Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.
The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.
At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.
The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.
Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?
It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.
Nayak (or The Hero) was not released in UK cinemas, a relatively rare occurrence with the films of Satyajit Ray at a time when he was at the peak of his fame. There are various reasons why the film might not have appealed to UK distributors (assuming that it was available). It would be sad if it was because the film seems less ‘realist’ and certainly less concerned with the ‘exoticism’ of India – two traits appreciated by the supporters of Ray’s earlier village-set and ‘historical’ works. Perhaps it seemed inaccessible because despite its modernity it deals with Indian [upper] middle-class mores that were more difficult for the Western audiences of the time to understand. It also feels like one of the most carefully ‘constructed’ of Ray’s films. It shares with Kanchenjunga (1962) an original screenplay by Ray himself (many of his other films are based on Bengali novels) and a range of characters brought together in a controlled space. In Kanchenjunga it is the promenades of Darjeeling and in Nayak it is an express train travelling between Calcutta and Delhi.
Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (revised 2004) writes very well about this shared set-up and he describes it as a “microcosm of Bengali middle-class sanctimoniousness”. But it also seems to me that Ray himself is rather sniffy about his characters (or that’s the impression I get from Robinson) – which is dangerous because the central narrative line explores something close to Ray’s own experience. The ‘Hero’ is Arindam Mukherjee, a major star of Bengali popular cinema who has been invited to Delhi to receive an award. Because he has left his arrangements late he must take the train from Howrah instead of flying. Apart from the opening sequence, the whole narrative is played out on the train, though several earlier parts of the story are revealed through flashbacks. Ray decided to cast a ‘real’ star of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, in the title role, arguing that although he didn’t value ‘commercial cinema’ he did think that certain actors had talent which he could utilise. Robinson’s description of Ray’s feelings about working with Kumar suggest that the director behaved quite badly and indeed he seems to have patronised the actor. In order to pursue his own ideas about cinema and to raise questions about stardom, Ray wrote the second main character as a rather serious young woman who is the editor of a women’s magazine. Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) is pushed by her travelling companions into interviewing Arindam even though she herself is dismissive of popular cinema. Thus Ray is able to raise questions about ‘realism’, ‘conscience’ etc. in relation to cinema, especially since Aditi is sat in a ‘chair’ coach (i.e. the cheaper seats) and the couple meet in the dining car. Aditi is thus the ‘outsider’, commenting indirectly on the privileged world inside the sleeper.
The other passengers in the First Class sleeper include a businessman and his family, a elderly writer and an advertising executive with his younger wife. In the flashbacks we see the actor during incidents in which he has often behaved badly. We also experience two of his nightmares when he tries to doze off. I suspect that it is these scenes that put off distributors in the West. Ironically, Ray is using devices that might have appeared in Hollywood or Hindi cinema films from the 1940s/50s (though in his blog Omar refers instead to Fellini and Bergman).
Robinson tells us that most of the film was shot in a studio in Calcutta, yet there are several shots of the railway. I did feel that the sleeper was much more ‘modern’ and luxurious than the Indian Railways trains that I have ridden – but probably I wasn’t in the ‘best’ carriages! Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought Uttam Kumar was very good, as was Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t mind the flashbacks and although they are ‘traditional’ rather than ‘modernist’, they do signal a shift in Ray’s practice to include more non-realist material and this became a more common feature of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Nayak still qualifies as a ‘humanist film’ in which Arindam has all his weaknesses exposed but emerges at the end as a rounded character with his good and bad points – much like everyone else.
The more I think about the film, the more interesting it gets. A man and a woman meeting on a train, especially in a dining car, is a feature of several classic romances and thrillers – Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest for instance and the opening of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Ray subverts our expectations. The couple do not develop the kind of romantic relationship we might expect, instead we get a much more (intellectually) interesting relationship that develops as Aditi learns more about Arindam. In the same way, although we learn about Arindam’s life, this isn’t a critique of the film business as such. Marie Seton, in her Portrait of a Director (1971), writes very well about the meanings of Nayak. She suggests that the film tells us a great deal about the people in the sleeper compartment and also explores several aspects of Bengali society. For instance, she comments on Arindam’s handling of cash and his fears about losing his successful box office position, pointing out that the prevalence of so-called ‘black money’ in the financing of popular films in India at the time generated insecurity. Arindam’s background includes references to the Bengali theatre tradition and to left-wing politics – again ‘local’ factors in Bengali life in the 1960s. I was intrigued that the advertising man’s wife is called ‘Molly’. I wondered if this was an Anglo-Indian name? Or is it simply a corruption of a Bengali name? As Seton suggests it is these touches that make the film so rich in meanings.
