1. Sarbajaya’s six-second look at the well (Pather Panchali) 2. The dead frog after the storm (Pather Panchali) 3. The memory game sequence (Aranyer Din Ratri)
In Satyajit Ray’s ‘Bombaiyer Bombete’ (‘The Bandits of Bombay’, originally published as a story in Sharadiya Sandesh in 1976), thriller writer Lalmohan Ganguly aka Jatayu successfully sells a story to what wasn’t yet called Bollywood for the princely sum of Rs 10,000. Director Pulak Ghoshal has to make one change though. On the advice of Prodosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda, Jatayu had given a name to the high-rise building in which his villain lived: ‘Shivaji Castle’. It turns out that the film’s producer himself resides in a high-rise called Shivaji Castle. The name is changed in the script. It isn’t the end but only the beginning of trouble. But that’s another story. What led to this coincidence was Feluda’s insistence on “khuntinati” (detail) which Jatayu had religiously followed, indebted as he was to the detective for making the story over-the-top enough for Bombay to take an interest.
James Joyce, in his Paris years, supposedly waited eight-odd months for a contact to confirm if a detail of a Dublin street was extant. Verisimilitude can’t be taken lightly when your work is grounded in locale and precision of milieu. You don’t have Joyce without Dublin. Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities is allegorical. Vienna is not really Vienna. Yet, it’s the apotheosis of fictional depiction of Austrian society on the eve of World War I. Verisimilitude doesn’t depend on fidelity to fact but it’s the eye to detail and the peculiarity of each nuance that set a great artist apart from a good one. And economy of expression is always good form.
Satyajit Ray was the most pragmatic filmmaker of the New Indian Cinema and the legacy it spawned. He once warned that some of the younger ‘art’ filmmakers thought of their art too much and of their audiences too little. Ray could make that admonishment since, as Mrinal Sen had remarked: “We learnt everything from Pather Panchali.” The great coat that Indian alternative cinema fell out of had set standards for a craft that could only be matched, not bettered. It wasn’t Ray’s favourite because, in the beginning, he had made mistakes he wasn’t proud of. But in Pather Panchali (1955), Ray created a signature for exactness of visual detail and authenticity of verbal tone that he could raise to a grander scale whenever he needed to. Often, this signature is best visible in minor scenes. Let’s look at five films and some well-remarked as well as not-talked-about visual and verbal details.
PATHER PANCHALI Sarbajaya at the well. The richer neighbour is abusing Durga (for stealing fruits) as she picks up the washing on her terrace, making sure that Sarbajaya (the real target of the abuse) hears her only too well. Sarbajaya, angry at the pointedness of the attack and also consumed by the indignity of it, gives a six-second sideways look that quite conspicuously turns inwards and mirrors her state of mind. Cinema being primarily a visual and not a verbal medium, no words need be said. As recently as the late 1990s, a popular Tollywood director would quip: “Maye boneder jodi kandate paro, to chhobi hit hobei (If you can make the mothers and sisters cry, the film is certain to be a hit)”. Doubtless, Ray was lost to him, and countless others like him.
Another scene from Ray’s debut: the dead frog. It’s an instance of the Ray eye for the fleeting detail that most would miss. After the storm sequence, an upturned dead frog floats slowly by in the water. A Ray sceptic of the time had grudgingly admitted: “How did a city boy know that when a frog dies, it floats on its back?”
ARANYER DIN RATRI There are moments of serendipity when a detail-obsessed filmmaker comes across an instinctively brilliant improvising actor. Ray had recognised this in Rabi Ghosh, a natural comic, while shooting the memory game sequence in Aranyer Din Ratri (1969). At the start of the memory game, Ghosh suddenly picked up Sharmila Tagore’s sunglasses lying next to him. His first choice was Atulya Ghosh, the veteran Congress leader often seen behind dark cataract glasses. Reportedly, Ray had never directed Ghosh to do so; the actor just improvised and made the scene something better than the script. It remains debatable whether every good actor can demonstrate such situational instinct without the presence of a sharper mind looming over the scene.
CHARULATA The instances of a subtle gesture or word or unconscious, half-noticed action making the scene and, at the same time, conveying the inner workings of a mind are far too many in Ray. Consider Charulata muttering “Bankim…Bankim” as she looks for the volume she wants. Or, running the risk of the borderline hackneyed, the soft, sudden, uncertain touch of her feet on the ground as she swings and the expression changes first in her eyes and then on her face till she turns and the camera moves into her perspective, with Amal lying on the ground.
The triumph of Charulata (1964), Ray’s personal favourite, was the perfect harmonisation of aesthetics with technicalities. There is not one detail out of place and none missed, and not a shot that could have been done better. As a result, it’s also perhaps Ray’s film with the best economy of visual expression.
