A lot has been written on Satyajit Ray and his work but well-informed, respectful but objective criticism remains hard to find. The time is more than ripe for mature, thoroughgoing reassessments of Ray’s cinema – and, for that matter, his literary work – but despite occasional interesting efforts in this direction, the overall picture is bleaker than one would expect. Gaston Roberge’s collection of essays comes, therefore, like a breath of fresh air. Roberge knew Ray very well and has the most profound respect for the man as well as for his work. But he does not allow that admiration to interfere with his critical faculties. Nor does he permit his prose to be obscured by “Theory,” although it is clear that his understanding of film theory is solid. Above all, he thinks for himself and does not necessarily accept Ray’s views of his own work as definitive. Unlike the majority of Western (and even some Indian) admirers of Ray’s work, Roberge knows Bengal and Kolkata intimately and this allows him to address Ray’s work from inside as well as outside. Written over three decades, the essays undoubtedly reflect the diversity of circumstances in which they were written, but they are nonetheless united by this dual perspective. Roberge calls his collection “a homage to Satyajit Ray” – it is that of course, but it is also much more.
The earliest essay in the collection – a critique of Pratidwandi written at the time of the film’s release in 1971 – illustrates my point clearly. Ray’s extraordinary Calcutta films have not attracted a fraction of the analysis devoted to his early work. Western critics have tended, with the exception of Andrew Robinson and one or two others, to underestimate their qualities; at home, they were often dismissed at the time as politically timid and have almost been forgotten of late. Roberge’s essay on Pratidwandimakes many illuminating remarks on the structure and style of the film, but it is even more perceptive on the moral dimensions of the film. Roberge argues that the film’s funamental concern is not with the political turmoil of Calcutta in the 70s or with a young man’s quest for employment. Rather, Ray tells the story of a socially detached young man beginning to develop a sense of realism and social commitment. I do not agree entirely with this analysis – I think Ray portrayed Siddhartha as an instinctive individualist lost in the maelstrom of politics and economic despair – but it is marvellous to find a critic wrestling with the film’s deeper implications. Some of Roberge’s strictures on the film are well-taken. Siddhartha is definitely too old (25) for the story, he does speak improbably good English, and it is hard to believe that he does not even try to earn some money by the Bengali youth’s traditional occupation of “tuitioni”.
Paired with this stimulating essay is a piece on Jana-Aranya, another remarkable film that rarely gets its due. Although this essay is much briefer, it still makes important points about the film’s technical brilliance as well as the ethical concerns that Ray sought to highlight. Ray was always interested in moral dilemmas and nowhere more so than in his urban films. Roberge asserts that “integrity – aesthetic and ethical – is the theme that inspires and informs the whole work of Ray.” This is entirely right and one wishes other critics would pay more attention to this aspect of Ray’s work. To label him a “humanist,” as so many Western scholars tend to do, is pointless unless we appreciate the steely moral core that underlies Ray’s all-embracing – but never all-forgiving – interest in humanity. True, his films do not have ‘conventional’ villains (even though his stories do aplenty) and true, even the most negative characters are developed fully. But whether it is Indranath in Kanchanjanga or Shyamlendu in Seemabaddha or Natabar Mitter in Jana-Aranya, their very freedom to expound their beliefs makes them reveal their moral worthlessness to the viewer. One may or may not agree with Ray’s ethical principles and one may not like the style in which he presents moral dilemmas, but to portray him as a serene relativist is just plain wrong. Everyone has his reasons in Ray’s films – but all reasons are not equal.
These moral preoccupations, of course, came to the fore in Ray’s last three films, which Roberge loves for their humanity and directness. I am not sure I can agree. “I have no wish to belittle content,” Ray himself declared in his hard-hitting Amal Bhattacharjee Memorial Lecture in 1982, “but we must remember that the lousiest of films have been made on the loftiest of themes. That a director says all the right things is in itself no guarantee of artistry. At best it is a reflection of his attitude, or ideology … it is the manner of saying which indicates the artist.” Jana-Aranyais a great film because its director, notwithstanding his own moral viewpoint, allows even his most reprehensible characters to speak freely and argue their case. The characters in Shakha-Prosakha, however, have been judged before they are condemned – they are not given much opportunity to express themselves or their motivations. Even the details of their corrupt dealings are left vague. Nor does this late film have any of the fluid imagery of Jana-Aranya, its wonderful rhythm, its quicksilver dialogue, or its ferocious wit. It is too grave, too leaden to get under the viewer’s skin whereas Jana-Aranya sears one for ever because it makes its points with such deadly lightness of touch. In Agantuk, of course, Ray returned at least partially to form, and I happily agree with everything Roberge says about the depth and urgency of Ray’s questions on civilization and their links with Tagore’s Crisis in Civilization.
The analysis of Ray’s films is not the sole purpose of this collection, nor is it the major purpose. As Roberge himself points out, he deals with only about a dozen of Ray’s thirty-odd films. Instead of analyzing every film that Ray ever made, Roberge explores the broader contexts of Ray’s career. The essay on foreign reviews of Ray’s later films, for instance, addresses a crucial theme and is alone worth the price of the book. Every critic, every biographer, every fan has long been aware of the international fascination with Ray. Nobody, however, has ever taken the trouble to read a large sample of Western reviews closely and analyze their ideological and cultural presuppositions. Nobody, that is, except Roberge. Based on an extensive trawl of American and British reviews, the essay shows how superficial, vapid and condescending some of the Western reactions were.
It is a boon to all Ray scholars that this remarkable essay, first published in a festival souvenir in 1979, has at last become easily accessible. Similarly valuable is the long interview with Ray on script writing, in which Ray spells out his approach to literary sources with a clarity and forthrightness that one does not find in his other statements on this topic. Even Ray’s famous essay justifying deviations from the original in Charulata (available in Bishoy Chalachchitra) is not quite this candid in acknowledging that many changes are not demanded so much by the grammar of film-making as by the ideological preferences of the ‘film-maker’.
Another admirable feature of Roberge’s collection is the emphasis on Ray’s contributions to film culture and film education. Although Ray was one of the founders of the Calcutta Film Society, his later efforts to spread knowledge and appreciation of cinema have not been adequately appreciated by biographers and critics. Apart from the personal influence he had on countless individuals in educating them on the cinema, Ray was a strong supporter of initiatives and institutions like Roberge’s own Chitra Bani. Those of us who grew up in Kolkata in the 1980s remember Chitra Bani as one of the most interesting features on the city’s cultural skyline and in his essays, Roberge reveals the extent to which Ray was an enthusiastic supporter of the project. He also rightly castigates the film societies for not being of any help to Ray when he needed them most. Three other essays show how Ray’s films can be used in teaching the fundamentals of film-making and film theory – film educators should find these inspiring.
This collection, in short, is the best introduction to Ray that I can think of. Instead of droning on about Ray’s greatness, his polymathic abilities or his humanism, Roberge actually shows us through clear, succinct and objective analyses what made Ray such a remarkable artist and human being. The essays do not deal with everything, or even with every important aspect of Ray’s creativity. But whatever they do deal with is essential for understanding Ray, his films and their larger contexts. “You don’t have to have too many elements in a film, but whatever you do, they must be the right elements,” Jean Renoir had told the young Satyajit Ray. Whether consciously or instinctively, Roberge has followed that precept in his essays, and what better precept could there be for a film-maker or critic?