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Satyajit Ray: A Revaluation

edited by Moinak Biswas

Satyajit Ray: A Revaluation

M Madhava Prasad

“When I first saw the film Seema

baddha, the visit of Shyamal

endu’s parents during the party, their having to be escorted into the bedroom, seemed excruciatingly painful and embarrassing; I realise now that it doesn’t really disturb either Shyamalendu or his wife at all” (p 271).

The above observation by Supriya Chaudhuri in her contribution ‘In the City’ may well serve as a paradigm for the revisionist impulse behind this anthology of essays on Satyajit Ray’s cinema. In the scene in question, the parents drop in unexpectedly while the couple is hosting a party for the husband’s colleagues. Prompted by our cultural knowledge, our experience, we think we are witnessing something of a clash between tradition and modernity, as if the elderly couple from Mahanagar were visiting their now prosperous son and daughter-in-law, but with all the pathos of their aversion to change intact. In retrospect, we observe, along with Chaudhuri, that in this scene, we had so fully substituted ourselves for the young couple that we did not notice how unaffected they were by the whole thing. But the scene retains some of its older significance nevertheless. Otherwise why stage it at all? There is a certain delicacy with which the operation of escorting the parents into an inner room is effected which alludes to the theme without enacting it. It is not that what we saw earlier was pure illusion. Rather we must assume that the modality of its representation was one that we were not yet ready for.

It is, to employ a distinction that is made by another contributor to this volume, an analytic rather than dramatic representation of a familiar theme, but in our reception we were constrained to assume an element of psychodrama, a conflictual mode of presentation of familiar civilisational/nationalist themes. That Ray might have been relatively unaffected

book review

Apu and After: Re-visiting Ray’s Cinema edited by Moinak Biswas; Seagull, Kolkata, 2006; pp 322, Rs 495.

by such ideological frameworks, while remaining aware of their cultural significance, is the possibility that this anthology invites us to explore.

In a similar vein, watching Pather Panchali again in the light of Moinak Biswas and Ravi Vasudevan’s essays, one is tempted to say, “When I first saw Pather Panchali, the train seemed an obvious symbol of modernity and progress; I realise now that it had no such meaning for either Apu or Durga”. The scene itself seems quite remote from any staging of a dramatic encounter with modernity: the train is a black roaring giant, a thing of fable and fairy tale, to be counted among ogres and demons rather than an emblem of reason and progress. As Vasudevan demonstrates in his detailed consideration, it is marked by a sudden eruption of a disorientingly modernist style into an otherwise naturalist ambience. Again, we must guard against treating past meanings as illusory substitutes for the real thing, as if now the veil has been finally lifted and the truth laid bare. But it is undoubtedly the case that the contributions to this volume together effect a radical shift of perspective in Ray studies.

The essays can be divided into two broad categories. These are those which directly engage with the prevalent evaluation of Ray’s oeuvre and seek to offer alternative readings (Sourin Bhattacharya, Biswas, Vasudevan). Geeta Kapur’s seminal essay (1993), ‘Cultural Creativity in the First Decade’ turns out to be a crucial point of focus for all three. The others submit Ray’s films, individually or in groups, to a variety of interpretive acts, each of which unearths new dimensions not widely appreciated or even perceived so far. These range from the cultural archaeology and theoretical explorations into memory and cinematic ontology of Sibaji Bandopadhyay’s essay on Aranyer Din Ratri; Mihir Bhattacharya’s essay on

Ray’s children’s films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in particular, which visualises for us an artist struggling to forge a people’s cinema in a context of modernity in the making; Suman Ghosh’s illuminating exploration of the musical structure of Kanchenjungha; Supriya Chaudhuri and Swapan Chakravorty’s essays on the Calcutta trilogy, with Chaudhuri evaluating in retrospect Ray’s successes and failures in capturing the spirit of the turbulent 1970s in these films “which accept the possibility of falling into the reality they describe”, marking a break from his hitherto classical, literary sensibility, and Chakravorty exploring how Ray’s analytical strategy in Jana Aranya involves (us in) a reflection on language, and forces us to reorient ourselves to social reality by interrogating the language of moral idealism with which we protect ourselves from knowledge of our own social-material grounding; and finally Ujjal Chakraborty’s exploration of class and subalternity in Ray’s adaptations of Tagore’s fiction.

