I admire Satyajit Ray immensely. Not only for his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to interpret that in a meaningful, restrained and memorable way, but also for so much more: his intelligence, his eye for detail, his artistic ability. And, up there with all the rest of these qualities, his versatility. Several people have called him a ‘Renaissance Man’, and I agree completely: this man was a fine director, as well as a great writer, artist, costume designer, font designer- and so much else.
And he was versatile even in the world of cinema itself. For those who equate Ray only with ‘art’ films, works like Chiriakhana, Shonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne may come as a surprise: but to me, at least, they constitute a happy surprise. Different from Jalsaghar or Charulata (or so many other films of Ray’s) but in their own way, manifestations of Ray’s genius. Comedy, whodunnit, adventure: Ray could do it all, and do it well.
Or romantic comedy. While Ray did not direct Baksa Badal (his assistant Nityanand Datta did), he wrote the screenplay for this delightfully romantic comedy about two people whose identical suitcases get switched, and what that switch leads to. (Ray also composed the music for Baksa Badal).
Note: The original story of Baksa Badal was a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. You can read an English translation of it here.
Today is the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray: he was born on May 2, 1921, in Calcutta.
I am not going to expend words and energy in writing even a short biography of Ray: is there any need, after all? Because Ray is too well-known, too well-respected, for him to need any introduction. If there’s one Indian film-maker who’s acclaimed even abroad, it’s Ray. And when you think of how he didn’t merely direct great films, but wrote them, composed music for them, designed costumes for them—and wrote novels and short stories, designed typefaces, created art: you realize just how multi-faceted a genius was Satyajit Ray.
In one important scene in Aranyer Din Raatri, a successful business executive named Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) tells Aparna, a poised young woman he’s met in the jungles of Palamau, that life in the city is all about rules. If you have to work, you have to abide by the rules.
Rules, the implication is, suffocate. And every now and then, to survive and to give yourself a break from those oppressive rules, you rebel. You go away, you flee. You find yourself again, you refresh yourself, regain your energy and then come back to start conforming all over again.
This seems to be the premise with which this film, one of Satyajit Ray’s best-known works, begins. Ashim, along with three other friends, is driving down from Kolkata to Palamau for a holiday. The men are a mixed bag. Sanjay (Shubhendu Chatterjee) works in the jute industry and, as they’re driving along, is sitting in the back of the car and reading a book about Palamau from which he reads out excerpts now and then.
The first Soumitra Chatterjee film I saw was Charulata (1964). I had known of Soumitra Chatterjee before, had known even of his stature in Bengali cinema; but this film was my introduction to him. And what an introduction it proved to be.
Even now, several years down the line, I cannot claim to have done justice to Soumitra Chatterjee’s filmography, not even to his most famous phase of the fourteen films he did with Satyajit Ray. I have seen some films, of course, including Aranyer Din Ratri, Samapti (the third part of the Teen Kanya trilogy of short films), Kapurush and Sonar Kella from among Ray’s works, and a few by other directors, such as Barnali (which I watched a few weeks back, when Chatterjee passed away). My relative lack of familiarity with Chatterjee’s work made me a little nervous about reading his biography: I wondered if I would be able to understand all the nuances, whether it would not be too much for a Chatterjee-ignoramus like me.
When I read the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing away, my first thought was: I need to write a tribute, talk about how much I liked this actor. Then, reality crept in. It’s not as if I’ve seen too many films that starred Soumitra Chatterjee. Charulata, Kapurush, Jhinder Bondi, Aranyer Din Raatri, Sonar Kella, one of the three episodes of Teen Kanya… and that was it. I didn’t recall having seen any of his other films.
Which might sound odd; how could one like an actor so much based on only such a handful of films? But I suppose when you’re looking at quality rather than quantity, it can work. And Soumitra Chatterjee, even in the few films of his that I’ve seen, proved himself a memorable actor. Not just handsome, not just superficially charismatic, but also so very talented. His ‘coward’ of Kapurush is so very real, so flawed and believable a protagonist; his Mayurvahan in Jhinder Bondi is a deliciously evil portrayal of the flamboyant, boyishly attractive yet very wicked Rupert of Hentzau. It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata, and he is Feluda. Sharp, intelligent, well-read (and intelligent and well-read are apt descriptions of the man in real life too, from what I gather).
But a full-fledged tribute, a run-down of all his best films: no, that was not something I thought I would be capable of. Instead, I decided to commemorate the life and career of Soumitra Chatterjee by watching one film I’d only heard of in passing, never really got down to seeing.
Bengali cinema is one of the few regional language cinema industries for which it’s relatively easy to find subtitled copies. Even when the film in question is an old one.
Over the years, several Bengali readers have recommended Shaarey Chuattar to me. I had been under the impression that I should watch this film for the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen pairing (it was the their first film together, the first of many films in which they were co-stars). But, now that I’ve seen it, I can safely say that this is a film you should watch not for these two, but for the film itself. True, Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar provide some eye candy and are a likable romantic couple, but the romance in Shaarey Chuattar is not the main thing.
Here is the answer to the question I set a couple of days back. What do Aapke kamre mein koi rehta hai, Yeh jawaani hai deewaani, Pyaar deewaana hota hai and Yeh kya hua have in common, I had asked (besides the obvious: that Kishore had sung all four, and RD Burman had composed all four). Some people got the answer correct, and some came close to guessing. Yes, these songs were all copied by Burman from tunes he had composed for one film. That was a Bengali film named Rajkumari, released in 1970.
Rajkumari, starring Tanuja as the eponymous princess, is a film I came across thanks to friend and erstwhile fellow blogger, Harvey. Some weeks back, Harvey shared a link to one of the songs of Rajkumari (more about these songs, later). I liked it so much that I made up my mind I had to see it. And it turned out to be quite entertaining.
There was a point, when I was watching Meghe Dhaka Tara, that I was reminded of another much-acclaimed Indian classic, Pyaasa. A man, an artiste (a singer, not a poet, as in Pyaasa) wanders along on a grassy patch of land, singing. Far beyond is the railway track; around him are shady trees, a path, solitude. Here is a man practising his art, being one with nature, without a care for the world around him.
Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and The Holy Man) isn’t one film, even though these two short films—each just over an hour long—were released together, as a sort of ‘combined pack’. Unlike Satyajit Ray’s other well-known set of short stories-clubbed-together film, Teen Kanya, the two component stories of KapurushOMahapurush have barely anything in common (except possibly a central male character who drives—or does not drive—the story). I watched these two short films one after the other and thought of writing separate reviews for each—then decided that they’re best reviewed the way I saw them. Together, one after the other.
There is a scene well into Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (The Music Room) in which the protagonist, a reclusive and close-to-bankrupt zamindar named Bishwambar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) stands outside his crumbling palace and looks out towards the riverbank, where his elephant Moti—his only asset worth anything—is standing. Bishwambar Roy’s stance, the squared shoulders, the raised chin, shows his pride: his pride in the elephant, his pride in the many generations of wealthy aristocracy that he can lay claim to, his pride—as he tells someone in another scene—in his blood.
Even as he looks out at his elephant, a truck, with the name of Ganguli (Roy’s wealthy, ‘self-made man’ neighbour) on it comes along. It’s heading towards the riverbank too, and as it proceeds, it raises clouds of dust, obscuring the river, the land, and the elephant. Blocking out Bishwambar Roy’s view of that last vestige of his wealth, and prompting him to take what turns out to be a decision that will prove a turning point in the story.