Eclipse Series 40: Late Ray

On Film / Essays — Jan 7, 2014

THE HOME AND THE WORLD: GOING HOME

Satyajit Ray inhabits a special place among the great cinematic humanists. Even when compared with Vittorio De Sica, Jean Renoir, or Yasujiro Ozu—all of whose art similarly serves to affirm the essential beauty of people amid turmoil, pain, or corruption—the Bengali director stands out for the breadth and indefatigable good nature of his output. All his work, including the darker visions, seems to glow with an inner light. Over the course of thirty-six years and twenty-nine features, whether he was making period pieces set in India’s colonial days or contemporary films unfolding in the emergent postcolonial world, Ray’s project was charting a nation’s social change through an intensive focus on the people negotiating it. And this interest, along with the compassion of his artistic outlook, only deepened as he grew older, as is clear from the particularly emotionally generous films he made in his sixties, during the last decade of his life. Though he was frequently in poor health at this time, he was able to complete a series of meditative films between 1984 and 1991 that are models of composure and philosophical commitment. These are vital works, suffused with a rich autumnal glow.

By the time Ray entered this last stage of his career, he was an internationally known director; in his home region of Bengal and throughout India, he was a cultural icon. The Kolkata-born artist was a writer, musician (he composed the scores for his own films from the early sixties on), illustrator, book designer, and the editor of a children’s magazine. But it was on the cinema that he left his most indelible stamp. His first film, 1955’s Pather panchali, a delicately rendered story about a child coming of age amid impoverished village life, became an instant sensation for providing a sober neorealist alternative to the escapist, melodramatic Hindi movies that were India’s cinematic staple. Over the next few decades, Ray’s output would be eclectic, encompassing not just devoutly realist tales of everyday Bengali life but also historical dramas, musicals, and detective stories. Whatever the genre he was working in, however, Ray always remained socially and historically engaged. By the middle of the seventies, he had achieved such renown and importance—no less a figure than Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared his films to be the true, authentic Indian cinema—that he was empowered to embark on his most ambitious project yet. The Chess Players, released in 1977, would be his most expensive production; a period piece set during the nineteenth-century British Raj, it is his only fiction feature made in a language other than Bengali (it’s in Urdu and Hindi), and it features a cast that includes movie stars from both India (Amjad Khan) and the West (Richard Attenborough).

After that major undertaking, Ray turned his attention to lighter fare for a time, including two children’s features (the 1978 detective story The Elephant God and the 1980 musical The Kingdom of Diamonds, a sequel to his popular 1969 family film The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) and two shorts for television (1980’s Pikoo and 1981’s Deliverance). His next major film wouldn’t come for a few more years, but it would be one of the most important of his career. The Home and the World (1984) was a uniquely resonant work for Ray emotionally, and one that was, in a sense, decades in the making.

Ray had long been a fan of the 1916 novel The Home and the World, by the Nobel Prize–winning Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. In 1948, seven years before Pather panchali saw the light of a projector, he and his friend and fellow film lover Harisadhan Dasgupta were planning a film adaptation of Tagore’s book. After Dasgupta bought the rights to the book (for a hefty sum) from the author’s estate, Ray summarily wrote a script. The pair then found a producer in a friend from the Calcutta Film Society, which Ray had cofounded; hired an art director; and even began scouting locations. Tagore occupied a special place in Ray’s heart, as not only had he been a close friend of Ray’s father, Sukumar, but he had founded the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, which had helped define Ray’s artistic identity when he studied there.

After months of planning, the project fell through, partly because Ray refused to make changes to the script demanded by its primary backer. Years later, Ray would speak of this turn of events with relief, calling his script “pitifully superficial and Hollywoodish.” In 1982, at age sixty-two, after he had filmed two other Tagore adaptations, Three Daughters (1961) and Charulata (1964), as well as the documentary tribute Rabindranath Tagore (1961), he felt he was finally able to do justice to this particularly ambitious, emotionally and politically complex work of Tagore’s, and began preparing. By this point, Ray was a master of encapsulating large political and social ideas in small-scale dramas—of evoking an entire world with a handful of characters. The Home and the World is essentially a classical love-triangle story, but it is one that catches its principals up in the tide of history, dealing with differing philosophies on political revolution, the efficacy of using or not using violence, and the clash between radicalism and traditionalism.

