is back in cinemas nationwide, including an extended run at BFI Southbank, from 22 August.
Mention Indian cinema to most people these days and they’ll probably think of Bollywood: songs, dance, melodramatic stories, glamorous stars, spectacular production design. But before these Hindi movies began winning widespread international recognition, what was probably best known in the west was the less extravagantly stylised, rather artier fare made mainly by Bengali filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and – most famous of all – Satyajit Ray. Ray gave us the ‘Apu trilogy’ the first part of which – his multi-award-winning feature debut Pather Panchali (1955) – single-handedly changed the way the rest of the world thought about Indian cinema.
Revealingly, one of the awards that film won was the ‘best human documentary’ prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. (That year’s Palme d’Or, ironically, went to Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle’s Le Monde du silence – the only documentary to be given the top prize prior to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine in 2002.) Ray’s film is most emphatically not a documentary – it was based on the well-known autobiographical novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. But what one certainly takes away from a first viewing are its clear, deep sympathy for its characters as they struggle with life’s sometimes cruel vicissitudes and its seemingly unvarnished realism.
Pather Panchali oozes humanism, and indeed feels almost like a documentary. And since the subsequent two instalments of the trilogy – Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959) – continued in more or less the same vein, Ray was for many years often thought of primarily as a realist in the humanist tradition. It didn’t help that one of Pather Panchali’s detractors – François Truffaut – was alleged to have said: “I don’t want to see a film of peasants eating with their hands.”
Many, quite rightly, disagreed with that sentiment; it’s not a film’s subject matter that defines its worth, but what it says and how it says it. But the fact remains that Ray was categorised by many as a filmmaker of a certain rather worthy kind who was interested in certain rather worthy kinds of subjects. After all, hadn’t he helped out Jean Renoir – famous for some of the great realist movies of the 1930s – when he was in India making The River (1951)? And hadn’t Ray himself said that it was seeing Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist fable Bicycle Thieves (1948) during a trip to London that had made him want to become a filmmaker?
Well, it just goes to show that one should never be too quick to pigeonhole people. Yes, Ray made many movies which one can more or less describe as ‘humanist realism’, with all the tonal qualities and socio-political elements such a term might customarily embrace: among the best are The Big City (1963), Company Limited (1972) and Distant Thunder (1973). But he also made comedies, satires, crime mysteries, political allegories, musical fantasies and documentaries; and he made a number of brilliant, witty but serious dramas which don’t really fit into any easy category. The Music Room (1958), Kanchenjungha (1962), Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), The Middleman (1975) and The Home and the World (1984) fall into this group – but none, in the opinion of many, is greater than 1964’s Charulata (The Lonely Wife), which Ray himself regarded as his finest achievement.
Adapted from a novella by Rabindranath Tagore – the poet, novelist, dramatist, painter and composer who became India’s first Nobel prize winner – and set in late-19th-century Bengal, the film concerns the relationship between a rich Bengali magazine editor, his neglected wife and his younger cousin, a poet he invites to their palatial home in an attempt to brighten the bored woman’s everyday existence.
While supremely sensitive to the psychological and emotional predicament of its protagonist, admirably sympathetic to the men in her life, and utterly credible in every detail, the film is so rich, subtle and complex that the term ‘humane realism’ – let alone ‘human documentary’ – simply won’t suffice. Though discreet and exquisite, its artifice is too conspicuous (without ever being gratuitous) for the film to be categorised within those limitations; to do so would be akin to designating Pride and Prejudice or The Portrait of a Lady as ‘romantic fiction’.
When Ray was on peak form, as he was with Charulata, he effortlessly transcends categorisation; words like ‘realist’, ‘humanist’ and ‘miniaturist’ fall pitifully short of describing what he was capable of. My suggestion is to keep it simple and short: ‘artist’ is far more accurate – just as long as it’s remembered that he created art of the very highest order.