Sunday, April 23, 2017

Some deaths don’t die

Some years ago, Geetha Kumarasinghe narrated an episode of “Rupavalokanaya”. She based that entire episode on a single film. She waxed eloquently and went through its story. The film had a simple plot, but like all great films that simple plot contained a profound message. I remember someone telling me at that point, “Watch it!” This person had seen it and being an ardent admirer of the director, pointed out that for Geetha to have picked it meant that it would have moved her greatly.

The film, incidentally, was Apur Sansar. The director, Satyajit Ray.

I remember Geetha ending her episode with the following quote by Akira Kurosawa: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” Kurosawa was known to say such things about his contemporaries: in a letter to Ingmar Bergman, for instance, he wrote, “I have learned a lot from your works and have been encouraged by them.” He could have said the same thing of Ray, who started his career as a filmmaker long after both Kurosawa and Bergman had, not just because of what his films contained but because the man had to put up with strenuous circumstances when he directed them. Such circumstances could have transformed a lesser director into an amateur.

There was nothing amateurish about Ray, though. Even the best directors trip. Not Ray. He was up there with those who emerged in his time and created an alternative to what both Bollywood and Hollywood had spawned, in their rush to make money out of art. He would have understood that no industry could thrive without money, but he went on nevertheless. In the end, none of his films really made the rounds with the box-office, but they helped lend credence to the biggest revolution in film history after the coming of sound.

So what was it about this simple man that continues to fascinate us? For one thing, he knew what he did. That’s putting it rather crudely, but there’s no other way. Whatever he touched (and his interests went beyond just films) he took in and improved on. He could be an artist, a creative writer, an advertising man, a reader, a writer, a raconteur, or a musician and specialise in those fields without letting go of his other abilities. On this count, he was almost a giant. I say “almost” not because he was short-sighted, but because he was not perfect. More on that later.

Critics have written so much about the Apu Trilogy that there’s nothing else one can add. I believe that there’s no point assessing Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar, as films, not just because they transcended their medium but because Ray, notwithstanding the parameters and limitations within which he had to work, established that a film wasn’t just about entertainment or narratives or even character, but part and parcel of a culture. In later years, when he became his own scriptwriter, composer, cameraman, and editor (for being the individualist he was, he couldn’t have been content with others filling these slots), that point became his guiding principle.

The 50s and 60s were certainly turbulent decades for the cinema, especially on account of the erosion of the American studio system, the introduction of television, and (as I pointed out before) the emergence of alternatives to Hollywood. The French, more than anyone else from any other part of the world, were experimenting. In the end we had a virtual galaxy of directors, writers, and editors who churned out the good, the bad, and the downright obscure. In them all, however, there were some recognisable motifs, not least of which was the preference for confusion over simplicity in the plot. The French New Wave, like the New Waves it helped nurture in East Europe, symbolised that.

Ray, like Kurosawa and Bergman, didn’t follow this trend. Until his last film, Agantuk, he went for plots that made sense, which moved in a gradual and not erratic manner, and which accommodated characters who struck a chord with the audience.

To a large extent, this cut him off from the European cinema (even though it was that same cinema which influenced him). Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, not to mention Alain Resnais and arguably the most nonconformist director of all time, Robert Bresson, depended on state support (which the French recognised and affirmed to a large degree) or shoestring budgets (which they could afford) to project their attitude to the cinema to the rest of the world.

Ray didn’t work like that. He had a story to tell, that story flowed from A to Z (to put it bluntly), and there was no room for detours. What he had, he used. And if he found filmmakers of his time too confusing for his tastes, he either admitted his ignorance (as with his take on Luis Buñuel’s Milky Way) or pointed out flaws which the director, in his attempt to make a profound statement out of his work, missed (as with his review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, where he correctly observed that the protagonist couldn’t have discovered a corpse in his photograph by blowing up and zooming in on it, for the simple reason that by doing so the image would have been blurred beyond recognition).

He called a spade a spade, wasn’t afraid of pointing out error, and was willing to acknowledge it in his own films. Simple.

And as I pointed out before, he was not perfect. There were two films he not only scripted but authored: Kanchenjunga and Nayak. Their plots were simple, yes, but while this was so, the larger ambition Ray set out for himself in them was clearly outside his reach at this point. Compare them with, say, Jalsaghar and even the three political films he made in the 1970s and you’ll discern the simplistic, constrained vision in those two.

But these were quirks in an otherwise sustained career: his two best films, Charulata and Mahanagar, were made during this time. And as someone once pointed out to me, Charulata isn’t just a film: it eventually becomes a puzzle and a virtual maze, through which the ordinary viewer must traipse at least thrice to understand completely. As Ray aptly implied, it was also more musical than cinematic, and for this reason it remains the best thing he ever did in his entire career.

There are those who say the opposite of his last three films, however: Ganashatru, an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play which dwelt on the conflict between conscience and expedience, Shakha Proshakha, a parable about an ageing man visited by his three errant sons, and Agantuk, another parable about another ageing man. What he did in these three, which even critics can’t discount, was reconcile his larger self to the career he’d carved for himself: the same thing which both Kurosawa (in Madadayo) and Bergman (in Saraband) did: an epiphany and apotheosis, in other words.

Critics point out, however, that these three were too simplistic for Ray. To me that’s rubbish. Ray was almost an invalid at the time (his son, for instance, had to take over when filming parts of Agantuk), and anyway, whoever assesses such works must first account for such outside factors before offering his or her two cents on them.

I will admit, however, that these films did manifest a certain kind of naiveté (with regard to the political) that Ray wasn’t known for before: Ganashatru, for instance, opens with a doctor culled by an ethical crisis but concludes on a triumphant note, while Agantuk depicts its protagonist as a staunch optimist (in both, the antagonist was played by Dhritiman Chatterjee, who ironically was the antihero in Ray’s most politically mature work, Pratidwandi). Perhaps the critics were right, then.

Or perhaps they were barking up the wrong tree. Idealism in itself isn’t unjustified in an artist. It sometimes remains the only way to affirm humanity, and Ray was a humanist. Which was why, when the protagonist in Agantuk returns to civilisation after his brief tryst with despair, and after he leaves everything to the same family who suspected him of being a fraud (with the exception, symbolically I should think, of his naive, friendly, and open grandnephew), we affirmed his optimism even though it was clearly at odds with a world that had embraced despair and made it a byword for reality.

I’m sure there was more to the man than this. He was, all things considered, someone who absorbed everything he came under. He was a nationalist and was steeped in his culture, but this didn’t inhibit him from exploring the outside world, a point he drove home aptly in his adaptation of Tagore’s brilliant parable against sham nationalism, Ghare Bhaire.

Ray was unparalleled in that sense. True, the movement he authored continues today (especially in the hands of his “successor”, Adoor Gopalakrishnan), but the important thing is that without his attempts, there wouldn’t have been such a movement to begin with. On that count, a lot of today’s filmmakers have a lot to take from his book.

Lester James Peries turns 98 this year. Had he lived, Ray would have been 95. The two of them, I’d like to think, would have exchanged visits and engaged in conversation, as probably the only living filmmakers from their generation, who had retired as professionals though not as ardent followers of the cinema.

But that’s conjecture.

Satyajit Ray was master in more than one sense. He continues to exert influence, teach us lessons, and help us understand that a nation’s film industry cannot hope to develop until its roots are nurtured. That’s something Lester taught us as well, and so I conclude: the biggest tribute we can make to these two men is understanding what they taught. Not just garlanding what they did.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, April 23 2017