The Lesser-Known Genius of Satyajit Ray

On Satyajit Ray’s 97th birth anniversary, let’s look at four of his lesser-known films.

Monisha in Satyajit Ray's Kanchenjungha

Satyajit Ray’s “Kanchenjungha”:

In 1962, Satyajit Ray made Kanchenjungha. Kanchenjungha, Darjeeling was the holiday destination that he went to regularly as a child. Not only was this his first color film, it was also the first time he wrote the story by himself. He had an ensemble cast acting in the film, including one of the legendary actors from the Bengal cinema industry, Chhabi Biswas.

In this film, Ray’s style was very different from his earlier films, in that it was even more subtle and complex than them. In Ray’s words, “Kanchenjungha told the story of several groups of characters and it went back and forth. Between group one, group two, group three, group four, then back to group one, group two and so on. It’s a very musical form. It was a good ten to fifteen years ahead of its time.” It was about a group of people from a family visiting Kanchenjungha. It centered around the themes of individual freedom, imperial past, changing times of new India and people. If Jalsaghar (The Music Room) was about the final days of the zamindari system, values and onset of something modern, Kanchenjungha is about the escape of India from its imperial past.

Chhabi Biswas plays Indranath Roy, the head of the family, who is proud about British Raj’s imperial heritage. He has two daughters, one of whom is married to a person similar to their class status. The story’s central action is about the consent of the second daughter, Monisha, to the proposal by a wealthy businessman recommended by her father. Ray here strongly criticizes the people who try to impose their own interest and decisions on another’s life. He also depicts how times are slowly changing for good.

Ray captures the beautiful scenery of Kanchenjungha very effectively. The moods of the characters in the film change as a reflection of the change in weather in Kanchenjungha. He draws a parallel between the lives of two main characters. One is the first daughter, who has married as per her father’s wish, but her husband finds out that she is having an affair. The other is the second daughter who is almost about to nod disinterestedly to her father’s wish to marry a guy of their status in the society.

The style in which he narrates and the pauses or interruptions he uses in between the conversation of different characters are things to admire. The characters are allowed to introspect their positions and what they have been presented by others in any juncture. A particular scene which best shows the technical mastery of Ray takes place between Monisha and the rich suitor who is going to marry her. They’re talking when there’s suddenly a bashful look on his face as he approaches her and holds her shoulder. Right at the moment when it seems that there will be some sort of forced intimacy, there is an interruption. “What are you doing here?” Monisha’s suitor shifts his gaze to the person who called out. “Is everything well?” The stranger smiles as he leaves. The suitor again approaches Monisha, but this time when he holds her and tries to utter a word, she moves away and says, “Father is waiting for us.” This shows that she has had time to think and act, which was enabled by the pause or interruption used in the scene.

Skeletons in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi

Satyajit Ray and his political film, “Pratidwandi”

Ray was usually criticized for not addressing social or political issues in his films. “I became aware of politics only after 1960. Till then, I was engrossed in developing my artistic abilities,” he once said. By 1970, Calcutta became a very different place from what Ray knew. There was mounting political tensions. For the first time, Congress lost the election in the state, and formation of Naxalite groups happened with much support from the youngsters. The Naxalite movements mainly affected the youth who studied in colleges. The situation was so alarming that Ray even thought of leaving Calcutta, but later admitted that, “For me, Calcutta is the place to work, the place to live, so you take what comes, you accept the fact of change.”

By 1970, he had moved to Bishop Lefroy Road, where his family lives to this day. Ray decided to make a film of a story written by Sunil Ganguly about the then plight of Bengal. It was the first of the Calcutta trilogy called Pratidwandi (The Adversary). When it was released, Ray said, “I could feel the impact on the audience last night, all of which surprises and pleases me a great deal, because the film is deadly serious, and much of the style is elliptical and modern.”

Dhritiman Chatterjee brilliantly played the character of Siddhartha, who is a young man searching for a job in the midst of these rising political tensions. The factor of unemployment was so dearly addressed by Ray in this film. The protagonist views himself as very different from his family members. His sister adapts to and uses the capitalist culture and its people to her advantage, which he strongly opposes, and his brother turns into a Naxalite activist, to his utter surprise.