Culture as Influence

Apart from its other merits, this antho logy is also notable for showcasing what could be termed a predominantly Bengali reception of Ray, which surprisingly enough, has not been a very prominent aspect of Ray studies as a whole until now. The virtue of this concentrated display of an array of Bengali responses (even though some of the writers might object to such a “parochial” identification) is that Ray appears here for the first time as a film-maker deeply immersed in modern Bengali cultural history. The sheer density and richness of the cultural fabric of which Ray’s work is a part comes through in these essays as never before (in particular those of Mihir Bhattacharya, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Supriya Chaudhuri and Swapan Chakravorty but also in Biswas, Vasudevan and Ujjal Chakraborty). It is not only the cinematic styles – realism,

january 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


naturalism, modernism – around which the argument for revisioning Ray turns, equally important is the intricate cultural circuitry, the dense historical plumbing that undergirds Ray’s cinema. Thus while it is well known that Ray’s cinema was grounded in a determinate cultural milieu, for a long time, under the influence of the considerable international acclaim that his films received, we assumed that this milieu was “India”, which immediately brought with it the idea of a distinctively and organically Indian aesthetic. It was in fact Bengal, modern Bengal. This does not mean (as it might in the case of Ghatak) that Ray will explore the historical destiny of the Bengalis, the traumatic moments of their collective life, and heal or further aggravate those wounds. It is a more hereand-now affair. It is more about elaborating a modern spectator position, a way of relating to the past, to past identities (selves) in the moment of modernity, a procedure for which Ravi Vasudevan here proposes the felicitous description, “the double-take of modernism”.

A national culture is something with a stability and consistency that limits perception so that perception may become sharper. As “Indians” we do not have this, we are deprived of our limitations, robbed of our finitude. When Ray remarked once that Hindi cinema lacks authenticity because it is not linked to any concrete cultural ground, he was thinking, it would seem, not of some inviolate autochthony but a quite modern cultural domain of discursive depth and extension, including a substantial community of viewers/ readers united by language and historical experience.

Modernity is often assumed to be something substantively different from what pre-existed it and it is therefore further assumed that it is a question of replacing the latter with the former. This has led in our context to an endless and fruitless discussion which often verges on chalking up the percentages for either side. But modernity is in the first instance a relation of culture to itself, a relation of reflexivity. The empty subject position of modernity reorganises the field of culture not substantively but relationally. It is a displacement that enables us to see differently and to consolidate this way of seeing into a new

Economic & Political Weekly January 19, 2008

identity. “It is not so much the programmes of modernisation but the modern traditions of a community that would support the release of the landscape, the flux of objects, the profusion of details in Pather Panchali” (p 47).

Narrative Strategies

Biswas’ essay makes the strongest case for a revisionist reading of Ray’s early films in terms of a cinematic naturalism that connects up with the naturalism of Bibhutibhushan Bandophadhyay’s fiction. In foregrounding the naturalist substratum of the otherwise realist dramatic storyline, Biswas relativises the dramatic and shows how the lyrical and the naturalistic – the detailing for its own sake – contributes to a stratification of temporalities, making vividly present a longue duree of nature as much as of history above which the plot and characterisation becomes a thin layer. This is a bold and pathbreaking move on Biswas’ part and he is animated by a sense of the wrong done by a reductive allegorical reading. After he presents the case, it is impossible to disagree (pp 55-61). It seems more appropriate, in the light of Biswas’ reading, to align the Apu trilogy with the post-second world war advent of what Deleuze has called the “time-image”, of which neo-realism is the first step. Indeed it is a sort of “bicycle-less neo-realism” that Biswas is calling attention to in the trilogy, where “the optical and sound situations of neo-realism contrast with the strong sensory-motor situations of traditional realism” [Deleuze 1989].

Biswas rightly seeks to put back on the critical agenda the question of the role of a realist aesthetic in the cultural history of a new nation. Realism is often treated as a “style” and judged by comparison with other styles. As Biswas points out, realism is more than a style, it is a sort of cultural intelligence that seems integral to the modern moment, something inescapable because it comes built into the very structures of the modern that we inhabit. But the challenge is to be able to subjectively accommodate to its viewing angle so that we do not remain objectified by its frames. For this reason it might be useful to make a distinction between historical compulsion and historical necessity and locate artistic realism in the former, rather than the latter domain. For there is no guarantee, other than by the exercise of a subjective labour of construction, of being able to seize the contents of one’s own landscape within a realist frame of one’s own making.

