Monday, Mar 27, 2023

Ray And The Bengali Cinema

Ray And The Bengali Cinema

How Satyajit Ray both drew upon and ultimately altered Bengali film practice

(From Chapter 6 ‘Satyajit Ray and the Bengali Cinema’)

Through his career, Ray maintained a tenuous relationship with the mainstream Bengali cinema. This was both due to his own embedded sense of distance as well as a particular resentment in industry circles where Ray was viewed as an interloper of sorts – one who made his living through the making of Bengali films, yet distanced himself from the industry at large. However, Ray is undeniably central to the larger history of the Bengali cinema, and for the ways in which he both drew upon and ultimately altered Bengali film practice. In an interview given in later life, Soumitra Chatterjee commented: 

Uttam Kumar alone was not able to fulfill every part of the hero that Bengali audiences wished to see on the screen … there are different kinds of people in life … other kinds of young men, other kinds of romances … possibly that is why audiences found a parallel screen hero in myself.

This ‘hero’, Ray’s own creation, brought an element of Ray’s realist cinema into Bengali films at large. Chatterjee, a top star of the ’60s and ’70s Bengali cinema, had, by his own admission, imbibed his style of film acting from his mentor, Satyajit Ray. Even Uttam Kumar, it is believed, was inspired to modify his appearance onscreen when he worked in Nayak (The Hero, 1966), the first of his two films with Ray. According to Ray’s son Sandip, Uttam Kumar gave up the practice of heavy facial makeup after he had worked with Ray. Ray, on his part, acknowledged that he had specifically scripted Nayak with the star in mind. Another Ray ‘find’, Aparna Dasgupta, later Aparna Sen, who first appeared opposite Soumitra Chatterjee in Samapti (1961), part of a trilogy of Tagore films made by Ray on the occasion of Tagore’s hundredth birth anniversary, also became a leading star of the Bengali cinema in the 1960s. After the peak of Uttam-Suchitra, Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen were for some time the lead pair at the Bengali box office, in the late ’60s and ’70s. Ray himself had helped script and also wrote the music for an early hit of the Soumitra-Aparna duo, the romantic comedy Baksabadal (Suitcase Changed, 1965), which bears a remarkable likeness to Ray’s own farcical comedy Mahapurush (The Holy Man), which was released in the same year. Both films drew upon the farcical in Bengali middle-class life, and both were, as Andrew Robinson put it in the case of Mahapurush, ‘at once indolent and sharply alert’. Stars like Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen carried some part of Ray’s style into the mainstream and made a hit of it at the Bengali box office. In the end, they had enhanced the prevailing discourse of Bengali cinema’s difference from (and superiority in relation to) the ‘commercial’ Bombay film.

In other ways, too, Bengali film practice was no longer the same post-Ray. While there were earlier films like Chhinnamul, which was shot on location and starkly realist, or directors like Bimal Roy who had worked with rank newcomers, it was with Ray that such practices became more purposefully institutionalized within the Bengal film industry. As Marie Seton notes, ‘Between the release of Pather Panchali and that of Apur Sansar, Ray’s films exerted one notable influence upon Bengali films, and to a lesser degree Hindi films. Other directors were made aware of the value of location shooting’. The single most important factor that had influenced a certain consistency of the Ray canon was the prospect of international exposure and the nomenclature of ‘the art film’, and even Bombay films, with their ‘all-India’ market, were not immune to this lure of prestige and overseas markets. The unprecedented reception of Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) in the Soviet Union, Egypt, Turkey, East Europe and China had shown what international exposure could do for Indian films, and Ray’s emergence augmented this vision. Yet, it was the Bengali film, which seemed to have been most specifically impacted by Ray’s emergence on the international scene. After Ray, international awards and film festivals became a part of the regular discourse of the Bengali film, within the industry, and among the Bengali public at large. By comparison, Bombay remained wedded to the imperatives of the ‘all-India’ market.

