Satyajit Ray would have been 101 this May. And India, particularly Bengal, is busy celebrating, commemorating, coveting and yearning. He died 30 years ago, and every milestone related to his birth or death gets similar exaltations. Especially in Kolkata, the city where he thrived, Ray is a cultural edifice that can’t be questioned or ignored.
There are wild rumours about how the camera with which Ray shot Pather Panchali (1955), a bulky Mitchell 35-mm, still enraptures the city’s aspiring filmmaking talents. Just like Tagore, Amartya Sen or Sourav Ganguly can do no wrong, Ray is the cultural monolith that most likely wouldn’t have flattered him—a gifted man who persevered, his isolation from filmmaking cultures of India at the time he thrived, the '50s, '60s and '70s, was a result of his shrewd understanding of the freedom and material that Bengal could give him. Most of the films are adaptations of some sublime Bengali literary texts.
Just this month, a statue was inaugurated at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI); the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) organised a two-day festivals of his films in Pune from May 2 to May 4; another similar festival was organised in Mumbai at the same time; SRFTI organised a short-film competition for filmmakers from India as well as the world around the theme of “realism”, because, well, Ray was a “realist”?; activities for schoolchildren related to Ray’s work took place last month in Kolkata; Anik Dutta’s verbose, stagey and self-reflexive film Aparajito about the who’s and when’s of making Pather Panchali released in theatres in select cities across India.
The centenary is the excuse his fans need—the encomiums and the reverence is more intense than ever before. Perhaps that has a lot to do with how the Bengali cinema landscape has emerged in the past few years. A standout name in Bengali cinema, which has travelled outside of Bengal, is rare these days. Ray worship somehow keeps the salve over cultural mediocrity that exists in the Bengali filmmaking spectrum.
Ray fandom is deeply entrenched in Indian movie-lovers of a certain generation. But Ray’s influence on Indian filmmakers is still steeped in theory and cultural hero-worship, and not in practice. By glorifying the staggering legacy as filmmaker, ad-man, illustrator, music composer, calligrapher and writer that Ray has left behind, it is still a perception among filmmaking communities that Ray is unattainable god rather than cultural influence or inspiration. The perception perhaps is that his style is still commercially unviable in Bollywood or the South. Netflix’s anthology, Ray, which came out last year, had four filmmakers use inspiration from the Bengali auteur’s style and his stories to create an uneven omnibus with one memorable film by Abhishek Choubey. Iranian filmmakers have perhaps derived more from Ray’s cinema in practice than Indian filmmakers anywhere. In our internalising of his stature, Indian filmmakers and movie lovers forget that Ray’s filmmaking has qualities that can make a filmmaking canon all by itself—and what use is a canon if not pushed forward, edged around, questioned, challenged and reinvented?
Few filmmakers in India have taken his Western-influenced, sophisticated, lyrical gaze on middle-class Bengali life forward, or fine-tuned his dependence on observation of the minute realities that make up our big realities. Rather than observation, most mainstream cinema in India, mostly Hindi cinema—even in the apparently democratic OTT age—presents realism through lessons or morals inherent in societies and communities rather than observing them with artistically rigorous eyes and without judgement or the zeal for offering solutions. Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Benegal are perhaps the two best exceptions from the past. Ray’s cinema is still a pedagogy without practitioners trying to push its boundaries. In 2017, Bengali cinema’s enfant terrible for about a decade now, director Q, said in a social media post, “Fuck Manik. Fuck Felu. Fuck Babu.” It met with the usual moral grandstanding of fans, critics and intellectuals, some of whom compared him to some kind of an attention-seeking, disrespectful outlaw. Later, Q explained, without apologising, “The essential idea behind the exact words I used was that I feel stifled as a Bengali by certain benchmarks which cannot be crossed or icons which cannot be questioned.” Ironically, Q played the role of Ray in a Soumitra Chatterjee biopic. Also ironically, like Q, neither Ray nor any other filmmaker who has defied established conventions of their age has ever received encouragement or support from the film aristocrats and cultural vigilantes of that age. The veneration that surrounds the Ray legacy only reveals our national obsession with binaries and hyperboles: Ray or Ghatak, commercial or arthouse, Ray or mediocrity, the greatest ever, the best ever.
This year’s Cannes Film Festival, which ends today, started afresh after the pandemic years during its usual May dates, without restrictions on movements and interactions. Besides a stellar line-up in the competition category, India was named “country of honour” at the festival—the first time this honour has been bestowed on a country, and it coincided with “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” celebrations to observe the country’s 75th year of Independence. Six Indian films were scheduled—R. Madhavan’s Rocketry-The Nambi Effect, Nikhil Mahajan’s Marathi-language film Godavari, Shankar Srikumar’s Alpha Beta Gamma, Biswajeet Bora’s Assamese film Boomba Ride, Achal Mishra’s Dhuin, Jayaraj’s Malayalam film Tree Full of Parrots—besides the restored version of Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970) from his Calcutta trilogy of the 1970s, which will be screened at the festival’s classics section. So while Tom Cruise’s desperate attempt to keep his Hollywood currency going with Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to Top Gun (1985) got its premiere at Cannes, India got a fillip with a “country of honour” tag. A buzz had begun to build up around a retrospective of Ray’s films at the festival in the past couple of months, but it was later confirmed that only Pratidwandi, one of Ray’s most sophisticated Calcutta films in which the protagonist played by Dhritiman Chatterjee is embroiled in the city’s social unrest and his own personal turmoils, would be screened. In this film he used a technology called photo-negative flashbacks, which the restoration under cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee upgrades.Cannes has feted Ray’s cinema before, on multiple occasions. It is time other filmmakers, other filmmaking pantheons and experiments and newer independent efforts get the attention of film curators and critics around the world. For the world, Indian cinema still is either Ray, or the amusing, over-the-top dancing-around-trees Bollywood spectacle. Whether the streaming establishment, the 2022 version of television, can facilitate the crushing of artistic and cultural binaries is yet to be clear.