The Last Bengali Renaissance Man

The Unicorn Expedition and Other Fantastic Tales of India

by Satyajit Ray
Dutton, 190 pp., $16.95

The Home and the World

A film directed by Satyajit Ray. produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India

On a visit to Calcutta I was told a story about Louis Malle. The French film director had spent some time in the city to film part of his famous—and in India notorious—documentary on India. One day Malle was shooting a riot scene, not uncommon in Calcutta. This infuriated a Bengali policeman who ran up to Malle threatening to smash the camera. Malle objected. “Who do you think you are?” shouted the Bengali. “Louis Malle,” replied the director. “Ah,” said the Bengali with a sweet smile, “Zazie dans le métro.”

It is no doubt an apocryphal tale, but one hears many such stories in Calcutta. It tells you something about the atmosphere of the place, an extraordinary combination of squalor and high culture, violence and civility.

I was told this anecdote by a young and very successful newspaper editor called Aveek Sarkar. We met in his office, housed in an old building in the center of a commercial district where beggars and rickshaw-wallahs dodged in and out of the hopeless traffic jams, while entire families, the children naked, the adults in flimsy clothes, washed themselves by burst waterpipes. Aveek was dressed in a dhoti and smoked Montecristo cigars. He offered me a fine Scotch whiskey and talked about Bengali poetry. Every Bengali is a poet, he said. There are at least five hundred poetry magazines in the state of West Bengal and when Calcutta celebrates the birthday of its greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, poetry bulletins are published by the day, sometimes even by the hour. “We don’t look to the rest of India, which is intellectually inferior,” he said. “Our literature is related to French literature, not Hindi. I don’t even read Hindi. Calcutta is like Paris.”

Aveek introduced me to Satyajit Ray, the film director, graphic designer, composer of music, and author of children’s stories. He lives in a grand old apartment building in an elegantly crumbling area known as South of Park Street. His working room is stacked with books—anything from Bengali literature to fifteenth-century Italian art to modern British theater design. There are inkstands, pens and paintbrushes, and an old-fashioned gramophone. And in the midst of this sits Ray, a tall, handsome man, dressed in a dhoti, drinking tea. He speaks English with a refined baritone drawl, rather like an aesthetic Oxford don. Without having seen Calcutta—or, indeed, his films—one might mistake him for a brown sahib, a genteel colonial relic. He is something far more complex than that, however; he represents a style historically and socially rooted where most of his films take place, in the decaying grandeur of his native city.

Ray had been very ill. He still appeared weary. “It’s a frightful bore making films in India these days,” he said. He complained about the sad state of the Bengali film industry. Cut off from a large potential audience in Bangladesh by a government ban there on Indian films, there are not enough Bengalis to sustain the industry anymore. Compared to the average movie produced in Calcutta today, Ray said he would rather see a splashy Bombay musical: “At least there’s plenty of action and pretty girls.”

His last film was completed from his hospital bed, by issuing instructions to his son. It is possible that some of Ray’s genius will be carried on to the next generation, but not likely. Genius, of course, cannot be taught. Besides that, India has changed too much. It is almost impossible now to make the kind of understated, humanist movies that Ray did. The style is not fashionable, but then it never really was. One of the most remarkable things about Ray’s films is that they ever got made at all.

In an essay about the Japanese cinema, Ray commented on Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon: “It was the kind of film that immediately suggests a culmination, a fruition, rather than a beginning. You could not—as a film making nation, have a Rashomon and nothing to show before it.”1 It is hard to disagree, but this makes Ray’s achievement all the more baffling. For what, in the Indian cinema, laid a foundation for Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, made in 1955? It had the maturity of a culmination of something, while in fact it was only the beginning. As early influences Ray cites the humanism of Jean Renoir, the technical economy and realism of Rossellini and De Sica, but he had no Indian masters to follow or challenge. Yet, unlike so many “arty” Asian films, Ray’s work was never a reflection of half-understood Western styles. From the very beginning, his films were unmistakably Indian. How did he do it? What, if not Indian cinema, was his artistic source?

