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Was Satyajit Ray a political film-maker?

In the auteur’s birth centenary year, the revolutionary potential of his movies stands out with ever more clarity

A still from Ray’s 1971 film ‘Seemabaddha’, featuring Sharmila Tagore and Barun Chanda.
A still from Ray’s 1971 film ‘Seemabaddha’, featuring Sharmila Tagore and Barun Chanda.

If you developed a taste for Bengali cinema in the first flush after independence, there were three important film-makers you would argue over at your favourite adda, the literal or metaphoric space where you could debate finer points of life for hours: Who was the greatest among the holy triumvirate of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak?

The order in which you named them revealed your politics. So, to disclose: I have named them chronologically, by the year in which they were born. Ray, born in 1921, was the oldest (and on 2 May his fans around the world began celebrating his birth centenary year), Sen was born two years later, and Ghatak in 1925. The order would be the same if you listed them by the number of films they made (Ray made 29, or 32, if you count Teen Kanya as three films, and Kapurush O Mahapurush as two, and do not count his documentaries; Sen clocked in 27; and Ghatak, mainly due to his untimely death, eight).

But if your yardstick is how a director responds to the politics around him, the order changes. Ghatak is widely regarded as the most radical; Sen, the progressive; Ray, the conservative, part of the bourgeoisie, the quintessential bhadralok. Ghatak’s films are stark and emotionally powerful, giving voice to the pain of Partition that divided India and Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan’s eastern wing, Bangladesh, would become independent of Pakistan only in 1971, and Ghatak made his penultimate film, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, in Bangladesh in 1973. Sen’s politics is of the middle class struggling to make ends meet and joining in the march shouting “Lal Salaam" for Vietnam, and you expect its hero to join the Naxalites. Ray’s protagonists are supposed to reflect the middle-class ennui—aware of injustice but seemingly incapable of doing much about it.

One of my first published articles for a magazine was a profile of the film-maker Ketan Mehta for Celebrity, which Shobhaa De edited, in May 1982. Mehta had made the astounding debut film in Gujarati, Bhavni Bhavai, about the atrocities Dalits have suffered for ages. I remember a point Mehta made during our conversation in Mumbai. He said all films are political—they are either for the status quo or for change. There is no apolitical cinema.

Since Ray’s films did not outwardly call for revolution, my radical friends saw him as an aristocrat who was for the status quo. Political, but wrong politics. Some probably saw him as a class enemy in Marxist terms. I saw such arguments as facile, caricaturing Ray. To see Ray as a chronicler, the depicter of humanity, a lyrical artist, a poet on celluloid who shows us our inadequacies but then does not want to overthrow the system, seemed good enough, but not for them.

The debate was at its sharpest in the 1960s, when Ray and Sen argued with one another on contemporary relevance. In 1965, Sen had made Akash Kusum, which Ray did not think much of, and said so in a letter to The Statesman. A year earlier, Ray had made Charulata, which some saw as a period piece and not much else (how wrong they were!). Sen wrote back; Ray wrote again, and so did Sen. For fans of addas, it was like watching the ding dong four-setter at Wimbledon between Roy Emerson and Dennis Ralston that year. Sadly, rain stopped play; the debate ended as suddenly as it began.

But it firmed the view among many that Ray was for the status quo whereas Sen and Ghatak wanted change. I remained unconvinced—to see a film-maker, an auteur as refined as Ray, as someone not having a political viewpoint simply didn’t make sense. He may not have had a specific political viewpoint but Ray was acutely aware of the politics of his time and his films call for a better tomorrow. Only his tone is restrained.

Ray’s home town, then called Calcutta, went through a tumultuous period in the 1960s and 1970s and the films he made about the city in those years—Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976)—capture the growing hopelessness and nihilism spreading through urban India. Drawn from the contemporary fiction of Sunil Gangopadhyaya (Pratidwandi) and Mani Shankar Mukherjee, or Sankar (who wrote the other two novels), the three films offer a bleak view of capitalism—lack of jobs forcing people to make amoral choices and dream smaller dreams in Pratidwandi, leading to Seemabaddha, where a corporate executive makes an amoral choice to protect a contract with troubling casualness even though it has violent consequences, and Jana Aranya, which leads to a path that’s immoral in its most conventional sense. Ray takes his viewers seriously; he is not one to push a solution down their throats by raising slogans—he presents the injustice. Changing society is our responsibility.

An earlier urban film of Ray’s, Mahanagar (1963), unsettles gender equations in a family and Charulata itself disturbs the tranquil universe as a woman takes flight from her cage and society is stunned, the final reconciliation between the husband and wife left open to question.

Another film combining the personal and the political is Ghare Baire (1984), incidentally among the first films he wanted to make. Set in a turbulent phase of Bengal’s history, it shows the entangled relationship between Nikhilesh, his old friend Sandip and Nikhilesh’s wife Bimala. Nikhilesh is a landowner and businessman, Sandip is a revolutionary who can electrify masses and Bimala is mesmerized by Sandip’s fiery personality. The domestic drama is important but the political undercurrent of the Rabindranath Tagore novel is equally relevant. The message that resonates today is how a charismatic politician can use his oratory to invoke nationalism, the effect of which accentuates class differences and ends up creating a religious divide. The film ends tragically and seems prophetic in an understated way.

What is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) if not a satirical take on contemporary politics? And as far as allegories go, Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) indicts the arbitrary use of power that India had just recovered from, the Emergency. During the Emergency, he had begun making his first film in a language other than Bengali: Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), about a political class obsessed by something trivial—playing chess—while the kingdom is lost and a foreign power takes over. His other Hindi film, Sadgati (1981), is a heartrending criticism of the pitiless caste system.

Moving forward, consider Ganashatru (1989), based on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy Of The People. While the original play is about a doctor’s struggle to stop a spa from continuing to operate, as its water is the source of a disease spreading through a society, and the town’s mayor and other elite resenting the doctor’s meddlesome ways, Ray replaces the spa with a temple and the water the devout consume, considering it to be holy.

It is crucial to note the film was made in 1989—the year of the shilanyas at Ayodhya, when the movement to build a Ram temple was gaining momentum. In 1990, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani would launch his rath yatra; two years later, BJP politicians would watch as their supporters razed Babri Masjid, establishing the victory of faith over reason. Ray died before the destruction of the mosque but his profound distaste for using religion to advance political aims was clear. His last film, Agantuk (1991), is a nuanced call for rationality and curiosity, continuing an argument he first made in his 1960 film, Devi. We were warned where we must not go.

Mehta was right—every film makes a political point. The argument my radical friends made, and perhaps still would, was that a political film had to have a call for change in specific language, reflecting a particular point of view. Ray is not radical enough for them because he is not direct, in-your-face, and does not inject slogans in his cinema. But it is that nuance that makes him so special. The past is painful, but as Apu returns and lifts his son on his shoulders and walks towards a different tomorrow at the end of Apur Sansar (1959), tomorrow is another day.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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