Tag Archives: Bengali cinema

Teen Kanya (Two Daughters)

“If I were forced to pick only one work by Ray to show to someone unfamiliar with his films, it would have to be Three Daughters.” Andrew Robinson

Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), a trilogy of three short films, was conceived by Ray as a tribute to mark the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore. Released in 1961, along with a state-commissioned documentary on Tagore (also directed by Ray), the trilogy brings to life three short stories penned by the Nobel laureate – The Postmaster, Monihara (The Lost Jewels) and Samapti (The Conclusion). On its release in Bengal, Teen Kanya was screened in the above order; however, concerns over the length (the films were all nearly an hour long) and inability to complete the subtitles before its international release forced Ray to drop Monihara from the trilogy; The Postmaster and Samapti were screened under the title Two Daughters abroad. Teen Kanya, with all the three films, was later available to the international audience, but only in the DVD format. However, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Archive is currently in the process of restoring the original print of Monihara, a macabre ghost story of a rich wife’s obsession with her jewels, as part of the Ray Preservation Project begun in 1992.

For Ray it was a conscious decision to adapt Tagore’s short stories to screen, and not one of his novels or longer works (Ray would again revisit his literary world in CharulataThe Lonely Wife, which was based on the Tagore novella NastanirhThe Broken Nest). Tagore’s short stories are infused with an inherent earthiness and humanity that have endeared them to readers, and truly showcase the diversity of his work. In spite of their distinctive characters, the three narratives in Teen Kanya are united in one aspect – the presence of a female character as the center of narrative focus – the village waif in The Postmaster, the childless wife of a rich landlord in Monihara and the tomboyish child-woman in Samapti. Apart from this common thread, the films are quite different in their treatment and tone.

Ray’s personal favorite was undeniably The Postmaster. Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, describes the film as “one of Ray’s best films…It feels faultless in every department of film-making…The Postmaster is humanist cinema of the highest sort.” (Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) But much of the film’s poignant beauty is also courtesy Tagore’s vivid portrayal of the relationship between a village postmaster, Nanda (Anil Chatterjee) and an orphan servant girl, Ratan (Chandana Banerjee). Written in 1891, The Postmaster is one of Tagore’s earlier works, and is loosely based on a postmaster he knew in his rural estate in East Bengal. In Tagore’s story, the postmaster is like “a fish out of water”, a city-bred man from an impoverished lower middle-class background forced to live in a village because of his posting. Frustrated and bored with his lonely existence in the sleepy rural hamlet, he develops a bond with Ratan, the orphan girl working for him – a bond that is only a pastime for him, a distraction from his lonely, insipid existence, but for Ratan, unaccustomed to such attention, it becomes a real relationship, redeeming the drudgery of her daily life. The girl tends and cares for him as if he was a close relative, but for the young postmaster she is merely the orphan servant girl. His decision to finally go back to his familiar milieu, the city, leaves her feeling hurt and betrayed.

Ray who found the ending in Tagore’s original too ‘sentimental’ changes it considerably, and as acclaimed critic Chidananda Das Gupta describes, “with superlative effect”. (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) Instead of pleading with the postmaster to take her with him, Ray makes Ratan turn away from him in wounded pride; his offer of monetary help only accentuating her hurt and betrayal. Ray also introduced new characters: the harmless madman who terrifies the postmaster to read his book upside down, the village elders who gather around him in his dilapidated office for the perfunctory adda (a Bengali term for an informal social gathering) – characters recruited from among the villagers, some of whom who had earlier appeared in the Apu Trilogy. (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) But the film’s highlight is Chandana Banerjee, who in the role of the waif-like Ratan imbibes it with pathos and poignancy. Ray had discovered Banerjee in a Calcutta dancing school, not very different from the way he had ‘discovered’ Sharmila Tagore for Aparna in Apur Sansar. With no previous experience, Chandana “turned out to be an absolutely fantastic actress: ready, no tension at all, and intelligent and observant and obedient – perfect to work with.” (Satyajit Ray; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Tagore’s rural Bengal in The Postmaster is not as romantic and idyllic as Bhibhutibhushan’s Nishchindipur in Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). For Nanda, the village is a symbol of the unknown, the unfamiliar – he slips in the mud, shudders on seeing a snake skin, and is terrified by the madman. Ray’s use of long night shots, the shabby interiors, and the camera’s avoidance of large open spaces usually associated with rural areas, all underline the film’s dark, shadowy tone, and the postmaster’s fear and claustrophobia. In contrast, Samapti paints a very different picture of rural Bengal – vast expanses of space, wide, sunny, with the river, the Banyan tree with the swing. As Das Gupta notes, “Even the slushy village paths are wide and have a depth of perspective.” (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) The city-village dyad is again explored and cultural mores of the age is evoked in Amulya’s treasured portrait of Napoleon, his tartan socks, and the Oxford shoes, which slip repeatedly on the slushy village paths.