The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.”2 Ray wrote this in 1948, seven years before his first film was shown. It offers at least a vague and general answer to the question above. There is more to Ray, though, than a sensitive pair of eyes and ears. To find clues to his particular vision one must, I think, go back much further than Renoir or Rossellini, back to the Bengali renaissance of the 1820s and 1830s.

The Bengali renaissance was the product of a small number of families, often divided among themselves in cliques. These families—the Tagores, the Debs, the Rays, the Ghoses, the Mallicks—were mostly high-caste Hindus, and were collectively known as the bhadralok, literally, gentlemen of substance. The British called them the “educated natives.” While the Bengali elite had been large landowners, the bhadralok attained social prominence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by acting as middlemen for the East India Company and private British traders. They were the clerks, the fixers, the contractors, the translators, the minor civil servants, and the tax collectors who made fortunes by fleecing the old landlords, who often ended up in penury (the theme of one of Ray’s best films, The Music Room, 1958). Their main enthusiasm was modern education, for which they had an almost unquenchable thirst: science, English literature, European philosophy, and politics. They organized reading societies, established English-language schools, stocked libraries, started printing presses, and published newspapers. The bhadralok, in other words, were the first Indian urban middle class: modern men who sought a spiritual answer to modernization in a fusion of European liberalism and enlightened Hinduism. Anxious to be cosmopolitan, they were still steeped in their own past.

Their position was often ambivalent. Since they were colonial middlemen their interests lay with the British Empire, which their political ideals would ultimately lead them to oppose. Their sons and grandsons, frustrated by the lack of political power on the one hand, and the inertia of Indian traditions on the other, often turned to Marxist radicalism. The reformist zeal of the bhadralok left a legacy in Bengal of Marxist government and occasional terrorism. The cultural sophistication, the fruit of the Bengali renaissance, gave us thousands of garrulous coffee shop philosophers, millions of poets, and the occasional genius, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.

Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, was a typical example of the pioneering bhadralok. He started off as the chief native officer of the East India Company’s opium and salt department, but in true bhadralok style later owned several English-language newspapers. A British friend described him as “a Hindoo with an enlarged mind and a truly British spirit.” He might have said the same about Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakisore Ray, an accomplished musician of Western classical music, a graphic artist, composer of songs, and a writer of children’s stories. Upendrakisore launched the children’s monthly magazine called Gandesh, which Satyajit revived in 1961 and in which most of the short stories in The Unicorn Expedition first appeared. Few renaissance men maintain the same level of excellence in everything they put their hands to. Although Ray’s stories, written for teen-agers, never quite scale the heights of his films, they are suffused with the same spirit.

His characters reflect the gentle patrician humanism, so typically bhadralok, and so typical of Ray’s work. There is Shonku, the scientist-inventor, whom Ray himself calls “a mild-mannered version of Professor Challenger,” one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations. Professor Shonku travels around the world showing off his strange inventions—a computer the size of a football that knows the answers to a million questions, or Corvus, the crow genius. Like Ray himself, Shonku is cosmopolitan, at home in most capital cities, thirsty for new knowledge, but at the same time he remains very Indian in his fascination with the metaphysical. His adventures take him to Zen gardens in Kyoto and Tibetan monasteries where he learns how to fly off to an imaginary land filled with imaginary unicorns. The Shonku stories, in the manner of Verne and Wells, humanize science. The author’s attitude, his humanism and his faith in science, remind one of a more self-confident age in the West, an age in which we still believed in progress, an age before Auschwitz and the invention of the atom bomb. Indians (and most Asians, for that matter) often like to make the neat distinction between scientific Western civilization and spiritual Eastern civilization. Professor Shonku, again a bit like his creator, quite successfully manages to straddle both.

The sad appeal of bhadralok culture is that it flowered so briefly. Ever since the British shifted the capital of the Raj to New Delhi in 1912, Calcutta has been a city in decline. Its European elegance had always been somewhat anomalous in the almost unbearable climate of Bengal. But Calcutta somehow managed to wear its decadence with a certain amount of grace; the anomaly of high culture in the midst of squalor strikes one almost as a kind of dandyism. It is a common theme in Ray’s work, and a common trait in many of his characters. In his book there is the story of a middle-aged man who used to be a successful amateur actor and earned a decent living. Now reduced to genteel poverty, he is suddenly asked to fill in as an extra in some tawdry local film. His only line is “Oh!” as he is knocked down in the street by the star of the production. He rehearses the scene endlessly on his own, trying to recapture his old élan. He does the scene perfectly.

