How would Satyajit Ray have responded to the pandemic?

There could also be clues in his cinema, which reveals a politically and socially acutely aware, and sometimes prescient, imaginative and prescient of Bengal, India and humanity

The Spanish Flu resulted in April 1920. Satyajit Ray, India’s most fêted filmmaker, was born a yr later, on May 2, 1921. This yr marks his delivery centenary, as one other pandemic ravages the world, its affect notably harsh on India now greater than wherever else. A query that has arisen over the previous yr is how cinema will replicate this era. We have seen a couple of half-hearted efforts already, however the shadow of the pandemic will final far longer and we will anticipate cinema and its creators to rise to the problem extra considerably. In this context, it’s attention-grabbing to replicate on how Ray as a filmmaker would possibly have responded to this situation, 100 years later.

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Ray’s cinema captured a mutating India whereas remaining culturally rooted in Bengal. His movies spoke to the goals, aspirations, struggles, angst, challenges, and corrosiveness of the Indian plurality whereas telling tales that in lots of circumstances had already been instructed in different types — by Tagore, Premchand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra, Premchand, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Mani Shankar Mukherjee and even his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. Add to this his literary work and unique screenplays and we get an image of India, beginning with Ray storyboarding Pather Panchali as the nation grew to become a republic and ending with the ethical destitution and weariness of Agantuk.

Photo: Marc Riboud/

The neorealist aesthetics in Ray’s movies depict characters in flux, complementing a rustic that was quickly reworking in the wake of Independence. India’s multiculturalism, Hinduism’s deep-rooted caste system, and the risky, nonetheless unformed State borders and a multilingual society created a number of fractures that made it clear that the end result of twentieth century’s fifth decade was extra decolonisation than freedom. Ray turned in direction of materials that spoke to him and other people like him, the educated Bengali bourgeoisie. True to type, his movies, most of them, featured Brahmin or privileged-caste leads who had been both gaining a foothold in India’s new material or recalling an excellent previous. In The Apu Trilogy, Ray captured the rural and concrete disconnect, and the bildungsroman gave us a hen’s eye view of Apu’s journey from a Brahmin household beneath the poverty line, their lives touched by each disaster in the nation however nonetheless discovering hope on the horizon. Almost retroactively, his lyrical Jalsaghar with its mirror performs and wide-angle photographs captured the withering away of a zamindar’s grandeur, of a person held captive by a music that symbolises his resonant previous.

The Renaissance

Two of Ray’s biggest works fell on both facet of the Bengal Renaissance, which stands as the basis of his and plenty of different well-known legacies of the area. In Charulata, Madhabi Mukherjee turns into the forgotten determine in an upper-class home the place her husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) is married to his voice, his newspaper, and the freedom motion, not solely failing to register her presence but additionally the renaissance inside her. While Madhabi Mukherjee’s Charulata is a nonetheless life enlivened by Soumitra Chatterjee’s Amal, Ray’s roving digital camera, extra kinetic right here than in his different movies, captures this by way of the eyes and opera glasses of Charulata. A yr earlier than Charulata, Ray had already made Madhabi Mukherjee the newly unbiased lady in a newly decolonised India in Mahanagar. Arati’s discovery of the metropolis, her cautious encroachment into the upmarket neighbourhoods of Kolkata, and the way she negotiates her company with the women and men she meets represent the filmmaker’s most satisfying work.

Still from ‘Mahanagar’.

These had been the experiments of a filmmaker who was wanting again to look inside, working in the area of the brahminical Bengali bhadralok. Often, Ray’s characters refuse to depart Kolkata. If they do, it’s for a respite from their jobs and a weariness that’s introduced down upon them by destabilising occasions unravelling round them. In 1969’s Aranyer Din Ratri, we meet snooty metropolis males who take a couple of days off to drive into the forest. The well-to-do Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee), Sanjay, an government, Hari, a failed cricketer, and Shekhar, a jobless wastrel who’s the lifetime of the get together, bribe their method right into a forest division visitor home. Through such characters, Ray illustrated the apathy of a technology, comfortable metropolis slackers unaware of the hinterland’s mushrooming points. Simi Garewal, in blackface, performs a hypersexualised Santhal tribeswoman and Sharmila Tagore solidifies her place as the educated lady consultant of the bhadralok, from Nayak to Aranyer Din Ratri to Seemabaddha.

Still from ‘Nayak’

A marked shift in realising this ethical decay on display is obvious from Aranyer Din Ratri to his Calcutta trilogy — Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya. In Pratidwandi, Dhritiman Chatterjee’s Siddhartha declares that he doesn’t need to depart Kolkata, irrespective of that he’s unemployed, along with his thoughts unable to discover an ideological footing. The movie coincided with the Naxalite motion that started in Bengal, with the caste system and land rights at its root.

Still from ‘Pratidwandi’.

Still from ‘Pratidwandi’.

It’s no coincidence that the trilogy charted the course of Indira Gandhi’s India because it inched in direction of Emergency, making a swelling anger at the state. Ray’s movies nonetheless centered on capturing the Bengali Brahmin’s, or extra importantly, India’s ruling class’s frustration with itself and the nation. The trilogy’s protagonists — Siddhartha in Pratidwandi, Shyamal (Barun Chanda) in Seemabaddha and Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee) in Jana Aranya — are all one and the identical, crawling their method to a corrupt model of their former selves, unwilling to act, afraid to quit the current privilege of their names — Mukherjees, Banerjees and Chatterjees.