This was a crucial moment for Bengali culture. Set in 1907, The Home and the World takes place at the height of the social fallout from the October 16, 1905, partition of Bengal, when the British Lord George Curzon, the viceroy of India, cut the region in half, separating the predominantly Hindu west from the predominantly Muslim east. This met with resistance, and ended up fueling agitation in India at large against its British rulers. A major result, essential to Tagore’s book and Ray’s film, was a boycott of foreign-made goods in favor of homegrown, or swadeshi (of our country), products that was started by middle-class Hindus. However, this resistance movement created an unfortunate conflict between the already divided Hindu and Muslim communities: the former were generally wealthier than the latter, and thus better able to afford the higher-priced Indian products over the cheaper foreign imports.

Tagore himself had been a swadeshi leader, but he left the movement around 1906 because it was becoming increasingly violent. The Home and the World is based on his personal experiences of those years, refracted through the voices of three fascinating characters: the politically progressive aristocrat Nikhil (played in the film by Victor Banerjee); his wife, Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee); and his college friend Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee). A staunch believer in the fundamental importance of female emancipation, the gentle-souled Nikhil wishes to guide the more traditional Bimala to enlightenment, and so introduces her to Sandip, a far more radical thinker growing in popularity as a leader of the swadeshi movement. Bimala finds herself drawn to Sandip, seduced by his magnetism as well as his impassioned politics. The resulting romantic complications lead to a tragic denouement.

Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee is the steely heart of the film, cast against type as an aggressive firebrand of a leader. The actor, usually given gentler roles (such as the title character in 1959’s The World of Apu), brilliantly and sympathetically inhabits a figure who, because of his turn to nationalistic violence, could have read as merely antagonistic. Never polemical and always respectfully aware that, as Jean Renoir said, everyone has their reasons, Ray draws emotionally vivid portraits of people without resorting to stereotypes, all fumbling toward realizations about themselves and their beliefs. In The Home and the World, the director places his multifaceted characters within rich, shadowy compositions—many crucial scenes play out in candlelit interiors—and tells their story with a growing sense of impending doom.

The Home and the World is commanding in its treatment of its subject matter yet graceful in construction and tone; like all of Ray’s best works, it’s delicately woven thread by thread. The film is so finely etched that one wouldn’t imagine there were behind-the-scenes woes, yet Ray suffered his first heart attack, brought on by high blood pressure and overexertion, before production was completed.This resulted in his being hospitalized on and off for about a year, until he underwent bypass surgery; in the meantime, the filmmaker’s son, Sandip, completed The Home and the World under his father’s supervision. Ray’s weakened condition would dramatically change his filmmaking methods from this point forward, yet as his next films would prove, the curiosity, conscience, and soulfulness of his cinema could not be dimmed.

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE: SOMETHING IN THE WATER

After Satyajit Ray’s heart attack in 1983, his doctors informed him that he could no longer direct movies, as the work was too physically taxing. It wasn’t until 1988 that he got the go-ahead to begin filming again, although he was restricted to shooting on studio sets and could not operate the camera himself, as he had done since 1964’s Charulata (his son, Sandip, took over). In the intervening years, Ray had overseen and written the thirteen-episode anthology television series Satyajit Ray Presents (1985–86), which encompassed a variety of genres, including horror and fantasy, and directed Sukumar Ray (1987), a TV documentary about his father, broadcast on the centenary of his birth. But it was An Enemy of the People, released in 1989, that marked his true return to serious filmmaking.

Following doctors’ orders, the film was set almost exclusively indoors and made with medics on standby; as a result, camera movement was even more restricted and setups even simpler than what the reserved filmmaker usually chose. Nevertheless, Ray uses these limitations to great dramatic advantage in An Enemy of the People, a tightly coiled, dialogue-driven adaptation of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 work of the same name. The play’s air of moral indignation and themes of government corruption had resonated with Ray when he first read it in the forties, and he had never forgotten it. In moving the story—about a doctor who discovers contamination in his small town’s water supply—from late nineteenth-century Norway to late-eighties Bengal, Ray clearly had adjustments to make. Yet the transposition feels utterly natural, as if this tale had been meant to unfold in Ray’s India, and many of the changes take the story in fascinating new directions.