The third and final film in the series, Samapti, is a romantic comedy with Soumitra Chatterjee as the young graduate Amulya and Aparna Sen (nee Das Gupta) as his tomboyish child-bride Mrinmoyee. The wild and rebellious Mrinmoyee is a marked contrast to the quiet and docile Aparna in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) or the dutiful Doyamoyee in Devi (The Goddess). For Sen, who is now an accomplished and renowned director, Mrinmoyee came naturally – “I didn’t act in Samapti at all. I was told what to do from beginning to end. I remember Soumitra (Chatterjee) telling me that I should try to live the part, and believe that I was Mrinmoyee. I had already started behaving like her without being told to do so, maybe because I just liked doing so.” (Aparna Sen in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Some of the scenes in the film – falling off a tree while trying to climb it, releasing her pet squirrel in the ‘bride-viewing session’ – were not pre-planned. Ray simply like the way she did them and retained them. Aparna Sen, who was the daughter of acclaimed Bengali film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, had earlier been considered by Ray for the role of her namesake in Apur Sansar but was rejected because of her accent – a problem that, as Ray notes, mars her otherwise delightful portrayal of Mrinmoyee. (Satyajit Ray in conversation with Andrew Robinson; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Samapti was awarded the President’s Silver Medal (New Delhi, 1961). The truncated version, Two Daughters, received the Golden Boomerang (Melbourne, 1962) and the Selznick Golden Laurel Award (Berlin, 1963).
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Devi (The Goddess)

Set in the 1860s, Devi (The Goddess) revisits the milieu of the Bengali zamindar (landlord), a theme Ray had earlier explored in Jalsaghar (The Music Room). However, unlike the decadent despair and decay of Jalsaghar, Devi is a tale of religious superstition and orthodoxy set against the backdrop of the Bengal Renaissance. Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas in yet another formidable role), an aging Bengali zamindar, is convinced that his daughter-in-law, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), is the goddess Kali, who is worshipped all over Bengal. The narrative then sets the stage for the confrontation between the religiosity and orthodoxy of Roy and the rational ideology of his son, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), who is exposed to western thought.
Based on a short story by Bengali writer Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee in 1899, Devi can be decidedly termed as Ray’s most ‘Hindu’ film, and as Ray’s biographer, Andrew Robinson points out, “one whose impact depends greatly on atmosphere and suggestive details – which can make it difficult (for) those unfamiliar with Hindu rituals and practices.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Ray himself was aware of the film’s limitations, especially in the context of the western audience. Writing in 1982 in Sight and Sound, he remarked,

“The western critic who hopes to do full justice to Devi must be prepared to do a great deal of homework before he confronts the film. He must read up on the cult of the Mother Goddess; on the 19th century Renaissance in Bengal and how it affected the values of orthodox Hindu society; on the position of the Hindu bride in an upper-class family and the relationship between father and son in the same family. All the turns and twists of the plot grow out of one or more of these factors. The western critic who hasn’t done his homework will pin his faith on the rational son to save him from the swirls and eddies of an alien value system; but even here the son’s ultimate helplessness will convince him only if he is aware of the stranglehold of Hindu orthodoxy in 19th century Bengal.”

Understandably, the film did not receive a favorable response from western critics – while some termed the story ‘dauntingly alien’, others found it ‘an exquisite bore.’ For the London Times, the film seemed ‘more a matter of uncluttered story-telling than of atmosphere and the loving accumulation of detail – always Mr. Ray’s strong points.’ Moreover, Doyamoyee’s predicament and the helplessness of her husband seemed incomprehensible to most. Film critic Eric Rhode, writing in Sight and Sound, wondered: ‘Would an intelligent girl like Doyamoyee – and in Sharmila Tagore’s performance she comes over sharp as a pin – allow herself to be deified, even a hundred years ago? And would a husband as shrewd as Soumitra Chatterjee makes Umapada [Umaprasad] allow himself to be so easily checked?’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)Even for critics like Pauline Kael, who appreciated Devi, misreading was inevitable due to the film’s reliance on the finer nuances of Bengali culture and familial structure. For Kael, the scene of Doyamoyee massaging her father-in-law’s feet was implicit with ‘Freudian connotations’, but as Ray explained, ‘Padaseba [foot massage] is a conventional Hindu conception and swasur padaseba [foot massage of a father-in-law] would be considered a very admirable thing for a daughter-in-law to do. You can read a sexual element if you want to, but it wasn’t in my mind.’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Like his earlier adaptations of literary works, Ray also infused Mukherjee’s short story with his distinctive touch. The confrontation between the orthodox Kalikinkar Roy and his son emerges as more powerful – a marked departure from its literary counterpart where it was considerably latent. As Ray later mentioned, ‘The son’s character is very much developed in this film according to my feelings for dramatic reasons. I was full of sympathy for him. I believed his arguments were much stronger than the father’s arguments, because of the irrationality involved.’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Released in 1960, a little more than a year after the theatrical screening of Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Devi repeats the on-screen coupling of Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore. Tagore, who later became a Bollywood star in the 1960s-70s, attributes her haunting portrayal of the child-woman, Doyamoyee, to Ray: ‘Devi was what a genius got out of me, not something I did myself.’ Ray recalls how during the film she would complain that he was not directing her to the same extent as in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), ‘I had to tell her I felt she was doing it all right. “Why should I direct you when you don’t require any direction of that kind?”’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

