Almost half a century ago, Ustad Bismillah Khan, the legendary shehnai exponent, met Satyajit Ray, a filmmaker. The Ustad, who had worked with him in Jalsaghar a few years earlier, had some initial difficulty in recognising Ray. Soon, though, he made up for the little lapse by telling Ray, Aap bahut oonche aadmi hain, oonche qad ke, oonche kaam se.
Such has been Ray's oeuvre over the years that even legends like the Ustad have found themselves singing Ray's hosannas. Whenever cineastes or film critics sought to assess Ray, they almost invariably ended up painting him in nationalist colours, almost like telling the world that he is the best we have, the one who could take on the best practitioners of neorealist cinema. Almost unannounced, Ray's greatness seems to come wrapped in nationalist hues.
Be it his Pather Panchali or Charulata or even Shatranj ke Khilari, the critics have all along sought to woo the West without really making an appraisal of the legend. Maybe, they have all been overawed by the genius.
But here is an attempt by Keya Ganguly which is laudable in intent, very insightful in content, and, at the end, quite a challenge. As the book jacket puts it, Ganguly situates Ray's work within the international spirit of the 20th century, arguing that his film experiments intimate the sense of a radical future and document the capacity of the medium to conceptualise a different world glimpsed in the remnants of a disappearing past.
Ganguly's is a labour of love, one that she has churned out in stressful circumstances. Maybe, it is not riveting like the legendary filmmaker's works. But content-wise it is far superior to similar studies undertaken both in India and in the West. There have been many hagiographies on Ray, some of which even staking claim to the national award for best writing on cinema. But Ganguly's is a scholarly work that seeks to inform. Not the one given to just skimming the surface, she delves deep into the circumstances in which Ray's films came to be made, their situational and social ethos, the master's technique, and how they all drew from the rich cultural tapestry of the land.
In a work of this nature, many would have happily concentrated on Ray and Ray alone. Not so Ganguly. She steps aside every now and then to take the reader on small detours: she talks of Ramprasad's influential critique of high Hinduism and of Sharmila Tagore as Apu's wife in Apur Sansar. And of course, she comes back to Ray, and his rare eye: she shows us Ray recognising the opportunity for a song and dance routine in ‘The Music Room Revisited'.
Ganguly bases her essay on an international canvas, happily talking of the likes of Eisler, Adorno, and Sergei Einstein. At the same time, she does not overlook the basics: she rightly points out that the approach in Jalsaghar was academic. “It unfolds like a panorama of all that is about to disappear from view in the rush to modernisation. In particular, the special place of a classical music tradition in India is displayed in almost documentary fashion…”
Amidst all this she is able to talk of cinema in terms of attraction and perception. These are not the terms one associates with modern writing on cinema. There is an element of timelessness about Ganguly's book, and this should ensure that anybody with serious interest in serious cinema picked it up.
A well-researched piece of writing that commands a keen eye and a perceptive understanding of cinema as a tool of nuanced expression.