This website offers a very detailed reading of the film (and is obviously full of spoilers):
Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.
The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)
Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).
The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.
I’m particularly looking forward to the 100 Years of Indian Cinema strand in this year’s Bradford International Film Festival. One of the highlights is Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film The Chess Players. I was a fan of Ray’s films up until the mid 1970s but I haven’t seen most of his later films. Perhaps that is not so surprising. The 1970s was when the attention of many cinephiles and film scholars turned towards the New Indian Cinema of Mrinal Sen and Kumar Shahani amongst others. Ray was suddenly out of favour. Looking back now it seems clear to me that the complexity of Ray’s cinema was not properly appreciated and that many of the assumptions about his work were simply wrong. We’ve covered some of the necessary re-appraisal earlier on this blog and we hope to do more this summer with the BFI’s release of the restored print of Mahanagar (1963) and the screening of several more Ray films at BFI Southbank. All our Ray postings are available via this ‘Satyajit Ray’ tag.
The Chess Players sees Ray exploring a double form of colonialism. In the mid-19th century, the Nawab of Oudh (present day Lucknow) was the ruler of the state and the last representative of the Mughals in that region. The British East India Company were poised to take complete control before eventually giving it up to the British Government and the India Office after the 1857 rising by Indian troops of the company. The Nawab was an ineffective ruler but a great patron of the arts and this becomes one of the discourses of the film. The coloniser-colonised relationship already existed between the Shia Muslim rulers and the local people (mainly Hindus) and involves ethnicity and religion as well as political power. This is then doubled by the arrival of the British as the new colonisers with a new set of power relationships. Ray adapts his film from a story by Munshi Premchand – written in 1924 with the British Raj still in place – and adds some extra scenes in his analysis. The chess players are from the Muslim ruling class and it is their ‘lassitude’ which will allow the British (in the form of Richard Attenbrough’s General Outram) to take over. I’m looking forward to some animated sequences – typical of the devices that Ray used in his films from the mid-1960s onwards. I hope that the festival audience will see a film that challenges some of the assumptions about Ray’s cinema.
It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.
At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.
The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.
The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.
The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few years after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.
Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.
This may be the Satyajit Ray film that speaks most directly to me – possibly because I first saw it when I was roughly the age of the protagonist and I can still relate directly to how he might be feeling.
The Adversary is usually quoted as the first film in Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ but I would place it as the second of the four contemporary Calcutta films (I notice that Ray’s biographer Marie Seton does this as well) or even the third of the more modernist films dealing with contemporary Bengali urban life beginning with Nayak, (The Hero) in 1966.
The Adversary begins with a negative sequence showing a funeral. Then we meet Siddhartha, a young man of 25 who is seeking work in an endless round of interviews. His father’s death led to the abandonment of his medical training after two years. Siddhartha’s younger brother Tunu is still a student but has now become a supporter of the Naxalites (the Marxist revolutionaries in West Bengal who are beginning to disrupt everyday life in Calcutta). The only breadwinner in the family is Sutapa, Siddhartha’s sister. She is a successful secretary angling to become the PA of the boss. Siddhartha ‘fails’ an interview because, in an often-quoted scene, he gives the ‘wrong’ answer to a question about the most significant event of the last few years when he suggests the courage of the ordinary people in the Vietnam War rather than the moon-landing. He then finds himself moping about the streets of Calcutta and sponging off his friends who are happier sampling the fleshpots of the city. The only opening appears to be via an old contact from his time in student politics.
At home, Siddhartha also faces the responsibilities of being the eldest male in the household and he feels that he must put pressure on his sister to give up her job when gossip about her and her boss reaches their mother. At the same time he is torn between admiring his younger brother’s political convictions and feeling that he should advise him to take a more conventional path. All around him Calcutta is on edge but one night he meets a young neighbour, Keya, and begins a relationship. Of course, she has her problems as well. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen the film, but I found it satisfying in one sense at least. Much as though I would have liked to be Tunu, I know that I couldn’t be. On the other hand Siddhartha is more or less exactly how I was at that age (including giving ‘wrong’ answers at interviews).