The music for Devi was composed by Ali Akbar Khan, a renowned Indian classical musician. Though Khan composed haunting music for the film, his relationship with Ray was strained. As the director would later recall, “It was rather an unpleasant experience.” Working with Ravi Shankar for the Apu Trilogy and Vilayat Khan for Jalsaghar (The Music Room) had convinced Ray that in spite of their talent, classical musicians could never really mould their art to the demands of the film. Moreover, unlike Ray, they seemed reluctant to include western classical music in the soundtrack. For Devi, Ray himself chose the western elements in the film’s music, such as a loop consisting of the ninth to twelfth bars of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”, which he used to highlight Doyamoyee’s turmoil. He also composed two songs, his first for a film. Devi would be the last Ray film where another music director was credited; from henceforth, the music in all his films was composed by Ray himself.

In spite of Ray’s attempt to defend his work as an attack on religious orthodoxy, and not on Hinduism itself, Devi was initially perceived as critical of Hindu religion and there was a determined attempt to prevent its release abroad, though it was eventually awarded the President’s Gold Medal by the Indian government in 1961.

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Abhijan (The Expedition)

Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray’s biographer, described Abhijan as “proof of Ray’s capacity to communicate with a mass audience when he wants.” Released in 1962, Abhijan (The Expedition) was Ray’s biggest commercial success in his native Bengal. Set in a small town on the Bengal-Bihar border, the film revolves around a potpourri of characters, who ‘by their very nature act more than they talk’. (Ray in conversation with Robinson; Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Ray originally had no plans of directing Abhijan. A producer friend, Bijoy Chatterjee, who along with some other friends was planning to direct a film, had requested him to write the script for Abhijan, a novel by acclaimed Bengali writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (the author of Jalsaghar). After the completion of the script, Ray got busy with the writing and shooting of Kanchenjunga, his first color film, which also showcased his first original screenplay and full-length music composition. Following the release of Kanchenjunga in 1962, he was at a loose end, and was persuaded by his friends to help with the pre-production of Abhijan. Ray attended the first day’s shooting as a “friendly gesture” and soon found himself directing the first scene. By the end of the day, his friends had successfully managed to persuade him to take over the reins of direction. As Ray puts it, “They lost their nerve…It was a kind of distress call – SOS!” (Ray in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Ray decided to cast his regular Soumitra Chatterjee as the film’s hero, Narsingh. Chatterjee’s penchant for different kinds of Bengali slang convinced the director he would be able to carry off the role of the hot headed and proud taxi driver, with a passion for his vehicle, a 1930 Chrysler. With his height and refined features, the actor seemed to embody the Rajput (a North Indian warrior caste) Narsingh perfectly. Rabi Ghosh, a Bengali stage actor who had acted only in one film prior to Abhijan, was cast as Rama, Narsingh’s sidekick and comic foil. The actor later became immortal as Bagha Byne of the musical duo of Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne musicals. Ghosh’s stellar performance in Abhijan played a significant role in the film’s success. In fact, his feelings for the car seem more genuine than even Narsingh’s. After days of careful observation of taxi-cleaners at a taxi stand near his Calcutta home, Ghosh could imitate not only their mannerisms and ways of talking (which often leave words indistinct) but also their distinctive wolf-whistling. His only worry was that the audience might not accept him when, at the end of the film, he turns serious and pleads with Narsingh not to sell the car. However, the transition seemed to have ‘worked very well’. As Ray recalls, ‘There was no titter from the audience; the hall was absolutely in the grip of the film at that point. Rabi was so happy; he said, “All right, I have passed the test.”’ (Ray in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Charuprakash Ghosh (Nanda Babu of Aparajito), a non-professional actor, was also “superb in his mixing of the comic and the sinister” as Sukhanram, the Marwari merchant whose piety was equaled only by his unscrupulous business practices. (Marwaris are a mercantile caste from Marwar in the desert state of Rajasthan who now control most of the businesses in eastern India)

