NAYAK / THE HERO (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1966, India) – Past Transgressions

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There is no repudiating that Nayak saw Ray entering a period of digression, from a fecund classical style to one of artistic self-examination. Nayak questionably deconstructs both masculinity and stardom in equal measure, and is clearly self-reflexive. But the film is also part of a longer struggle Ray expressed in a concatenation of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This had much to do with Ray exploring where he stood politically against a backdrop in which Kolkata was becoming radicalised in the late 1960s as a result of growing unemployment and disaffection from the youth.

Where this political expression finds certain clarity is in a subplot that involves Arindam (Uttam Kumar) and his college friend, Biresh, a political agitator (most probably a Marxist, Communist or both). In a flashback triggered by a series of intimate conversations with reporter Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), Arindam recalls this particular incident. In the sequence, Biresh is shown to agitate the workers whereas in stark contrast Arindam is busy rehearsing his lines for a play. Later, Biresh questions Arindam’s refusal to partake in the agitation. Arindam sheepishly dismisses Biresh’s political deconstruction. In the following sequence, Arindam is involved in a protest that turns ugly. On this occasion his anger explodes into an impotent rage and the crowd of protestors swallows up Arindam. Five years pass by and in another flashback Biresh comes to visit Arindam who is now a rising film star. Biresh, still the committed political activist, takes Arindam on a car journey and they end up outside a factory with striking workers. When Biresh asks Arindam to say a few words to rally the spirits of the workers, Arindam can do no such thing. Arindam is overcome with the fear of what this might mean for his film career and flees.

Arindam’s cowardly retreat is a theme Ray would return to in his Kolkata trilogy expressly Pratidwandi. A new political radicalism much of it instigated by a call for a cultural revolution in Bengal was visible throughout Kolkata in the mid to late 1960s and Arindam’s hesitation to become part of the new culture of protests articulates Ray’s anxieties about this particular moment. Both Arindam and Siddhartha in Pratidwandi are passengers, casual spectators who can become angry but are unable to commit fully to the political cause because of where it might lead such as revolution. But Ray’s treatment of the political activist is flawed because he never gives us any real context to what exactly Biresh is involved in politically. One could postulate Ray sits on the fence. Degrees of ambiguity draw attention to Ray’s inexorably muddled attempts to engage with the politics of the time. The reliance on political caricatures undermines Ray’s moralistic political intentions, divulging intransigence and appeasement. And while Ray might be gratuitously critical of Arindam, an emblem of a tabescent Bengali middle class who turns his back on the striking workers, Biresh is thinly sketched, at a distance from us and ultimately peripheral. Moreover, by framing the political as a moral crisis for the male protagonist, often an alter ego, lets Ray off the hook when it comes to detailing the politics of the era. Biresh is personified as part of the moral conscience of a sycophantic middle class, a role taken up by Aditi in an unobjectionable style. In doing so, the political activist is reduced to a decorative fixation that fades away into the background – an ephemeral holograph so to speak.

Nonetheless, there is a moment in the car when Biresh asks Arindam to step out and say a few words since the workers have been anticipating his arrival. As a popular film star in the public eye Arindam is hesitant to speak out and although he chooses to drive away, the political symbolism of his retreat masks a trenchant anxiety to do with Ray’s own supposed real life political neutrality, a sanctimonious position to adopt in the face of social and political turmoil. Although Ray would continually defend his questionable political choices notably with the character of the Naxalite in Pratidwandi, many of these films dismantle masculinity and carve out a transgressive gender space that was taken up by the New Bengali Woman. But in the case of Nayak, a tergiversation finds Aditi erasing the traumatic recollections of Arindam’s dubious moral choices. In doing so, the film consolidates a doleful political acquiescence that frees the middle class from past transgressions and cultivates a surreptitious anti-Marxist sentiment that sticks in the throat.

Chalchitra / Kaleidoscope (1981, Dir. Mrinal Sen, India)

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This semi-comical snapshot of the middle class Bengali experience in Kolkata is apparently a minor work in Sen’s oeuvre. The story is slight; a young Bengali man Dipu (Anjan Dutta) aspires to be a journalist and as a sort of test of creativity, the editor of a newspaper (Utpal Dutta) asks Dipu to write a story based on his own middle class experiences. The story of Dipu trying to write is merely a pretext for Sen to remain connected with the urban landscape of Kolkata, a return to the richness of the city spaces, last probed with such pleasure since his Kolkata Trilogy. The socio-political urgency of Sen’s cinema after the aesthetic and thematic experiments of The Kolkata Trilogy never really went away from his work – he remained just as connected with the social milieu of the city. For instance, the uninhibited camera roaming freely through the fish market recalls Interview (70) when Ranjit meets his uncle, the first of many self-referential instances. Later, when Dipu tries to flag down a taxi in the bustling streets of Kolkata, Sen adopts an erratic editing style, articulating a blinding disorientation reminiscent of the street cinema of The Kolkata Trilogy, in which characters are liberated and imprisoned by the city in a scarring psychological duality.