Why is it that I want to give a good kick up the backside to most of Ray’s middle class young men, but not Siddhartha? (I’m quite sympathetic to the young man in The Middleman, but he is rather naive and easily led.) Partly, I think it is the playing/direction, but also the location in a clearly adumbrated family situation and the portrayal of a recognisable urban milieu. It struck me that Ray captures something about Calcutta in 1970 that echoes Paris, London and North American cities – this film seems both the most rooted of Ray’s films in the modern India and the most universal (i.e. applicable to all great urban centres). If this sounds odd, remember that over a period of four or five years from 1968 to 1973, UK cities experienced mass demonstrations, strikes and power cuts, bombs planted by the IRA etc. Siddhartha is struggling to work out what to do with his life with everything around him disintegrating. He doesn’t just turn away from it, but tries to do something – to find a moral code to live by. Satyajit Ray himself gives the clue to his own motivation in making the film:
“There is no doubt that the elder brother admires the younger brother for his bravery and convictions. The film is not ambiguous about that. As a filmmaker, however, I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. as a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The younger brother has already identified himself with a cause. That makes him part of a total attitude and makes him unimportant. The Naxalite movement takes over. He, as a person, becomes insignificant.” (from an interview in Cineaste Vol 13 and reprinted in Art, Politics Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, Dan Georgakas & Lenny Rubenstein (1985) London: Pluto Press)
Here, I think is Ray’s stance in one neat statement.He goes on to say that you could make an ‘Eisensteinian’ film about the Naxalites, but to do so you’d have to focus on the leaders – the people who make the decisions. This is where I disagree with Ray – or at least I would hope that he is wrong as I respect his view of what is possible for a filmmaker. Why isn’t he interested in what motivates Tunu as well as Siddhartha? I haven’t seen his post 1975 films, so perhaps he does attempt to find out what happened to the revolutionaries later on? He’s right that Siddhartha is an interesting character and he does use his story to raise what is happening in the social/political world, but his refusal to deal with the reality of people with even harder decisions to make is disappointing.
The feel of the film is also down to the adoption of several devices used to explore the inside of Siddhartha’s head as well as the tensions in the environment. So, as well as the opening sequence, the film also moves into negative on a couple of other occasions and there are several dream sequences with expressionist imagery (Siddhartha sees his sister ‘exposing herself’ to the cameras of fashion photographers and his brother facing a firing squad), sudden flashbacks to a childhood with rural sequences and also to lectures that the young medical student would have attended. These latter come when Siddhartha is looking at a variety of women and add a comic tone to the otherwise grim round of despondency. (These inserts are similar to those in Dusan Makaveyev’s glorious satire Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1969)). Noticeable too are the backdrops to scenes. In one, huge and noisy crowds spill across the Maidan as Siddhartha and Keya meet on the roof of a new office block on Chowringhee.
I’ve seen these devices referred to as inspired by the French New Wave, but the dreams follow much older conventions and negative sequences were there in German Expressionist films of the 1920s. It’s more I think that the mix of stylistic devices is translated through the editing style – the transitions to flashbacks are quite abrupt – to create a disturbed and disorientated sense of time and place, compounded by the explosions and crowds on the street. Many of the scenes also take place at night and with the power cuts and failing lights the image is decidedly noirish. Unfortunately, I was watching the UK DVD distributed by Mr. Bongo and it isn’t very good. It looks like a poor copy of an American print with barely readable subs, a juddery image in the action scenes and very little tonal range overall.
In any consideration of Ray’s treatment of the characters and setting we should also remember that this is another adaptation, following Days and Nights in the Forest, from a Sunil Ganguly novel. Much of the novel is available in English via Google Books. Scanning through a few pages, it looks as if Ray has changed the structure and streamlined the cast of characters, but the tone seems closer to the novel than in the case of Days and Nights.
On a final personal note, I’m amazed to recall that during my first teaching job in 1976 I hired this film on 16mm (VHS cassettes were still to be introduced) and played it to several classes of 17 year-olds during a week. These were not film students but vocational students (e.g. science technicians, telecomms workers etc.) coming to me for General Studies. I don’t remember an uproar and they weren’t all asleep. Similar students watched Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and some of Joris Ivens’ documentaries made in China. Nowadays I know some university teachers who would hesitate to show a film like The Adversary to undergraduates. Is it teachers who have changed – or students or film culture?