The two other pivotal characters in the film are female and make a strong dramatic contrast. Ruma Guha Thakurta plays Neeli, the Catholic schoolteacher who Narsingh falls in love with and who inspires him to reform his ways. In his shooting notebook Ray described Neeli as ‘a quiet reserved girl who has completely outgrown – through education and her own strength of will – the traces of her low-caste origin. She has pride, dignity and intelligence.’ In spite of his disinclination for casting relatives, Ray chose Guha Thakurta, his wife, Bijoya’s cousin, for the role of the quiet and reserved Neeli. Hindi film actress Waheeda Rehman makes her first (and only) appearance in a Bengali film as the warm and demonstrative prostitute, Gulabi, who is in love with Narsingh. Ray, who was initially hesitant about casting Rehman, later described her as “a rare talent…an extremely sensitive artist”. The actress who made her debut as a vamp in the Guru Dutt film noir classic C.I.D. (1956) was one of the rare Bombay film heroines who combined mass appeal with critical acclaim. Though her usual fee was more than the budget of any of Ray’s films, she agreed to do Abhijan for a nominal sum since she was so eager to work with him. Abhijan was the first Ray film with a mainstream Hindi film star – a feat he would repeat later with Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977) and Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981). Waheeda Rehman co-starred with Soumitra Chatterjee recently in Aparna Sen’s English film, 15 Park Avenue (2006) and also plays a pivotal role in the Oscar nominated Water (dir. Deepa Mehta, 2006).

Apart from its Bombay star, Abhijan also marks another first in a Ray film – a fight scene. But Ray was disappointed with the scene – ‘The fight in Abhijan wasn’t staged very well…We were shooting in the height of summer. The temperature was 114 degrees in the shade and it was supposed to be winter, so they were all wearing warm clothes. It was physically an excruciatingly difficult scene to shoot…I would have wanted more shots, more close-ups, more of the business of the fight…I’d have very much liked a John Ford-type rough-and-tumble.’ (Ray in conversation with Andrew Robinson; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) This would also be the last time that a fight scene was staged in a Ray film, with the exception of some fisticuffs in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970).

Though Abhijan was one of Ray’s most popular films, it failed to emulate the critical success of the Apu Trilogy, Jalsaghar (The Music Room), or Teen Kanya (Three Daughters). For noted film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, the film was symbolic of Ray’s “periodic urge to break out of the confines of what he is best reputed to do, and try his hand at something unfamiliar.” (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) Andrew Robinson regards Abhijan more as a “conscious response” to box-office failure that prompted him to make a film with “popular elements” without resorting to the excessive melodrama of commercial Bengali cinema. Abhijan is regarded as a departure from his usual style of filmmaking, and was also criticized for it’s ‘miscasting’ of the suave, urbane Soumitra Chatterjee as the semi-literate Rajput taxi driver. Though Marie Seton was impressed with Chatterjee’s transformation – “(with) a convincing beard and moustache…his sensitive personality (was) wholly submerged in the mature and roughened image of Narsingh” (Seton, Portrait of a Director) – she seems to be the sole voice of assent. For Das Gupta, “Chatterjee’s affinity to the urban literati is so marked that to make him put on a long beard, a permanently afflicted expression and false accent is one of the most uncharacteristic casting decisions Ray ever made. It simply does not ring true, ever.” (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) But as Robinson points out, maybe the weakness in Chatterjee’s performance was not simply a matter of miscasting, but more of “a subtle problem” – “The fact that Ray himself did not drive a car, meant that he was probably unable to enrich Narsingh’s love for his vehicle with telling details, as he successfully could do with the zamindar’s love of music in The Music Room (Jalsaghar). Somehow, Narsingh never convinces us that he is capable of tuning his own carburetor or adjusting his points, say; his love for the car seems always a bit artificial.” (Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) However, in spite of the critics’ verdict, Abhijan remains till date one of Ray’s most popular films in Bengal. Abhijan received the President’s Silver Medal from the Indian government (New Delhi, 1962).

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Jalsaghar (The Music Room)

Jalsaghar (The Music Room), released in 1958, was made in the interim period between Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Based on a short story by the acclaimed Bengali writer, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, the film is considered one of Ray’s masterpieces and enjoys a cult status. Derek Malcolm, writing in 1975, described Jalsaghar as Ray’s ‘most perfect film’.

Set in the 1920s, Jalsaghar poignantly portrays the decadence and fading glory of the Bengali zamindar (feudal landowner). Unable to accept the success of his nouveau riche upstart neighbor and still clinging to the remnants of his past grandeur, the protagonist, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is a pathetic and pitiful figure. Andrew Robinson compares Roy to another character from a later Ray film – Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) – “Both are irresponsible men whose faults typify their class, but both are redeemed by a genuine love of music and dancing.” Shatranj Ke Khilari’s Nawab and Jalsaghar’s Bengali zamindar are emblematic of the feudal elite, anachronistic and powerless, besotted with their aristocratic past and struggling to survive against forces of modernity and change.

Ray had initially planned Jalsaghar as a more frivolous film, with lighter, less austere music. Following the commercial failure of Aparajito in Bengal, he was in desperate need of a winner. In a letter to Marie Seton in May 1957, Ray describes the film as “a rather showy piece about a decadent music-loving zamindar and his fantastic efforts to uphold family prestige”. However, in the course of writing the screenplay, the “frivolous”, “showy piece” was transformed into a “brooding drama”, a “serious study of (Indian) feudalism” and also the first film to employ Indian classical music as an integral element of its narrative. The film’s music by noted sitar maestro, Ustad Vilayat Khan, was more strictly classical than the fluid musical style of Ravi Shankar (who had composed music for the Apu Trilogy).

