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.
I don’t remember this getting a release in the UK and I only came across it with the release of the Masters of Cinema DVD a couple of years ago.
The protagonist of the film is ‘Singhji’ a taxi driver in West Bengal who holds dear his Rajput ancestry as a descendant of traditional warriors. He considers himself to be a warrior amongst drivers and it is fitting that he should drive a glamorous car – a 1930s Chrysler. The film is presumably ‘contemporary’ but Singhji comes across as a stylish character despite his ancient vehicle. His status also includes command of a faithful retainer – a mechanic, come watchman, come conductor – who perches on the running board as Singjhi drives across the eerily barren landscape (reminiscent in some ways of the river bed/plain in Ghatak’s Subarnarekha). The DVD tells us that this is actually the Bengal/Bihar border. The local landmark of two stones balanced one on top of the other is quite well-known as the ‘Uncle and Nephew’.
The disrupting incident is a rash action by Singhji which leads to his licence being revoked. Forced to look elsewhere for work, he gives a lift to a businessman who recognises the possibilities of using his services and offers him a deal – to become his part-time driver. In return, the businessman will help him get a new licence. Clearly the deal will involve something illegal but Singhji decides to stay and take up the offer after he meets an old acquaintance from his village – a low-caste man who has converted to Christianity in order to escape the constrictions of caste. This man’s family and the other characters that Singhji meets are the catalysts for a series of moral dilemmas that the warrior-rebel must face.
The film feels like a humanist character study and I could imagine it as the kind of story that might have interested Kurosawa. I’ve seen analyses that discuss the film as an ‘action’ film or as something akin to the generic stories of popular cinema. However, there is relatively little action spread across the film’s 150 mins. Certainly there are some chase sequences and some scuffles that may indeed be inspired by John Ford, but this is still basically a character study, albeit one framed in a structure that fits the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars scenario with Singhji as the stranger in town who confronts the existing relationships in the community and takes sides.
According to the excellent support documentation that comes with the DVD, Abhijan was the most popular of Ray’s films in Bengal. It began as a commercial film that was chosen as a directing project by a group of Ray’s acquaintances. Ray initially supplied the script, but when they decided that they couldn’t manage the shoot, Ray stepped in to direct and as the MoC blurb has it his “mastery turned a starkly conventional plot into a subtly nuanced story”. Abhijan is an adaptation of a novel by the Bengali writer Tarashankar Banerjee. Ray had already made one film based on a Banerjee novel – Jalsagar (The Music Room) in 1958. One reason for the Abhijan‘s popularity might have been the presence of Waheeda Rehman, one of the great stars of Hindi Cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, often in association with Guru Dutt as actor or director. She plays a prostitute who in different ways challenges Singhji’s misogyny and his self-despair. As well as his sense of failure – a warrior reduced to a driver’s role – Singhji has ‘lost’ his wife and turned to alcohol. The role is played by one of Ray’s best known players, Soumitra Chatterjee. The beard that he wears for the role of a Rajput changes his appearance profoundly and I didn’t recognise him. Most of the rest of the leading players in the cast also appeared in other Ray films before or after Abhijan.
I found the film fascinating, not so much for the character study itself, but for the formal, aesthetic qualities. The opening is striking with a carefully framed medium close-up of a man commenting on Singhji’s predicament – with Singhji himself seen only in the mirror located behind the man’s head. I’ve already commented on the use of landscape which inevitably made me think of Ford and Kurosawa, but also of one of the earliest neo-realist films, Ossessione (Italy 1942) set in the flatlands of the Po Valley. Perhaps this is the key to Ray’s early cinema. A blending of different but related realist visual styles using Black and White cinematography produces something which in the end is not realist as such but does carry a powerful sense of a ‘lived in’ landscape. Cinematographer Soumendu Roy had already worked on Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) for Ray and would go on to shoot several more films for him. I also feel compelled to mention the music – composed by Ray himself as it usually was from the early 1960s onwards.
Looking for comments on the film, I turned to Richard Roud’s Critical Dictionary of Major Filmmakers published in 1980 by Martin, Secker & Warburg. I was immediately taken aback by the stance of John Russell Taylor who wrote the long entry on Ray. This was the period before serious attention was paid to Indian Cinema by Western critics. Taylor dismisses all the rest of Indian Cinema as “trashy, theatrical, sentimental and fantasticated”. Ray is a singular figure who stands outside such nonsense. But Abhijan shows what might happen if Ray sullies himself with the commercial Indian Cinema. Commenting on the fact that Abhijan has been little seen in the West, Taylor opines that this seems “reasonable in the case of Abhijan, a picaresque adventure story centring on a taxi driver, his romantic and dramatic entanglements . . . and which has little to commend it apart from the interest of seeing him handle a subject much closer to the Indian commercial norm than any of his other films”. This seems to me a good example of how prejudice clouds judgement. For Taylor, any suggestion that the film was ‘commercial’ automatically places it beyond the pale. Presumably he simply didn’t see the strength of performances, camerawork, music and overall direction? ‘Picaresque’ suggests a protagonist who has a series of adventures – not necessarily linked by anything other than the central character. This isn’t the case with Abhijan. Singhji only has one ‘adventure’ as such and although he responds to several characters, they are all in the same story.
Unlike the 1970s critics, I’m reluctant to jump to any immediate conclusions about Ray’s films. I am struck though by the thought that in one sense Singhji is a modern/modernist character who slides around issues of class and caste (and religion). He allows an individualist focus in the narrative and I return again to that Yojimbo/Man With No Name conception. And I still don’t really understand the English title of the film.
The MoC DVD is very good and well worth the money. The print has been digitally restored.
Like many others of my generation, my first taste of Indian Cinema came via Satyajit Ray. I can’t remember when I first saw his films, but certainly by the early 1970s I had seen most of the early work and I saw the later 1970s films as they were released. But by 1981, when I first visited India, I had begun to be interested in the more overtly ‘political’ films of the New Wave/parallel cinema and in classic Hindi Cinema. I turned away from the humanist art cinema of Europe and its Indian equivalent. In the last ten years I’ve come to realise just how much I misunderstood Ray and how his films produced their meanings. My recent trip to Kolkata has prompted me to reconsider Ray in the context of Bengali Cinema.
Ray’s story is fairly well-known, so I won’t rehearse it in detail here. Suffice to say, Satyajit Ray (1921-92) was one of the first genuine auteurs – a multi-talented man capable of writing music, designing title cards (and even his own typeface), writing, directing, producing, photographing and editing films – a total of 40 features, shorts and documentaries. He professed an admiration of Hollywood but was initially influenced by the realism of Jean Renoir and the Italian neo-realists. Mostly Ray worked in Bengali language cinema. During the 1960s he explored various forms of modernism in developing his filmmaking approach. He thought of himself as making ‘political’ statements in some of his films, but his connection to the New Wave/parallel cinema trends in Indian Cinema is open to a wide range of interpretation. What is clear though is that in the fierce intellectual climate of Bengali film culture, Ray was an undoubted major figure and for cineastes worldwide he was one of the ‘masters of cinema’ and acknowledged as such by peers like Kurosawa Akira.
Here are a few of the accessible overviews of Ray as a filmmaker:
This will be a long-term project and will also extend to consideration of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I hope to discuss several of the films and to collate links to other scholars. Perhaps others can join in?