But all the labour and imagination he had put into this one shot—were these people able to appreciate that? He doubted it. They just got hold of some people, got them to go through certain motions, paid them for their labours and forgot all about it. Paid them, yes, but how much? Ten, fifteen, twenty rupees? But what was twenty rupees when measured against the intense satisfaction of a small job done with perfection and dedication?

He walks away without waiting for his pay. He is too good for such a sordid business.

Just as Apu’s father in Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, is too cultured for his surroundings. He is a poor literary Brahmin dreaming of writing a masterpiece, while his family almost starves in a village of illiterate peasants. And just as the landlord in The Music Room ignores his debts and pawns his possessions so he can still pretend to live in aristocratic style. Ray is never sentimental about these dreamers. “It is true,” he says about The Music Room, “I am interested in all dying traditions. This man who believes in his future is for me a pathetic figure. But I sympathise with him. He might be absurd, but he is fascinating.”3

The sad nobility of being out of step with one’s surroundings or time can go much deeper than the simple contrast between poverty and dreams. In a way, the entire bhadralok culture, its refinement, its liberalism, its sophisticated attempt to bridge East and West, was out of step—just as Calcutta, the old colonial capital, has been out of step for a long time with the development of India. Although Ray himself, like Tagore, at whose school he studied art, believes in the enlightened values of the liberal bhadralok, he gently mocks the proponents. Not only are some of the Bengali intellectuals in his films a little absurd, but they wreak havoc upon the emotions of innocent people by being carried away by their ideas to the exclusion of all else. This is particularly true of films based on Tagore’s stories. Bhupati, the pipe-smoking journalist husband in Charulata (1964), is typical. His head, usually buried in books, is so full of new ideas that he loses sight of the people around him. His young and beautiful wife, Charu, is bored and frustrated, endlessly peering through her binoculars at life outside the claustrophobic women’s quarters. Bhupati, the modernist, is still a traditional Indian husband who takes his wife for granted. He encourages his young cousin, Amal, a literary youth, to keep her company. The inevitable happens. Charu falls in love. Amal runs away to escape his guilt. Bhupati learns his lesson.

In the first scene of Ray’s most recent film, The Home and the World (1984), we see Nikhil reading Milton in English to his young bride, Bimal, who doesn’t understand a word. The story takes place in the first decade of this century, when Bengal was partitioned by Lord Curzon, effectively dividing Hindus and Muslims. Nikhil is a large landowner. His grand mansion reflects his culture: part of the house, particularly the women’s quarters, is wholly traditional, while the drawing room, with its crystal chandeliers, sofas, flowered wallpaper, oil paintings, grand piano, and cut glass ornaments is Victorian English. Nikhil sees it as his mission to get his wife out of the women’s quarters (“Purdah never was a Hindu custom”) and into the Victorian drawing room. To please her husband, she takes singing lessons from an English lady and learns to recite English poetry. He finally gets her to break the taboo of purdah: she opens the door of the women’s rooms and walks through the hall to the drawing room, where she is introduced for the first time to a man who is not a relative. The home, as it were, is suddenly opened to the world.

Sandip, the revolutionary demagogue, seduces women the way he seduces the masses. He dazzles them with his ruthless charm. This supreme egotist, justifying his actions by a kind of Nietzschean nihilism, writes in his diary that “whatever I can grab is mine…. Every man has a natural right to possess, and therefore greed is natural. What my mind covets my surroundings must supply.” He covets Bimal and she falls for him, stealing her husband’s money for Sandip’s cause (to Sandip sex and his cause come down to much the same thing). Sandip’s present cause is boycotting British goods. He forces the poor Muslim traders, who cannot survive by selling expensive and inferior Indian goods, to burn their British products. Those who won’t are robbed and sometimes killed. For the cause, Sandip exploits communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, leaving them to slaughter each other in riots.