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The Dream Sequence.

There is probably a consensus that Sen made two trilogies. The Kolkata Trilogy (1970 – 1973; Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik – although you could probably argue for Chorus too, which was released in 1974), and The Absence Trilogy (Ek Din Pratidin/And Quite Rolls The Dawn – 1979, Kharij/The Case Is Closed – 1982 and Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly, One Day – 1989).  I would argue Chalchitra is part of another trilogy, although much looser, but nonetheless important, which also includes Akaler Shandhaney/In Search of Famine (1980) and Khandahar/The Ruins (1983). The abiding theme in this trilogy is concerned with the media apparatus (film crew, photographer, journalist) and the role of the middle class in terms of mediating the politics of representation, exploitation and the gaze. In Chalchitra, Dipu’s urge to sensationalise the mundanity of the middle class experience constantly backfires on him because numerous opportunities for journalistic fodder are met with resistance from the people he encounters notably his mother (Geeta Dutt). It is only when a little boy poses the banal question: ‘How many ovens are there in Kolkata?’ does Dipu finally finds something to write about – pollution, smoke and coal. But this degree of obscurity points to something elemental about the middle class mentality and which results in Utpal Dutta enquiring if Dipu is a communist, a question first posed in Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), and which seemingly never went away from the psyche of the older generation of Kolkata. Chalchitra features an elaborately staged but very comical dream sequence, clearly a manifestation of Dipu’s jumbled, anxious mind, and which features microcosmic imagery of smoke, women, the police and the press. There is a danger of dismissing Chalchitra as a minor, insubstantial work. However, once situated as part of a loose trilogy, the film takes on an added resonance and deserves a further look.

THE APU TRILOGY – Robin Wood (1972) Movie Magazine

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‘Where most of Godard’s detractors wouldn’t dream of missing a new Godard film, there is a general sense among Ray’s that Mahanagar and Charulata wouldn’t be worth the time and bus fare. The corollary is that Ray’s admirers (in print at least) tend to be critics of the conservative Establishment. Film enthusiasts who don’t know Ray’s work well at first hand probably build up a mental image of it as the sort of primitive and literary cinema that has a solid, dull worthlessness but is difficult spontaneously to enjoy or get excited about’. (p. 6)

Robin Wood’s appreciation of director Satyajit Ray’s most famous work, the Apu Trilogy, has been long out of print. Wood’s groundbreaking study, first published in 1972 in the UK, was one of the first serious critical readings of the Apu Trilogy. It is almost impossible to find a copy of Wood’s book today or overstate its worth. More baffling is the fact it has never been reprinted since 1972. Robin Wood has always been one of my favourite film writers and the Apu Trilogy features some of his sharpest writing. Since 1972 the Apu Trilogy has been written about in many different ways. A rich critical discourse has appeared around Ray’s most popular films. Robin Wood like Marie Seton and Andrew Robinson were some of the first writers to bring the work of Ray to the attention of film academia: ‘Ray has himself stated unequivocally that the best critical writings on his films have appeared in the West’ (p. 8). I’ve read a lot of books and articles on Ray, and have also published some writings on Ray. Having finally read Wood’s book I feel somewhat horrified that I have written about Ray without using Wood’s work as a point of reference. Wood’s analysis of The Apu trilogy is still one of the best, if not the most profound I have come across. There is no doubt that Wood’s study is a key and definitive text on not just the Apu Trilogy but also on director Satyajit Ray.

It certainly has one of the best introductions you will likely to come across arguing for the need to take Ray’s work seriously, comparing him to both Renoir and Rossellini, arguing his ‘desperately old fashioned’ (p. 9) approach to filmmaking, redolent of classical Hollywood cinema, showed an unparalleled economy to storytelling. At the same time Wood describes Ray’s work as both ‘literary’ and ‘innovative’. A point of literary comparison Wood pinpoints The Rainbow (1915) by D. H. Lawrence: ‘Apu’s progress through the trilogy to some extent corresponds to the movement from the comparative stability of the Marsh farm’ (p. 17). Furthermore Wood recognises the ‘musical aspects’ of Ray’s cinema and how this clearly shaped the rhythm of his films. The role of music in communicating themes and telling the story in Ray’s films is an area of scholarly interest that is still ignored. Wood’s approach is a predominately text based study of the Apu Trilogy (old fashioned film analysis at its finest), elucidating the complex relationship between mise-en-scene, camerawork, sound, editing and performance that marks Ray as the most astute of directors to be able to articulate the most multifarious of designs in an often misunderstood simple film style.