The realist film will be marked by a difference of content, but it will resemble others of its kind by virtue of the guiding intelligence that frames the reality in particular ways. This is a method that locates the thinking spectator at the edge of the frame and constantly reminds him/her of this border that cannot be crossed. It is the border that enables thought to arise, and thereby an aesthetic devoted to the promotion of intelligence, reason not as a substantive “western” thing, but as something that is, to take an example, common to both the modern, rebellious lawyer in Devi and the mother of the boy Khoka in the same film who might be mistaken, in a more civilisational scheme of thought, for a figure of tradition. It is a cinema that never suspends this quest for intelligence for other aesthetic effects. And it is in the service of this reason, an active moral reason, strongly opposed to congealed idealist morality, that Ray’s narrative strategies are devised. It makes no effort to bind image and spectator into some inviolable organic whole which will fulfil the new nation’s cultural aspirations.

Ray’s characters arrive at self-knowledge, at understanding, by ridding themselves of the cognitive impairment imposed by a morality that is neither traditional nor modern (this binary opposition has very little purchase in Ray’s oeuvre) but simply is what prevails as opposed to what must come to be. How to construct a national identity through the cinema? Biswas points to two options that were exercised in Indian film history: the mythical and the realistic. The latter is distinguished by the fact that it denies itself the mythical polarisations through which a national content and its preservation are ranged against the disruptive intrusions of colonialism and modernity.

Thus what is more important in this account is to highlight Ray’s contribution in “breaking the ground in Indian cinema for the historical imagination to function”. Biswas is not making an exclusivist argument for Ray’s lonely labours here. Rather he is insisting on acknow ledging the


historical necessity, the actual (and painstaking) achievement of a historical perspective in cinema by many, including Ray, which tends to be devalued by an abstract evaluation of realism’s aesthetic limitations. Perhaps in emphasising the literary groundwork upon which Ray erects his cinematic enterprise, Biswas underestimates the discontinuities inherent to cinema which Ray exploited (while the mythical segment might have been engaged in disavowing it).

The first three essays in the volume take issue with the allegorical reading of Ray which has led to a characterisation of (especially) his early films as constituting a developmentalist narrative that is mimetically aligned with the ideology of modern India and by that token, is implicated in a repression of colonial history and the violence of the moment of freedom. Of these Sourin Bhattacharya’s is somewhat different from the other two in that it takes up the historical moment itself for discussion and makes a distinction between “the narrative of development” and the “development narrative”. Accepting the description of the early decades of independent India as a time of development, Bhattacharya distinguishes between an objective process of development which has material consequences even for those who do not benefit from it – the narrative of development – from the subjective understanding and response to the process – the development narrative. Thus he too, like many of the contributors to this volume, insists on a split, a duality which is productive, not unlike the double-take of modernism. Thus, he remarks: “That the narrative of development is fractured today can only be seen through the development narrative” (p 32), implying an inner split which makes possible a way of seeing, rather than a way of reflecting, the ideology of development.

Ray as Modernist

Vasudevan tracks Ray’s narrative strategies from Pather Panchali to Jana Aranya in a complex argument centred around the idea of a “double-take of modernism”. Vasudevan’s argument too is directed against a reflectionist reading of Ray as the voice of a hegemonic modernity that is intent upon smoothing over the traumas of colonialism and Partition and giving the spectator a reassuring sense of an accomplished arrival in the modern present. Instead he suggests that Ray is “in dialogue” with a condition of modernity that is marked by a split between “an antecedent self” that is in danger of disappearing and the present moment of recollection of it as an act of retrieval but also of holding in place (“holding on to both parts together”), of sustaining the split rather than trying to heal or erase it. But this, he further suggests, is not a mere clinging to the past, but an attempt, “on behalf of modernity”, to “seek out the repressed dimensions of that former self” (p 83). The return to past worlds mediated by the Bengali literary canon is in the service of “articulating the present into perception”.

Thus for Vasudevan any possibility of Ray’s realism being enlisted to an ideological (developmental) purpose is undermined by his modernist style that foregrounds stylistic elements in a manner inimical to ideological stability. In illustration of this, Vasudevan provides an extended, fascinating analysis of the famous train sequence, showing how far from presenting us with a fable of technological progress and historical arrival, it offers an experience of “emphatic disjointment”. Vasudevan brings out in great detail how the scene frustrates our desire for stable views, how it chops up the moment of encounter with the train and highlights the sensory dimensions of the experience at the expense of any residue of meaning. Vasudevan’s mission here is to relocate Ray as a modernist against his established image as a realist.

