Shakha Proshakha: Satyajit Ray's penultimate film isn't his best, yet offers a moving image of life

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Jul,16 2017 11:48 15 IST

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.

Towards the fag end of his career, the films that Satyajit Ray made were a clear reflection of two things — firstly, his own failing health and exhaustion, and secondly, that he was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the rampant unscrupulousness of the society around him. Almost totally devoid of his smart humour — perhaps because he was too tired to use it by now — even the most casual watcher could tell the master’s growing irritation and helplessness shadowed in these films, as he found himself surrounded by the death of ethics. One such film is his penultimate one, titled Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree).

Still from Satyajit Ray's Shakha Proshakha

Still from Satyajit Ray's Shakha Proshakha

The story of the film is simple. Ananda Majumdar is a retired industrialist who has risen from the position of a trainee in a mica manufacturing firm in a small town in the Chota Nagpur plateau all the way up to the partner of the same company by dint of sheer industry and exemplary honesty. Thanks to his upright character and philanthropy, the people of the town literally worship him — so much so that they have named the entire town after him. He has four sons, and after three of them have moved on to the city and gone their own ways, Majumdar now lives with his second son, who was once a bright and promising young man, but who has now been reduced to a mentally ill individual after surviving a nasty accident in London.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, the patriarch of the family suffers a massive heart attack, and his three sons and their respective families hurriedly gather around him. In the week that follows, tensions mount, and unknown to the old man, it is revealed that none of the three brothers — who are considered successful in their own careers — have inherited the honesty and strength of character that their father is known for.

The two female characters in the film exhibit their mute strength in their own ways. Not entirely unfamiliar with their husbands’ dishonourable ways and means of bringing money home, they suffer silently, knowing fully well that there’s no way out any more. The wife of the third son, Tapati (played beautifully by Mamata Shankar) finds herself in a failed marriage, and is increasingly drawn to her brother-in-law — the youngest son of the family, whose Marxist ideologies make him give up a cushy and lucrative job in an advertising agency to take up a career in professional theatre. When the same man confesses to her that he has fallen in love with another woman, Tapati is hurt and bruised. Her only solace is her eight-year-old son, and although she is unhappy, she stays back and makes a genuine attempt to protect her marriage, all for the sake of her child.

Set against this gloomy backdrop is the second son Prashanta’s seemingly useless existence. He sits in his own room with a candle burning in one corner and listens to Bach and the Gregorian Chants, the scenes depicting him in his dimly lit solitude seemingly coming straight out of an oil painting from the days of yore. Every now and then, he exhibits glimpses of his erstwhile spark — a deep knowledge of music, literature, philosophy — and also, rather surprisingly, a brilliant sense of humour. Played beautifully by legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee, it is endearing to see him suffering from the agony of a memory loss, and yet casually walking up to his father and touching his feet to take his blessings when he learns that it was the old man’s birthday.

In perhaps the most hard hitting and masterfully written scene of the film, the same Prashanta, ignored and relegated to the background, protests in his own way when the family gathers over lunch but ends up throwing allegations of corruption and vices against each other. He is a madman, but a madman who hasn’t forgotten his principles. Once again, if there’s one thing that gets portrayed in this scene, it is the aging filmmaker’s tragic helplessness and his angst at finding himself more of an exception than of a rule in the midst of a lost cause.

If one were to do an honest assessment of the film, one would have to say that despite the relevance of the message, the usual brilliance of Ray’s style and making, and several admirable performances by its actors, the film is not without its flaws. One of the principal criticisms of the film could possibly be around its use of dialogue. In an essay written in the year 1963, Satyajit Ray himself says, "Perhaps the most important thing to be said about dialogue in film is that the screenwriter ought to be able to completely obliterate his own existence, enter the minds of his characters and then express the nature of these characters through the words that they would speak. One must also remember, that in film, time is a very valuable commodity. The more you can express in as few words, the better. And if you can do it through gestures instead of using words, well, nothing like it."

Sad to say, it was this economy of dialogue that Ray once professed so strongly and practised with zeal in every single one of his early films, that is lacking in Shakha Proshakha. The dialogue seems rather forced at places and this affects the screenplay in many ways. The film could have done with better editing as well, and Ray’s handling of the child actor in the film also leaves us somewhat less than satisfied.

And that brings us to a point that is worth considering before judging the film too harshly. The subject of the film, the message within, and the way that this message is delivered — by juxtaposing the so-called ‘success’ of the three sons against the seemingly worthless but selfless love of the fourth for his dying father — are all so relevant in today’s world that one is forced to ignore these minor blemishes and take a moment to reflect and make an effort to tell the gainfully wrong from the morally right. And it is in that sense that Shakha Proshakha succeeds as a film — for what is a good film, but a moving image of life that makes you think?

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.