One keeps hearing of the revolutionary spirit and avant-gardism inherent in what's come to be known as the new wave of Indian cinema. The contemporary crop of young filmmakers, we are told, has redefined the form with its refreshing and indeed authentic portrayals of reality — a far cry from the formulaic, assembly-line fantasies of Bollywood. Last year, I was much intrigued by this movement and spent a little time researching it. I interviewed several filmmakers for a story I had planned, which was to trace the evolution of independent cinema in this country. It was to be a straightforward, upbeat piece: the emerging Indian auteur finding his feet and rebelling against the mainstream.
But the story I ended up writing was slightly more complicated, not least owing to my own weary response to some of these films. Even the films that I really liked — for instance, Chaitanya Tamhane's Court — failed to shock or excite me in a way I had expected. These films did not leave their imprint on my memory or add anything distinctive to my outlook. Perhaps, this was because my expectations, to begin with, had been way too high. I had in fact embarked on my brief exploration of this subject with the same question in mind that I had been asked by the Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu, when I interviewed him for my story. "Where," Norbu asked me, left underwhelmed by the new Indian cinema, "are the Rays in India?"
Akira Kurosawa said about Satyajit Ray that not to see his films is like "existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon". This is an apposite parallel to draw, between Ray's cinema and the natural world. Ray's filmography has attained, in our collective imagination, the magnitude of some natural phenomenon, while nature itself has found a suitable home in his films.
I recently saw a photograph of the director that to some degree embodies his responsiveness to nature. It was clicked during one of his shoots in the '50s, in Bengal's countryside, in the village where Ray's masterpiece Pather Panchali was being made. The crew is right in the middle of a field filled with growing clumps of weed under a grey sky. The camera is mounted high on the tripod and an assistant holds an umbrella over it. Ray, dressed as ever in his white dhoti kurta, sits on the ground unsheltered from the drizzle, his cheek resting on his hand and eyes trained on the far horizon. The image is subtitled: "Satyajit Ray waiting for the right weather during the shooting of Pather Panchali."
Ray's first film started out as an experiment put together by novices. The actors cast for it had never acted before, the cameraman had never filmed and the director, the would-be veteran, had never directed before. There was also no money to fund the project. So the filmmaker broke bank — using the savings from his advertising job and money borrowed (Rs 8,000) from an insurance firm — to put together the required expenses. Ray to held on to his job, which meant that they could shoot "only on Sundays and holidays", as he told the writer Ved Mehta in an interview.
After the film's premier in New York in 1958, a local critic was less than generous with his review, saying that the film was shoddily made and "would barely pass for a rough cut in Hollywood". Ray himself was quick to concede this point, writing that "judged on the level of craftsmanship, there was much that was wrong with my film". In another essay on Pather Panchali, Ray spelt out what he thought was wrong with the film's early part: "Shots are held for too long, cuts come at wrong points, the pace falters, the camera is not always placed in the right position." These, however, are mere technicalities compensated for by the filmmaker's extraordinary vision.
We are now given fresh glimpses of that vision as The Apu Trilogy — the cinematic equivalent of a Bildungsroman that comprises the three films Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar — once again becomes the talk of the town in the cultural capitals of the world, almost a decade after the first of these was premiered. After the old, moth-eaten negatives of these films were sent for restoration to London in the 1990s, they were all but destroyed in a fire. It took a long time to have them, as it were, re-restored and re-mastered. This month, the three films, their prints as good as new, are once again being shown across Europe and the United States — a form of posthumous tribute to Ray's cinema.
Ray's cinema, for non-experts like myself, works on an emotional level first. Pather Panchali can still move me to tears, no matter how coldly analytical my gaze. The death of the old "aunty" Indir Thakrun (played by the 80-year-old Chunibala Devi, a former actress whom Ray brought back from filmic oblivion) is perhaps the most convincing portrayal of human demise anywhere in cinema: the close-up of her rigid, lifeless face includes a fly buzzing on and around it. Such unforgettable details are the lifeblood of Ray's style of high realism, which contemporary directors — Ray's epigones all — can only dream of reproducing.
Being an accomplished draughtsman and visual artist helped Ray immensely. He designed the posters, and even magazine advertisements, of his films. But most of all, he made use of his visual sense as a director to render on screen the scenes he had in mind almost to the letter. Everything had to be just right. That's why elaborate and minutely-detailed sketches of his scenes usually accompanied the screenplay of his films. Indeed, Pather Panchali was the result of a series of such sketches that Ray had undertaken after being inspired by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee's novel of the same name.
Ray’s cinema works on an emotional level first. Pather Panchali can still move me to tears, no matter how coldly analytical my gaze.
I relish the visual element of cinema, which perhaps explains my enthusiasm for Ray's work. What stays with me the longest after watching a film is not its plot or the interplay between characters — films can never surpass literature or theatre in this regard. The immortal aspects of cinema for me are hidden in the colours, figures and landscapes it depicts, in all the visual units that provide it form. Sound (which Ray excelled in) is secondary, and so is the story. I most admire the filmmakers whose works enable my TV screen to closely approximate a well-finished canvas or, in Ray's case, an open window (complete with the unforgettable ambient sounds).
Geniuses often tend to be appropriated by one clique or the other. There have been attempts, for this reason, to pigeonhole Ray's work into categories like art-house and parallel cinema. This is nothing new. Filmmakers like Truffaut or Jean Renoir — a major early influence on Ray — were designated their own place in art history by many a self-appointed expositor of modern cinema. When Renoir visited Calcutta for his film The River, Ray met him as a young admirer and helped him scout for locations. But the one Renoir film he most admired was La Règle du jeu, which, as he later said, "didn't wear innovation on its sleeve". The film's success, according to Ray, lay in its resistance to easy classifications. "Humanist?" he asked. "Classical? Avant-garde? Contemporary? I defy anyone to give it a label. This is the kind of innovation that appeals to me."