THE ‘POLITICAL’ RAY

Some people must show their anger immediately. There are those who don’t show their anger but keep it within themselves. They are stronger.  -It is Ray taking a swipe at Mrinal sen’s “angry political films”.

Amidst all this debate on intolerance and questionable political allegiance of writers and artists, I was intrigued by the question what possibly Satyajit Ray would have said about this sudden outrage of writers and artists and what he would have done. He never displayed his political allegiance to any school of thought, right or left and remained faithful to the spectrum, displaying all its colors. While he was alive, he even refused to talk about politics and politicians and never appeared on a platform that had anything to do with politics.

Ray achieved great heights through critical successes. He was championed by critics all over the world, won awards at every respected international film festival like Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, and Venice. His films were closely studied in film schools and watched repeatedly by hopeful film-makers. Prominent Indian directors such as Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and Shyam Benegal clearly showed the influence of Ray in their work. Yet, in his own Calcutta, Ray was charged with being a supreme representative of bourgeois culture because, in that Calcutta, no respectable intellectual could be other than a Marxist. Ray’s films like Jalsaghar and Ghare Baire hurt the Marxist sensibilities. The 1960s and 1970s were a period of great political turmoil and Ray was accused, as his friend Chidananda Dasgupta has written, of not showing a greater concern for the “Calcutta of the burning trains, communal riots, refugees, unemployment, rising prices and food shortages”. Ray’s films, according to those critics did not portray the real Bengal, the revolutionary Bengal. Take the particular case of Jalsaghar, it presented a loving portrait of a Zamindar who lived for music and displayed a refined aesthetic sensibility. It was not politically correct to show a feudal lord in good light for the so-called intellectual Marxist thugs and they even found it reactionary.

In an unpublished interview, Ray says, “I have never found the so-called progressive attitudes interesting, valid or of any substance. I always found them an over-simplification. I don’t know what Marxism means today. Marxism has changed so much over the years. There’s a huge difference between Marx’s Marxism and today’s Marxism. If you claim to be a Marxist, then you are a Marxist. (Marxism as we see it today) makes me feel as if all doors and windows have been shut.”

Political Stance:

Actually, Satyajit Ray never took a political stance through his works. His works were an honest portrayal of how politics affects the moral and ethical values of normal people. The hero that we expect to see in a film was never there in a Ray film. There were only ordinary people with their ordinary lives. There were no villains with sinister plans but only unfavorable circumstances. He never tried to be judgmental, not even suggestive and presented only the truth. A man who was irritated by constant reference to humanism in his works would have never liked to be tagged as left leaning, right wing or centrist.

He remained apolitical throughout his life but this does not mean that the ongoing political turmoil in the surroundings did not affect him. In his initial works, though he has shown poverty, alienation, infidelity but the underlying themes were never depressing or troubled (Apu trilogy, Charulata etc.). But during the years 1965 to 1975, he projected a troubled vision of India. The war in Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution in China had radicalized Calcutta’s urban youths. The “Calcutta Trilogy”( Partidwandi, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya) was a powerful portrait of alienation, waywardness and moral collapse among the urban youth. Aranyer Din Ratri, a major film, shows a rape scene; Ashani Sanket, a grim and poignant narrative on the Bengal Famine of 1943 was made during the Bangladesh war. This film shows rape as well. During the Emergency he made his first Hindi film Shatranj Ke Khiladi, and metaphorically, through a game of chess, he presented the apathy of the ruling class towards its subjects. In mid-life, observes Dilip Basu, at the height of his creative best, Ray seemed to have suffered a “crisis” — arguably a personal one, but certainly one in his world-view, the way he looked at people and things around him. Increasingly, he became a loner, isolating himself in his Bishop Lefroy Road apartment. He even seriously considered leaving Calcutta — his beloved cinematic city.

In his last years, he was clearly searching for social correctives through acts of enunciation in Cinema. In Ghanashatru and Shakha Prashakha he addressed subjects like Capitalist corruption and manipulation of religion, people, politics, and the environment. In his last film Agantuk, most critics find Ray himself as the protagonist in an emotionally charged surrounding.

The Cineaste Magazine asked Ray,” You’ve often said that you don’t think it’s right, important, or necessary for an artist to provide answers or make judgments, to say that this is right and this is wrong. You’ve stayed away from major political statements.”
Ray said,” I have made political statements more clearly than anyone else, including Mrinal Sen. In Middleman I included a long conversation in which a Congressite discusses the tasks ahead. He talks nonsense, he tells lies, but his very presence is significant. If any other director had made that film, that scene would not have been allowed. But there are definitely restrictions on what a director can say. You know that certain statements and portrayals will never get past the censors. So why make them?”

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