7 May 2018

God is in the details

My Mirror column:

Satyajit Ray would have turned 97 earlier this week. Looking back at what we might learn from him.

An early scene in Satyajit Ray's marvellous 1966 film Nayak has the bespectacled heroine Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) go up to Uttam Kumar – Bengal's reigning matinee idol, whom Ray had cast as his film star hero Arindam Mukherjee – for an autograph. It's for her cousin, she says carefully, leading Arindam to make some backhanded remarks about her not watching Bengali films. “They lack realism,” says Miss Sengupta. “Yes, you're right,” says Arindam, looking up at her. “Heroines with BA degrees must not sing songs of separation.” “And heroes need not be godlike just because they're heroes,” is her sharp comeback.

Returning to her seat, Ray's rationalist heroine spins her argument out. “Have you seen Joy Porajoy?” she asks. “The one where he plays tennis?” responds her train companion eagerly. “Not just plays it: he's a champion. He's a tennis champion, swimming champion, knows how to sing, how to dance, progressive, gets a First Class in his MA, great lover... all at the same time. Is that plausible?”

Miss Sengupta's is a fairly standard critique of Indian popular cinema. But thinking about Satyajit Ray in the week of his 97th birth anniversary (he was born on 2nd May 1921), I caught myself giggling at the thought that in reality, Ray was just the sort of multi-talented figure that his heroine had dismissed as implausible.

Not only did Ray write and direct a lifetime's worth of films that are counted among the classics of world cinema, he was also a prolific and gifted writer of Bengali fiction for both children and adults. For many years, he ran the superb children's magazine Sandesh, a publication originally begun by his grandfather Upendrakishore Raychaudhury in 1913 and then edited for many years by Satyajit's father Sukumar Ray, the stupendously talented author of the nonsense verse and fantasy classics Abol Tabol and Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La. As a young man he had cultivated an interest in Western classical music, and as a filmmaker he displays an unerring grasp of the power of Hindustani classical as well – not as a pedant, but as a craftsman who can tap into the enormous emotional reserves of a particular instrument or raag to create the mood he wants – the shehnai standing in for the human wail in Durga's death scene, or the astounding bucolic perfection of Ravi Shankar's Pather Panchali soundtrack, or the swing between performative excess and melancholy in Jalsaghar, to name just the first three things that come to mind.

His talent as an artist, of course, preceded his filmmaking career – and in many ways, foreshadowed it. Having always had a natural talent for drawing, Ray had already decided – after three not-so-happy years studying science and then economics at Presidency College, Calcutta – that he was going to get a job as a commercial artist. It was only at his mother's urging that the city-bred Anglophone, Hollywood obsessed boy decided first to study art at Vishwabharati University. Ray's two and a half years at Shantiniketan were shaping, providing him access routes not just to what he later described as “the magnificence of Oriental art” — from Ajanta and Ellora murals to Japanese woodcuts — but to the rural Bengal countryside.

These influences were crucial to Ray's first choice of project – Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay's classic Bengali novel which Ray called “something like an encylopaedia of rural life”. In that same statement, Ray also wrote: “While I learnt a lot about the craft of filmmaking from watching Hollywood films of the '40s and '50s, my primary influences when I stared my first film were Jean Renoir and the De Sicas Bicycle Thief & Umberto D. And yet, soon after I started shooting, I realised that the form, rhythm and texture of my film would derive from elements that were deeply rooted in my own culture, which had little to do with the culture of France or Italy.”

A page from the Pather Panchali Sketchbook, showing Ray's sketch of what would be the train sequence
A handwritten version of this statement is reproduced in a remarkable publication brought out by HarperCollins India in 2016, The Pather Panchali Sketchbook, which offers Ray enthusiasts (and anyone interested in the links between cinema and painting) a delightful gift – Ray's immensely detailed storyboards for what would be his first film. The sketchbook – which was donated by Ray to the Cinematheque Francaise – consists of a series of watercolour sketches which almost exactly presage the film in its final form. Looking at a sketch in which the ancient Pishi reaches up to caress Durga's face when she brings her a stolen guava, or Apu and Durga dwarfed by a darkening stormy sky, gives one goosebumps. Ray's plan leaves nothing out, it seems: fades, dissolves, long-shots and closeups, minor scenes and characters including even birds flying in the sky are already there in the painter's eye.

Not many filmmakers can duplicate Ray's graphic technique of working – simply because not many filmmakers are also painters. Nor do most have a musical and literary talent to match their visual imagination. We cannot all be godlike. But as I pored over the Sketchbook, it seemed utterly clear that what we can all learn from Ray is an attention to detail. As the world hurtles ever more towards the grand gesture, instructing us not to get “bogged down by the details”, being able to observe Ray's mind at work is an inspiration: because the fragments he is laying out are really pieces of a grand jigsaw, whose final form he already sees – in his mind's eye.

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