More importantly, however, a film like Apur Sansar had revealed the possibilities of connecting the Bengali box office and the international market, and even Bengali films which were not strictly art-house or ‘parallel cinema’ now achieved a visibility on the international circuit. In 1963, for instance, Suchitra Sen, then at her peak as Bengali cinema’s top ‘heroine’, received the Best Actress Award at the Moscow Film Festival for her performance in Ajoy Kar’s Saat Pake Bandha (1963). Ray, it seems, had fired the industry’s imagination to seek out new avenues for itself – most importantly, the film festival and its international audiences. Pather Panchali had earned its producer, the Government of West Bengal, $50,000 from the American market alone. Later, Jalsaghar, which had not done well in the theatres, brought the producer Ajit Bose a prize of Rs 10,000, a fair sum by contemporary standards, when the film won the Certificate of Merit as the second-best Indian film of the year. Such incentive was especially relevant to those that were operating within the confines of the regional industry, and in a milieu where the larger ‘national’ market was captive to the ‘all-India Hindi’ film.

Significantly, it was at the level of international exposure, and on the terrain of film art, that the Bengali film was able to enter into competition with and subvert Bombay cinema. While Bombay’s filmmakers like Raj Kapoor were equally driven by the lure of international prestige – Awaara had been entered into the 1953 Cannes film festival – it was Bengali cinema, with its more limited audience base which could more easily circumvent ‘commercial’ imperatives in favour of certain ‘international standards’. It was also the Bengali film with its more marginal resource base which claimed the status of being more organically inspired and therefore more entitled in the domain of film art: Ray had himself enunciated a large part of that discourse in his essays like ‘Long time on a Little Road’ (where he detailed the tribulations involved in the making of Pather Panchali) and ‘Problems of a Bengal Filmmaker’. With Ray, the movement for ‘a Bengali cinema’ had come a full circle, both in terms of a range of key signifiers (the ‘real’ Bengali village, the Bengali man and wife, Apu and Aparna, or the kerani Paresh Babu), as also the ‘film as art’ discourse which had delineated a cinema of the ‘Bengal school’. For all purposes, this cinema was a domain unto its own, principally sustained by its ability to signify ‘Bengaliness’, and inspired by the possibilities of subverting the ‘all-India Hindi’ film.

Ray and a Bengali ‘Public’ 

At this point, I would like to return to the debate that emerged in the pages of Desh on the subject of Apur Sansar. In response to the reviewer ‘Chandrasekhar’ (Sebabrata Gupta), who had commented on the film’s departure from Bibhutibhusan’s original, Ray issued a response in the issue 15 Jaisthya 1366 (1959). In this, he defended the filmmaker’s right to his own vision, essentially making a larger point about cinema as an independent medium. He wrote, for instance:

The critic has said, ‘Perhaps it is in this film that the mismatch between the author’s vision and the director’s imagination has become more obvious than in previous films’. An author’s vision is expressed through words; a director’s imagination (even when based on a novel) is revealed mainly through moving images. Doesn’t the critic realize that the two are as different as chalk as cheese? No film based on a novel has yet been made which did not require the director to use his own vision and imagination.

The Ray-Chandrasekhar debate generated a wider public response, with readers of Desh writing in to express their views in favour of or against the points raised by Chandrasekhar. In the issue that carried Ray’s rejoinder, for instance, Gopinath Ray, a reader from the district of Burdwan wrote in, saying:

has not Mr Ray disregarded the expectations of a Bengali audience in his Apur Sansar … As a film Apur Sansar will perhaps be remembered for all times to come, as a character, the film’s Apu will perhaps be loved the world over, but we did not find in the film that Apu we know so well! It was disappointing to see an unknown Apu when one was expecting to see Bibhutibhusan’s Apu.

