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:

Nargis: Why do you think films like Pather Panchali become popular abroad? … Because people there want to see India in an abject condition. That is the image they have of our country and a film that confirms that image seems to them authentic.

Interviewer: But why should a renowned director like Ray do such a thing?

Nargis: To win awards. His films are not commercially successful. They only win awards … What I want is that if Mr Ray projects Indian poverty abroad, he should also show ‘Modern India’.

Interviewer: What is ‘Modern India’?

Nargis: Dams …

She was answered by a letter from the Forum for Better Cinema: ‘Do you honestly believe that [Modern India] is portrayed in the so-called commercial films of Bombay? In fact, the world of commercial Hindi films is peopled by thugs, smugglers, dacoits, voyeurs, murderers, cabaret dancers, sexual perverts, degenerates, delinquents and rapists, which can hardly be called representative of modern India.’ Soon afterwards, Robinson tells us: ‘The Government informed Ray it could not grant him permission to make a film about child labour since this did not constitutionally exist in India.’ (The Indian Government has a weakness for the ostrich position. My own 1987 documentary, The Riddle of Midnight, ran into trouble because, among other things, I mentioned that all the Kashmiri Muslims I spoke to were highly disaffected with India, and wanted to join Pakistan. This was officially unsayable at the time, and so I was accused of fundamentalist sympathies: less than three years later, the lid that New Delhi pushed down over the Kashmir issue for so long may finally have blown off.)

The exchange between Nargis Dutt and Ray’s supporters, the quarrel between the philistine/commercial/jingoistic position and the aesthete/purist/open-eyed view, can be seen in a number of different ways: as a quarrel between two definitions of patriotic love, because while Nargis all but calls Ray anti-Indian his love for India is, as Mr Robinson asserts, powerfully evident throughout his oeuvre; and, more interestingly, perhaps, as a dispute between two very different urban cultures, the cosmopolitan, brash bitch-city of Bombay versus the old intellectual traditions of Calcutta. Ray himself is, with much justification, scathing about the Bombay talkies. India, he says, ‘took one of the greatest inventions of the West with the most far-reaching artistic potential, and cut it down to size’. Endless Bollywood remakes of Love Story, The Magnificent Seven etc go a long way to proving his point.

However, being a Bombaywallah myself, I can’t avoid observing that in the battle between Bombay and Calcutta, Andrew Robinson seems more emphatically on Ray’s side than Ray himself. He makes a number of unfairly dismissive remarks about the ‘new’ or ‘middle’ cinema now growing up in Bombay, Kerala and elsewhere. This attempt to steer a course between mandarin and moneybags attitudes to the movies is, we are told, ‘lacking in commitment’ to its subject-matter – a vague sort of assertion and one that demeans the solid achievements of the directors he names, Benegal, Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan. ‘There is a superficiality and dullness in most of the work of the “new” cinema that seems to derive from the fake urban culture of modern India, and which arises ultimately from the failure of imagination in the Indian “synthesis” of the last century,’ Mr Robinson suggests, in one of the few over-the-top passages in an otherwise scrupulous book. The films he attacks are better than he admits; and while it’s undeniable that Indian urban culture, Bombay above all, is full of fakery and gaudiness and superficiality and failed imaginations, it is also a culture of high vitality, linguistic verve, and a kind of metropolitan excitement that European cities have for the most part forgotten. And this is as true of Bombay as it is of Ray’s Calcutta.

The case of Ray’s movie Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players) represents the lowest point in the uneasy relationship between Satyajit Ray and the Bombay film industry. This film, Ray’s first (and to date only) feature film in Hindi, was a deliberate attempt to enter the mainstream of Indian cinema. According to legend, the movie bosses of Bombay ruined the film’s chances by putting pressure on national distributors not to book it. Mr Robinson sheds little light on the incident, remarking only that ‘Ray refuses to be drawn on the point and has avoided wasting his time trying to find out the truth; but Shama Zaidi, who knows Bombay’s film world well, thinks the existence of a conspiracy against the film “quite probable”.’ Gossip is no substitute for investigation. My own memory of talking to Satyajit Ray about this matter is that he was a more open believer in the conspiracy theory than Mr Robinson allows: but that, in spite of it all, he had found the experience of working in Hindi very stimulating – above all because he had been able to choose from a much larger group of gifted actors than were to be found in the smaller Bengali-language cinema.

