Mahapurush: Satyajit Ray's take on the dangers of patronising self-professed godmen
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
The subject of fraudulent holy men has returned to the themes of Satyajit Ray’s works on several occasions and in several forms. In many of his short stories, novellas and novels — and a 65 minute film titled Mahapurush (The Holy Man), Ray had tried to address the issue and managed to show with great acumen the dangers of patronising such self-professed saints and voices of God in the name of religious piousness and devotion. In Mahapurush, Ray’s treatment of the subject is through comedy — a far cry from two of his other films which presented serious and all out criticisms of blind faith.
Adapted from a hilarious short story written by eminent Bengali author and humourist Rajshekhar Basu (more popularly known by his pen name Parashuram), Mahapurush tells the story of Birinchi Baba — a holy man who claims to have seen the founding of the city of Varanasi more than 2,000 years ago, or to have had arguments with Jesus Christ on the subject of wealth, or to have been friends with Plato, or to have taught the Theory of Relativity to a young fellow named Einstein — among several other such tall and outrageous claims.
Birinchi Baba meets an affluent old advocate, who has recently lost his wife, and has a profound impact on the widower’s already bruised mind. The advocate invites Birinchi Baba and his assistant to his home in Kolkata, and the Baba makes a ‘semi-permanent settlement’ in the old man’s house, giving sermons and offering spiritual advice. In a matter of days, several devotees begin to throng the old man’s house to meet the Baba and take his blessings — most of these people quite rich and affluent themselves, and capable of bribing their way to the front row, in order to have a closer proximity to the saint. When the advocate asks his daughter to become a disciple of the Baba, the girl’s lover — a young man named Satya — turns to his gang of friends for help, and the four men devise a plan to expose Birinchi Baba.
One of the most fascinating things about Satyajit Ray was that when tackling a social evil, religious fanaticism or superstition of any kind, he always used to study the subject very carefully, to fully understand it before criticising it. In this film too, Ray knew the importance of understanding exactly why a conman who garbs a saffron robe is able to make a fool of so many seemingly educated and intelligent men and women. And this led to making his antagonist seem like a worthy opponent, which is why he decided to spend more than half the film in exhibiting the many skills of Birinchi Baba — those that enable him to rule the hearts of his devotees with such amazing finesse. As the leader of the gang trying to plan the expose himself admits, Birinchi Baba has many admirable qualities. For instance, he is an actor of the highest order, extremely well read, one who has a very good understanding of mass psychology, has a photographic memory, has an astonishingly fertile imagination, commands a remarkable presence of mind, and above all — has the guts to pull off such a charade in front of all those present, day after day.
In his speeches, Birinchi Baba tells one lie after another, but he tells them with such flair, with so much imagination, that they don’t seem like fabrications anymore, certainly not to the uninitiated or the poorly informed. He is a smooth talker, and a master manipulator of time as well, often saying the same things in many different ways, but not once making it seem like he’s repeating himself. In his free time, he reads. As a man, he has an extremely pleasing personality, and despite being malicious in intent, is careful not to be excessively greedy.
Having spent enough time to paint his antagonist’s character well, Ray lay considerable emphasis in describing the gang who plans and executes the expose as well. The leader of the group is Nibaran Chakraborty — a professor in a college in the city. He is a man of few words, reads on a wide variety of subjects (from Madame Bovary to Shakespeare), loves chess, is a free thinker and despises hypocrites. Paramartha Chatterjee is a young insurance agent, who also tries his hands at Hatha Yoga in his free time. And the third member of the gang is a middle aged man named Nitai-da — a poor ledger keeper in a local merchant office, who is fed up of his routine existence and an incessantly nagging wife. What these rag tag group of individuals have in common, though, is an unquenchable thirst to do something interesting and meaningful in their lives from time to time. When Satya brings the news of Birinchi Baba to them, they come together to help him send the holy man packing and win his ladylove’s heart in the process.
The film itself was part of a double feature, screened along with Ray’s Kapurush (The Coward). As with several other comedies of Satyajit Ray, Mahapurush too wasn’t as well received by western audiences as some of his other, serious films. This is perhaps because it is difficult to absorb the nuances of a comic story outside its milieu, unless the comedy is presented in the form of more ‘physical’ forms, such as slapstick or tomfoolery. Mahapurush was neither, and was primarily a dialogue-based comedy.
And that brings us to another remarkable aspect of Satyajit Ray’s approach to cinema. Despite knowing that a very large portion of his audience was from outside the country, Ray had never tried to target his films at them. As he himself claimed, his primary audience was always the average Bengali man and woman. It is for them that he used to make his films. And in consciously choosing to do so, he showed exceptional creative maturity, because working in Bengal, with Bengali actors, with a Bengali crew to make a film for an audience far removed from the Bengali way of life would have been a perfect recipe for an artistic disaster. Ray knew this, and was willing to sacrifice foreign critical acclaim on some of his subjects, only to be showered in praise for others. For him, the art and its execution always took greater precedence than what followed by way of reception, and it always showed in his films, without exception. In Mahapurush too, this is evident, and the film was extremely well received by the audience it was targeted at.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.