Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Looming Above Them All

Some giants are elusive. You can't write about them. Not that easily. I suspect the reason for this has more to do with the way we see them. Perhaps we don't see them. Perhaps we don't want to. It isn't that we can't assess them. It's just that we can't measure them enough. That's sad I agree, but inevitable. In a way. Maybe that's why, even with countless biographies and essays that get written about them, we aren't any closer to finding what these giants stood for. And stood on.

23 years ago, we lost Satyajit Ray. We lost a giant. An unparalleled one. This giant is remembered for 30 films and seven documentaries. He is remembered for those books he wrote. He was an artist, so his paintings and comic sketches are remembered too. Everything he filmed, wrote, or drew won acclaim. So much so that today, he is celebrated in India. He has also become an icon, celebrated the world over by every film-lover.

As for me, I remember him for his films. I was very little when I saw them. Apur Sansar, a world away from the India of the Kapoors or Bachchans or Khans, stunned me. And it didn't end there. There were other films, other stories. All of them held onto me. The reason wasn't difficult to see. They unearthed a part of the world I lived close to. Some of them, as I saw for myself, even unearthed a world I actually lived in.

Ray was born to the aristocracy. As his biographer Andrew Robinson puts it, he had all the privileges of an upper-class family in Bengal. His fascination with the arts, in a way, grew out of his childhood. That moved his critics to label his films as being too out of touch with reality. He hadn't lived through them, they argued, to portray them honestly. True enough.

But his films are treasured today. They are celebrated. Why?

No one could dissect India the way he did, for one thing. From Pather Panchali (his first) to Agantuk (his last), there was something he aimed at, which defined what he filmed. He revealed some uncomfortable truths about his world. They uncloaked a side to India that neither politician nor filmmaker delved into. For this reason, he was more honest than any other director I "read".

It wasn't just poverty of course. Whatever issue or theme he took – religious superstition, caste hierarchies, political uprisings, terrorism – he explored. To the dot. Why? Because Ray directed so forcefully that his signature became evident in whatever he made. He exerted control over nearly every aspect to film-making – cinematography, editing, scripting, even music – that he became virtually indistinguishable from what he filmed.

Not that his films were perfect. They had their flaws. Critics who were politically slanted saw them as indifferent. They berated him for not being committed enough, for not asking the viewer harsh questions. For them, he seemed to be content with revealing the truth. He didn't offer solutions. He just stated that they were needed. That was all.

In Ray's universe, people accept poverty. They also try to escape it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Through this, he revealed their way of life, and their joys, sorrows, and emotions, clinically, without any nostalgia. This in turn attracted criticism from critic and audience. Unwittingly, he seemed to reflect what Engels once wrote: that the artist's role was not to resolve issues on a silver platter.

He was happy in revealing, not resolving. Not many liked that, especially as time went by and the world became darker. They liked it even less when he decided to script his own films: compare Jalsaghar, for instance, with Kanchenjunga and Nayak to see how limited and constrained the latter two are. They were both written by him. They kept to his vision. They revealed how limited (and insular) that vision could be.

He realised this better than anyone else. By the time he began to understand it, however, he had aged. The world had moved on. Akira Kurosawa, once a firebrand, was lagging behind. Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, unacknowledged saints of the cinema, were soon to retire. None of them made a "committed" film in their last few years. They shirked away, stubbornly clinging to what they believed in.

Ray dared to be different. In his last three films – Ganashatru, Shakha Proshakha, Agantuk – he tried to reconcile himself to the outside world. Ganashatru was about a doctor who tries to warn his community that the holy water in their temple is contaminated. Shakha Proshaka was about three sons who visit their ailing father. Agantuk was about a stranger who passes off as an uncle to a suspicious couple. All different from one another, yes, but held together by how Ray wanted to prove that he could be different. That he could achieve a communion. With the rest of the world.

Directors are influenced. They also influence others. The thing with Ray was that while he shaped almost every filmmaker who followed him, it was difficult to pinpoint someone who shaped him. Not that he didn't have influences. From Tagore to Chaplin, Bach to Kurosawa, he took in everything he fell under.

He was also broadminded enough to acknowledge that while East and West could never really meet, there was much to absorb from both. Which is why, when he compared John Ford to Beethoven and his own masterpiece Charulata to Mozart, there wasn't a hint of pretension. He wrote and filmed from the heart. Perhaps that is why we remember him. Why we pay tribute to him.

Towards the end of his career, he changed. In Agantuk, far away from Pather Panchali, he tried to reconcile himself. Like Kurosawa's Madadayo, Ray tried something of a confession, at attempt at self-reflection, with it. That he achieved it is another story altogether. Watching it today, however, I am moved.

Manomohan Mitra, the protagonist, is world-weary. He has traveled everywhere. Seen them all. Taken them in. He returns to India not because he hasn't been there in a long time, but because he has learnt to value simplicity, honesty, and friendship over everything else. He finds those values back home, but only after much soul-seeking. And through it all, he befriends the only person he can befriend: his grandnephew, still at school and not old enough to suspect his uncle the way his parents do.

Was Manomohan a thinly disguised Satyajit, I wonder. Perhaps he was. Perhaps that went beyond all those books and essays written about him in defining who he really was. I don't know.

The point is that Satyajit Ray still lives. He lives every time we pay homage to him. Every time we decide to uncloak harsh truths and reveal them to those who are blind. No, I can't really measure him. None of us can. The final say, therefore, should belong to a man who was closer to Ray than anyone else. Here is what he once observed: 

"Watching a film of his, you almost feel as if a camera was eavesdropping on life, catching these people unawares, capturing forever their most delicate and fleeting and subtle shifts of feeling."

Lester James Peries was Ray's closest friend "East of the Suez". He would have known him better than any of us. I find no reason to believe, therefore, that what Peries wrote about his friend is untrue. It isn't. Satyajit Ray's cinema occupies a world of its own, I should think. It eavesdrops, catches, and captures. It records life the way a camera never can. And never will. Maybe that's the best way I can end my little tribute. For now.