This has implications for the political assessment of Ray’s work as well, in that the modernist artist is seen to break free of any conscription by the state and to remain steadfast in his assertion of disruptions and discontinuities that nationalist ideology would like to cover up. Interestingly, in spite of this absorbing re-reading of the scene, Vasudevan does not jettison the idea of the train being a symbol of modernity/progress.

Vasudevan asks in a footnote whether my argument about statist realism, elaborated in the context of the Indian new wave or middle cinema could be extended back to include Ray. I had already indicated otherwise when speaking of Ray’s response to the middle cinema, which showed, to my mind, that he did not quite comprehend the new logic at work in this moment. The difference between the two moments may be said to depend on the presence or absence of civil society, on the depth of the difference between state and society. In Ray (and here is where the consistency of a Bengali modern becomes important) what is at issue is a modernity that must be built by acts of self-exploration, of the return to repressed past selves (Vasudevan), of a reprise of literary history (Biswas), the elaboration of new aesthetic experiences that involve discursive excavations (Bandyopadhyay, Chakravorty) and, if it comes to that, the risk of immersion in social reality (Chaudhuri).

Looking back at the middle cinema moment, we can see how it is marked by two great social excisions: the middle class disappears, absorbed into the militant bureaucracy or expelled into a genre of its own, the middle class cinema; and with more lasting aesthetic consequences for popular cinema, the peasantry disappears. Two middles of a social structure are collapsed, in order to produce, on the one hand, a picture of agrarian class relations dominated by the relation between absolute power (the zamindar) and a passive, helpless and anarchically rebellious rural poor without internal class distinctions; and on the other an urban middle class wholly absorbed into the bureaucracy, with no cultural substance or aspiration of its own. The substantive presence of the peasantry in popular cinema until the 1970s as well as IPTAinspired social realism which relativised and defined in class terms the power of the landed rich, yields place to an aestheticisation and eroticisation of power. (Mihir Bhattacharya’s argument about the peasant’s worldview as structuring Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne acquires new significance in this

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january 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


context.) And in the other sphere of the urban modern, civil society as an agency of hege monic modernity has been replaced by the militant bureaucracy. What distinguishes Ray’s realism from the statist moment is that here loss is primary because of the identification that the frame encourages with the characters, whereas in the 1970s, the spectator’s gaze fell upon an objective world where identification was minimal and official. (A similar point is made by Chaudhuri in a comparison of the Calcutta trilogy with Sen’s films from the same period.) Thus a distinction must be maintained between civil society initiatives and state initiatives. Ray belongs to the first type and the developmental realism of the 1970s to the second. The hegemonic project of civil society may have settled into its particularised identity, separated from political society, with the passing of time, but in the moment of Ray’s advent as a film-maker, the hegemonic project is still on. The statism of the 1970s is of a different character altogether, where the bourgeoisie has abandoned its struggle for hegemony and has fallen in line behind a state which increasingly mediates civil society’s relation with the rest of the population.

Mihir Bhattacharya’s essay also emphasises the modern Bengali cultural context of Ray’s films (p 142). One of the questions Bhattacharya takes up in this essay is that of the “missing girl child” – why are girls so conspicuously absent in Ray’s children’s films/fiction? – and gives an interesting answer which is tied up with the fortunes of a “young modernity”. I wonder if there is not a more “personal” explanation, which can be social in another way than is implied here, when you consider the fact that his childhood memoirs also feature the same absence. Foregrounding cultural connections – the tamasha and other folk forms as the precursors to Ray’s children’s films – Bhattacharya seeks to inscribe Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in a tradition of “people’s culture” contrasted with a more commercial popular culture. An argument of Rabelaisian scope and attitude, entertaining to read and thought-provoking.

Of Historical Memory

Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s essay takes off from the memory game sequence in Aranyer Din Ratri to elaborate a complex argument

Economic & Political Weekly January 19, 2008

about historical memory that leads into questions about the challenge posed to cultural representation by cinema’s ontological limitations. The history of Bengal and/in the world is not only evoked by the names trotted out in the memory game but also by the book on Palamau that the holidaying youth take along with them. This textual clue encapsulates a whole range of historical references and also serves, as Bandyopadhyay brilliantly demonstrates, as a fulcrum around which modern Bengali/Indian subjectivity turns. If we read this in the light of Vasudevan’s double-take of modernism, we find that Ray is here no longer employing such a double-take as a narrative strategy: instead he seems, by Bandyopadhyay’s reckoning, to be dealing with a failure of the double-take to consolidate its modernist position when it comes to dealing with a socio-cultural division internal to the landscape but inscribed in a different register of the modern. Here it is as if it is a question of one’s ability to redeploy the modern sensibility in another location, a task in which the youth fail miserably.

