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.

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.

KAPURUSH / THE COWARD (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1965, India) – The choices we make


It seems a little miscalculated that Criterion have packaged Kapurush with Mahanagar. The apparent logic may appear related with the presence of actress Madhabi Mukherjee in both films. Charulata has been released separately yet thematically Kapurush has much more in common with this film than Mahanagar. Firstly, Kapurush was the film Ray made after Charulata. Secondly, Kapurush continued the collaboration with both Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee from Charulata. Thirdly, Kapurush revisits themes about repression and the love triangle that Ray explored in Charulata. These three reasons are evidence enough that Kapurush is in fact a companion piece to Charulata, resituating themes in a contemporary middle class milieu. Less ambitious than Charulata, Ray distills the melodrama of a love triangle to its most basic by focusing solely on the relationship between a scriptwriter, married woman and her husband. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Amitabh a scriptwriter on the search for locations who ends up at the house of a tea planter after his car breaks down. Much to his surprise, the tea planter’s wife turns out to a former lover, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), whom he abandoned out of selfishness. 

I was always under the impression that Kapurush was a minor work from Ray but no Ray film should be thought of in such discriminatory terms since each film tells us something about Ray as a filmmaker, whether this be aesthetically or thematically. Unlike Charulata which seems to fracture the husband-wife bond, Kapurush keeps the husband at a distance so that a collision between the past and present through a series of revealing flashbacks creates an unbearable tension. Ray is interested in the question about a specific middle class selfishness and cowardice that privileges individual creative success over emotional commitment. Karuna is prepared to give up her family and status so that she can be with Amitabh but the flashback tells us he is too concerned with his underachievement’s as an artist. Ambiguity permeates the emotional state of Karuna in the present day and it is never made clear if she is happy. Additionally, we never come to know if her husband is aware of Karuna’s past relationship with Amitabh. While Karuna is critical of Amitabh’s cowardice, her decision to snub Amitabh at the train station at the end of the film underlines a cruelty personified through the symbolic significance of sleeping pills. It’s a shame that Mukherjee and Chatterjee never went on to work together more regularly since they were perfectly suited as an on screen pairing.