushdie told him GGBB was his favourite of his films


    Rushdie said this about Sonar Kella, not GGBB

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  23. Post war Italy and post independence India are more or less the same - a conservative and Catholic country can produce a De Sica - and what can India produce - Raj Kapoor - a class A imitator!!!

    Very problematic statement.
    Post war Italy and Post war India more or less the same? A dynamic European nation with a very rich cultural and political experience over the past 500 years - arguably the birthplace of the modern world. A somnolent tropical country on the other hand which over the same period was ruled quite benignly by foreign powers - firstly the Mughals and then the English.

    Anyway I digress. To call Raj Kapoor an imitator is to miss the point. He was no intellectual. But his contribution to Indian melodrama is immense. Anyway unlike the West Indian cinema is not shaped by auteurs, but by craftsmen. Men who refined song and dance melodrama to great heights to evoke a passion for showbiz in a country where visiting a cinema-hall was akin to visiting a prostitute some 60 years ago in respectable families! (mine included)

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  24. @ Shrikant



    Men who refined song and dance melodrama to great heights to evoke a passion for showbiz in a country where visiting a cinema-hall was akin to visiting a prostitute some 60 years ago in respectable families! (mine included.)



    "Refining song and dance melodrama to great heights" - well, that's an oxymoron. Take a look at "Shri 420" - there are song sequences which employ 100s of extras doing the 1950s version of permanent pelvic thrusts. The only refinement was "greater number of extra artists".


    The refinement really happened in "songs" - - not in the "films the songs were used". I remember the last interview with OP Nayyar where he complained the passion and refinement composers and lyricists bought to songs were completely overruled and lost when the songs were finally used in cinemas.


    My problem is not with song and dance melodrama. There is nothing wrong with such films. My problem is the general fealty we have to show to these "greats of the past" as if they were better than toasted bread blathered with imported Swiss Cows butter.


    Italy had a richer tradition - no doubt. But a conservative Catholic country will have its own restrictions - remember the scene in Cinema Paradiso where the local priest censors the films. This is very similar to the Indian upper caste reaction to cinema when it arrived.


    After all Hinduism had an edict - thou shalt not cross the seas. I don't remember what happened to it!


    And finally - most of the Hollywood mainstream filmmakers were craftsmen - not auteurs. We had to wait till the era of Robert Altman for the situation to change.

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  25. most of the Hollywood mainstream filmmakers were craftsmen - not auteurs. We had to wait till the era of Robert Altman for the situation to change.

    Disagree. "Auteur" is a pliable word, but you'd have to employ an exceedingly narrow definition of it to include Altman while excluding Hawks, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Tony Mann, Nick Ray, and many others.

    And if you're going to emphasise the "most of" in your comment, well, how exactly did that situation change in the 60s and 70s? For every one of the "kids with beards", there were 10 "craftsmen" who continued doing workmanlike things even without the constraints of the studio system.

    (In any case, Altman wasn't the first of even the relatively independent American directors who became well-known. Those would be John Cassavetes and Arthur Penn.)

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  26. Take a look at "Shri 420" - there are song sequences which employ 100s of extras doing the 1950s version of permanent pelvic thrusts

    If you want to remember Raj Kapoor for Shri 420 you're being uncharitable. He has done several better films than that.

    Anyway I am no big fan of RK. My grouse is that Indian mainstream cinema is remembered for the wrong films. The films that one ought to remember are not shallow white elephants like Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam but flawed, interesting movies that most of us have never heard of and need discovering. Eg: Zindagi, Aas ka Panchhi, Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, Dr Vidya, Ardhangini, Gharana, Sasural, Nazrana. These are flawed women's pictures that use melodrama and song-and-dance as a pretext to explore India, address its quaintness and coax it to change in a most accessible manner. These are critiques of Indian society from within not without.

    The greatness of Indian mainstream cinema lies in these unfashionable efforts. Not in shallow "give me an award" films like Lagaan that Western critics like. These films attempted to drive social change in a medieval country ridden with evils and nonsense.

    Same goes with Hollywood. That great industry which inspired movie-makers all over the world (including your art-movie heroes in France and Italy) is remembered for the wrong films. Stuff like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca. But that's not the Hollywood worth eulogizing. Hollywood's true legacy likes in those countless westerns and comedies of different shades made between 30s and 60s that are revered by the likes of Godard and Truffaut.

