Hundred years of Satyajit Ray, and his brand of visceral cinema that mirrored the politics of Bengal across decades

As his birth centenary coincides with the counting day of West Bengal polls, Satyajit Ray would surely like to know whether the people of his home state have voted or not for the lofty ideals for which he had lived and toiled all his life.

Jawhar Sircar May 02, 2021 09:27:04 IST
Hundred years of Satyajit Ray, and his brand of visceral cinema that mirrored the politics of Bengal across decades

Satyajit Ray

It is quite uncanny that the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, 2 May, 2021, also happens to be the very day on which the results of the bitterest and longest drawn elections in Bengal’s history are being revealed. When one comes to think of it, this coincidence is as poetic as the legendary filmmaker's cinema, because Bengal's politics has always been inextricably linked to its cinema.

Fish, football, films... and politics

“Fish, football, and films” may be said to capture the essence of Bengal, but without another term, ‘politics,' the description is hardly complete. While the Bengali fixation with the first two above are rather well known, and ‘politics’ is embedded in the DNA, a word on films may be in order.

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The state that has slipped on many fronts in the past half a century continues, however, to vigorously retain its remarkable lead in producing quality and thought-provoking films. With 22 movies, Bengali films have won the highest number of the nation’s best film awards, while the next group, Hindi, has secured 14. Malayalam comes third with 12 such awards, while most others are content with just one or two. One is astonished how the restless Kolkatan waits so patiently in mile-long queues outside the different venues of the city’s International Film Festival.

These four elements usually manifest themselves in pairs, and the most impressive combo emerged when films combined with politics in Bengal. We see how as early as 1938, Bengal rolled out patriotic movies like Desher Mati (My Country’s Soil), Sangram and Vande Mataram, while it grappled with more complex issues in the cinematic version of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s banned patriotic novel Pather Dabi (Right of Way) also appeared in film form even before the British had left.

It were, however, more radical films like Chhinnamul (The Uprooted, 1951) and Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik (1952) that gripped public attention, focusing on the burning issues of refugees who were violently and mercilessly uprooted from East Pakistan. This is where the Communists scored their first goals, as the ruling Congress establishment floundered in handling the human tide that swept into West Bengal, angry and hungry. The Communists did a great service by campaigning to ensure that the communal virus did not infect the furious millions, which was quite unlike what was happening in Punjab and Delhi. But they organised themselves and other disaffected masses in their endless series of violent movements that rocked the state over the next two decades. 

The advent of Satyajit Ray

Soon, the ‘three masters’ of Bengali film made their presence felt. While two, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, were overtly pro-communist and churned out strident films, the third, Satyajit Ray, was far more nuanced. In 1955, Ray’s debut film Pather Panchali marked the grand entry of Bengali films into world cinema, and was commended for its superb production, maturity of handling, worldview, and de-theatricalised  presentation. It was not political, but dealt subtly with the universality of human struggle and the message of survival.

This was the year when Bengal abolished its notoriously inequitable, centuries-old zamindari system, to free cultivable lands for the impoverished peasantry. While Ray added two unforgettable films to what the legendary Apu trilogy, Ghakak produced his disturbing trilogy, beginning with Meghe Dhaka Tara, in rapid succession in 1960, 1961, and 1962, raging at the tragic consequences of the partition of Bengal. This was just after the tumultuous Food Movement of 1959, which was brutally suppressed — the Communist Party claimed that several scores of their protesters had been bludgeoned to death by the police.

Hundred years of Satyajit Ray and his brand of visceral cinema that mirrored the politics of Bengal across decades

Still from Pather Panchali

Bengal was on the boil, and the common man learnt to occupy the street, through agitations that preceded it, like the violent one against the increase of the fares of trams by one paisa (several trams were set on fire), and when teachers left schools to protest and sit on pavements, demanding a decent salary of just a hundred and fifty rupees. Endless protest soon emerged as a leitmotif of the state, which would start driving industry away from it. But it is rather strange, however, that there are no inspired films centred on these political struggles, though they were referred to or appear in the ‘background’ of later movies. 

Politics in Bengal underwent a paradigm shift in 1967 when Congress was dislodged from power, and left parties combined with ‘bourgeois’ groups to form a government. Its short life was ruptured when left-wing extremism tore out of the ruling Communist Party (Marxist) to stage an armed insurrection at Naxalbari. Mrinal Sen has chronicled so movingly the excruciatingly painful phase that followed, as the ‘revolution,' drenched in “the blood of beheaded class enemies," wrestled in a macabre battle with brutal and vindictive state repression. That Sen’s sympathies lay unambiguously with the oppressed and with the left movement is clear, though we are not sure which brand of the left that was.

His ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ of Interview, Calcutta 71, and Padatik, followed by Chorus, captured the terrible frustration of the youth during the 1969-1975 period, when hopeless joblessness stared in the face while the romanticised left revolution went through its dramatic convulsions. He was critical of Ray’s lack of direct involvement, but Ray’s films of this same phase, like Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, and Jana Aranya, brought out quite vividly and sympathetically the exasperation of the thinking, educated middle-class youth.

Ray’s camera stared at the same cauldron that hissed and bubbled in a violently volatile Kolkata, and his films portrayed the hypocrisy and insecurities of the ruling system as well — with his signature and finesse.  

Along with Kerala, Bengal was always a highly politicised state but its population is almost three times that of Kerala’s, while its human development indices are nowhere near. Filmmakers in both languages operate within similar environments of class struggles and rights consciousness, and in dissecting deep human cravings — which is difficult for the film world in other states to understand. It is remarkable how Ray articulated his social and political concerns so vividly and aesthetically, without actually talking or preaching politics. 

A lesser known fact is Ray’s close association with left intellectuals of post-Independence Bengal, as evidenced from his regular visits to the office of Kathashilpa Publishers, located very close to College Street’s iconic Coffee House. It was the rendezvous of almost every radical intellectual and artist of Calcutta, including those with extreme left sympathies. This red bastion that Ray visited so regularly retained its political purity and vitality for three decades, and is credited with encouraging some of finest cultural personalities of the period.

Hundred years of Satyajit Ray and his brand of visceral cinema that mirrored the politics of Bengal across decades

Dhritiman Chatterjee in Pratidwandi

Ray was conversant with subtle and intricate nuances of the Marxist discourse. Though he may have been impressed by many an ideal or aspiration, he could never come anywhere near any dogmatism. An uncompromising rationalist and secular liberal, he was primarily an artist and a musician who had extended his genius through the new form of articulation in celluloid. His classic critique of authoritarianism, Hirak Rajar Deshe, demonstrates his sheer mastery and white anger, as he narrates a rather simple children’s tale of an evil oppressive king. The king’s repression and ‘brainwashing’ of the populace (Ray was considerably advanced in perceiving the tactics of autocracy) backfires, and  the people revolt and dethrone him. Ray is remembered time and again in these troubled times, and his verses are repeatedly quoted almost every day, as the nation looks on aghast at mesmerised audiences who are unable to grasp the devastation inflicted by the ruler. 

On 2 May, 2021, the maverick filmmaker and one of Bengal’s greatest sons would surely like to know whether his people have voted or not for the lofty ideals for which he had lived and toiled all his life. 

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(Also read: Aparna Sen and Madhabi Mukherjee on Satyajit Ray the man, and his enduring legacy)

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