Rabindranath Tagore said that the world can be seen in the reflected convexity of a dewdrop. As I write this in Edinburgh, Scotland, 5,000 miles away from Kolkata, it makes me think of the films of Satyajit Ray. So many of them are microcosms. So many of them are small worlds in which we can see the world reflected. The English title of his film Ghare Baire is The Home And The World, which describes his approach to his art. The small and the large in the same place.
The village in the Apu trilogy was his first contained place. Though it was full of specifics about Bengali life, people around the world could see elements of their existence in it. The mansion in Devi is another microcosm. In it, a man dreams that his daughter-in-law is a goddess, people flock to her and the universe seems to become centred on their home. In Charulata, the lonely wife seems confined to the home but looks outside with binoculars. Days And Nights In The Forest is about going on a trip, so at first sight it doesn’t seem to be about confinement. But the trip centres on a forest, the film becomes a temporary village and, in its famous game of word- play, the feeling of microcosm intensifies. As the layers of memory build, we feel that we are in a kind of whirlpool.
Ray’s most intense and haunting whirlpool is, for me, Jalsaghar. At its centre is an ageing landlord. Outside his home, society is changing, the elite way of living is being challenged by new economies but like a crab in a rock pool, he wants to stay in his own music room. The famous visual moment in the film is when he sees a chandelier reflected in his drink. It is confined, just like him.
Of course great film-makers—Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, etc.—were interested in closed worlds, but there’s a particular sense of the camera obscura, the huis clos, in Ray’s films, I feel. Where Hindi cinema, for example, is all about escape and travelogue and often doesn’t have what the French call terroir, the specific ground on which a vine grows that gives its grapes flavour, Ray’s confinements enrich his work. Centrifuges spin things outwards but Ray’s was in part a centripetal imagination.
There are dangers in this. Such films can feel claustrophobic or insular but his usually don’t because focusing on small places deepened his stories. It pushed him to metaphor and psychology. Confinement led to thematic density and layering. We often talk about Hindi cinema as masala cinema, by which we mean a generic mix. In Ray’s microcosms, we get an existence mix. On the most obvious level there is the human drama, the conflict. But beneath that surface we can see the landscape of Bengali society. Within that we hear the melody of feminism. And beneath that—harmonising with that—we get the recurrent threat (or opportunity) of modernity, capitalism and rationalism. And indistinctly above all this, hanging in the air, is the question of the sacred.
I value the films of Ray so much because his microcosms don’t feel far away from my European, Celtic one. I have still so much to learn from Satyajit Ray (and I have a tattoo of one of his drawings on my arm!).
Mark Cousins is a film-maker and writer based in Edinburgh.