Nikhil, the gentle humanist who believes in the freedom of choice, does not dare to intervene for fear of losing his wife. He allows his friend to stay in his house, for otherwise “Bimal would regret it. She would not stay with me out of her own choice. That would be unbearable .” When Bimal finally sees through her lover’s deception, Sandip escapes the chaos he has caused. Nikhil tries to stop the killing and is shot dead. Barbarism has proved to be a stronger force than Nikhil’s enlightened ideals.

Nikhil and Sandip, the radical and the humanist, the two faces of modern Bengali culture. “We both decided to have nothing to do with irrational conventions,” says Nikhil at one point in the film. “He was just more radical than I.” It is more telling that, besides Ray, the only Bengali filmmakers of importance, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, are both Marxists. Ghatak, who was four years younger than Ray, was a Communist sympathizer until his death in 1976. People who champion Mrinal Sen’s films often accuse Ray of being sentimental, lacking in class analysis, or even of being “feudal.” It is certainly true that Ray is less interested in analyzing the human predicament politically than in showing how people behave, how they react to love and death. With Sen—though oddly enough less than with the more radical Ghatak—one sometimes feels that he is more interested in ideas than in people.

Unfortunately, the weakness of Ray’s last film, compared, say, to The Music Room, Charulata, or the Apu trilogy, is precisely that the characters represent ideas, preventing them from wholly coming to life. This accounts, perhaps, for the unusual—for Ray’s films, that is—wordiness of the movie. Ray’s best scenes are often silent: the death of Durga, Apu’s sister, in Pather Panchali, or the look on the face of the starving husband at the end of Distant Thunder (1973), set during the great famine in 1943, when his wife tells him she is pregnant. Words could never express the emotional intensity of those silent moments. Words, at least to one who cannot understand Bengali, appear to detract from the realism in The Home and the World; they express literary and political ideas rather than feelings.

Ray suffered a heart attack while making The Home and the World. But I think the relative weakness of the film (it is still a masterpiece compared to most movies in India, or anywhere else) cannot be explained by Ray’s ill health alone. The flaws are also in Tagore’s original story.4 Tagore’s biographer, Krishna Kripalani, wrote that Nikhil, “who is compounded of the Maharshi’s [Rabindranath’s father] religious insight, of Gandhi’s political idealism and of Tagore’s own tolerance and humanism, is too shadowy to be real.” Sandip, however, “the Machiavellian patriot, the unscrupulous politician, the splendid wind-bag and shameless seducer is, on the other hand, very real.”5 In Ray’s film it seems more the other way around. Nikhil, played by Victor Bannerjee, still reveals a brooding complexity, while Sandip, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, appears as more of a caricature.

The most convincing character is the woman in the middle, superbly acted by Swatilekha Chatterjee. As is the case with many Japanese heroines, Bimal’s shy and submissive exterior hides a character that is stronger and more passionate than those of the men who appear to dominate her. One is reminded of the women in Mizoguchi’s films such as Sansho Daiyu. Both Ray and Mizoguchi managed to get great performances out of their leading men (think of Soumitra Chatterjee as the grown-up Apu, or the wicked bailiff in Sansho Daiyu), but the most powerful roles are usually for women. (Strangely, however, women hardly figure at all in Ray’s short stories.)

Japanese critics like to call Mizoguchi a “feminist” (they use the English word). And many of Ray’s films, such as his latest one, deal with the emancipation of women. But neither man—least of all Mizoguchi, a traditionalist to the core—is a feminist in the political sense of the word. Ray once said in an interview: “A woman’s beauty, I think, also lies in her patience and endurance in a world where men are generally more vulnerable and in need of guidance.”6 This is precisely what Mizoguchi would have said. It is what the Japanese mean by feminism. The transition from Asian tradition to Western-influenced modernity, a constant theme in both Ray’s and Mizoguchi’s work, often focuses on women. Still the bedrock of tradition, they offer solace. But it is also those same traditional women whose emotions are most affected by modernization.

There may be a religious element in this brand of feminism. Japan and India, particularly Bengal, share strong matriarchal traditions of worshiping mother goddesses. This, by the way, is a thread running through Ritwik Ghatak’s films, where women sacrifice everything for their men. Ghatak, a keen student of Jung as well as Marx, tends to mix religious and political metaphors: his suffering heroines stand for the downtrodden peasants, for sacrificing goddesses, and even for his motherland, raped by the British imperialists and their Indian capitalist lackeys.