Still from ‘Jana Aranya’.

Political consciousness

In Pratidwandi, Siddhartha is at a resort with a school good friend, who reminds him of his extra politically acutely aware faculty days and beseeches him to return to that path. Ray focuses on Siddhartha for an unusually lengthy close-up, with the good friend speaking about protests, labour rights and manufacturing facility strikes. (This is eerily paying homage to Uttam Kumar’s Arindam Mukherjee in the Fellini-esque 1966 movie Nayak, who has grown other than his childhood good friend and activist Biresh, who needs Arindam to use his recognition for political causes.) Siddhartha’s thoughts wanders, solely to suppose to himself, why received’t this man shut up. The rising unemployment and discontent solely bolster their resolution to quit on ideas, to put themselves forward of every part. (Contrast this with Mrinal Sen’s personal Calcutta trilogy movie Padatik, during which Chatterjee performs an assured Naxalite hiding from the police.) The hypersexualised lady turns into an emblem of this decay in Ray’s movies — Siddhartha’s sister and his suspicions about her relationship together with her employer, or the nurse he meets in the movie, and Somnath’s startling discovery about his good friend’s sister at the finish of Jana Aranya. The descent from Arati to Juthika, Somnath’s good friend’s sister who works as a prostitute, embodies the sinister cynicism that grabbed maintain of a filmmaker attempting to mine his nation for cinema as an anthropological file.

Behind the camera with crew and assistant director Suhasini Mulay while shooting ‘Jana Aranya’ (1975).

In 1977’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, made throughout and launched simply after the Emergency, Ray dials again to 1856 to present two uncaring lords in Lucknow — Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) — who management a snug fiefdom, play chess all day, singing paeans to the sport and the way it rewards the mind, ignoring their duties and households. The movie mirrored the occasions main up to Indira Gandhi’s assault on democracy, at the same time as folks in energy ignored the long-term results of that chapter in India’s historical past, a few of that are being felt to today. Once once more, we return to a Ray movie with the query, ‘Did he warn us? Should we have introspected more?’ While Ray’s movies will be accused of that includes brahminical hegemony, in addition they doc an vital sample of disillusionment that gave method to a extra malevolent type of hedonism and warned of the aftermath of sporting privilege and supremacist dogmatism as a badge.

Ray’s sketch of Outram’s study for ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ (1977).

Examining the subaltern

This just isn’t to say that Ray didn’t enterprise into inspecting the nation’s subaltern. In his most whimsical and creative Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Goopy (Tapen Chatterjee) and Bagha (Rabi Ghosh) are people from the decrease stratas of society who discover firm in shared distress (introduced upon them by the Brahmins of their village), till they encounter a ghost who grants them three boons. The signature piece is a six-and-a-half-minute musical sequence that’s now extensively understood to signify that the caste system can solely finish in violence. (The movie too ends with weapons being put down and higher remedy of the kingdom’s topics.) The heady 70s compelled Ray to re-examine the political class a lot that he returned to Goopy and Bagha with Hirak Rajar Deshe, the place a dictator susceptible to brainwashing the residents is introduced down by the magical powers of the two initially underprivileged wanderers. The movie is as related now because it was well timed then, the yr Indira Gandhi was re-elected.

Ray’s character sketches for ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’ (1980).

Ray’s movies grew to become extra confrontational and introspective from right here on. For Doordarshan, he made Sadgati, virtually as a retort to the criticism of his characters’ typical social standing. Om Puri and Smita Patil play Dalits, husband and spouse, with a daughter about to be married. Dukhi (Puri) depends on the Brahmin priest (Mohan Agashe) to discover an auspicious date, who takes benefit of Dukhi’s want to extract as a lot bodily labour from him as attainable. Dukhi’s household mirrors Apu’s, however right here Ray course-corrects to replicate how the priest (the unique occupation of Apu’s father) is the oppressor. A self-confessed rationalist, Ray took on faith as early as Devi in 1960, which ends with a plot level that was echoed in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s 2019 movie Super Deluxe — blind religion in an imaginary deity to remedy a sick little one. In 1984, Ray returned to Tagore for Ghare Baire, for a critique of blind nationalism that doesn’t take into account the underclass whereas taking part in activism that misrepresents their trigger.

Poster for Devi (1960) designed by Ray.

Ray, by way of his filmography, displayed a propensity to be taught, unlearn and evaluate the previous. He unearthed up to date themes from classics to inform tales that mirrored their current, and his technical acumen was such that the movies stay as contemporary as after they arrived, with moments of brilliance persevering with to be uncovered to today. Didn’t we ask how Ray would have reacted to the pandemic? He did. He made Ganashatru in 1990, a chamber drama a couple of jaundice epidemic in Chandipur. That its trigger is water contamination is suppressed by each the state and the native temple. Dr. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) turns into an enemy of the folks. Cut to 2021, each dissenting voice is branded an enemy of the state. Hopefully, younger filmmakers are taking notes.

Ray directing Mohan Agashe on the sets of Sadgati (1981).

The Chennai-based author and movie critic hosts a South Indian cinema podcast known as The Other Banana.

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