The first section on Pather Panchali analyses four extended sequences: ‘the quarrel over the stolen necklace, the children’s first view of a train, the death of Durga, the preparations for departure’ (p. 20). It is the minutiae of the three films that Wood describes and scrutinises with such wonder and intent, demonstrating Ray’s staging is constantly linked to the realisation of ‘psychological impulses’ (p. 26) interconnected through the trilogy. What he also brings to light in all three sections of the book is the centrality of the ‘death-in-separation motif’ (p. 26), a unifying thematic, arguing Ray refuses to descend into morbidity when compared to cinema in the West:

‘For Ray, death is not so much a mystery as a terrible fact, something one has to learn to live with rather than a final judgment and challenge that abruptly and mystically changes one’s whole perspective’ (p. 83).

Unlike Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, which is awarded more respect and greater analytical engagement, the same cannot be said for Aparajito, ‘the least completely satisfactory of the three films’ (p. 40) and ‘more than adequate considered as a transition to The World of Apu’ (p. 41). Nonetheless, Wood still takes a measured look at Aparajito, suggesting:

‘the justification for the very slow tempo is that Ray is not trying to tell us things but to communicate a total experience: the film invites us to steep ourselves in the characters’ feelings and live-through their conflict to its outcome rather than take an intellectual ‘point’ (p. 50).

In fact, Wood is suitably impressed with the second half of Aparajito especially the last act when Sarbojaya and Apu return to the village, arguing ‘the universality of Ray’s concerns is nowhere more evident’ (p. 51).

The World of Apu, ‘one of the most moving films ever made’ and ‘the crowning achievement of the trilogy’ (p. 61) forms the last section and is my favourite since I’m in complete agreement with Wood’s reverence for the film. It is surely Ray’s most complete film, a masterwork. Wood begins by discussing the ‘exceptional people’ populating the Apu trilogy who ‘remain intensely real’ (p. 62), arguing the ‘essence of Ray’s humanism’ (p. 62) is reflected in his propensity to ‘grant a grace or dignity beyond the demands of the function in the plot’ (p. 63) to even the minor characters. Here Wood uses the sequence where the landlord visits Apu to clarify Ray’s vivid faculty, depicting an interaction between the two characters with just the right degree of sensitivity through the mastery of performance, framing and exchange of dialogue. The charge of humanism may seem a little outmoded now when discussing Ray’s films. It is a term often associated with directors like Renoir, De Sica, Rossellini and Kurosawa who made films with universality to them. Humanism also meant the abjuration of pretentiousness and the valorisation of humility; qualities that are all but absent from much of cinema, the Dardennes a likely exception. Something often talked of is Ray’s imagining of the train, a symbol of life, death and progress, and relatedly Wood succeeds in tracing the iconographic use of the train, analysing its place in the overall narrative schematics. This is finely summed up in relation to Apur Sansar:

‘the train, once magical objects of wonder, are now commonplace, a part of the city’s squalor’ (p. 64).

The analytical focus in Wood’s final section concerns ‘Apu’s decision to marry Aparna’ (p. 65), studied in detail, considering Apu’s personal reasons and his friendship with Pulu. Time and time again it is Rossellini more than Renoir whom Wood uses as a point of authorial comparison:

‘The cumulative effect of Ray’s films is somewhat like that of Rossellini’s – felt especially at moments when a decision is reached and the whole weight of the film sensed to be behind it’ (p. 72).

If Ray learnt from Renoir lessons in humanist objectivity then Rossellini taught him the way a film’s pacing had to be realistically determined by the characters and their associating actions. And arguably it was from De Sica that Ray understood the simplicity in directing emotions, a point raised by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones in their documentary on Italian cinema (2001). Wood says ‘The central section of The World of Apu offers one of the cinema’s classic affirmative depictions of married life’ (p. 72), an idea he goes on to explore in the book’s most sustained passages of textual analysis, producing a moving insight into the six sequences that forms the soul of the film, some of the best work Ray ever did. In my opinion, it is this part of the book that makes this text such a revelatory once since Wood has a grasp on the finer nuances, the micro details and writes about them with an incomparable adroitness. Intriguingly, Wood criticises the renunciation sequence in Apur Sansar, saying it is ‘the weakest in the film’ (p. 86) for its obviousness, a point that I unequivocally disagree with since it is one of my favourite moments in the trilogy. In fact, it is a pure cinema sequence, another reason why Ray’s films are so uncomplicated when it comes to relaying to us the most basic of human emotions. Wood ends poignantly, deconstructing the final sequences, which culminates in one of the great moments in film history, and reminding us of the ‘visual poetry’ (p. 64) of the trilogy and its numerous achievements:

‘The film ends with him seated on Apu’s shoulders as Apu walks away towards the future. In accepting the child, he has accepted life, has accepted the death of Aparna. Whether or not he is going back to become a great novelist is immaterial: he is going back to live’.

