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The politics at the heart of Satyajit Ray’s filmmaking

By Joy Sengupta

Satyajit Ray – the name elicits a nostalgia for classical narrative and aesthetics, in cineastes, across India, a sense of parochial sentimental pride in the heart of a senior Bengali bhadralok, and a reverence all round, for pioneering the Indian cinematic footprint in the global art cinema space. All of it is true. He was the inheritor of Tagorian Renaissance, emerging from Bengal but nurturing a pan-Indian awakening and the tallest representative of the bhadrolok culture in serious and diverse art, coming out of Bengal….but rarely anyone discusses him, in terms of his political stance or radical perspective, the general opinion being: “He is a humanist at best, but radical, no, and political, never.” And that baffles me to no end for from the time I was exposed to Ray, which was rather young, he made movies to tell stories, for all age groups, I became aware of a certain social responsibility in his plots, a certain need to break away from narrow sectarianism, in all his cinematic perspectives.

My earliest Ray indulgence was watching Gupi Gayn Bagha Bayn, in a suburban hall in Kolkata, when I was barely six. I was intrigued, when two simpletons were ostracized from the village for being too naive in their passion for music … yes, unacceptability of free spirits in a feudal society. Gupi and Bagha desired nothing more than entertaining souls with their music, savouring choicest food, and traveling the world without a whim or fancy – the true bohemian spirit that was not appreciated by the world of men; it required the world of spirits (the nether-world) to support their dreams. How radical was that and how invigorating for all ages? But the real radical touch was the allegory of war, in the second half of the film and the heartfelt cry for pacifism, empathy for the plebian masses, who carry on their feeble soldiering shoulders the evil imperialistic ambitions of their rule but have no material or political stake in it. So they march, empty stomach, towards mayhem and butchery till Gupi and Bagha use their special magical intent to conjure mouthwatering delicacies for the famished soldiers of misfortune who promptly abandon their arms to embrace the heavenly goodies – a realization of mankind’s priorities driven through earthy-folksy entertainment, by Ray.

If the above film was a childlike experiment, then Kanchanjungha was an avant garde shift in Ray’s narrative, a loose, physical, and metaphorical journey of a host of characters from a tightly knit but highly dysfunctional bourgeois family, on a hike in the hills, from sunrise to sunset. While the psychological realism is exacting in its nuances, the poetic elements used – cloud covered peaks depicting the inherent gloom and misplaced aspirations, the surging muscularity of hills providing courage to the unemployed underclass to face off with the ruling class representative, the song of the road emanating from the flute of a hillbilly kid connecting the various disoriented characters, and finally the lifting of the clouds revealing the majesty of the golden-hued, snow-cladded Kanchanjunga peaks just before sunset, empowering the wife to defy and deflate the ego of the grand patriarch – enthralled my yet apolitical teenage mind, when I watched it in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, then running pocket-friendly art house films.

In fact, a quasi-feminist concern runs through most of Ray’s films, whether it is the economic emancipation of a lower middle-class housewife in Mahanagar or the cultural and sexual liberation desired by Charulata, in an upper class, politically liberal but morally conservative household – a mirror to a majority of Bengali bhadralok homes in contemporary India. Then there are the conscious socio-political critiques in Ray’s cinema oeuvre, mostly nuanced save the last three of his features, which were uncharacteristically didactic, namely Ganashatru, a mincing of teeth against the politics of religious dogmatism; Sakha Prosakha, a lament against the amorality of rising corruption in a crony capitalistic society in the backdrop of the collapse of the global socialist movement, literally the collapse of the Soviet Union; and Agantuk, an achingly pithy observation of the highly individualistic, upwardly mobile, aspirational urban India, sold on the American dream of material modernism and feeding off its neo-imperialistic pursuits, abandoning the lofty ideals of indigenous civilisations, both prehistoric and in the age of awakening.

The films that employed nuanced, yet sharp, political observation were Asini Sanket, that tore apart the hypocrisy around the man-made (or the British-made) devastating ‘Bengal Famine’ of the 1940s, showing the absurdity and horror of the avoidable epic tragedy; Jana Aranya, a highly ironical and at times satirical look at the establishment through the tribulations, humiliation, and capitulation of an educated and idealistic but unemployed youth, propelling him towards moral degradation, turning him into a broker of exploitative depravity, using his hapless friend and his desperately needy sister, to cement a job opportunity; and Pratidwandi, a resounding slap on the face of contemporary society’s hedonism and blinkered existence in the face of naked inequality and exploitation of the masses. Its pre-climax portrayal of a violent outburst, in black and white, of the young man seeking his basic right to a survival income, was as radical as one could get from Ray, hitherto known for his restrained classicism.

Then there are three films, which to me, seem like the mirror and moral compass for contemporary India, namely Debi, a heart-rending realization of the grip of religious dogma, bordering on fundamentalism, through the brainwashing of a gentle and young feminine mind, using blind religious faith to captivate and subjugate the minds of the have nots; Ghare Baire, a no-holds-barred criticism of narrow and opportunistic nationalism, which drives a  society towards chaos, carnage, and impoverishment, using Tagore’s complex tale of love and deceit in the background of a violent political movement against colonialism; and the last, most definitive of Ray’s political philosophies told in the form of a cinematic fable, Hirak Rajar Deshe, a highly imaginative, supremely entertaining, farcically clever spoof on the Indian Emergency and suspension of democracy in the mid-1970s, but even more acutely a parody of the Indian political scenario playing out currently with the society in firm grip of quasi-fascist forces, coming down heavily on educated consciousness, civil liberties, and constitutional dissent. This film, being a sequel of sorts to the exploits of Gupi and Bagha, who on being graciously hosted by a self-proclaimed great monarch, discover the terrorising tyranny at play to break the back of the toiling masses as well as the aspirations of a better society and chaining intellectual fervor. Ray, maintaining a tongue-in-cheek limerick language and a musical exposition of latent feelings, portrays the two hitherto simpletons, but now well-travelled, sensitised beings as the cultural anarchists who, through their trickery, artistry, and good intent trigger a rebellion of the masses, which eventually pulls down the autocrat and tears down every symbol of fascism.

In my view, Satyajit Ray made his political intent vociferously clear in film after film, flying the flag of empathetic humanism, to democratic socialism, from classical feminism to scientific rationalism and every other shade of liberal and libertarian perspective in cinematic language, but always dressed in impeccable aesthetics and engrossing storytelling, making him a rare art house filmmaker, who was also much loved and patronized by the common cinema goer.


Joy Sengupta
holds a diploma in theatre studies and acting from the Living Theatre Academy and was trained by Prof. Ibrahim Alkazi. He is the recipient of the Mahindra Excellence in National Theatre Award (2006) for the portrayal of M K Gandhi in the epic play, Sammy. He has performed in West End London, Off Broadway New York, NADA Sydney, and the Edinburgh festival and won the V Shantaram award in Acting for his debut feature film Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa, directed by Govind Nihalani. Senguta has worked in over 40 feature films in Hindi, English, and Bengali, many of which have garnered national and international awards and has worked in multiple and popular web series on Netflix, Amazon, and Hotstar. Also, a voice artist and a teacher, Sengupta has given voice to popular characters of Hollywood films dubbed in Hindi, including Captain America, in the Avenger series and teaches theatre in education and theatre and cinema appreciation.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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