ASHANI SANKET Ray could not afford a cliché. (In Pather Panchali, the idol of Ganesha shakes but never falls off its perch; the lamp flickers but never goes out as Durga lies dying.) When he had to raise the visual potential of a scene or sequence, Ray was especially careful to not cross any red line. When the villagers queue up to leave in Ashani Sanket and the camera captures them silhouetted against the setting sun, the sequence, closely linked to the narrative hitherto, becomes a synecdoche of Bengal, capturing all the significant motifs of its modern history: life in the country, the ill effects of the Permanent Settlement, recurrent famine and displacement, World War II, and it also foreshadows Partition and the demographic shifts. (The title translates as Distant Thunder, after all.) In the hands of a lesser genius, the villagers would have been just a silhouette.
To an extent, the borderline scenic cliché that is not one recurs in the last sequence of Kanchenjungha, Ray’s first original screenplay and least understood film. The mountain makes its appearance at the end as Indranath (Chhabi Biswas) walks out of the frame. The point all along was the unseen mountain against whose backdrop the characters meet, their complications are compounded, and then resolved. Kanchenjungha is the real protagonist and that fact is key to the film.
SHAKHA PROSHAKHA In Ray’s verbal language, a single word or phrase and the tone of utterance could be used not only to pass judgement but also keep that judgement unspoken and yet say the last word about an individual as well as his type. Of the myriad instances of these, an almost never-discussed moment is when, in Shakha Proshakha (1990), Tapati (Mamata Shankar) responds to Probir’s (Deepankar Dey) dismissive “Ki je chhaipaansh shone (What nonsense he listens to)”—referring to his elder brother Proshanto (Soumitra Chatterjee)—with a quick glance and just two words tinged with acid and pity: “Ota Bach (That’s Bach)”.
The verbal signature of Satyajit Ray is this precise tone of the spoken word, accompanied by the visual exactness of the subject’s expression. Conscious of cinema being ‘only partially an abstract art’, he would write: ‘Take the question of language. In a sound film, words are expected to perform not only a narrative but a plastic function. A poor actor will stress words wrongly, miss nuances, make errors of intonation. All this will be missed unless one knows the language, and knows it well.’ (‘Calm Without, Fire Within’, 1963)
NEVER ONE FOR radical experimentation (Ray had admitted he had been tempted once or twice to do a Jean-Luc Godard but never found the excuse), he did violate the 180° rule in shooting the train sequence in Pather Panchali. (His jump cuts would come from Godard though.) After the first sighting in which the train moves from the right of the screen to the left, when we see Apu racing up to the tracks from between the wheels of the train, it goes from left to right. These little tributes to directors Ray learnt from and movements that inspired him would be tucked away in his films all along. But, on the whole, there perhaps would be no Pather Panchali without Italian Neorealism—and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in particular. Which was just as well. For, as Ray wrote about de Sica’s adaptation of Cesare Zavattini’s script: ‘[Zavattini’s] greatest assets are an acute understanding of human beings and an ability to devise the ‘chain’ type of story that fits perfectly into the ninety-minute span of the average commercial cinema. Simplicity of plot allows for intensive treatment, while a whole series of interesting and believable situations and characters sustains interest. Bicycle Thieves is the best example so far of such a story, perfectly translated to the screen in the most universally comprehensible terms.’ And further: ‘Bicycle Thieves is a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of cinema…The simple universality of its theme, the effectiveness of its treatment, and the low cost of its production make it the ideal film for the Indian film maker to study.’ (‘Some Italian Films I Have Seen’, 1951)
Ray was, above all, a ‘holistic artist’, linking scenes and sequences organically. The ‘reverence for life, for organic growth’ was drilled into him at Shantiniketan by Nandalal Bose—the master painter who was also a lifelong student of Chinese calligraphy and Japanese art, having been to those countries to learn ink and brush painting—who would ask his students to draw a tree from the bottom up, as it grows in nature, and not in the ‘Western fashion’ from the top downwards. And an artist must not only draw from the life around him but also know what to draw from it and how: Films ‘acquire colour from all manner of indigenous factors such as habits of speech and behaviour, deep-seated social practices, past traditions, present influences and so on. The more perceptive the film maker, the more acutely is he aware of these factors and the better able to weave them into the fabric of his work.’ (‘Calm Without, Fire Within’.)
EVERY ONCE IN a while comes the great writer who makes use of a single word, even a useless adjective, to convey a ruthlessness of vision that the merely good writer wouldn’t think of. Take the sentence ‘The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns’ from Joyce’s ‘Araby’. Now re-read that sentence but without the word ‘feeble’. The good writer would have let the boys go with only ‘lanterns’, leaving room for a little hope. Joyce, in his honesty, could not allow even that. One word, an otherwise unnecessary adjective, precisely placed, has preordained the failure of the quest (and the disappointment of unrequited love) while trapping in it the Dublin drabness.
Now think of Ray and the ruthlessness of his craft.
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