A Ray that reflects on itself

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Some thoughts on Satyajit Ray's final trilogy and three of his most personal films...


This is a word heard at the end of Agantuk, and among the last words/phrases heard in a Satyajit Ray film. However, more than being a word, it is an expression that ends the movie. The term, whose dictionary meaning is “the estimation of something as valueless”, indicates the dismissiveness of the film’s agantuk (stranger), Monmohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt) toward the wealth he is suspected by his hosts to be coveting. The expression also indicates the character’s disregard for the type of society or civilisation that places greater emphasis on semantics (the longest word in English language amounting to so little) and material wealth than the shared values of humanity, culture and heritage that make us complete individuals.

Made at the end of a fulfilling life, Agantuk was not just a swansong, it was the closest Ray came to making a fictionalised auto-biopic. Ray’s reflections and inquiries on art, science, literature, and travel were presented in the form of a capsule through the thoughts and experiences of a consummate troubadour, Monmohan Mitra.

Mitra, an anthropologist to whom the richness of his field diaries matter more than the deadweight of his inherited wealth, reminds me of two other characters. One, rather ironically named Manik (Ray’s nickname) is from Dharamvir Bharati’s Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda, adapted for screen by Shyam Benegal. The other, a humble peasant Damdi, is from Munshi Premchand’s essay ‘Sabhyata Ka Rahasya’. Monmohan Mitra combines the traits of these two. Just like Manik, he is a master-storyteller, having the ability to keep his listeners spellbound through narratives of his escapades. However, just like the unfortunate Damdi, Monmohan is unwilling — or rather, incapable —of hiding his flaws, his beliefs. Hence, he is bound to be called “uncivilised” when it is found that he, over the years, has sought solace among the indigenous people living in the interiors, rather than among the bhadralok (gentlemen) living at the peripheries. For, as Munshi Premchand so caustically comments through his essay, only when you have the dexterity to hide your flaws and your fallacies are you worthy of being called a gentleman. Monmohan is not one, hence bound to be labelled “savage”.

Both Dharamveer’s young Manik and Ray’s seasoned Monmohan are wandering souls, having spent their productive lives in service to their wanderlust. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, a humanist who eluded labels all his life, spoke for himself and for the likes of the two protagonists when he remarked that whenever there was “the least sign of the nest becoming a jealous rival of the sky, my mind, just like a migrant bird, tries to take its flight to a distant shore”. The same can be said of Ray, whose diverse tastes made sure that he was able to eclectically navigate from one discipline to another.

Satyajit Ray’s final three films — Ganashatru, Shakha Proshakha and Agantuk — constitute a trilogy of their own. Having contemplated on the rich corpus of literature by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Ray was determined to comment on the present situation of the external world through his characters. The films, in that regard, were indicative of his urge to look at the contemporary reality through his deeply compassionate lens, compare the ideals in his mind with reality, and reflect on his own position as an uncompromising aesthete in a polarised world of compromised personalities. In that regard, the three movies were not just social commentaries, they were commentaries on his own position in relation to the people around. As Andrew Robinson notes in his Ray biography The Inner Eye: “It was as if Ray… had become committed — something his left-wing critics in Bengal had always required of him, — to speaking urgently about the political and social issues that agitated him”.

The impression that Ray wanted to probe his own individual self in the final years becomes stronger when we note that of Ray’s seven original screenplays, two were for his final three films. The third one, Ganashatru, was more than a sensitive adaptation of Ibsen’s The Enemy of The People; it was the way Ray would have reacted to the situation had he been a lead character. The stories for the other two films had already appeared in their elementary forms. Shakha Proshakha had been published in the Bengali magazine Eksan in 1966 while Agantuk was a spin-off from a short story ‘Athithi’, which appeared in Ray’s own children’s magazine Sandesh in 1981. However, Ray’s decision to invest their characters with attributes close to his heart — honesty, love for multiple cultures, proficiency in music — gave them a more personal touch.

Ganashatru, the first of the trilogy, was about a highly-skilled doctor Ashoke Gupta, who chooses to serve the people of a small town, Chandipore, eschewing the riches of a lucrative practice in a city like Calcutta. However, despite having spent 26 years of his life to attend to the health needs of the townsmen, he encounters the wrath of the latter when his suggestions, rooted in his belief in science and rationality, come in conflict with their religious faith. When Dr. Gupta advises a temporary closure of the neighbourhood temple, presenting clear evidence of its charanamrit (holy water) being contaminated, he is labelled a ganashatru (people’s enemy) and ostracised. Here, Ray could have easily shown Dr. Gupta being killed by the more superstitious of those in the town. However, the optimist in him made sure that he showed Dr. Gupta’s anachronistic beliefs gaining a degree of acceptance at least among a small section of the town, the section consisting of the more-enlightened. They are ready to fight his battle by convincing the villagers against drinking the polluted water served as charanamrit at the temple.

Here, Ray’s warning against superstition and blind faith was not just timely, it was clairvoyant. Some of the flames of the religious polarisation seen in north India in the 90s were fanned in the same year as Ganashatru was released — 1989 — when the then Congress government decided to do a shilanyaas (laying of the foundation stone) for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. It is also pertinent to note that someone like Dr. Gupta would not just be labelled ganashatru (enemy of the People) in today’s society, he would also be called a deshdrohi (anti-national).

In Shakha Proshakha, Anand Mohan Majumdar, a businessman, has acquired his fortunes purely by observing the old-fashioned principles, “Work is Worship” and “Honesty is the best policy”. Though he gets his job through recommendation, he learns the skills and rises by virtue of his intelligence and his honesty. Unlike — say — Gurukant Desai of Guru (2007), who must have been Anand’s contemporary in the post-Nehruvian years of licence-permit-quota raj, Anand believes in probity. He seeks make the company successful purely on the merit of its products’ quality, without resorting to corruption. Just like Guru, he makes money for the corporation, for all stakeholders and for the town as a whole. However, unlike Guru, whose auto-didacticism is infused with a sense of patronising pride, Anand is self-effacing. His achievements are narrated not by himself, but by his eldest son — who has had a career in complete contrast to that of his honest father — as he lies on his sick-bed after suffering a heart attack during his 70th birthday.

These three lead protagonists — Ashok, Anand and Monmohan — are not just literary characters from a play or a short story, they represent the ideal professional Ray was in real life. They are the kind of people a Siddhartha (from Pratidwandi [1970]) would have chosen to become had he been given the right platform.

Ray’s “reflection trilogy” provides another irrefutable evidence of his unconditional empathy toward human beings, even those who could be considered as being on the wrong side of the law. Ray sought to mould the home and the world of his imagination keeping in mind the universal ideals of a shared humanity — one where there would be little space for selfishness, for kupmanduktaa (narrow-mindedness), for malice or ill-will. The final trilogy was his attempt to share his vision of a society that would be led by some ideal individuals. In this regard, his cinema did not just belong to the home-country ( ghare), it belonged to the world ( baire), an aspect well-recognised by people in the film fraternity and beyond during his lifetime, and much, much after.

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