However, it was during the making of Jalsaghar that Ray became further convinced against using classical musicians as film composers. He felt that none of the musical greats he had worked with – Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan – could successfully mould their talents to the demands of a film, or indulge in experimentation. In spite of Khan’s strict adherence to Indian classical music, he did convince him to agree to some mixing. In the scene where Roy is gripped by his own impending doom at the sight of the darkening chandeliers, Ray felt that Indian music alone would not be able to convey Roy’s terror. While editing he added to Vilayat’s soulful sitar rendition some Sibelius, thus creating “a sound texture that is more than just a music track”.

Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy brings to life the decadent and brooding zamindar. Biswas, one of Bengali cinema’s most renowned actors, also essayed pivotal roles in two other Ray films, Devi and Kanchenjunga. “Whether strutting around in sparkling white with a cockade and a riding crop, glancing in private at his meagre ‘purse’ for the dancer with disdainful resignation, subduing the vulgar Ganguli with a flick of his ivory cane, or staggering in drunken elation and depression around the music room, he is a formidable presence.” (Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

It is ironic that Chhabi Biswas, playing the role of a music connoisseur, was himself virtually tone-deaf, a fact that Ray discovered rather late. Biswas had assured Ray that he would try to play the connoisseur “by producing the right facial expressions at certain points, saying wah wah, shaking his head, ‘looking dreamy eyed’ and so on.” But Ray would have none of it. He did insist, though, that Biswas learn how to fake the playing of an esraj so that he could be seen accompanying his son’s singing of the scales. He also asked Biswas to do something much simpler: to lift one finger of his right hand while he was listening to the strains of dancing coming from Ganguli’s house. Biswas had no idea why he was doing this, but in fact, to musical connoisseurs, this makes it clear that Roy knows the rhythmic cycle of the dance music. Later, during the mixing, it gave Ray real satisfaction to coincide the lifting of that finger with the precise beat of the music on the soundtrack. (Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Like many of Ray’s other films, Jalsaghar also has its share of interesting anecdotes. The ‘discovery’ of Biswambhar Roy’s palace is a story in itself. Ray and his team had just inspected their thirtieth nobleman’s palace (for the zamindar’s palatial mansion) and rejected it, when an old man in a tea shop overheard them talking and suggested they visit the palace of the Chowdhurys at Nimtita on the border of Bangladesh. Without much hope, they agreed to go. Recounting the experience in his article, “Winding Route to a Music Room”, Ray wrote – “Nimtita turned out to be everything that the old man had claimed – and more. No one could have described in words the feeling of utter desolation that surrounded the palace.” The owner was a seventy-year-old zamindar who knew one of Ray’s grand-uncles and who was the antithesis of Biswambhar Roy; he neither drank alcohol nor listened to music. But he had experience of that kind of behavior through his late uncle, Upendra Narayan Chowdhury, who had build the palace music room. Incidentally, Upendra Narayan was the same zamindar on whom Tarashankar had based his decadent protagonist.

Jalsaghar was a commercial success in Bengal, but received mixed reviews when released in the US in 1963. For Stanley Kauffman, it was “a deeply felt, extremely tedious film” while Bosley Crowther (who had earlier dismissed Pather Panchali) waxed eloquence about “the delicacy of the direction…the performance that Chhabi Biswas gives as the decaying landowner…the eloquence of Indian music and the aura of the mise en scene.” Ray himself had regarded the film as incapable of appealing to a Western audience – “I didn’t think it would export at all” – and was faintly surprised at its international success. (Satyajit Ray in conversation with Andrew Robinson; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

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Mahanagar (The Big City)

Released in 1963, Mahanagar (The Big City) is a tale of the age-old conflict between tradition and modernity. It is also the first film where Ray sought to explore contemporary Calcutta (the film is set in the mid-1950s), bringing to life the claustrophobic lives of the lower middle-class. Based on a short story by Bengali writer, Narendranath Mitra, Mahanagar is the tale of an archetypal middle-class Bengali family – the Mazumdars – Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), a bank employee with a modest income, who lives in a cramped quarter with his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), his four-year old son, Pintu, his parents, and his teenage sister, Bani (Jaya Bhaduri). The film traces the shifting dynamics and conflicts within the family as Arati evolves from the quintessential traditional housewife to a career woman, later emerging as the family’s sole breadwinner.

