In the review of Satyajit Ray’s “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu), reviewer Dwight MacDonald lambasted Ray for his “self-consciousness”. MacDonald, as well as many Western critics of the day, did not consider Ray capable of handling the complexities of city life. Indeed, his films were considered to be autobiographical and reflective of Ray’s own experience in India. This attitude stemmed from a stereotypical view of India, from a lack of familiarity with its popular culture as well as with its city life.
To a contemporary film critic or even someone with a cursory knowledge of Ray, this suggestion is laughable. Not only because his later works, particularly the Calcutta trilogy, explicitly and brilliantly dealt with the alienation that accompanied capitalism, but also because his lived experience was as far removed from rural life as possible. Born into a family of scholars, Ray grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Calcutta. He was reluctant to study at Shantiniketan due to his “second intellectual rating”. He sought to become a filmmaker after watching Vittorio de Sica’s Italian neo-realist film “The Bicycle Thieves.” It was the French director Jean Renoir who encouraged him to make “Pather Panchali”.
In other words, Ray was as cosmopolitan as they come. It’s no wonder his portrayal of city life is accurate. One has to wonder, however, why his depiction of rural Indian life strikes a chord even today.
To answer that, we have to tackle Ray’s critique of commercial Indian cinema. In an interview with Pierre-André Boutang, Ray claimed that Indian audiences who are mainly exposed to Hindi commercial cinema were “backward and unsophisticated”. At first glance, this may seem a bit snobbish, but Ray’s essays on filmmaking offer a more nuanced view.
Cinema began as an international medium. Through the technique of mime, people like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have created a universally accessible art form. With the development of technology and the introduction of walkie-talkies, mime no longer retained the centrality it had in silent films. Dialogue and visual forms have become more essential. This led to the development of distinct national styles in different countries. The Americans developed a jazz-like tempo with the nostalgia and sentimentality present in the blues. The French were more experimental, with musicians like Darius Milhaud making heavy use of the polytonality popularized by Stravinsky in soundtracks and filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut exploring existentialism and Marxism, often questioning the importance of cinema itself.
Indian cinema, on the other hand, has been devoid of such development as a rule. Indian films have largely been stereotyped. They fail to convey or display the rich literary, musical, cultural, pictorial or even geographical heritage that we possess. In Ray’s words, Indian cinema has “remained as incongruous and conflicting elements, refusing to merge into what cinema is”.
Ray’s “Pather Panchali” marks a remarkable and conscious break with the conventions of commercial Indian cinema. While acutely aware of Western art forms, Ray consciously decided to make films that were, in his own words, “distinct and indigenous”. Ray’s realism is derived from the works of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. He remains faithful to the spirit of humanism and lyricism that characterizes Bibhutibhushan’s novel. Ray even credits Bibhutibhusan for the painterly aspect which plays a vital role in transforming the film into a truly indigenous film. As Darius Cooper has argued, Ray’s accounts strongly reflect the principles of Rasa elaborated by Bharata Muni and Abhinavagupta. A sense of epiphany of wonder and constancy of character is ever present in the Apu trilogy. For example, the character of Apu retains his consistency although aspects of him change subtly with life experiences. This constancy is made evident to the viewer by the contrast with his sister Durga in “Pather Panchali” and his mother in “Aparajito”.
Ray’s quest to develop a form of cinema true to the Indian experience can also be seen from his use of music. Although this manifests itself most explicitly in “The Music Room” (Jalsaghar), glimpses of it are present even in “Pather Panchali”. Composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, the film’s soundtrack almost exclusively uses Indian instruments and classical music. However, it was at Ray’s request that Chunibala Devi (the 80-year-old playing Indir Thakrun) sang the iconic plaintive traditional song. The song was not chosen but was one that Devi had remembered. The song haunts the viewer, especially as it plays in the background when Indir Thakrun’s character dies (made more haunting perhaps with the apt lyrics “Hari, the day is gone and the night is gone. Help me pass”).
Dissatisfied with the “spasmodic injection of song numbers” that continues to characterize many Bollywood films, Ray decided to make the musical “Jalsaghar”. It can be seen both as a critique of the use of music in commercial films and as a comprehensive expression of what cinema can achieve. Ray documents the collapse of the feudal system and the loss of prestige of the hedonistic owner by making extensive use of the compositions of Ustad Vilayat Khan. It was one of the only films of its time that not only used music thematically, but also incorporated extensive classical music.
Ray’s legacy, aside from his technical achievements and fierce originality, is the fact that he showed Indian filmmakers and artists what cinema can be. Indian filmmakers did not suffer from a lack of resources, but rather from a lack of imagination. Ray’s diagnosis was confirmed as he provided directors like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, Adoor Gopal Krishnan and Shyam Benegal with an entirely new and unique space to explore. Indian cinema has not yet taken on a coherent form in the manner of French, Japanese and Italian cinema. However, Ray gave us a glimpse of the potential of Indian cinema and left open possibilities that will undoubtedly lead, sooner or later, to its crystallization.
The writer is an author, blogger and student at the Jindal School of International Affairs.