Homage to Satyajit Ray

Salman Rushdie

  • 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 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:

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