In any reappraisal of Satyajit Ray, this should be a crucial film. It is one of the best-known of Ray’s films in the West and often quoted as his ‘masterpiece’. I’m not sure that this is the case in India. Its Western success isn’t difficult to understand as it mirrors similar European and American films which place a small group of middle-class city dwellers in an alien landscape, exploring their interaction with ‘local’ people and, of course, falling out with each other. The film most often quoted is Renoir’s blissful Une partie de campagne (1936), partly because of Ray’s relationship with Renoir during the shooting of The River in 1950. However, there are other similar films and the fact that the four young men share a common background also links to the structure of Hollywood films that came later such as the Big Chill (1983) and Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Either way, the film clearly distinguishes itself from much of Indian Cinema in terms of its narrative strategies.
In the West the film is usually seen as a comedy – one in which some of the young men have their ideas challenged and learn something about themselves. Though I do find several scenes amusing, much of the time I also find myself getting angry at the behaviour of the young men and I think I prefer the readings that place the film in relation to Ray’s changing perspective at this time. It seems to me quite a critical film, preparing the way for the early 1970s films.
The outline is straightforward. The four young men drive out from Calcutta over the West Bengal border into Bihar state, heading for the forests of the Palamau region. The area is now in Jharkhand the state created out of part of Southern Bihar in 2000. The group get lost and decide on a whim to look for somewhere to stay. They reach a village and learn that there is a forest bungalow nearby. These bungalows are owned by the Forestry Service and can be booked in advance through the local ‘Conservator’ – as a sign clearly says. They are not for casual use. The men ignore this and bribe the caretaker to accommodate them. Over the next few days they visit the village to drink and also meet another middle-class family group who own a summer house nearby. This family comprises an older man with his unmarried daughter, his widowed daughter-in-law and her small boy.
The four men are identified by various characteristcs. Ashim is the wealthiest and most confident, Sanjoy is the most studious and reserved, Hari is a rather stupid sportsman and Shekhar is the butt of the other’s jokes. He is short and round and eager to impress – he also has to borrow money and razors etc. The men misbehave in several ways, abusing the caretaker, whose wife is sick, and a local man they hire as a servant. They get drunk and fail to turn up for a breakfast invitation.
The local people whom they offend and treat badly are Santals – a so-called tribal people who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different. These people do not have a caste system, but they are treated as ‘low caste’ by the young Brahmins and the young Santal women in particular attract the men. The attitude of the Calcutta men is similar to the attitude of the British during the Raj – something flagged up by the references towards Western culture made by the young men.
The men also ‘fail’ in their attempts to build relationships with the young widow and her sister-in-law. In both cases, the women prove more mature and socially adept. Ironically, of the four young men, Shekhar who is the most ‘vulgar’ of the four is also in some ways the most honest of them. He is most open about what he does and although he treats the local women as creatures who can be ‘bought’, he does at least attempt to pay them and treat them fairly. There is clear class commentary here as Ashim and Sanjoy effect a superiority of status and intellect over Shekhar. I found Hari to be without any redeeming features and Ashim and Sanjoy to be both weak and indecisive. (I realise that I’m probably applying my general aversion to boorish behaviour by rich kids in a UK or US context to a different setting.) Perhaps I’m being too harsh but the genius of Ray is in presenting these characters in ways that expose their attitudes but then seduce us back into following the narrative in an almost seamless fashion.
In the introduction to the film when it was shown on Channel 4, Sharmila Tagore who plays Aparna, the unmarried young woman who attracts Ashim, comments on what she felt was the strong characterisation of the women in the film:
“In Ray’s films the women are of superior moral sensibilities and the men are like helpless children. The women understand the men better and the men are still trying to find themselves.”
This certainly seems to be the case in this film. There are actually four young women in the film and they all to some extent have the upper hand in one way or another. (The fourth is the tiny role offered to Aparna Sen who appears in a flashback as the young woman who ditches Hari in Calcutta and thus perhaps sets up his behaviour on the trip.) My slight concern here is that Ray’s concern might be simply to use the women in order to explore the alienation and unease felt by the men in the changing cultural and political climate of Calcutta. As Sharmila Tagore points out, Ray is the urban Calcutta man using this trip to the country to explore issues in Calcutta. The most famous scene in the film is a picnic during which the the six young middle class Calcutta urbanites play a high culture party game requiring both memory skills and a play on literary and political/cultural knowledge. Aparna lets Ashim win the game almost to underline the narrative’s gender strategies.
