Homage to Satyajit Ray
- Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson
Deutsch, 412 pp, £17.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 233 98473 9
‘I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it,’ Akira Kurosawa said about Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road), and it’s true: this movie, made for next to nothing, mostly with untrained actors, by a director who was learning (and making up) the rules as he went along, is a work of such lyrical and emotional force that it becomes, for its audiences, as potent as their own most deeply personal memories. To this day, the briefest snatch of Ravi Shankar’s wonderful theme music brings back a flood of feeling, and a crowd of images: the single eye of the little Apu, seen at the moment of waking, full of mischief and life; the insects dancing on the surface of the pond, prefiguring the coming monsoon rains; and above all the immortal scene, one of the most tragic in all cinema, in which Harihar the peasant comes home to the village from the city, bringing presents for his children, not knowing that his daughter has died in his absence. When he shows his wife, Sarbajaya, the sari he has brought for the dead girl, she begins to weep; and now he understands, and cries out too; but – and this is the stroke of genius – their voices are replaced by the high, high music of a single tarshehnai, a sound like a scream of the soul.
Pather Panchali was the first Ray movie I ever saw, and, like many cinema-addicted Indians, I saw it not in India but in London. In spite of having grown up in the world’s number-one movie city, Bombay (‘Bollywood’, in those days, produced more movies per annum than Los Angeles or Tokyo or Hong Kong), I knew less about India’s greatest film-maker than I did about ‘international cinema’ (or, at any rate, the movies of Robert Taylor, the Three Stooges, Francis the Talking Mule and Maria Montez). It was at the old Academy in Oxford Street, at the National Film Theatre, and at the Arts Cinema in Cambridge, that, with mixed feelings of high elation and shame at my own previous ignorance, I filled in this lamentable gap. By the middle Sixties, when the Nouvelle Vague hit the cinemas like a tidal wave, and the names of Truffaut and Godard and Resnais and Malle and Antonioni and Fellini and Bergman and Wajda and Kurosawa and Buñuel became more important to us than that of any mere novelist, and when the new movie in a given week might be called Jules et Jim or Alphaville, and might be followed, a week later, by Ashes and Diamonds or The Seven Samurai or Le Feu Follet or L’Eclisse or 8½ or The Saragossa Manuscript – when, that is to say, the cinema was ablaze with innovation and originality, I took real pride in the knowledge I gained from Ray’s films: that this explosion of creative genius had its Indian dimension, too.
This was not an opinion shared by all Indians. Because Ray, a Bengali, made films in his own language, his films were not distributed outside Bengal. His international success brought predictable sniping at home. Andrew Robinson records, in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, a paradigmatic expression of this resentment, which also brings the vulgar, energetic (and, it must be said, sneakily appealing) Bombay cinema into direct conflict with the highbrow, uncompromising, ‘difficult’ Ray. The Bombay movie star Nargis (Nargis Dutt), star of the 1957 mega-weepie Mother India, was by the beginning of the Eighties a member of the Indian Parliament, from which exalted position she launched an attack on Ray:
Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990
Like Salman Rushdie (LRB, 8 March), I watched most of what I have seen of Satyajit Ray outside India – in my case, in theatres in New York and Berkeley, and on video casettes available not at video rental outlets, Indian or otherwise, but at university libraries. Unlike Mr Rushdie, I am not sure if the distributors in India are entirely to be blamed for the fact that Ray’s work is not easily available to a common Indian outside Bengal. Also unlike Mr Rushdie, I wonder whether it is just a coincidence that it is far easier to find copies of Mr Ray’s films with subtitles in French than in Hindi or in any other Indian language. Perhaps Mr Ray’s attempts to surmount distributional obstacles in India have been less than energetic because, in India, he is not really interested in finding an audience beyond those Indians he can reach, perversely, by having his films subtitled in French. In his book, Our Films, Their Films, Mr Ray wrote that Calcutta was far removed from the hub of things. Ray has evidently learnt more from Henri Cartier-Bresson than just a fetish for available-light photography. The hub of Ray’s world is also somewhere in the West, which perhaps explains why for all his avowed love for Bengal his gaze is, like that of his available-light master, colonialist.
In justifying his decision to live in London and write in English, Rushdie remarked that India was not ready for the kind of large writing that he wanted to do. Those who perceive the world to have an objectively evident hub, and find it far removed from their own cultural environment, or those who find an audience of 900 million people too small for their ambitions, can and do perhaps have a love for India that is ‘powerfully evident’ in their oeuvre. I am not sure I am prepared to waste any of my time and money trying to find out.
Raakesh Ibraheem Anant
Vol. 12 No. 9 · 10 May 1990
Raakesh Ibraheem Anant’s letter in your issue of 19 April does Satyajit Ray a number of injustices. He says he is ‘not sure if the distributors in India are entirely to be blamed for the fact that Ray’s work is not easily available to a common Indian outside Bengal.’ But the facts of Indian movie distribution are unarguable. If you don’t make Hindi movies, your chances of wide national distribution are minimal. This applies to ‘commercial’ as well as to ‘art’ films. However, Mr Anant wishes to blame Satyajit Ray. He suggests that Mr Ray is ‘not really interested’ in reaching a wide Indian audience: but The Chess Players, the movie whose distribution difficulties were referred to in my original piece, was made by Ray in Hindi precisely to try and reach the audience about which he supposedly does not care.
Mr Anant then wonders whether it is just a ‘coincidence that it is far easier to find copies of Mr Ray’s films with subtitles in French than in Hindi or in any other Indian language.’ Well no, it’s not. Subtitled versions are very uncommon in India owing to low literacy levels. The absence of versions dubbed into Hindi is the result of the dominance of Hindi movies referred to above.
But of course Mr Anant has only been preparing the ground for his real attack. Satyajit Ray has been influenced by Cartier-Bresson (and by Renoir, one might add): his gaze is therefore, in Mr Anant’s view, ‘colonialist’. Not even Satyajit Ray’s harshest Indian critics have ever suggested such a thing. Mr Ray is profoundly a man of his own culture and recognised by Bengalis as one of their cultural giants. To call him a ‘colonialist’ because he is also knowledgeable about the West is to be guilty of an extreme form of parochialism. That Mr Anant has chosen to sneer at Mr Ray’s Western influences from an address in Massachusetts makes his narrow-mindedness look a little comical.
Lastly (since Mr Anant has some sharp words for me too) may I say, for the record, that I have never made the absurd suggestion that ‘India was not ready for the kind of large writing’ I wanted to do. Neither have I ever thought to ‘justify’ living in Britain or writing in English. Like any other British Asian I am here because I am here. To suggest that further justification is necessary – now, that is a leftover colonialist attitude.