In the small town of Chandipur, a respected doctor, Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee), suspects that polluted holy water at the community’s Hindu temple is the cause of a deadly outbreak of hepatitis. When laboratory tests confirm this and he alerts certain authorities, including his powerful businessman brother, Nisith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), the head of the committee that runs the temple, he meets with great resistance; the temple is a major source of revenue for the town, and spreading fear that it is unsafe to visit it would keep pilgrims away. Gupta is met with opposition at every turn—even the local newspaper editor, who initially agrees to print a warning, backs down under municipal pressure—and is forced to stand up for his principles alone.

An Enemy of the People’s central outrage—the turning of religion to political ends—was Ray’s invention. In the original play, it’s the water in an expensive new spa that is contaminated; the added conflict in Ray’s version comes from the fact that holy water is held to be inherently free of impurities, a belief exploited by authorities acting in their own interest. Furthermore, water pollution was and continues to be a major problem in India, making Ibsen’s foundation story especially relevant. As he grew older, Ray was becoming increasingly political, and vehement in his opposition to social corruption and fundamentalism; An Enemy of the People stands as a stark statement against such forces. That he ends the story, unlike Ibsen, on a note of solidarity rather than total isolation speaks to Ray’s inherent hopefulness, even in the darkest moments.

THE STRANGER: FINAL THOUGHTS

Satyajit Ray’s last film, The Stranger (1991), stands as the loveliest testament to the filmmaker’s craft and humanity from this late period of his career. Among his most philosophically rich works, it expresses with great poignancy the graceful resignation of an artist in his waning years. Often comical but serious at heart, it’s a film of many moods, as expressed in its alternately whimsical and foreboding musical score, a minor-key mix of Indian and Western instruments composed, as was his habit, by Ray himself.

The Stranger is based on Ray’s own short story “The Guest,” written in 1981 for the children’s magazine Sandesh, which he edited. An enchanting Utpal Dutt, known for his decades of work in Bengali theater, stars as the magnificently impish but commanding Manomohan Mitra, ostensibly the long-lost uncle of a bourgeois wife and mother, Anila (Mamata Shankar). As the film opens, Anila and her husband, Sudhindra (Dipankar Dey), receive a letter saying that he will be arriving in a matter of days and requesting their hospitality. Initially, the middle-class couple, who live in a spacious Kolkata home with their eleven-year-old son, are worried that the man claiming to be Manomohan may be an impostor; Anila’s uncle has been out of contact with the family for thirty-five years. Nevertheless, Anila and Sudhindra allow this charming, enigmatic, philosophically unorthodox figure into their home.

The conflicts that ensue take on many shades. Although the family come to accept their visitor as an uncle, they find it harder to accept his radical way of thinking and the unmaterialistic life he has led during his decades of world travel. And while Anila and especially Sudhindra begin to suspect that he has returned in order to collect an inheritance from her grandfather’s will, Manomohan seems unconcerned about such superficial matters, preferring to engage the couple and their friends in broad discussions about the nature of society, in which he expresses his belief that “true civilization is the one found amongst forest dwellers,” as opposed to modern living, with all its oppression and inequality. Ray’s exquisitely conceived and shot climax, set in a tribal Santhal village, allows Manomohan to open the family’s eyes to the beauty of a simpler life. It’s a subtly political gesture on Ray’s part; this is not a moment of conservative nostalgia but a rumination on the kinds of people deemed “savages” by a modern society inextricable from the war and inequality it engenders. This scene also brings Ray back to his artistic roots: the village is located in Santiniketan, where Ray studied at the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore so many years earlier and found his artistic voice.

That fact is doubly affecting in light of the knowledge that this would be Ray’s final film. The filmmaker died at seventy on April 23, 1992, a year after The Stranger was released and a mere month after he was seen by television viewers around the world accepting a lifetime achievement Oscar from his hospital bed. Ray was planning another film when he fell sick for the last time, but one could hardly hope for a richer career summation than The Stranger. According to Ray scholar Indrani Majumdar, the director said to his wife of The Stranger: “In this film, I have said all that I wanted to say. I don’t think I need to say anything else now.”