It will be interesting to compare how I feel about these scenes in comparison with Ray’s other narrative about Calcutta types on holiday in Kanchenjunga (thanks to Omar’s discovery of the film on YouTube), but I’m already struck by the differences in the forest bungalow scene depicted in Aparna Sen’s own film, Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001). Here the Bengali man is well-adjusted and in control and ‘Mrs Iyer’ is the character who must learn to adapt to her situation.
The other interesting aspect of Days and Nights In the Forest is its relationship to Bengali literary culture. The film is based on a novel by Sunil Ganguly (aka Gangopadhyay) the celebrated novelist and poet who also provided the source novel for Satyajit Ray’s next film The Adversary (1970). According to Andrew Robinson in his biography of Ray, Satyajit Ray: the inner eye (new edition 2003), the major literary reference in the film is to an account of Palamau written by Sanjiv Chatterjee in the late 19th century and described by Robinson as an important cultural document for Bengalis – representing a cultural experience akin to that of East Coast Americans in the 19th century and the romantic lure of the ‘Wild West’. Sanjoy reads aloud from this account as the car heads for Palamau at the beginning of the film, focusing on the attraction of the Santhal women. Robinson goes on to point out that Ray adapted Ganguly’s novel but retained only the outline narrative structure and importantly changed the four Calcutta men from unemployed youths making a train trip to the alienated urban middle class. The Palamau references don’t appear in Ganguly’s novel. Robinson suggests that some of the actors involved in the film (Soumitra Chatterjee as Ashim) and in The Adversary (Dhritiman Chatterjee who plays the lead) were uncomfortable with the middle class characters created by Ray and thought that Ganguly’s characters, though cruder were more complex. Though admiring of Ray’s skill in creating his narrative, the actors perhaps thought the characters were ‘letting down’ the true Bengali culture. Here then is Robinson’s exploration of the Bengali/Western divide over how the film works. I’m intrigued now by Ganguly’s work and I am tempted to see this as an example of Ray’s skill in taking a narrative outline that works and using it for his own purposes. There is a suggestion that Ray is mostly interested in characters and not narrative as such and that he succeeds when someone else provides the outline.
I’m going to save discussion of the camera style of the film until later, only remarking here that it serves the narrative’s purpose very well and effectively represents the environment. I was also struck by the number of low angle medium long shots of characters entering the frame.
I think my conclusion is that the praise by Western critics for this seeming comedy of middle class mores rather misses the point (all those references to Renoir and Chekhov). Ray thought that this was “the most contemporary of my films in feeling” (Seton, revised ed. 2003: 283) and it strikes me that the film is indeed primarily about Bengali society in 1969. I enjoyed the film and I confess to a frisson of nostalgia in the scene when Ashim leafs through the LP covers in Aparna’s room and the Beatles LP ‘Rubber Soul’ pops up between Mozart and Segovia, ‘Indo-Jazz’ and traditional Bengali music. I was mentally calculating the time-lag from changing UK middle class musical choices to those in Calcutta in 1969 – contemporary indeed.
I’ve been reading criticism and biography of Ray and his early career and re-watching some of the films from 1966-75 and I think it would be useful to summarise some of my thinking at this stage.
First off I was surprised at just how much interest there still seems to be in Satyajit Ray. I must apologise for not noticing how much has been written recently and over the last couple of years by Omar and Shubhajit amongst others. They’ve provided lots of useful material and links to explore. I’m going to offer a list of observations and then possibly some responses to specific films.
1. Ray as ‘world cinema/art cinema auteur’. Ray’s emergence on the international scene from 1956 onwards was at a very auspicious time. He was recognised as one of the leading figures of what was a generally ‘humanist’ cinema encompassing great figures such as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Bergman, Fellini and Andrzej Wajda. This status enabled him to get wide distribution in Europe and North America in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, this same status also had some disadvantages in the way that it placed Ray’s films in relation to other forms of cinema.
