These days zealots of every stripe treat cultural cross-pollenisation as mongrelisation. Ray’s achievement rested on moviemaking artistry that was universal as music. – Michael Sragow.

by Michael Cooke

It has been said that part of the bequest left to post-independence India by Nehru’s flawed leadership (1948-64) was a strong secular and humanist approach not only to politics but also to the country’s rich culture and controversial past. Satyajit Ray encapsulated this ethos. He burst upon the national and international stage with the release of his masterwork Panther Panchali (The Song of the Road) in 1955, the year of the famous Bandung Conference in Indonesia. The conference was largely attended by the leaders of newly independent countries from Asia and Africa who wanted to pursue a path free from the influence of United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One of the more confident practitioners of this policy was Nehru’s India.

Ray came from an artistically distinguished Bengali family and had been working in the advertising industry when the eminent director Jean Renoir began filming Rumer Godden’s largely autobiographical novel The River in 1950. Ray was not involved in the making of the film, but he observed Renoir’s techniques – shooting on location, the use of natural light and the mixture of professional actors and amateurs, all reflecting Renoir’s humanist principles. Ray had been an ardent admirer of Italian neo-realism, especially De Sica’s poignant Bicycle Thieves made in 1948. He not only felt an affinity with its tale of ordinary people but felt that the myriad small observations of actual life would be the best way to capture the essence of Bibhuti Bhusan Bandyopadhyaya’s novels – Pather Panchali and Aprajito (The Unvanquished) – in cinematic terms. Ray made a trilogy of these books – Pather Panchali (1955), Aprajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959) known as The Apu trilogy.

Renoir’s film The River was also about growing up, shedding childish and adolescent notions for the more fraught one of adulthood. Renoir’s cinematic eye, with fluid use of the camera and natural light, perfectly captures the bustle and noise of Indian life, dominated here by the rhythms of a great river, and also shows us the lives of privileged whites with their dramas and squabbles. Unlike other European and American films about India which gave us racist stereotypes, patronised Indians or romanticised them, The River allowed Indians to exist as human beings. But there were limits: their roles were still those assigned to them by European imperialism: faithful retainer, a fussing and bustling nanny, handsome young brown-skinned people whose role was to support the Europeans in the narrative or add exotic spice. They were never allowed to be the in the centre of the narrative or have an interior life.

They were ironically an improvement on the stereotypes the expanding Indian cinema was perpetuating in the 1950s: films full of colour, song, movement and strident melodrama which ignored the way people actually lived. The perfect example was the 1957 film by Mehboob Khan – Mother India. Nothing that was real about India was allowed to enter the frame. It was shot like a Soviet social realist film, full of struggling peasants toiling in the fields, dancing and singing, Stakhanovite icons whose halos are farm machinery, where stoic virtue triumphs. It set the template.

Ray’s trilogy gently, insistently and quietly rejected all the these stereotypes and humanised the lives of people who were till then invisible. He did this by shooting as much as he could on location, capturing the Indian landscape in all its moods. The sound of birds and other animals is allowed to permeate the soundscape. Props and sets are meticulously built to reflect what was shot outdoors. Ray’s cameraman Subrata Mitra developed a technique called ‘bounce lighting,’ an innovation which allowed light to reflect of a piece of cloth to recreate daylight on a set. The music was sparse and classical: the use of traditional musical instruments was essential to convey the emotional tone of a scene.

He was ably helped by his co-composer Ravi Shankar: between them they created lilting and haunting scores. Another innovation was his astute use of a classical Indian technique for conveying emotions, called Rasa. This is most evident in Indian classical dance where hand and eye movements convey emotion in a highly stylised way. Ray used this technique wonderfully in key scenes in his trilogy.

The   Apu trilogy is  set in the 1920s, a period where the Independence struggle was propelling the country headlong into modernity. From this sprang debates about the place of tradition. The trilogy  incorporates all this in its drama,  with death punctuating the importance of tradition. Modernity was encapsulated by the steam engine, its black plumes and piercing whistle announcing the new secular  India and its attendant uncertainties. These universal themes are firmly rooted in the rituals of a poor rural Brahmin family.

Pather Panchali was filmed over a period of four years and initially filmed over weekends. At first it was mostly funded by Ray, and eventually by the state government of Bengal to the tune of $3,000. The government thought they were financing an uplifting tale of rural life in Nehru’s India. We are immediately drawn inside the life of the family and their neighbours. They live in a dilapidated rural house full of crumbling masonry where life is conducted in the courtyard or on verandas. The women do all the work, the young boy plays and the father, an ineffectual man, is absorbed in his writings and makes a precarious living as a priest conducting the various ceremonies that are essential to a Hindu family and community. The house is surrounded by an orchard and a forest. Tradition is encapsulated by the old aunt, portrayed by Chunibala Devi. She was eighty years old at the time and had been an actress in her younger days. Ray discovered her living in a brothel and at this stage she could only function if she got her daily dose of opium. She gave us a haunting performance, hair shorn to the bone, a toothless grin and bent double. Her possessions, like her clothes, are sparse and threadbare. She is full of the joy of life and a calm acceptance of its vicissitudes: when she is forced to leave the family home, she accepts in silence and almost ghost-like shuffles out of their lives. The mother, beautifully played by Karuna Banerjee, is always toiling, preparing meals, cleaning, caring for the children and trying to keep home and hearth alive against insurmountable odds. The loveliest performance comes from Uma Dasgupta playing the teenage Durga; whenever she flits across the screen the luminosity of her performance bewitches us. She is no paragon of virtue; she is neither stoic nor obedient, but full of mischief and the energy of life.