Though Ray himself was not too familiar with the milieu, Mitra’s detailed and nuanced description in his short story, Abataranika, and the painstaking research by art director, Bansi Chandragupta, brought to life the ambience of lower middle-class Bengali life. The cramped living quarters – ‘a dingy first floor affair with three small rooms, a small courtyard and a makeshift kitchen’ – underlined the claustrophobic lives of its inhabitants. In a letter to Marie Seton, Ray described the sets as ‘the smallest rooms ever built!’ The rooms had four walls (a novelty at that time in Bengali film industry), none of which were removable on wheels. The lack of space and mobility is evident in the film – there are hardly any long shots. The feeling of cramped and somewhat forced intimacy is supplemented with radio music and other sounds from the neighborhood. In most Bengali middle-class homes in the 1950s, the radio occupied a position of ubiquitous permanency, functioning on the notion that “radios were invented to be played from the moment they start relaying to the time the station goes off the air.” (Robinson) In his shooting notebook, Ray had listed all the songs and programs the family would be listening, ‘and when the radio stops, the ensuing silence, which is soothing, gives way to very intimate scenes between the couple.’ (Ray in Andrew Robinson’s The Inner Eye)

But Mahanagar is more than simply an exploration of middle-class lives; it is a scathing commentary on the social mores and conventions prevalent in 1950s Bengali society. For Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, the film is a portrayal of a “hypocritical, herd-like tendency…one of the pernicious facts of Bengali life” – “Each is playing a role, concerned about what ‘they’ – Bengalis in general – will think. The effect is to paralyze their own independence of mind.” (Robinson, The Inner Eye) It was Ray’s attempt to expose in the film this herd-like tendency, the Bengali’s deferential attitude to societal norms and expectations.

Mahanagar is as much about the Bengali middle-class as it is about its protagonist, Arati. Robinson describes Arati as “the family’s anchor” – “One would perhaps describe her putative western counterpart as ‘bustling around’, but in Arati’s actions there is no display, no ego; she is the family’s anchor, not its figurehead.” (Andrew Robinson, The Inner Eye) Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati, could relate to her so well that she almost didn’t feel she was acting – ‘The character was so real. I seemed to know her. She was like someone I had seen.’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye) Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati, was not Ray’s discovery, but her best work has undoubtedly been in his films. Ray first noticed her in Mrinal Sen’s Baisey Sravan (The Wedding Day), and decided to cast her on the basis of that performance; he had been looking for the right actress for Arati’s role since 1956. The actress, who later became a popular star in mainstream commercial Bengali cinema, is primarily remembered for her Ray films – the middle-class Bengali woman in Mahanagar, the lonely hausfrau in Charulata (The Lonely Wife), and the jilted fiancé in Kapurush (The Coward).

The role of Arati’s husband, the mild-mannered and affectionate Subrata, was played by Anil Chatterjee, who had earlier appeared in the Ray films, Postmaster (1961) and Kanchenjunga (1962). For the role of Subrata’s father, a cantankerous retired schoolmaster, he approached Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, the doyen of Bengali theatre (and Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee’s mentor) but Bhaduri turned him down with the words, ‘In films the actor doesn’t act – only the director does. What’s the point of taking me?’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye) Mahanagar was also the debut vehicle of Jaya Bhaduri, who later became a critically acclaimed actress in middlebrow Hindi films and married Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

What makes Mahanagar truly timeless, and not merely a look at 1950s Calcutta is the real tension that plagues Arati – whether she should try to please everyone or just please herself – an issue that is perennial and relevant for the Indian woman even today. As Robinson emphasizes, “For the Indian woman the conflict can be particularly acute, because those close to her expect more than is expected of women in the West. As Arati’s husband tells her, with an affectionate but not ironic smile, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ Expressed in English as it is in the film, the proverb gives the western viewer a small jolt, but it is an authentic sample of a Victorian value system that still roosts in more orthodox circles in Bengal.” Interestingly, Ray initially wanted the English title of the film to be A Woman’s Place instead of The Big City, but the idea did not catch on.

As with his other literary adaptations, Ray made a significant change in the cinematic version – unlike Mitra’s short story where the daughter-in-law is berated by her in-laws for resigning from her job, in Mahanagar Ray employs a ‘semi-optimistic’ ending. Arati expresses the hope, ‘What a big city! Full of jobs. There must be something somewhere for one of us’, and both husband and wife walk off into the evening crowd of Dalhousie Square (Calcutta’s bustling office district), with a more serene and mature version of the theme music in the background. As Ray describes, ‘They’re optimistic because they’ve come together emotionally, after a long period of separation that’s psychological. It’s the kind of optimism where they know it will be very difficult to find jobs, but at least for the time being they are again husband and wife.’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye)

In spite of its popularity at home and abroad, Mahanagar, like its predecessor Devi (The Goddess), was dogged by controversy. An Anglo-Indian MP (Member of Parliament), who had not even seen the film, accused Ray of prejudice and bias against the Anglo-Indian community. Though Indira Gandhi, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, cleared Ray, the charge stuck and prevented Mahanagar from winning the Indian government’s highest award. It also made it difficult for him to obtain government funding for the film’s screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1964. A frustrated Ray wrote to Marie Seton before leaving Calcutta, ‘We really cannot afford to stay longer than 10 days in Berlin in view of the absurdly small amount of foreign exchange sanctioned in Delhi – Rs 7000 for a party of 6! …And this in spite of all my personal efforts and repeated dinning into the years of the powers that be over the last six or seven years. I’m disgusted.’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye) Incidentally, the film won the Silver Bear for Best Direction at the Berlin Film Festival – “a worthy accolade for one of Ray’s most unassuming and lifelike creations”.