We speak of Western civilization because of shared religious, philosophical, and political traditions. Do such widely different countries as India and Japan have enough in common (Buddhism perhaps?) to allow us to talk of a distinct Eastern civilization? Tagore, as his statements in China and Japan made clear, believed so. In his fascinating essay about Japanese cinema, Ray, though a little more tentatively than Tagore, reaches the same conclusion. He quotes his old professor at Tagore’s academy as saying: “Consider the Fujiyama…. Fire within and calm without. There is the symbol of the true Oriental artist.”7 Mizoguchi and Ozu, Ray says, “both suggest enormous reserves of power and feeling which never spill over into emotional displays.” Well, this depends on what one means by emotional displays. But I think I know what Ray means. The emotions under the surface, the long spells of apparent calm, suddenly interrupted by an emotional climax: a look of terrible grief, a stifled scream, a burst of silent tears. The image of the woman betrayed by weaker men, biting her sari or kimono in anguish: this marks the style of Ray’s films, as it does of Mizoguchi’s. Perhaps this offers a hint of what makes Ray’s films seem, for lack of a better word, Asian.

Ray’s films, like those of Mizoguchi, indeed of most Asian masters, are often accused of being slow. To those for whom only perpetual action can stave off boredom this may be true. But the lingering over everyday details, the moments of complete calm—compared by Ray to the slow movements in music—are necessary to express the intensity of the emotional highlights. The slow realism of the classic Asian cinema is a bit like the Japanese No theater or the English game of cricket: the slowness—which, to me, is never boring—draws you into the world expressed on the screen, the stage, or the playing field. This process is more than entertainment—it is not always entertaining. Nor is it a matter of slowing down life to the pace of real life—that really would be boring. Rather, it slows down moments in life sufficiently to, as it were, catch reality.

It is a form of realism that has almost died out in the Japanese and Indian cinema. Commercial pressures, especially acute in a place like Bengal, with only a very small educated audience, are partly to blame. With the advent of television, video discs, and other new entertainments, the film industries have opted for safe formulas: song and dance in India, soapy melodrama in Japan. But I do not believe this is the only reason for the cinematic repression. Ray made the following point about the great Japanese directors:

I am not saying that these masters did not learn from the West. All artists imbibe, consciously or unconsciously, the lessons of past masters. But when a film maker’s roots are strong, and when tradition is a living reality, outside influences are bound to dwindle and disappear and a true indigenous style evolve.

This was certainly true of Ray, Mizoguchi, Ozu, even Kurosawa. They all imbibed the work of such different directors as John Ford, Frank Capra, and Jean Renoir. But they also had their roots in their own traditions, which was the very condition that made their art universal. This is what has changed. Few young Japanese filmmakers are at home in Japanese painting, as Mizoguchi was; few Indian filmmakers could compose a score of Indian music, as Ray does. What is left, in this world of instant communications, is a constant exposure to Western fashions, which, without a strong traditional culture to absorb them, become meaningless ornaments. These ornaments are merged with the showy conventions of local pop culture. The result is often profitable, sometimes entertaining, but never a masterpiece. There are still serious films being made in India, but they tend to be melodramas containing political messages. Both in style and content they are parochial in a way that Ray’s films never are. One rather fears it will be a long time before another Satyajit Ray appears in India. He is one of the last true cosmopolitans and perhaps the very last Bengali renaissance man.

  1. 1

    Satyajit Ray, Our Films, Their Films (Calcutta: Orient Longman Ltd., 1976), p. 155.

  2. 2

    Satyajit Ray, Our Films, Their Films, p. 24.

  3. 3

    Satyajit Ray: An Anthology of Statements on Ray and by Ray (New Delhi: Directorate of Film Festivals, 1981), p. 34.

  4. 4

    Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World (London: Penguin, 1985).

  5. 5

    Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (Grove Press, 1962; revised edition, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1980), p. 264.

  6. 6

    Satyajit Ray: An Anthology of Statements on Ray and by Ray, p. 67.

  7. 7

    Satyajit Ray, Our Films, Their Films, p. 157.