Ray makes a very bold statement that Calcutta, at that time, was not a place that was calm and serene. He makes this point so subtly and creatively by using the sound of a bird. The protagonist goes to the bazaar to get a bird whose sound he remembers from his childhood, but he can’t find it in Calcutta. When he finally hears the sound far away from Calcutta, he decides to leave the city.

The last scene before the climax, when the protagonist goes for an interview, might be one of the best scenes in the history of cinema. The waiting room is a cramped place fit for ten but a hundred interviewees are present. Ray slowly captures the tension on each one’s face. As the heat in the room rises and they sweat and gasp for breath, the protagonist hears the voice of his professor lecturing about the skeletal anatomy of animals. As the voice continues, he sees the people in the hall slowly transform into skeletons, including himself. Ray has beautifully depicted the reality of the way workers are treated. The scene suggests that although they are all breathing, they might as well be dead because, in the eyes of the interviewers, what remains is just a skeleton of them.

Feluda in Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella

“Sonar Kella” and a Bengali Holmes:

In 1974, Satyajit Ray made Sonar Kella (The Fortress), his first detective film involving his famous character Feluda. Feluda is a cool, reserved, and knowledgeable person, inspired by Holmes. Like a lot of detectives, instinct is his main quality. Feluda was played by Ray’s favorite actor, Soumitra Chatterjee, who acted as Apu in The World of Apu.

The story is about a small boy who starts to see images of his previous life where he’s in a golden fortress, his home. The parapsychologist whom he’s taken to by his parents takes the boy on a train. Meanwhile, two people who happen to be on the same train catch wind of the boy’s story of a golden fortress and the precious stones in it and try to kidnap the boy. Although pretty much an exercise in genre convention, Ray is not interested in the usual type of thrillers or detective films, where the villains are only disclosed at the last moment in the film. Instead, he introduces them very early on, then carries on with the suspense that follows.

Feluda, who is approached by the son’s father about the situation, navigates the film accompanied by two people, one of whom claims to be a writer who writes about detectives. Ray’s intention was not only to have a third character but to depict someone who is a foolish and boastful writer, a playful jab at himself.

Satyajit Ray Agantuk

“Agantuk” (The Stranger):

The last three films that Satyajit Ray made were all chamber dramas which were confined to the indoors with a heavy emphasis on dialogues, conversations, and conflicts that develop among the characters. The reason for this shift in Ray’s style came about as a result of his heart attack in 1983, following which he was advised by his doctors not to make films on locations. After five years, his doctors permitted him to make a film on the condition that he worked only in the studio.

The last film he made was Agantuk, based on one of his short stories called Atithi (The Guest). It was released in 1991. It was a drama with an anthropological concern and a shade of autobiographical elements.

Utpal Dutt was cast as Manomohan Mitra, an uncle who returns to Calcutta after 35 years to his nephew’s house. The family, however, doesn’t remember him. The genius of Ray is very explicit here, and Agantuk is probably one of the few films that sets the plot in the opening scene. Now, will the family accept him as the uncle or refuse to let him stay in the house? The situation becomes more complex according to Manomohan’s perception. Ray criticizes the shallowness of the middle class and their self-centered quality just like he did in his another film Aranyer Din Ratri.

Ray’s opinions about religion and god are voiced through the protagonist. When the uncle is asked about the advancements and big feats achieved by science and technology, particularly about NASA, he comments, “NASA, there is also NESHA (addiction) along with it.” The concern of Ray here is the addiction the technology brings to the youth, along with its unimaginable inventions and discoveries. He criticizes modernization and says the real beauty is living a life that is connected directly with nature instead of being distant from it. Even though it’s a romantic call for idealism, most of the issues that are raised in the film are tough to be overlooked.

The mastery of Ray in satire didn’t reduce even at the age of 70, and this is clear when the protagonist asks the couple, “Do you know which is the longest word in English?” He continues, “Floccinaucinihilipilification. It means setting little or no value. To teach this, 29 letters are needed. Is this what civilization has come to?”

Trivia:

  • He composed music for his films from 1961.
  • Although never made, he had developed a science fiction script called The Alien, which was supposed to have been co-produced by Columbia Pictures. The cast would have included Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers.
  • Ray made only one Hindi feature film, Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players), starring Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi and Richard Attenborough, with narration by Amitabh Bachchan.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions of this author do not reflect The Orijinal as a whole.

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