2. It’s very difficult to ‘read’ Ray’s films without reference to the triangular relationship Bengali Cinema – ‘World Cinema’ – Indian Cinema. Most of the early work on Ray in the West dismissed ‘Indian Cinema’ out of hand and to some extent, the commercial industries across India ignored Ray until the later 1960s. To some extent, this problem still exists, though Ray’s reputation within West Bengal seems secured. The various attempts to analyse Ray’s output in terms of the ‘New Cinema’ that emerged in the 1970s in India are interesting markers of how the triangular relationship has developed. What has happened since parallel production has almost disappeared is an interesting point. When diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair make known their debt to Ray and Ritwik Ghatak does this help to establish the credentials of the younger directors? Does it help in re-casting ideas about Ray’s work alongside Ghatak’s and Mrinal Sen’s?
3. Following these two institutional ‘placings’ of Ray, how do we tackle the question of his ‘influences’ – the cinematic models he may be following? I’m struck again by the Kurosawa connection here. There are several parallels between what happened to Kurosawa and what happened to Ray when they began their careers (and equally there are big differences). Both men had family backgrounds and education that gave them access to both their own cultural traditions and those of the West/’international’ culture. Both had a form of aesthetic education, Kurosawa in painting, Ray in graphics. Both steeped themselves in foreign cinema and as a consequence when their films began to be recognised at Venice and other international festivals, they began to be seen as ‘Westernised’ – and by extension ‘less Japanese’ or ‘less Indian’. Interestingly, Marie Seton in her biography of Ray, Portrait of a Director (1971), makes several extended references to the similarities and differences between Indian and Japanese film culture, starting with the emergence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon at Venice in 1951. Identifying both countries as major film producers – numerically ahead of Hollywood – she sees both as producing formulaic films with only occasional notable titles, but she notes that Japan has an homogenous culture compared to the multi-lingual and multi-cultural Indian film industries. I would contest the easy dismissal of both industries as merely formulaic. While I would accept the difference created by the array of Indian languages, I would also emphasise that Indian and Japanese Cinema both draw upon a mixture of influences from native forms of music, dance, theatre and art often mixed with ideas from European and American art forms, especially Hollywood Cinema. It’s worth querying whether it might not be a good idea to study Ray in terms of Japanese and Chinese auteur directors of the 1940s-60s rather than European and American directors? There are two reasons why such a comparative study might be useful. Firstly, although India is a country of different language traditions, it does share certain social structures and cultural mores across both the sub-continent and other East and South-East Asian societies (e.g. family structures, the importance of arranged or ‘commercial’ marriages, strict social hierarchies, the importance of religious rituals etc.). Secondly – and especially re Bengal – so called ‘quality pictures’ in Japan and China have often been adapted from literary novels. Both Ray and Kurosawa have adapted well-known novels and short stories from their own literary compatriots as well as work from European or American sources.
4. How should we assess the development of Ray’s film aesthetics? I think it is fairly clear that too much weight was put by critics on the ‘look’ and sound of Ray’s first feature Pather Panchali (India 1955). Unlike any of the Japanese masters of the 1950s (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kurosawa – who all served apprenticeships in the studio system) Ray began work as a novice in filmmaking practice (although of course already a serious student of film). The early style was unique partly because of the influence of Ray’s viewing of neo-realist films, but also partly because of budget restrictions and simple lack of expertise and the need to ‘learn by doing’ (allied to very intelligent decisions about breaking conventions). Clearly, as Ray’s career progressed, he developed a range of styles suited to different types of material and different production contexts. I suspect that changes in style were either accepted or rejected by critics partly in response to their feelings towards the subject matter rather than a conscious appreciation of Ray’s development of his own aesthetic voice. (I’m thinking here of the way that the more modernist tropes in Ray’s films appear in some of the later 1960s films with their shift to contemporary urban issues.) I haven’t yet analysed any of his films in detail on a shot-by-shot basis, so this is something that I need to do. (One problem is that the DVDs of the later films that I’ve seen are not great quality.)
5. Finally we come to the knotty question of the ideological in Ray’s work. This is what has drawn me back to his films since I know that I turned away from them when I became interested in ideas about Third Cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t think that I’ve changed by political standpoint, but I do recognise now that I have more approaches available to consider different kinds of films and I hope to look at Ray’s work in different ways. Until I read Seton’s biography I wasn’t really aware of Ray’s early life or of his specific connections to aspects of Bengali culture and politics. I’m not surprised to discover his socially liberal-left politics but I am fearful of how much I need to find out about Bengali politics in the 1960s/70s in order to evaluate Ray’s response.