Black and white ray

Black and white ray.

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Black and white ray

 

When there was the forest

 

Nature has unique ways of reaching out to our deepest corners. I remember a trip to the forest with my first team. That was more than 10 years back. It is a trip that none of us will ever forget. an affair of only 3 days which clings on to our consciousness even today after so many seasons have gone by. And every now and then all of us have that urge. That wish, to relive the experiences of those three days. In fact we had three more trips with the same team subsequently. I have traveled out with most of my subsequent teams. However that experience was never matched.

 A complete description of the trip will take a full blog in itself. let’s just say that in a continuous indulgence in camaraderie, alcohol in all forms, marijuana, simpleton villagers, the beauty of nature and more importantly indulging in the process of self-discovery as a team (without knowing about it) for three days we ended up experiencing something unique and rare. Something which could perhaps happen only once in our lives. Because once one had experienced such a process of self-discovery the same cannot be repeated again.

 Gautam Ghose made Abar Aranya. He should never have. Perhaps he never had an experience like ours. The experience of the characters in ADR could never be replicated or surpassed.

 Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest- ADR) is a movie which will remain in our senses for years to come. Often passed off as “a coming of age” or “boys to men” men movie by critics of this country, this movie is one which actually talks about self-discovery and the human condition. Four young men from the urban Kolkata- men who were the youth of that age. Men full of urban confidence. And men who learnt a thing or two about themselves, about love, life, and the world at large.

 There was Ashim the suave urban well to do executive with the car, the Ashim who sneaks indulgence in female company while his self-consciousness in that same company holds him back. There was Sanjoy- the most unlikely labor executive one can find. Hari the cricketer who thinks more through his genitilia than brain. And walks around with this sense of male bravado and chauvinism which gets punctured all so easily. The jester in the group- Shekhar is the most balanced and practical of all. But also the least interesting beyond a point.

 Then there are the women. Three of them. The sharp wise and yet vulnerable Aparna whose independence of thought and sharpness defeats the vanity and sense of intellectual superiority which Ashim has. Sanjoy gets attracted to Jaya who is perhaps much more than what she seems to be. And the cricketer Hari gets his carnal uprising from the santhal girl Dhuli. Played by Simi in black. maaan! I would do anything for such a santhal girl! Bomb all the intellectuality and the cerebralism in the world….

 And finally the forest. Vast dispassionate and distant in one moment and the all-embracing all-encompassing reality in the next. I have always believed that humanity comes close to itself in front of the grandness of nature. Ray has always shared this belief. The scene of realization of loss in Apur Sansar when Apu lets go of his manuscript in the mountains. So many of the scenes from kanchen jungha. But most definitively in ADR. The premise of the film rests on the forest. The story would not have held had the forest not been there. Yes- like many other films the forest does not become a character. But it is there constantly in the background giving the canvas for the lead characters to paint their own stories. The stories of these characters intertwining and colliding to teach each other change each other and make each other realize the entity within themselves. All the while the forest looks on.

There is a certain point in which one shifts from being a boy to being a man. I believe it happens in a moment. The realization is instant. After that flex point has gone we all keep revisiting our boyhood by indulging in similar activities and creating similar atmosphere in our lives. However deep inside we know that life has moved on. This film in many ways is about that moment for the four friends. Yes that way it is a “coming of age” movie. But it is so different from the genre! It is actually a study of the human condition in that stage of the life. Not a narration of events like most other “coming of age” cinema. The real win of the movie however lies in the sheer effortlessness of the achievement. The film manages to shed as much light on the human condition as most, without seeming to even try.

 There are many times when this movie keeps coming back to haunt me, the four friends, the women, they all represent those moments which I have left by the road in my life so far. Those moments where things could have been and did not. So many moments lost. But so many gained… if keeps coming back to me to remind me of a different time, a different me. It is when the man looks back at the boy and smiles that indulgent smile of knowing it. ADR is one of the most personal films for me.

Bad company

 

There was a movie made in the early seventies- 71 to be accurate. And the scenes of the movie keep haunting me today more than four decades later. Ray movies seldom shock. They always haunt. Subtle insights and messages which get hooked to our consciousness keep following us for long after we have seen the movie. Even today I keep thinking of Barun Chanda’s Shyamal and his reactions during his interactions with the labor officer. The visible discomfort and yet the dependence. The relation between the suave and sophisticated genteel and the slimy, scheming and dirty. An intercourse of mutual convenience where no partner is there for the love or enjoyment, but for a different need. Also the reflection on the fakeness of the upper middleclass morality. One deft stroke from the artist and a picture so vibrant and so clear. Many of his contemporaries who criticized him for not taking up social real issues needed to note. The difference between the cinema of ray and others was perhaps the difference between art and propaganda. In a few scenes brilliantly underplayed to perfection by Barun chanda, the fakeness and spinelessness of bourgeois was communicated with a hint of a smile without any loud sloganism.