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  27. But a conservative Catholic country will have its own restrictions - remember the scene in Cinema Paradiso where the local priest censors the films.

    Well, Catholicism has always been more lax in its moral strictures than the variants of Protestant Christianity. No wonder there has always been greater "boldness" in say the literature or cinema of France or Italy than in UK or US - where Puritanism is much stronger and the moral code much stricter. Not a surprise at all that censorship (both imposed and self-censorship) has traditionally been much stronger in America and also UK than in the Catholic continental countries.

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  28. @ Shrikanth - That's an interesting perspective on UK, US, Italy and France. Great discussion!

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  29. @ Shrikant



    Well, Catholicism has always been more lax in its moral strictures than the variants of Protestant Christianity.



    This is hard to believe. The idea of Protestant Christianity was they were "protesting against the corruption of Catholic church". Most - if not all, but even including evangelical fruitcakes - non Catholic denominations allow priests to marry (if Catholic church did allow priests to marry, Cardinal Ratzinger would not have flip flopped to Pope and back.)


    Also, traditionally protestant countries - Norway, England, Sweden and so on are far more liberal than their Catholic counterparts. I disagree.


    But the above issue does not make much sense in our discussion. We are talking about "Satyajit Ray being unfairly dismissive of mainstream cinema". I say 'Yes, they are fairly and justly maligned morons and jerks', you say 'No, our mainstream film makers are wonderful creatures with sophisticated sensibilities.'


    Before the host kicks me out, let me stop.

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  30. I say 'Yes, they are fairly and justly maligned morons and jerks'

    With all due respect only a person with insufficient exposure to mainstream Indian cinema can say that. Else the person probably grudges the money and fame that accompanies accessible cinema. Don't take it personally.

    This is hard to believe. The idea of Protestant Christianity was they were "protesting against the corruption of Catholic church"

    Correct. And this protest meant a return to fundamentals, a return to the biblical truths and a renewed emphasis on morality. The legacy of Protestant movement lives on. To this day, Northern Europeans work harder than Southern Europeans. An Englishman is less likely to be bought/bribed than an Italian (all other things being equal). This is deep down an unconscious legacy of that 400 year old religious revolution though most Europeans be it north or south are without a religion today.

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  31. @ Shrikant


    Else the person probably grudges the money and fame that accompanies accessible cinema. Don't take it personally.


    This is an altogether new interpretation - out of the blue.


    So in your opinion Satyajit Ray disliked mainstream Indian cinema and the dorks who made that pap because "he envied them they made more money"?


    And I dislike mainstream cinema or film makers because they make more money than non-mainstream film-makers and get the adulation of the masses?


    To this day, Northern Europeans work harder than Southern Europeans.


    The above is rank generalization which does not make sense in any context. Even if you take agriculture, Southern Europe has better climate. If I follow your logic, I guess Northern Europeans went South and worked hard on Southern farms.


    I lost. You win.

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  32. Anonymous, Shrikanth: you both lose. Let's end this particular thread of the conversation now, please?

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  33. A couple of Hindus who've been to a missionary school debating the bible...but seriously, it amazes me that you can appreciate "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne" and "Charulata" without being immersed in the language and the cultural contexts. Goopy Gyne as well as the sequel rely heavily on rhyme and wordplay which just does not translate. Charulata has at its core a relationship very Bengali in nature and very different from the "bhaabhi-devar" relationship of the Hindi-speaking world which other Indians tend to assume it is.

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  34. "bhaabhi-devar" relationship of the Hindi-speaking world

    @ Bong Traveller - That's a fine way to look down upon "bhabhi-devar" relationship in a vast part of India, where Hindi is spoken. Parts like Haryana and Himachal, which are as different from each other as sun is from moon! By the way, the way "bhabhi-devar" relationship is shown in Hindi movies (I know you werent talking about Hindi movies per se, but still...) hardly comes close to bhabhi-devar relationships that I've seen. The whole assumption of jokes (perhaps sexual also at times) being shared is so over-hyped. There are no jokes; if there is anything there's constant bitching about who got which part of parental property and how much that part is worth and so on and so forth...And, in my limited view of things, one can watch and appreciate films even when there is heavy word-play. Else, one would always restrict himself to watching only those films which are in familiar languages!!!