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Parash Pathar

Ray made Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) in late 1957 during a break in the shooting of Jalsaghar (The Music Room) enforced by the lead actor, Chhabi Biswas’s absence (Biswas was away in Berlin to receive an award). Based on a short story by the renowned Bengali writer, Rajsekhar Basu, Parash Pathar was Ray’s first attempt at comedy. Basu, who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Parasuram’, was already a household name in Bengal; he was a prolific creator of verses, short stories, plays, novels, and had also authored a very comprehensive Bengali dictionary.

In a letter to Marie Seton, Ray describes Parash Pathar as “(it is a) sort of combination of comedy, fantasy, satire, farce and a touch of pathos.” Tulsi Chakraborty (who had earlier played the grocer-teacher in Pather Panchali) as the protagonist Paresh Chandra Dutta seems to embody perfectly Basu’s humor and Ray’s satire. The actor was already a familiar face in Bengali cinema, having acted in countless melodrama films. With a pair of eyes “as bulbous as a frog’s which he opens wide with every emotion known to Man” (Robinson), Chakraborty brings to life the humble Bengali clerk both blessed and cursed by picking up ‘the stone that turneth all to gold’. Paresh initially transforms only a few household items, ‘a little something’ for his and his wife’s old age. But soon greed and the craving for limelight seduce him, and the humble clerk dreams of a place among Calcutta’s elite. Against his better instincts, Dutta decides to keep the stone. When he receives an invitation to his first cocktail party, he is overjoyed – he has been finally accepted in the exclusive clique of the rich and famous. However, incensed by the snooty disdain of the ‘Brown Sahibs’ (anglicized Indians) at the party, an inebriated Dutta decides to reveal his secret. What follows is a hilarious account of Dutta’s ordeal.

Though the dominant mood of the film is Paresh Dutta’s innocent delight in being important, Ray’s satire is often biting. His contempt for the rich and powerful in Indian society is evident in his treatment of Calcutta’s elite in the cocktail party scene. Opinion remains divided whether the scene is successful or not. Some, like Bansi Chandragupta, Ray’s art director, are critical of the scene – “Satyajit has preconceived notions about the rich… They appear as caricatures and types rather than people. In Parash Pathar he has an unusual disgust for alcohol and drunkards. It is this prejudice against drink that has influenced this scene.” (Bansi Chandragupta in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

For the cocktail party scene, Ray assembled some of the Bengali film industry’s most accomplished actors (Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal, Kamal Mitra) and for the Bengali viewer it is often a treat to watch this eclectic ensemble. For Ray shooting the scene was an equally enjoyable experience – “It was a great experience… Everyone had to be given something to do at that point, so that everyone would be happy. It was all equally apportioned – the various businesses – except for Chhabi Biswas. I told him, ‘You have just done something very important for me (Jalsaghar) so I’ll neglect you. So don’t mind.’ His very presence was enough.” (Satyajit Ray in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Ray was asked by the Censor Board to make black the white ‘Gandhi cap’ worn by Dutta after he becomes rich since the ‘Gandhi topi’ (Gandhi cap) is associated with politicians belonging to the Congress Party (though Gandhi himself never wore one). By insisting that Dutta wears it to only hide his baldness, Ray got permission to leave it as it was.

Andrew Robinson considers Parash Pathar “among Ray’s best work, were it not for some rough edges which betray the speed at which it was shot.” (Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Unfortunately the film did not receive a very enthusiastic response. When first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, Parash Pathar was received with ‘amused indifference’, with critics and audience preferring the Apu films to this modest tale. The film’s humor translates only partially to a non-Bengali audience. Part of the problem lies in its nuanced portrayal of Bengali social life, an ignorance of which reduces the clever caricaturing of the ‘Brown Sahib’ to merely hamming.

As Robinson puts it: “To appreciate Parash Pathar, requires some feeling for the vacuousness and pretentiousness of the Calcutta rich and the nouveau riche, for the Indian obsession with gold, as well as for the struggling Bengali clerk – the downside of the Bengali Renaissance – those thousands upon thousands of Bengalis who have Apu’s dreaminess and frustrations but not his talents, and who must get by through deference to office superiors.” Though some non-Bengalis have appreciated it, the general reaction is summarized by Eric Rhode’s comment in Sight and Sound – ‘mannered facetiousness’. Parash Pathar remains one of Ray’s least recognized works in spite of its popularity in Bengal. The film was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958.

