Review: The Cinema of Satyajit Ray by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay
A volume on the film maker’s oeuvre includes analyses of his 39 films and interviews with those who have been struck by his work
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s The Cinema of Satyajit Ray is divided into two parts - the first analyses all 39 of Ray’s films, including his feature films and the controversial documentaries Sikkim (1971) and Bala (1976), that he made over 36 years while the second part comprises in-depth interviews with 17 personalities who have been deeply impressed by the auteur’s cinema.
While the author’s analyses of Ray’s films are well-researched, they do not add much to what’s already known about them. The section on Bala informs the reader of how Ray was introduced to the great art of the dancer Balasaraswati but Chattopadhyay only mentions that the film was widely criticised because it did not offer deep insights into the abhinaya and the art and science of Bharatanatyam and does not go into the depth of the critique.
According to this reviewer, Ray’s camera in this film is almost static. The dancer is photographed against a flat white backdrop, wearing a red-bordered white sari during the demonstrations. There is no attempt to probe the psychological process of the artiste’s mastery over abhinaya. There is no attempt either to explore the power-relationships that evolve over time between an artiste and her art, between the danseuse and her audience, between the guru and her disciple. One can only ask – why? And let the question hang in the air till eternity for Ray is no longer around to answer it.
The interviewees in Part II entitled Meditations on Ray, His Films, His Film-Making include contemporaries like Shyam Benegal, and younger filmmakers like Srijit Mukherjee of Bengali cinema and Vikramaditya Motwane and Niraj Ghaywan, who work in Hindi cinema. Film critics and authors like MK Raghavendra and Jai Arjun Singh have also given their views on Ray and his cinema.
The interview with Oliver Craske, the official biographer of Pandit Ravi Shankar, who composed the music for the Apu Trilogy and Parash Pathar is particularly interesting. The long conversation sheds light on what motivated Ray to shift from music masters to composing the music for his films himself. Ray began to compose the background music from his seventh film, Teen Kanya, onwards, though he had composed one Shyama Sangeet in his previous film, Devi. The interview mainly covers what Pandit Ravi Shankar felt about his schism with Ray over the music of the trilogy and the former’s personal comments on Ray and his sense of music.
Vikramaditya Motwane, who has directed films like Udaan, Lootera, Trapped and Bhavesh Joshi Superhero and began his journey as assistant to Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Devdas, believes Ray was “India’s most complete filmmaker.” His views that offer a fresh perspective on Ray and his cinema are significant as Motwane’s films too defy any genre classification. He recalls watching Devi, his first Ray film: “Although it did not have any subtitles, I was bowled over by the power of the film. Perhaps one of the most enchanting things about Ray is that he shows so many things in a non-dialogic way and it still connects with you emotionally.” Talking about Ray’s fondness for Bengali literature as inspiration for his films, he says, “The culture of adaptation is very specific to Bengal as there is a culture of reading literature in the local language. And although general levels of readership may have come down, they are still very well aware of Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay.”
Chattopadhyay’s own analysis of Devi sheds light on ideas and concepts the audience might not have noticed in other readings of the film such as Kalikinkar’s recitation of line after line from a section of Kalidas’s Raghuvamsa in a bid to prove to his son that he has not turned senile. But the more interesting element we discover is the range and variety of readings every film of Ray opens up for discussion, debate, critique and questions. Chattopadhyay is very brief in some of his reviews while he is more in-depth and exhaustive in others which makes the reading smooth by virtue of his fluent language but uneven in terms of giving the work a more cohesive character.
Among those interviews that add value to this volume is the detailed one with Chandak Sengoopta, professor in the Department of History, Classics and Archeology at Birkbeck Collge, University of London. At the time that Chattopadhyay was putting this book together, Sengoopta, an established author of scholarly works of history, was working on a new biography of Satyajit Ray, emphasizing the historical, cultural and ideological contexts that shaped his work. His work focussed on analysing how Ray’s films, “in spite of their profoundly Bengali/Indian setting and tone, came to be seen, especially by Western critics, as timeless and universal.” Sengoopta, among Indian scholars, is known for The Rays before Satyajit: Creativity and Modernity in Colonial India, (OUP, 2016). This interview gives readers a detailed history of Ray’s founding and deep involvement with the Calcutta Film Society, which played a very significant role in the development of a movement towards the practice of turning cinema into a serious subject of study, viewership, discussion and debate. It was here that classic films of international cinema, beginning with the first screening of Sergei Eisensteins’s Battleship Potemkin, were screened to a small audience with members paying a modest membership fee to watch.
One wishes, however, that the author and publisher had chosen to bring this out as two separate books. The two parts are not only distanced in terms of approach, style, perspective and genre but also in terms of the volume of information and readability.
Still, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray is a good addition to the ever-growing library of works on the film maker. It will provide a very good frame of reference for further research on the cinema of Satyajit Ray.
Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.