A centenary tribute to Satyajit Ray: the undefeated and the unvanquished

Anik Datta directed ‘Aparajito’ dares to defy convention, something that Ray would have liked, writes Abhijit Dasgupta, himself a well known documentary filmmaker

A centenary tribute to Satyajit Ray: the undefeated and the unvanquished

Abhijit Dasgupta

I was a student at the Film & Television Institute at Pune when Satyajit Ray delivered the convocation address. Here is an excerpt of what he said.

“The scene that I was normally accustomed to was the one that I encountered in a film studio. Here people had a different kind of education. Some had learnt by dint of sheer application, and had worked their way up from the bottom; others had learnt from long association with established professionals. In the latter case, it was education which often had to be extracted rather than received as a matter of course. One had actually heard of professional cameramen who so jealously guarded their secrets that their assistants had a hard time finding out what camera stops were being used from shot to shot. But at least the cameramen had some secrets to guard; and we all know that the men who handle the microphone, or build the sets and furnish them with props, can do so only because they know the use of certain tools, and are thus in a position to pass on their knowledge to others; while experienced professional actors can, to some extent, be said to share their knowledge with less experienced ones when they are thrown together in the same scene.”

“But what about the director-- the man who is supposed to be at the helm of affairs? Does he have any useful secrets to hide? What kind of education does he have? Or does he have to have any education at all? I know this is going to shock you-especially those of you who are poised on the edge of directorial career- but I know this for a fact that in our country at least, films have been made with virtually no contribution from the director, or at least, nothing of a positive nature. He does nothing because he knows nothing.”

“How is this possible, you may ask. The answer is simple. The self-styled director begins by taking advantage of the fact that of the various kinds of contribution made to a film by the various kinds of people engaged in it, the contribution of the director is the least palpable, the hardest to put one’s finger on.”

“The idea, you see, is to get them into the theatre. The rest is up to the film. Remember that the public itself is a species capable of change, the evolution through pressure of circumstances. It is true that till now a very large section of it—in its taste and its power of judgment—seems not to have reached the stage of homosapiens yet, but you need not concern yourself with it. There is the other species, the more advanced species, much smaller in number, who have left their trees and shed their tails and are out on their two feet on a hunt. You can give them the meat they are looking for.”

A centenary tribute to Satyajit Ray: the undefeated and the unvanquished

After the convocation address, a few of us surrounded him and we sat under the wisdom tree. When asked about critics, he casually remarked that most who fail to make a mark in making a film, end up being a critic.Therefore, I hesitate to write a review of ‘Aparajito’, a timely, imaginative, simple but sophisticated biopic that has become a major hit in the past few weeks in Bengal.

To make a biopic on an internationally known celebrity who never minced his words, who has been written about, read and discussed widely, is a daring proposition. It is all the more courageous because chances of critics tearing it apart even before the premiere, could never be ruled out.

The centenary year of Satyajit Ray is the selling point, but it carries with it many burdens. Hence, taking recourse to a fictional version based on facts, sprinkled with staged interviews that infuse credibility because of the interviewee’s presence in Ray’s life, silenced many of the potential critics. When the interviewee is a person who Utpal Dutt hailed as a living encyclopedia and who was consulted by the likes of Sir Richard Attenborough and Peter Brook before embarking on an Indian subject was a great strategic step. The redoubtable Samik Bandyopadhyay appears his natural self.

The Doordarshan programme ‘The Great Master’ is available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Aql4EREI1Ak) for those interested to learn more of Ray and Bandopadhyay’s associa-tion. Weaving of facts illustrated with stunning film sequences, the underuse of the background scores, the costume, set and character recreations reflect the effort and sincerity of the director. The black & white tone created by the director of photography and the colourist deserve a special mention.

There are of course ‘experts’ who no doubt will tear the film apart. To them, I would like to share a conversation I had with Manik da – the maestro himself. Asked why he avoided watching his own films, he had told me candidly that he would find flaws and the process of correction would be never ending. So, I refuse to find faults in the film. To me the evident dedication of the director, the courage of the producer and the visible efforts put in by actors made it worth my while.

That the film steps out of a ‘TV drama on a large screen’, that it manages to inject cinematic quality and holds the attention of the audience, is remarkable enough. The only thing I missed is a mention of Ray’s Santiniketan days. But then, it is not a documentary.

The other thing that irritated me was a section of the audience who began walking out even before the lights were turned on, even when Debajyoti Mishra’s brilliant signout music was playing with the credits. Why are Indians so miserly in offering standing ovations?

Ray’s “backward and unsophisticated audience” do not appear to have changed much.

(The writer is the National Coordinator for India of International Public Television and winner of 24 international awards for his documentary films)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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