 Shyamal, the perfect man of the seventies. Shyamal- someone with whom I can relate to a lot. Shyamal the man who was once someone else. An idealist student. Shyamal who now looks back to those days with superficial humor. Humor of a man at unease. A man who has chosen the easy way out. A man who keeps telling the world that he has no regrets while deep inside he is not so sure. But then it does not matter. The pay is good. The flat in Shakespeare sarani even better. With a trophy wife who is more glamorous than she is intelligent the circle is complete. That is Shyamal the perfect man. Tutul comes in. Tutul the ravishing, seductive and yet so imperfect alter-ego. Tutul whose passion reminds Shyamal of what he once was?

 Then there was the next promotion and the small slip up which could blow up into something so big. Then came the compromise. And the final departure. The final dip into the murkiness of the corporate. The hated IR fellow suddenly becomes the partner of convenience. Immoral harm caused to poor factory-workers to cover up managerial misses. The completion of the act of conversion of Shyamal the ethical idealist into Shyamal the successful corporate citizen comes about. In almost a matter of fact manner. Tutul the alter-ego is there. She understands. But then how does it matter?

 The legendary staircase scene in the end of the movie is a sharp reminder to all of us of our potential lives. The deed done, promotion secured, Shyamal walks into the apartment complex. The Shyamal whose last strand with the original self has been detached. The electricity of the apartment is down. The lift is not working. Shyamal has to walk up to his apartment on the seventh floor. It’s a long climb. Every step takes away a bit of his energy. This tiring life in the race where every milestone takes away a part of our being. And yet we keep running in the race. We have given it the apt name of “rat race”. But we keep forgetting that the rats who are running are us.

 Seemabadha remains one of my favourite movies. It talks about my class, my people. It talks about what I am today and what my peers are. It was made 41 years back. Every time I make a new compromise the facial expressions of Shyamal flashes by. When he finally walks into the house only to remember that the fan will not work. Seemabadha means limited. The English name of the movie was company limited. Perhaps it actually shows how the company limited us as humans…

The naughty wife

 

Every day we are inundated with the films on extramarital affairs. The heroines and the heroes keep engaging and questioning the boundaries of modern middleclass morality. for most film directors this becomes a premise for skin show- still a sure shot way for selling a product even after the internet porn psunami.be it Diane lane in unfaithful or mallika sherawat, skin sells. There has been artsy stuff too- and many of them around this topic.

 When ray made Charulata- the story of a wife developing interest in her brother-in-law, the contemporary expectation would have been another sound melodrama. The hints on the relationship in the novel were very subtle and readers and critics of the time chose to almost ignore the same especially given that cheating is a bad word and attributing it to a Tagore creation was almost a taboo. Ray’s Charulata (from Nashtaneer by Tagore) made those hints a little less subtle and more direct. So even though they remained only hints, the populist newspaper critics of the time did not take very kindly to the movie. They also went on to say that most of the movie’s first part was almost Greek to the viewer as there is hardly any dialogue or words exchanged. And that Charu looked more like a nymph burning in her desire than a lonely housewife looking for company. The critics were obviously not very pleased.

 The fact was that the critics were simply not ready for the kind of cinema ray was making. And ray was not ready for taking the garbage they were throwing. I have firmly believed that criticism needs to be objective and topical. However most films critics that I look around rarely do that. There is a dire need to be clear in your head when you are critiquing art. Like I can say that a certain character in a movie has confusing behavior and hence I suspect that the characterization is weak. But I cannot say that the story has weak characterization without qualifying my statement. Unfortunately most critics (I strongly believe critics are wannabe artists who have this wet dream of being a great artist) lose their objectivity while criticizing.

 Ray had written an article defending his movie. It was also an article where he brought out how a director converts a written story/novel into a film script and then a movie. Many times we keep hearing people say “not as good as the novel”. Well comparing a film to a novel itself is height of stupidity. Novel is a written text. There the writer can write a thousand pages to describe one character. In a film how do you communicate a “character”? There is huge scope of visual imagery in a book- in the head of a reader. We imagine how a certain character will look like because in a book as there we are free to imagine. In a movie there is no such scope for the viewer. Similar handicaps exist in describing situations. I can describe the site of an old western gun battle in 10 pages. But the film gets 1-2 seconds to present the same to the viewer. Ray was the first person to talk about this. And to share his methods of dealing with these handicaps. Ever since, this article has become one of the film making bibles of our times, the world over. Do read it if you are interested in cinema.

 History has agreed again and again that Charulata was one the most accomplished films of ray. More than the content, more than the performances, more than anything else, perhaps the biggest achievement of Charulata was that it played a significant role in developing the grammar of film making. More specifically, the grammar of literature to cinema. my attraction and need of watching the movie multiple times over the years was exactly this- learning the craft of film making- the craft and language of making a piece of literature into film. Frankly this work has not been the one that I have related to very closely on an emotional level. However I like thousands of other film enthusiasts have learned so much. Small moments which taught a lot.

 The famous looking glass scene. The effortless communication of a situation where someone creative, intelligent and playfully young is forced into a life in a void. The looking glass became such a potent communicator. The character which the glass caught, the mild amusements and interest in variety. The single moment when her husband Bhupati informs her of the arrival of Amal- Charu who was observing Bhupati through the glasses takes it away in one jerk and simultaneously the camera does a sudden zoom out. The significance of impact of this news to Charu is communicated. Unlike the writer the film director did not have or need to use pages of back ground narration to communicate this?

 400 blows, battleship Potemkin, breathless… in my view Charulata belongs up there along with these classics. Classics which in more way than one the way cinema is being made in today’s time.

 

 

The early days…hazy impressions

 

Baby steps

Movies in the growing up years were taboo. I remember once going to see the sick melodrama- ankhiyon ke jharokey with the neighbors…and getting grounded for 2 days by my father. Films were not good and Hindi cinema was pure evil. So even if there was a little scope in Bengali uttam-suchitra classic and the odd Ray masterpiece any mention of Hindi cinema was bad news for us.

However that does not mean that father was anti-cinema. In fact on the contrary he has taken me to see more movies in my life time than anyone else. Obviously after a point I didn’t need anyone to take me to movies…the early memories of wild life classics trickle into the memory- wilderness family, touch the sky, etc. all movies based on the wild life. Then there were the soccer movies. The name of Giants of Brazil is distinctly etched. I remember the collective joy of my father and myself at the exploits of the greats- Garincha, Pele, Taustao… Only last year we did a redux on this very laptop when we watched a downloaded version of the movie after close to 3 decades….

The first true English feature film which my dad took me to was Omar Mukhtar- the Lion of the Desert. A neighborhood “dada” whom I was an ardent follower of highly recommended the movie to me. Obviously my father was not impressed at all. All my pleadings and anger fell to deaf years as he dismissed the movie and my plea, further fanning my anger. Then in the evening in the same sarcastic way in which he was talking to me in the morning he told me to get dressed up and then non-chalantly took me to the movie theater to watch the movie.

Till date Lion of the Desert remains one of my closest to heart movies. I have seen the film later on as an adult. It is perhaps one of the best anti-colonial movies that has come out of Hollywood. Till this day Anthony Quinn for me is Omar Mukhtar. Before being zorba the Greek, or Abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia, or Cl Stavrov in Guns of Navarone. Quinn lived and breathed his role as the Libyan freedom fighter with a level of energy rarely seen. Then there was Oliver Reed as the Italian general torn between his admiration for the Lion and his orders to execute him. Orders from Mussolini played ruthlessly by Rod Stieger. Beside or beyond the power-house performances which etch the movie what really attracted me to it and dug deep into my conscience was the honesty with which the story was told. The honesty and simplicity. As they say, the greatest things in life are also the simplest. The greatness of the movie lay in its simplicity of narration. The film in more ways than one embodies what freedom means. To a group of thundering and wandering Bedouins who are fighting enslavement by the white man. There was one quote in the movie which I remembered. Thanks to the net I managed to dig up the exact dialogue:

[Omar Mukhtar protects two surviving Italian soldiers]
Omar Mukhtar: We do not kill *prisoners*!
Arab Warrior: *They* do it to *us*!
Omar Mukhtar: “They” are not our *teachers!*

Here in lies the simplicity of the movie. Which perhaps was critical in portraying the simple souls of the desert nomads for whom freedom was a way of life. Long after the rise and fall of Omar Mukhtar, the Second World War, Mussolini, and Gaddafi and ravaged this nation for his own psychopathic pleasures. I sincerely hope that with the killing of Gaddafi the Libyans will rediscover their souls, their simplicity and their unique ways of life which was protect by Omar Mukhtar to his death.