Gopinath Ray’s letter signified one end of the spectrum of contemporary opinion, which desired the Bengali film to be an invocation of the Bengali literature, very much in the New Theatres mould. According to this view, Ray was playing havoc with this literature, taking uncalled-for liberties with a medium which was expected to replicate that literature. It revealed the tenacity of the link that Bengali cinema had set up with the Bengali literature since its very early days, in its bid to promote itself as a middle-class entertainment. Yet, another strand of opinion was also in evidence in the debate around Apur Sansar – that which pointed to the emergence of a perspective regarding the cinema as an independent form.

In a letter in Desh’s issue of 29 Jaisthya, Dhananjaya Bairagi, a reader from Calcutta, wrote in with the following views:

There has been considerable debate around Apur Sansar in the pages of Desh in the last few weeks – in general there has been a lot of discussion. I think this debate is not actually productive.

My four and a half year old son has seen the film. It was clear to me from the way he narrated the story that he has immensely enjoyed it. I might also recall the response of an uneducated domestic servant, who took time off to go and see Apur Sansar. He came back and said, ‘It wouldn’t be so sad if the wife didn’t die.’ At the same time, I can think back to the comment of an educated gentleman, who observed, ‘For the first time perhaps a film has depicted true love. What we otherwise see is all made-up, affected romance’.

A film which pleases a child, touches the heart of the educated and uneducated alike, hardly needs to be debated over. If art is truly great, then the artist finds his voice among people – all kinds of people. During my recent visit to Europe, I have observed what high regard they give to Mr Ray. The language of his cinema has created a new history at the international stage – that is why his genius is so greatly respected.

We must necessarily keep this in mind when assessing Ray’s cinema … The subject of his [the reviewer ‘Chandrasekhar’s] critique is simply the disparity between the Apu characters in the novel and the film. In my opinion, it would be better if this issue did not inform film criticism.

My request is that there should be no further acrimony over this issue. We earnestly desire that Mr Ray is able to make more of good cinema, that he becomes even more acknowledged internationally. May his cinema and his art win recognition for the Bengali’s calibre.

Dhanajaya Bairagi’s letter is a critical document, which needs to be worked through at multiple levels, and which extends beyond his discussion of Apur Sansar. For this individual, Apur Sansar was a worthy endeavour, worth the name of art, on account of its universal quality – that which had made for its appeal among a cross-section of the film-going public. More broadly, however, this writer wished to pre-empt further debate on the ongoing literature versus cinema issue, for in his mind, cinema was an independent medium with its own language, and Ray an independent artist who worked with the same medium. Ray’s cinema had instituted an international public with respect to the Bengali film, and according to this view, Ray’s international recognition was a matter of Bengali success – and the reason why any public criticism of Ray needed to be tempered.

The ideas embedded herein reveal certain long-term implications of the Bengali film, which go to the heart of the project of this book. What we have here is essentially the transition to a public discourse of the cinema per se. Unlike in the early talkie era, when New Theatres Ltd. was able to make its mark through the ‘literariness’ of its adaptations of Sarat Chandra, Ray was beginning to be appreciated for his enunciation of a language of cinema, which could be accessed by one and all whether or not they were familiar with the literary pro-filmic material. We have here a surpassing of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century regime of Bengali literature by that of the cinema – that medium which now held the greatest potential to transport the Bengali culture beyond its regional boundaries. In cinema, the Bengali public of this period were in the process of discovering a means of transcending the local and inhabiting the international, a vision which instituted the cinema at the very heart of the Bengali imaginary. The ‘international’ had been a matter of Bengali aspiration since the beginning of the twentieth century, most crucially embodied in Tagore’s vision of a pan-Asian and world community. Even cinema, from its early years, had afforded this vision of internationalism and a global culture. By and large, this vision was superseded in the high noon of the national movement – the period between the 1930s and 1940s. It re-emerged in the cinema of Satyajit Ray and at a historical juncture when a new nation was striving to make its place in the international community. In The Discovery of India, Nehru had asserted that India was most truly national when it was international. In Ray, the ‘Bengali-nation’ was thus able to take centrestage.