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Apur Sansar

“If Ray was in love with his first lyrically young film, in the second it was more adult and mature…the final act, in Apur Sansar, is a restrained, deliberate bit of work…it comes firmly to grips with reality, and yet does so with tenderness and humanity.” Amita Malik

With Sarbojaya’s death in Aparaito, Apu’s estrangement from his village, Nishchindipur, and the tradition of his ancestors is complete. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) opens with its protagonist in Calcutta, with a graduate degree but jobless, and singularly devoid of any ambition. Living in a one room tenement near the railway tracks, with only his books and flute for company, Apu is idealistic and dreams of becoming a writer. The resemblance between the Apu of Apur Sansar and his literary counterpart is scant. “Ray’s Apu is here a nobler creation. He has dispensed with some of Apu’s contradictions, attenuated his narcissism and drawn him as someone of heightened sensitivity and refined emotion.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Apu was the contemporary Indian man at the crossroads of tradition and modernity – a predicament that the Indian youth, grappling with the issues of a newly independent nation, could identify with.

For Soumitra Chatterjee, who dons the mantle of the adult Apu, the character symbolized the idealism shared by his generation – “We were to a great extent the Apus of our time.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Chatterjee, whose acting experience included only amateur theatre in college, had approached Ray during the making of Aparajito but was rejected since he was too old for the role of a teenage Apu (later played by Smaran Ghosal). The actor went on to become a regular in Ray’s films, from Apur Sansar in 1959 to Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) in 1990. Chatterjee regards Ray as instrumental in changing the acting style in Bengali cinema. Since the actors were usually from a theatre background, their acting was heavily influenced by stage histrionics. “Ray’s films brought about a real change…actors began trying to be cinema actors.” (Soumitra Chatterjee in Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray)

Apur Sansar also marks the debut of Sharmila Tagore. Tagore, who later became a major Bollywood star in the 1960s-70s, also acted in subsequent Ray films – Devi (The Goddess), Nayak (The Hero), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited). She was only fourteen when Ray ‘spotted’ her outside her school, St. John’s Diocesan. Sharmila is related to the more orthodox branch of Rabindranath Tagore’s family, and it took Ray considerable time and effort to convince her father. Though remarkably good, her performance in Apur Sansar was ‘heavily directed’. “Ray literally talked her through each shot: ‘Now turn your head, now look this way, now look that way, now look down, now come with your lines, pause here, and now come with your lines again.’” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Like its predecessor, Apur Sansar owes more to Ray than to Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel. Eliminating the various other plot complexities, the film concentrates primarily on two aspects – the relationship between the struggling intellectual Apu and his uneducated wife, Aparna, and Apu’s reconciliation with his estranged son, Kajal. Unlike the film, Bandopadhyay’s Apu has a much wider contact with other girls before marrying Aparna. While in Benares, he becomes attached to Leela, the granddaughter of his mother’s employer. Later in the narrative, Leela is part of Calcutta’s charm that alienates Apu further from his mother. Failure to find a suitable girl had forced Ray to write off Leela from the narrative, a decision that he felt weakened the dramatic element in Aparajito. However, Leela’s absence is hardly felt in Apur Sansar. It is a simple and poignant tale of the idealistic Apu and his naïve child-bride, with the scenes between the newly married couple “one of the cinema’s classic affirmative depictions of married life.” (Robin Wood). What perhaps makes it all the more poignant is that they take place in the very same dingy one room apartment, where we had earlier seen Apu the bachelor, lying alone on a crumpled bed, playing his flute listlessly; there seems to be a new joie de vivre in Apu now.

Apur Sansar was conceived only after the completion of Aparajito and released in 1959, with Ray working on two other films, Jalsaghar (The Music Room) and Paresh Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) in the intervening years. Though the film’s fidelity to its literary source was a question of much debate and controversy, it was a commercial success in Bengal and won the President’s Gold Medal. The release of Pather Panchali and Aparajito in England, and then in America, had aroused interest among the international audience. However, the Venice Film Festival refused to screen the film in the competitive section on the grounds of its similarity to its predecessors – a decision supposedly influenced by the Festival’s director, F. L. Ammannati’s penchant for favoring Italian films. As a mark of protest, the London Film Festival, normally devoted to films that had won festival awards, invited Apur Sansar to inaugurate the Festival, awarded it the Place of Honor, and also the largest number of screenings. The film won the Sutherland Award for “the most original and imaginative film first shown to a British audience at the National Film Theatre.”

Apur Sansar also won the NBR Award for the Best Foreign Film, the Diploma of Merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and was nominated for the BAFTA Award. Edward Harrison, who had earlier distributed Pather Panchali and Aparajito in USA, screened the Apu Trilogy films as part of a single program in New York, lasting five and a half hours, with two breaks for coffee, thus giving the audience the opportunity to view the Trilogy as an unified work.

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