A highbrow auteur who is nevertheless appreciative of the talents of Bollywood movie stars, Satyajit Ray is also, for a man who disapproves of the movies of Buñuel because of ‘the surrealist element’, a man with a strong streak of fantasy. His fairy-tale movie Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) is, in Bengal, as well-loved as The Wizard of Oz is here. ‘It really is extraordinary how quickly Goopy and Bagha has become part of popular culture,’ Ray wrote soon after the movie’s release. ‘Really, there isn’t a child in the city who doesn’t know and sing the songs.’ So it seems Ray’s work has been quite capable of doing more than winning awards: but every one of Ray’s fabulist movies has failed, outside India, to attract the plaudits accorded to his more realist films. Mr Robinson puts this down to ‘the West’s historic disinterest [sic] in the legends of India’, which may be true. Certainly, when I mentioned to Satyajit Ray that The Golden Fortress was one of my favourite movies, he leapt from his breakfast and made huge gesticulations of delight, turning into the epitome of the proud parent whose least-appreciated child has just been lavished with praise.

Goopy and Bagha, Andrew Robinson rightly says, ‘released the vein of pent-up fantasy in Satyajit Ray that is given free rein in his grandfather’s and father’s work’. By far the strongest section of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye is the opening seventy-page biographical study. Ray came from a family of fantasists, creators of nonsense verse and fabulous hybrid animals – Stortle, Whalephant, Porcuduck – and both Ray’s father Sukumar and his grandfather Upendrakishore were famous for their children’s stories and illustrations, published in the family’s magazine, Sandesh, which means, as Mr Robinson tells us, both Sweetmeat and Information. But this was also a family of dazzling and varied intellectual and spiritual gifts. Upendrakishore was a printer whose innovations in half-tone screenprinting were stolen by a British company; Sukumar had a visionary side, and saw his own death before it happened. Ray has been deeply affected by his family’s recurring mystical streak (his great-great-grandfather Loknath had it, too); he even attributes his own artistic gifts to it. ‘This whole business of creation … cannot be explained by science.’ Once again, close examination reveals Satyajit Ray to be something other than the realist artist he seems, even claims, to be.

The rest of the Ray clan was no less brilliant. His great-uncle, Hemendranath Bose, was a perfumer, and also ‘a pioneer of the bicycle in India, one of the first people in India to own a motor-car, and the first to make phonogram recordings … his 14 children included, in due course, a famous singer, a painter and connoisseur of music, a film sound-recordist, four cricketers (one of whom was the name of his time), and a well-known film director, Nitin Bose, who would later tell Satyajit he should take up art direction and forget directing.’ With a family like this to live up to, Ray had to start early. He was ‘highly sensitive as a child to sound and lighting. Half a century later, he can remember various vanished street cries and the fact that in those days you could spot the make of a car from inside the house by the sound of its horn.’ Among the car horns he learned to identify was the one belonging to his aunts’ Lancia, which ‘had a glass cricket perched on its bonnet which glowed pink as the car cruised along’. Even his friends seemed to develop magical gifts: his college chum Pritwish Neogy, for example, ‘had the extraordinary ability to identify a painting by looking at one square inch of it and, according to Satyajit, he could “immediately spot the fake from the genuine”.’

Mr Robinson maintains his biographical approach up to the making of Pather Panchali, of which he provides an absorbing account. Then, somewhat regrettably, he switches to a movie-by-movie account of Ray’s career, and only occasionally attempts to weave the story of the movies into the larger story of Ray’s personal and intellectual development. It is as if Ray’s own famous reticence on personal matters has permeated the book.

Such attempts at contextualisation as are made are unfailingly interesting. Sukumar Ray’s commitment to the movement that ‘swept Bengal from 1903 in reaction to Lord Curzon’s proclaimed intention of partitioning the province’ sheds valuable light on his son Satyajit’s later decision to film the novel Rabindranath Tagore wrote about the movement, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World); and Ray’s own family associations with Tagore himself provide equally valuable sidelights on the film director’s lifelong engagement with the writer’s work. Again, Ray’s reactions to the great Bengal Famine of 1943-4, his sense of shame at having done nothing to help the dying, powerfully informs our knowledge of the great film he later made on the subject, Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder). There is much interesting information about the films and their reception, too: the story of how Devi (The Goddess) was attacked by religious extremists as anti-Hindu is one such snippet. One cannot avoid saying, however, that the film-by-film approach does reduce the interest of this book for non-movie buffs.

The book deserves to be welcomed nevertheless. It is extremely thorough, often perceptive and at times highly entertaining. It is good to have a sympathetic portrait of one of the giants of the cinema. After a heart attack and bypass surgery in 1984, Satyajit Ray’s ability to work has been restricted; his latest film, Ganashatru, a version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, has perforce been filmed in the studio, with Ray’s son assisting his father. It is to be hoped that Ray will manage to complete many more movies, but his already-completed achievement is astonishing; and you could say that the entire oeuvre is, like the very first film, a ‘song of the little road’, because Ray has invariably preferred the intimate story to the grand epic, and is the poet par excellence of the human-scale, life-sized comedy and tragedy of ordinary men and women, journeying, as we all journey, down little, but unforgettable roads.