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.
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.
Satyajit Ray is a name that appears inevitably on any list of great Indian film directors. And often enough (or at least, it should, as far as I’m concerned) on lists of great film directors, regardless of nation or language. For me, half the joy of watching a Satyajit Ray film is not in in the breathtaking beauty of camera angles or the performances he managed to coax out of actors; it’s in the stories he told through his films. Stories very varied, stories that range all the way from whodunits to romances, to tales of human frailty, injustice, and more. You can never say of Satyajit Ray’s films that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
This Satyajit Ray film had been lying in my to-watch pile for a long time. Then, I learnt a few days back that the Indian government had finally decided to award a Dadasaheb Phalke to Soumitra Chatterjee for his contribution to Indian cinema. Better late than never, I guess (even though a number of people have said that it’s too late). The announcement, however, did give me a solid reason to watch Charulata (aka The Lonely Wife). And I ended up wanting to hit myself for not having seen this masterpiece earlier.
Sharmi has been reviewing one brilliant Bengali film after the other over at her blog. I ended up begging her to slow down, because I can’t possibly keep pace when it comes to obtaining—with subtitles, mind you—and watching so many great films. So what do I do? I watch and review a Bengali film of my own.
Chiriakhana (‘The Zoo’) is based on the famous crime novel of the same name by Saradindu Bandopadhyay. It features the detective Byomkesh Bakshi (which those of you who watched Doordarshan during the early 1990’s might remember from the superb TV series starring Rajit Kapur). The film was directed by Satyajit Ray, and though most feel that this is Ray’s worst film, it isn’t as bad as all that. It even won Ray a Golden Lotus at the National Film Awards.
There are some films that offer deep, mind-searing insights into human life. There are some that allow one to escape for a couple of hours into a world of make believe where good and beautiful people always win and the bad always come to a sorry end.
And there are films like this one, which I seriously think should be prescribed as an anti-depressant. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne) isn’t among Satyajit Ray’s most profound works—it’s not in the same league, perhaps, as the Apur trilogy or Nayak. It is, however, one of the most charming films ever made in India, and a sure cure for the blues. I adore this film. Every delightful little bit of it.