Naturalism returns in Bandyopadhyay’s essay, this time as a bad object, but there might be a difference in usage which accounts for this, for Bandyo padhyay seems to align the term almost entirely with the Barthesian theme of “naturalisation of culture”. The work of cultural excavation undertaken here is stupendous and not easy to do justice to in a summary. Bandyopadhyay vividly evokes for us a picture of the modern Indian subject trapped in a revolving door between colonialism and the national-modern, a subjective delirium and disorientation that desperately seeks to stabilise itself by holding on to the icons of monumental history. Incidentally, he displays an intriguingly excessive, but quite entertaining animosity towards Sharmila Tagore/Rini (which is partly shared by Vasudevan). In this they together point towards a neglected area of investigation: Ray’s use of star value.

If the iconoclastic drive of Aranyer Din Ratri is muffled and swallowed up by the commodious bourgeois generosity embodied by Rini (as Bandyopadhyay argues), there can be no doubt about the relentless semioclasty that dominates the innovative Jana Aranya. That much of this work of declogging the moral framework of Indian society and undoing the frigid polarities of an idealist world view takes place in language is demonstrated by Swapan Chakravorty’s masterly analysis of the semantic play in the dialogue of the film.

Late Ray Films

The “late Ray” is conspicuously absent from this anthology. Part of the reason is of course the general impression that the last few films are an embarrassing fall from grace, an opinion which all three of the brief mentions reflect. Thus Biswas comments on Shakha Prashakha that the aging patriarch’s “education in the fact of corruption leaves us incredulous and betrays a loss of contact with real dimensions of societal change” (p 8). Bandyopadhyay comes to a similar conclusion after a consideration of Agantuk: it is a piece of “formalised ideology” (p 234). Vasudevan declares Jana Aranya to be Ray’s “last substantive film”. This prompts me to think that perhaps we have not properly examined Ray’s approach to idealism. Swapan Chakravorty is right in saying that Jana Aranya offers a critique of the idealism of a generation that swears by moral ideals that are dissociated from the reality of a functioning society. There is something about corruption that rouses in us a sense that its portrayal must be equal to its condemnation. While there is no doubt that Ray does not condone corruption, it is to be pondered whether it is a matter of right and wrong, so much as it is of a reality and the ideals that block our view of it. The fine attention to the language of the film in Chakravorty’s essay leaves us in no doubt about one thing: there is a well-wrought discourse of the market which combines the rationality of economic actions with the provision for physical desires. In the episode of pimping, what we must also note is a reversal of metaphoric usage.

It is not easy here to say that pimping is the truth of the market as if an extreme analogy were being pushed in order to condemn the ideal-less and corrupt space of the market. Rather the film simply presents us with the everydayness of pimping, removing all suggestion of


extreme moral evil from it and letting it subsist alongside the other economic activities. Thus the moral idealism is deprived of the polarisation of good and evil that serves to keep the illusion intact. If pimping is not an extreme moral evil but a practice among others in the market, that the difference between one market action and another is only a difference of degree rather than quality, this strikes a heavy blow against the idealism. Thus it could be argued that Ray rarely upholds abstract moral idealism. The idealism of the couple in Mahanagar is of a different order altogether and there is no doubt that Ray fully endorses it. But where a moral idealism is over sure of itself, it is more likely that not that Ray is directing a critical arrow at its puffed up visage. The education of Sharmila in Nayak (and it is definitely she rather than Uttam Kumar who undergoes a change for the better) is an education in the narrowness of inherited moral ideals cherished by the bourgeoisie for their own sake and employed as weapons of judgment. Significantly the target of these judgments is always the same: change. Ray’s films expose the morality of the Indian middle class as nothing more than an aversion to change which is accompanied by a cognitive impairment.



Deleuze, Gilles (1989): Cinema 2: The Time Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, US.

Kapur, Geeta (1993): ‘Cultural Creativity in the First Decade: The Example of Satyajit Ray’, Journal of Arts and Ideas, Nos 23-24.

january 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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