Saturday, June 11, 2022

100 reasons to love Ray: His bag of tricks

My piece in Lounge's '100 years of Satyajit Ray' cover. We put together a list of 100 reasons; I've included my entries here at the end.

The general impression of Satyajit Ray is that of an understated, subtle film-maker. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote of his “austere delicacy”. American critic Pauline Kael, one of his biggest supporters outside India, wrote that “his simplicity is a simplicity arrived at, achieved”. Akira Kurosawa said, “His work can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river.” This view of Ray's cinema, while not inaccurate, sometimes obscures the vast array of cinematic tricks he employed to achieve his ends.

Even though the abiding impression Ray’s films give is one of calm, there are moments of memorable agitation. His 1970 film Pratidwandi, far from flowing composedly, careens forward like a raft on rapids. The anger and frustration of its young leads is reflected in the technique: shock edits, freeze frames, flashes of photonegative film—all aimed to unsettle. In one scene, Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chaterji) calls on his sister’s rich boss in his house. When the man shows up, Siddhartha jumps up and shoots him four times. Ray films this at a canted angle, like a B-movie. Barely is the shock over than it’s revealed to be a figment of Siddhartha’s imagination.

Dream sequences show up in several Ray films, and allow him to try out his more outrĂ© ideas. The one in Nayak, with Arindam (Uttam Kumar) running through a sea of cash, is perhaps the only Ray scene that could have been directed by Fellini. Compare this with the fever dream of Devi, the father-in-law having a vision of the three eyes of goddess Kali superimposing on Dayamoyee’s face, or with the dance of the ghosts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, six astonishing minutes of cinema trickery combining choreography, stark design, shadow animation and a host of camera effects.

The tag of “simplicity” belies Ray’s fondness for incredibly complex shots. Take the scene in the restaurant in Mahanagar where Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) spies on his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee)—who is having tea with another man—from behind a reflecting pillar. As the camera leaves her table and pans slowly towards Arati, we see her companion and the back of her head reflected on this pillar, and next to that, reflected from another angle, a worried-looking Subrata, the paper he’s reading filling the remainder of the screen. It’s a stunt of a composition, brilliant but not strictly necessary, and one imagines it pleased Ray to be able to pull it off.

The agitprop visual interjections of Pratidwandi find a comic counterpart in the animated character maps of Mahapurush and Seemabaddha, with faces appearing in bubbles and the relationship between them explained like a cartoon. Similarly playful is Shatranj Ke Khilari, which has a potted history lesson narrated by Amitabh Bachchan in which a cartoon Lord Dalhousie eats cherries and the camera zooms in on details in a painting.

While directors, even great ones, often farm out title and credits sequences, Ray channelled his interest in design, illustration and lettering to make his own ones distinctive. At the start of Nayak, horizontal and vertical bars appear, vanish and reappear, forming patterns, to the accompaniment of crashing cymbals and an insinuating, vaguely east Asian theme. It could be the start of a Kurosawa film. But Ray also knew when a simple, direct idea would work best, like in Mahanagar, where the camera follows a single Kolkata tram cable for the entirety of the sequence, or Seemabaddha, where a screen divided down the middle between prosaic moving images and credits anticipates the compartmentalised, time-strapped corporate world we're entering.

There are large and complicated tricks, and small ones that are impossible to forget. Years before Indian censors started slapping tobacco advisories on films, there were two perfect smoke rings in Seemabaddha. The first lingers impertinently in front of Barun Chanda’s face, then seemingly changes its mind and heads back in the direction it came from. The second, blown in retaliation, wafts towards his rival and explodes on his coat sleeve. Volumes have been written about Ray’s humanism and craft, but, like all great artists, he also knew the value of a good parlour trick.

- The shock of hearing Tamil in a Bengali film: one of the many dissonances in Seemabaddha.

- The times when Kapurush becomes noir: shadows, jagged lighting, prowling score, flashbacks cutting up the action, an air of pessimism and the possibility of crime. 

- In Jalsaghar, the contrast between the utter artistry of the performers in Jalsaghar and the louche, drunk, dissolute men in the audience. 

- In Ray’s 1966 detective short story ‘The Emperor’s Ring’, Feluda sings a line from a thumri by emperor Wajid Ali Shah: Jab chhor chaley Lucknow nigari/Kahen haal ke hum par kya guzri. Eleven years later, in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Amjad Khan, playing Shah, sings the same lines. 

- The details in the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri: the very Bengali mix of political and literary figures; the camera jumping from one participant to another as the competition heats up, Jaya willing her object of affection on, Aparna’s graceful surrender to save Ashim’s feelings.  

- Apu telling a friend about his planned novel, about a promising young man who doesn’t make it, but still lives a fulfilling life. One of the most beautiful paeans to failure in all of cinema.

- Om Puri and Smita Patil giggling while dubbing as Ray stands behind them puffing on a pipe in Shyam Benegal’s documentary on the director.  

- Bhupati in Charulata saying, “My favourite smell – that of printing ink”: Ray channeling his childhood memories of his grandfather’s printing press. 

- Hydrolysis, hexahydroxidiamino and a harmonium in Mahapurush.

- Vicky Redmond, affectless and touching as the rabble-rouser Edith in Mahanagar.

- A scene in Apur Sansar – Apu in a field, brushing flowers with his hand – inspiring a similar one in Easy Rider. 

- Apu’s mother seeing fireflies gather above the lake as her strength slowly gives out. 

- The kiss at the end of Ghare Baire: Ray, for once, allowing passions to boil over.

- Figures sped-up like a silent comedy, moving to the beat of Ravi Shankar’s score at the start of Parash Pathar. 

No comments: