Saturday, June 16, 2012
The visionary’s World
Book Review: Non-fiction/cinema-Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema by Satyajit Ray (edited by Sandeep Ray), Harper Collins, 171 pp; Rs550 (Hardback)
There is unanimity among different sections of polemists who regard Satyajit Ray as the man who heralded realism in Indian cinema and whose contribution is strongly felt in India and the world; not only in the cinematic arena but on the overall movement of realistic art. Ray was a thinker, writer and gifted speaker, which made him distinctively creative and appealing to different class of observers. The first writing proposal Ray received was from P.C. Mahalnobish, renowned economic planner of free India, who at that time was heading the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Calcutta. Impressed by the young economics student, Mahalanobish offered Ray a regular column in ISI’s journal. This marked the beginning of the latter’s tryst with writing.
At a different point in time, Rabindranath Tagore had induced Ray’s mother to send him to receive art education at Shantiniketan, which Ray happily joined to live under the shadow of Tagore rather than earning a formal recognition in art. After Tagore’s death, he felt living in the campus was purposeless and thus left his art training in the final year in favour of travelling across India with meagre resources but the rich company of a few likeminded friends. Free humane spirits always drove him more than anything else; Ray, like Tagore, remained attached to the beautiful attributes of life and works. As a filmmaker, he met the acclaim he deserved though his contributions as a writer remained subdued under the deep canopy of the former.
It was in 1976, when Ray published his first collection of articles, Our Films, Their Films that critics started to take notice of his sublime, creative side. Our Films, Their Films is one of the most memorable collections of Satyajit Ray's writings, besides My Life, My Work, a five-part lecture delivered by him in Calcutta in English in 1982, and Under Western Eyes, an essay about distorted European and American perceptions of Indian culture as well as Indian cinema, which appeared in Sight and Sound in 1982 and can be called Ray’s finest ever piece in depth and vision.
Deep Focus ,which comes after an abnormal hiatus, is a rich anthology of Satyajit Ray's writings, which includes, Under Western Eyes and twenty one other previously published pieces, compiled under the editorship of his son Sandip Ray. The range of pieces is diverse in length and arc from the subtle to the substantial. They focus on a spectrum of subjects: from the craft of filmmaking and cinema as an art to Ray's childhood memory of an accidental family visit to a “soft porn” Bengali silent film as well as the unusual experience of sitting on a Soviet film festival jury. The book also includes personal responses from Ray’s fellow directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Jean Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosowa and others.
This compendium of Ray’s (literary) work is an impressive feat despite the glaring omission of some of his finest write-ups: Speaking of Films, Ordeals of the Alien, Why do I make films?, and his memorable tribute to Rabindranath Tagore, written in 1991 for the Guardian, which was incidentally, the last article written by Ray in English. However, this book genuinely maintains ----as is the tradition with other earlier Ray centric works—the intricate details of Ray’s cinema through pictorial representation and by recalling the behind the scene catalysts such as Banshi Chandragupta, art director, Subrata Mitra, cameraman and others who assisted Ray very firmly. Under his restless natural urge to depict scene and sensibility, Ray’s star casts were naturally fit to act according to his creative imagination; whether or not the same actors would have well with other directors is a discussion that falls within the realm of conjecture .
Undoubtedly, Ray’s influence in Bengal stands next only to Tagore. This marks the continuance of the Bengali middle class’ articulate fascination with culture and literature very actively; even the long static rule of Left front hardly derailed them from the special works of Bengali cinema, literature and art. On one level, it is satisfying, if not gratifying, to have the legend’s influence so closely down even to the bottom social level but it simultaneously also affirms the blockade of path breaking productions in literature, art or cinema from Bengal. That’s something that cannot be sidelined as a momentary affliction that will soon wither away.
Ray was against any such conformism that prevented looking at retrospective works in new light, new approaches; his writings in this book or his vision across his works exemplify this. He transcended from economics to arts as an academic learner and shifted from his professional overtures with the then leading advertising agency, D.J.Keymer (Now, Oglivy &Mather) towards making realistic Bengali cinema which reveals his dynamism and self discipline. The essays in the present volume highlight, what was not ideal with cinema, society or with the overall systemic structure during the lifetime of Ray while his work continues to be open to varied inferences by critics and intellectuals.
Deep Focus would prove to be a prominent source of reference for all those who love cinema and wish to acquaint themselves with Ray’s vision on different themes, in a different timeframe. If the respective countries (France,Japan and Italy) could be proud on Jean Renior, Akira Kurosowa and Vittorio De Sica, India too could nominate some of the most epoch making cinema makers from her land. But in any case, Ray would be the ranked first and his works would serve to know about India in making and complete totality. Ray mortally departed at dawn of economic liberalisation in India. Twenty years down the lane, all spheres are in laissez faire mode, whereas Satyajit Ray’s idealism or shrewdness faces the risk of oblivion, alas.
Atul Kumar Thakur
June 16, 2012, Saturday, 2012, New Delhi
(Published in Businessworld,June5,2012/ http://www.businessworld.in/businessworld/businessworld/content/Visionary%E2%80%99s-Worldview.html )