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  35. Charulata has at its core a relationship very Bengali in nature and very different from the "bhaabhi-devar" relationship of the Hindi-speaking world which other Indians tend to assume it is.

    I don't think the bengali "uniqueness" matters much. Also I don't think the movie is about bhabhi-devar relationship though that's what our oversexed minds like to think.

    The movie essentially portrays the fealty of a housewife to her husband, the extent to which she regards herself as a mere appendage to his being. The very idea of discovering her own self and pursuing her hobby without the hubby's knowledge (aided by her devar) evokes an extremely strong sense of guilt tantamount to a betrayal of the sacred vows of marriage!

    This isn't purely a facet of "conservative" societies. Many individuals even in our enlightened age behave this way when they begin befriending someone other than their loved one after many many years, even if this new friendship is purely platonic.

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  36. Bong Traveler , can you elaborate , re "a relationship very Bengali in nature" ? If I remember correctly, in SaratChandra's Bipradas there was an ambiguous relationship between Bipradas and his wife's sister.I found it a bit strange as to how organically the relationship evolved in the book.

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  37. Regarding the "condescension towards commercial Hindi cinema", do you think the reason might be cultural? Being a Bong myself, during my growing up years, in my household Hindi commercial movies were generally regarded as shallow, flashy and were supposed to have a bad influence on teenagers (and so, I missed out on watching QSQT and MPK when they released and the Ek-do-teen dance was akin to porn).

    I was thinking that maybe it was ingrained in the bong psyche that anything that had colorful songs and dances and violence and gore was all too silly? Just wondering aloud.

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  38. Writing this comment again as it seems like the previous one did not get published.

    So, speaking of "condescension towards commercial Hindi cinema" do you think it could have been cultural in nature? Being a bong myself, during my growing up years, Hindi commercial movies were all supposed to be flashy, shallow and generally bad for "culture" and a bad influence on teenagers (which made me lose out to watching QSQT and MPK when they released and the Ek-do-teen song in Tezaab was almost porn by those standards). Bongs who considered themselves more of the thinking, intellectual kinds would say that most Bachchan's movies were meant for the front benchers.

    So, I was wondering if Ray, being born a generation before my parents, had this ingrained in him?

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  39. commercial movies were all supposed to be flashy, shallow and generally bad for "culture" and a bad influence on teenagers (which made me lose out to watching QSQT and MPK when they released and the Ek-do-teen song in Tezaab was almost porn by those standards)

    I don't think the aversion stems out of the "vulgar" nature of the songs. In fact commercial cinema (be it Bollywood or Hollywood) is pretty prudish in this regard.

    The aversion stems from some fundamental premises about art and artists which runs through the history of civilizations.

    The premise is that "true" artists are primarily concerned with their aesthetic/vision which they uncompromisingly put into their work. While a poseur-artist (the much maligned craftsman) compromises on his artistic vision but instead focuses on relating to the audience and its whims.

    Critics since the days of ancient classical drama have looked down upon the latter type of artist and glorified the former.

    No wonder all over the world there is this perception of the "true" artist as an individualist, a dreamer who is above the "vulgar, low-brow" realities of civilized life. He is someone who can claim the right to be subsidized by the "vulgar" 9-to-5 office worker who watches Mithunda/AB films.

    The very idea that an artist can also be a materialist, a conventional family man and a commercial purveyor of entertainment has been anathema for ages. The idea that such a "compromised" artist can actually say things that are profound using conventional devices has been even harder to accept. I don't blame Ray for this. This hypocritical disdain for the commercial artist is ingrained in our civilization (be it East or West).

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  40. Aparna: it could be a combination of many reasons, including cultural ones (as I've written in the piece, Ray had an upbringing rooted in classical western and Bengali literature). My point really is that I would have expected a large-hearted artist like Ray to be a little more accommodating of other forms and idioms, especially given the knack for genre writing that he showed in his own stories. Also, the condescension wasn't directed only at commercial Hindi cinema.

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