Anyone taking up arts as profession strives sooner or later to consolidate two things. A style that is distinct and a worldview that’s revealing of the artist’s range of interests and sympathies.
Of the two style is the more difficult to achieve. It’s like hitting upon a personal formula, a mould of sorts in which to pour your viscous content each time. It also goes by the name and label of andaaz-e-bayaan in our part of the world. The manner of the matter. Inevitably there is a period of churning involved. Gods of cinema, Antonioni, Bergman, DeSica, Kurosawa, all made a number of films before they settled down with what came to be identified as their signature style. Godard made a number of ‘crazy’ films before it hit the world—and probably him—that he was being “consistently inconsistent”!
Satyajit Ray has to be a rare example in the history of cinema to have got all aspects of style right in his very first film. Once perfected, the tenets of his andaaz—strictly Academy Aperture compositions, tracking for emphasis, his way of music application, narration through spiral cutting, intelligent engagement through deductive logic—were fixed for the rest of his films. It’s well known that he never apprenticed; instead he picked up technical information from half-a-dozen books then available, learnt grammar from just watching films (mostly Hollywood; Indian films by and large taught him what not to do) and relied upon Bibhutibhushan for his visual content. All this tempered with shrewd observation, vivid visualisation, a great sense of humour and never taking leave of robust common sense.
Going by considerations of style alone it may not be wrong to conclude that Ray’s entire career of 35 years taxies on one long plateau without ever taking off. Whether it’s high praise or criticism depends upon the eyes of the beholder.
Post PP all Ray was left to concentrate on was to juggle with variety; of genres, periods, subjects, never letting us (or himself) settle down to a habit. Indeed he seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to do that. After having five stunning deaths in the trilogy, the danger of being called a “death specialist” must have been real. Even Jalsaghar, which came after Aparajito—a song and dance film to redeem his position in the trade, as he said—ends with the death of the self-destructing zamindar. But when even his next, Prabhat Kumar authored Devi, happened to be ending with death, he force-changed the ending to the main character only losing her mind, not life. Interestingly when he visited the Institute in 1969, he gave us detailed aesthetic explanations on why he had done that, without mentioning this as the key consideration. But that can hardly be held against him. He was simply exercising his right of a juggler not to reveal the tricks of his trade.
After the trilogy, Ray only returned to portraying death 13 years and as many films later in Ashani Sanket. Teen Kanya, Kanchanjangha, Abhijan, Mahanagar, Charulata, Kapurush, Nayak, Goopy Gayne, Aranyer Din-Ratri, Pratidwandhi, Seemabaddha, none has death as high point of their beautiful expanse and exposition.
The first half of Satyajit Ray’s career was a breeze.
Then over Charulata and Nayak came the split with his cameraman Subrato Mitra. And soon afterwards followed the inevitable spat with that hornets’ next called the Indian new wave. Shorn of genuine talent, the government-backed wave could never quite win self-sustenance but did manage, at least in India, to dent Ray’s image.
I had known Subrato Mitra as an occasional visitor to the Institute. He was a tongue-tied fussy perfectionist who, as Ray told us in 1969, couldn’t quite say why he wanted another take. In actual fact, perhaps both men had had enough of each other. Both knew that nothing could deny them a place in the history with a dozen or so brilliant films they had done together and wanted to move on. In the event both lost. After some indifferent films here and there, Subrato took to teaching in the FTII and Ray could never again manage that luminous, marble quality of looks in his films.
The new wave filmmakers were for most part Institute ex-students looking for a break and were obliged to take a position on Ray. Using heavy academic jargon and with eager help from journalists, they began to fault-find him on two counts. One saying that his cinema was politically aloof and second that he had failed to keep pace with the medium. Institute was the undeclared war room of this attack.
Political commitment in those days meant being leftist. Communism was still firmly in control behind the Soviet iron curtain and much like everywhere else communist thought was the toast of Indian intellectuals. Accordingly cinema at that time could only be either Progressive or Reactionary. But Ray seemed to fall in neither category. As such some sought to ignore him while others assigned him to international skies in the company of other ‘humanists’, whatever that broad label meant. Students made it a point to see his films as and when they came—mostly without subtitles, it should be added—and came out moved but somewhat unexcited. Their preferred viewing, with lots of ‘repeat’ value, was European films from both sides of the political divide, east and west. Ray lacked the sexual fizz. That and less than perfect cinematography is what actually made his films look out of step with the times.
To be sure Satyajit Ray wasn’t a prude when it came to sexuality. But then there was the censor board which he wasn’t willing to mess with. As early as Devi he was constrained to show a lip-to-lip between a young married couple through a mosquito net, in the silhouette and in a long shot! The world scene on the other hand was experiencing a spurt of permissiveness. Take out sexual sting from films like Closely Guarded Trains, Virgin Spring, Cries And Whispers, Shinoda’s Double Suicide and even, let’s say, Jan Kadar’s minor Adrift and see what remains. You couldn’t blame the drooling students if Miklos Jancso, film after film, had flooded his lush green Hungarian countryside with a feast of shapely nudes walking uncut among horse riders who seemed to be rather interested in Marxism. Why, the communists once even tried a topless newsreader reading hard news on one of the Soviet channels!
Much as one might defend values of subtlety and the power of the suggestive in art, it’s not as though a film like Silence is any less suggestive and subtle. The truth is we as a society have been excessively prudish when it comes to portrayal of sex in the public arts. For somebody who played on the wider world scene, it wasn’t a level playing field. Come to think of it, one of the most embarrassing moments in Ray’s cinema is the kiss in Ghare Bahire. Self conscious and clumsy to the limit, seeing that shot you rather see the breath held of the unit members while taking it. If ever after the dog following the children in Pather Panchali there was another Ray shot that needed 13 takes, it was this one in Ghare Bahire.
All of which is not to deny, of course, that the second half of Ray’s cinema was on a natural decline even if none of these factors counted. It indeed was.
It can hardly be otherwise.