One cannot help but think about Antonio and Bruno at the end of De Sica’s influential Bicycle Thieves, holding hands as they join the crowd. Scorsese & Jones describe it as one of the most precious moments in film. We could the same about the ending of the Apu Trilogy.

PIKU (Dir. Shoojit Sircar, 2015, India)

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What would Satyajit Ray have made of Piku? There was a sundry of questions running through my head as I left the cinema. There is no doubt he would have agreed that the central female protagonist of Piku (Deepika Padukone) educes the classical Ray woman: progressive, perceptive and selfless. Some critics have commented that Piku’s unconventional characterization is not representative of Indian cinema. I’m not certainly swayed by this argument. A lineage of salient female characters can be traced to Ray and Ghatak, and also Bengali film culture. Just a desultory glance at Ray’s work is palpable enough. One only has to consider films such as Kanchenjungha, Charulata, Devi and Mahangar to recognise that Piku (yet another Ray reference to his 1980 short Pikoo’s Day) is already familiar to us a Bengali archetype. Instructively, our first introduction of Piku is framed indoors by the posterized image of Ray. Measured postmodern juxtaposition outlines the communal authorial intents of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar framing Piku as not only an admirer of Ray (which middle class Bengali isn’t?) but also a hybrid of traditional Bengali femininity and contemporaneous designs. In some respects Piku could easily be classed as a Bengali film, as could Vicky Donor, Chaturvedi and Sircar’s first collaboration, which relatedly explored the comical gradations of contemporary middle class Bengali culture.

The comedy is arguably one of the trickiest film genres to master in any cinema. Some of the best comedies, the ones that have endured, are marked by the lightest of touches. Piku like Vicky Donor mixes comedy and melodrama, exploring relationships, this time between a father and daughter, but applying an observational approach to humour. All of this boils down to the tasty scriptwriting talents of Juhi Chaturvedi, exhibiting a definite ear for sharp, witty dialogue that never feels forced while the plot less narrative adds a welcomed fickleness. Another genre element is at play, the road movie, using the journey to Kolkata (more Ray; Nayak anyone? –although the journey is from Kolkata to Delhi in Ray’s film), exploring themes to do with ancestral origins, identity and disconnect between parents and children. If Piku is the one suffering from familial crises then her father Bashkor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan proving yet again he can almost play any type of role with grace and consistency) is a Bhadralok, a snotty, valetudinarian Bengali patriarch with a hilarious bout of constipation servilely dependent on Piku’s daughterly obedience.

It’s too soon to say if this will be remembered as one of Amitabh’s last great roles in the twilight of a singular career but it is certainly one of his most lively in years. Irrfan Khan as Rana, a wayward owner of a taxi service which he has inherited, works as the perfect antidote, striking up a relationship with Piku, affectionately emerging as the realist, an outsider who ever so often imparts a verismo that pries open the guarded mentality of both Piku and Bashkor. Irrfan Khan is a rare actor indeed; no one has been able to shift across independent and mainstream Indian cinema with such ease and success over the years. Along the way Irrfan Khan has notched up many impressive performances. He is surely one of the few actors that most directors are scrambling to work with given his consistency as an actor. Yet this film belongs to Deepika Padukone who is cast against type, delivering her finest performance to date as the vulnerable yet feisty Piku. It is a subtly modest performance, almost de-sexualizing her stardom so that the girl next-door idea notion is acutely visible yet balanced by a wit and intellect that strives for something altogether more Bengali.

Propitiously for a film dealing centrally with death (and shit) both writer and director manage to avoid the trap of mawkishness, aspiring for something sharper in an ending that is a mastery of understatement. This is a film unassumingly about people and the choices they have to make executed with an unashamed simplicity so often lacking in contemporary Indian cinema. Yet have any mainstream UK film critics mentioned this film in their recommendations of the week? No. Why should they? It’s just another film from Bollywood after all and thus deserves to be dismissed at the expense of monolithic American and European cinema.