Nature is beautifully captured within the rhythms of family life, sunlight heightens the drama that is unfolding, and dusk captures the silence and poignancy of their lives. Monsoons in the Indian context are harbingers of fertility and death. In a pivotal scene when Durga catches a chill and eventually dies the limits and strength of tradition are beautifully presented. The doctor offers herbal remedies and tablets which are of no help. The wind blows, the rain slashes the bricks and pounds the roof; the shrine to Ganesh is skewered in the maelstrom, and he gazes impotently at the tragedy about to engulf the family. At the same time the traditional family unit provides the love that has wordlessly enveloped the children.

One of the wondrous sequences in international cinema is when Apu first sees a train hurtling past. We initially see the train as a small plume of smoke, with Apu and Durga running through the windswept long grass. Gradually the train hurtles past us like a shiny emblem of the new secular India. Apu is entranced as we are.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished), made in 1956, shows the complete cinematic mastery of Ray and his team. We are immediately ushered into the action: the camera fluidly shows Apu exploring the ghats (steps leading to the river) in the city of Benares where priests chant and their disciples dutifully respond; the dead are ritually burned; devotees purify themselves in its ‘holy’ waters, and wrestlers do their daily exercises. We see the mighty Ganges with boats framing the majestic ghats, temples and palaces. Apu’s house is close by and is reached by narrow alleyways teeming with life and obstructive cows. Life is precarious and the family lives just a level or two above penury. Apu’s father has got himself a niche at the ghats where he can follow the rituals of a pious Hindu and earn a living as a priest.

Again death disrupts the family with the sudden death of Apu’s father, who is played to perfection by Kanu Banerjee, with his innocent myopic eyes peering out at a world he does not understand or appreciate. He has a distracted equanimity which is both irritating and charming. The suddenness and capriciousness of his death is in keeping with his character. Apu rejects his karma, which is to be a priest, and opts for a secular education, which his mother reluctantly accepts and supports. Literature, poetry and the excitement of being an urban intellectual beckon. Calcutta is beautifully rendered on screen. Its faded architectural classicism is lovingly presented on screen. Behind its faded facades are poky rooms where many a family and individual live in varying degrees of genteel poverty. This contrasts with the grandeur of the memorial to Victoria and its spacious lawns, where half the middle class population of Calcutta was intellectually and occasionally carnally conceived. With the death of his mother, which is movingly depicted, Apu rejects village life and tradition and embraces the joys and terrors of an urban secular life.

Pather Panchali was distinguished by its lyricism, Aparajito by its austere cinematic palette, Apur Sansar is suffused with romanticism. Apu is a young man trying to make his way in the world but the work available to a Bengali intellectual is menial and the money meagre. Yet he endures. The emotional arc of the movie changes when he meets his college friend, who invites him to wedding in the country. He has his first full meal in days, his feel for and buoyancy of life returns. On their walk home he starts to declaim poetry, with his friend joining in. Bangla is a lovely language full of nuances, hidden meaning and lilting intonations. The camera does not try to follow the soaring poetry and the lighting is suitable subdued – Ray allows the human voice to convey it all, and Soumitra Chatterjee, playing Apu, wonderfully conveys this, his handsome face in the flickering light like a luminous Byzantium icon of some unknown saint.

This emotion is heightened at the wedding. Again the limits of tradition are there for us to see. The wedding is an arranged marriage between upper class Indian families with all the attendant rituals, splendour and religious cant. But there is a serpent in the tail – the bridegroom is deranged: the tragedy for the family is that their daughter has to be married on this particular day, as the priests have told the family it is the most auspicious. Meanwhile Apu is asleep under a tree near the river. He is asked by his friend if he could be the replacement; he balks at it, but being a decent man agrees. This is all filmed in sweeping takes and is almost perfunctory in its presentation. It changes when we get to see the young pride played by a fourteen year actress – Sharmila Tagore. She is in her wedding finery and we get a close up of her face and her eyes, which as in classical Indian drama convey to us her fear, apprehension, acceptance and curiosity. A modern sensibility might be appalled by the patriarchy on display. Ray’s film persuades us like Schubert’s innumerable impossibly romantic leiders by its emotional honesty. The young couple’s courtship and growing love is beautifully conveyed, whether in the workplace or the domestic rituals of home. So when the young girl dies giving birth we, like Apu, are left bereft.

Like other romantic heroes he has to leave and find a space where he can manage his grief. He leaves behind a young son being brought up by his maternal grandparents. The son feels betrayed and is troublesome. His grandfather, a traditional Bengali grandee, can only respond to by threats and corporal punishment. Apu returns bearded and patrician, and the interaction between father and son is lovingly rendered, their love beautifully conveyed in its restraint and what is left unsaid. In the end father and son reconcile and leave, in one of the most emotional sequences put on the silver screen.

Ray’s trilogy put Indian filmmaking on the international map and gave the Indian middle class (people like me) a glimpse of India with all its grandeur and limitations that resonates to this day. Ray went on to make many other fine films like The Music Room in 1959, Charulata (The Lonely Wife) in 1965, Distant Thunder in 1973, The Chess Players in 1978, and others. He influenced Indian filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Guru Dutt and V. Shantram. This new wave of film-making became known as Parallel Cinema – cinema that existed along with and not in opposition to Bollywood. Filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Abbas Kiaostami, Elia Kazan and Carlos Saura have made public their debt to Ray and his natural and humanist approach to filmmaking.

His influence permeates every frame of Asghar Farhadi’s sublime film A Separation (2011). It can be seen in the use of Tehran and the apartment where two of the main protagonists live; the clash between tradition and modernity; the non-judgmental attitude to the characters; and the natural way the drama unfolds. Like Ray, Farahadi universalises a local culture, and the protagonists’ foibles, frailties and small triumphs are our also. The ‘other’ is banished; we are all human despite our cultural differences.

Michael Cooke