Ray re-examined

THE book seeks to selectively examine the works of Satyajit Ray from a somewhat different academic perspective. Not that any new dimensions have been discovered or invented. But then, many of them have been sought to be differently viewed and emphasised. And in seeking to do so, the author depends substantially on some psychoanalytical texts of Sudhir Kakar (The Inner World), the writings of Nirad Chaudhuri (The Continent of Circe), Richard Lannoy (The Speaking Tree), Ashis Nandy, Helen Tiffin, Gita Kapur and others, essentially to place Ray's cinema in the context of the traditional Indian paradigm. There also seems to be a conscious and overt attempt to search for myths, symbols, icons and motifs that help in the "romanticisation of such a culture."

The Western influence that is mentioned in the preliminary pages is seen as non-existent - when seen from the point of either content or form. This is because Ray's themes forced him to evolve a form and technique that was wholly Indian, or should one say, very individualistic. It is true that he was influenced by western cinema. But that was because there was hardly any other cinema to learn from. And that was about all. It could also be said that apart from simple "technique" there was nothing that could be applied to the content of his cinema. To re-emphasise, Ray's stories (even the Feluda series) were deeply rooted in Indian culture and social tradition - the main crux of Darius Cooper's thesis. So the point of reference to western influence is understandable because Cooper is an American and his research work is largely for a readership that isn't too familiar with Ray's cinema.

The study seeks to analyse Ray's major films in the context of - as the chapter headings indicate - unusual parameters, and that's where it scores over others on the subject. The first chapter is titled "Between Wonder, Intuition, and Suggestion: Rasa in Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy and Jalsaghar". It goes into defining details of the element itself with which the discerning Indian reader and viewers are reasonably familiar. Chapter 2 engages itself in analysing and understanding Ray's major women protagonists, and is called "From Gazes to Threat: The Odyssean Yatra (Journey) of the Ray Woman". Of particular import are an overview of women as hedonists and the maker's distinctive bias. The major films contextualised here are "Charulata", "Ghare- Bhare", "The Postmaster" (one of the stories in Teen Kanya).

But on the periphery are also "Devi", "Kanchanjungha", "Mahanagar", "Kapurush-o-Mahapurush", "Nayak", "Aranyer Din Ratri", "Pratidwandi", "Ashani Sanket" and "Shatranj ke Khiladi". These films also indicate "Ray's concern with the Indian woman, her assumptions of roles and problems of 'identity' and her struggles in Indian society." Cooper concludes the chapter by stating that Ray gives his women characters "voices of their own in an effort to make them distinct, unique and triumphant." The third chapter focuses on the male protagonists because in "Ray's films, the Hindu home plays a major role in contributing to the male's acedic position." Films that come up for special analysis include "Pratidwandi", "Jana Aranya", "Ashani Sanket", "Seemabaddha", "Aranyer Din Ratri", "Devi", "Nayak" and "Kanchanjunga". In the end, Ray's male protagonist "becomes so defeated by this process of becoming that he seems to have lost his voice altogether." This aspect of being, becoming and defeat are in comparison to or in contrast with the women characters.

Chapter 4 seeks to define the filmmaker's political vision by taking a look at "Shatranj ke Khiladi" and "Sadgati", the two films that are regarded as "watersheds in Ray's cinema" mainly because they were made in Hindi and helped silence those critics who accused him of limited vision and thriving by peddling Indian poverty abroad. "They revealed an artist remarkably at ease in a different language, an alien milieu, and confident in his political exposition of historical/ religious themes. They also demonstrated that his creative powers did not suffer as a result of his exposure to the commercialised world of the Hindi film and television industry." And the 5th and the concluding chapter deals with films like "Ganashatru", "Agantak", "Shakha Proshaka", Ray's last three films that define his total philosophy, his human and ideological stance.

"Had Ray lived to make films after Agantak, he may have continued to dismantle contemporary Bengali bhadralok culture." And that's Cooper's analysis of Ray's response to his detractors in the concluding chapter. Earlier, he sought to similarly demolish the patronising and wrongful interpretation of Ray's cinema by various western critics who, not unusually though, went completely overboard in their assessments.

Cooper's work demonstrates an uncanny and painstaking understanding of his subject. The meticulous detail with which he tries to examine Ray's cinema both individually and collectively is admirable. People have often gone berserk in evaluating Ray's cinematic growth because they made a subjective rather than a contextual study. Which in the ultimate analysis could mean a failure to interpret "social, historical and cultural traditions of India within which Ray's films predominantly function." Certainly an invaluable addition to the study of the most outstanding cinematic genius of our times. One wishes someone in India would take on from where Cooper left because Cooper seeks to understand and define the basic elements, to the western readers.


The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity, Darius Cooper, Cambridge University Press, Rs. 495.

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