Needless to say the very first movie which left an impact on me was Lion of the Desert. For the movie that it was. But also for the fact that it was the first real movie which I watched with my father in the theater. Only me and my dad….

Magic of DD

The first knock on the door on everything which has happened to the lives of us who grew up in the eighties was always put by our good friend the doordarshan. the first serial(hum log), the first mega serial(buniyaad/ramayan/mahabharat), the first exposure to news as a magazine (the world this week), the first world cup- seeing maradona take on the whole world…. and yes- the 1983 win… with half the match wiped out due to link failure. “Sorry for the interruption”….the half hour of Md- Rafi concert when everyone had assumed the India would be trounced. and then the link coming back and the TV screen showing west indies 6 wickets down….those were the days of real magic…

My first exposure to world cinema also came in from DD. those were the days when DD had started screening world cinema in late nights. These movies were uncensored and had frontal nudity and sex in most of them. These were great movies made by world masters. This was my days of entry into adolescence. Days when late night movies were banned. For obvious reasons.

I had gone to visit my granny. With my elder cousin- a big influence in my life. When granny went to sleep early in the night with the small portable TV at our disposal, it was sheer bliss for us brothers. He in his late teens and me just stepping in. in days before the net, nudity was a rare commodity. Sex was extinct. One full late-night movie at our disposal with no one to snoop in was god-sent.

With bated expectation we waited.  A Russian movie came up. Before the credits it showed a shot of an old woman walking on to a deserted main road. The background audio announced in Russian which we read in the subtitles-

The old lady is waiting for his son to come back. But we know that the son will never come back as he has been killed in the war. But this is not the story of his death. This is the story of his life.

The credits came on and announced the name of the movie- the ballad of a soldier. By then both me and my brother had realized that this movie will not be what we were waiting for. But perhaps it would be something which is worth waiting for.

I saw ballad of a soldier as a kid. You will perhaps not believe, but every scene of the movie was etched in my mind when I was compelled to hunt down its DVD in a video shop in Canada more than 20 years later. It is a film which has stayed with me for the last quarter of a century.

The ballad is a simple tale. And again that’s where it got me. And millions of others who have watched it and elevated it to being one of the best movies to have come out of Russia. It is the simple story of the journey of a soldier who is coming back from the front which he has earned through his bravery. It is the simple tale of two teenagers who fall in love against circumstances. And knowing fully well that this love is momentary and without a future. A story of a young man’s journey through war ravaged country and war ravaged cities and citizens. A teenagers growing up to the harsh realities of life and the beauty of love at the same time. It is the story of an epic journey which Alyosha and Shura undertake over a period of a few days.

The ballad was a simple straight forward tale. Overly sentimental at times. But for a nation coming out of the deadliest war that civilization has seen and getting into one of the deadliest and most oppressing periods which civilization has seen this was a message, a story straight from the heart.

Released in 1959 the film till today remains as fresh as its appeal on humanism even today. In the maze of “smart” movies which has overtaken our times this movie any time provides the whiff of fresh air. See Ballad of a soldier. Ignore the sentimentalism a bit. You will not regret…

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The Ray Years

Build up
The issue on serious cinema is that it is serious. A penchant for serious cinema is hardly developed in the prime of youth especially during the teenage. My teenage cinema obsession started with soft porn in the shady allies of Kolkata. That was the natural instinct of the youth growing up in a non-internet era and without the resources to watch VCDs at home.
I always thought and still think that porn is therapeutic. And preventive. Especially for people not that close to companionship of other sexes. A lot of sexual crime perhaps could have been prevented if everyone subscribed to this view. But anyways at the age of 14-15 I was not thinking much. There was a lot more to do than think.
The shady seats in the broken halls in the shady corners of the city were the most sought after places for rowdy school-boys like me. On display used to be non-English European movies which were high on skin content. Sometime porn clips were inserted into otherwise clean movies. With police looking the other way in return for some tips the soft porn industry in the city was booming. And our sex education was happening on an accelerated albeit twisted route.
Somewhere in the middle of all this I never realized how the structure of good cinema had crept into my being. Through the window or a hidden corner somewhere. I started having judgments and started to understand my choices and preferences of the kind of cinema I wanted to watch. I remember an incident where I had a heated argument on the triangular freak show called Sayan when someone claimed that it was a more “mature” love-story than dil hai ki manta nahin. Both were bollywood potboilers. But one was a freak show which people today will laugh at. The other was a lift from one of the most engaging love-stories of all times. The very fact that I had a point of view was surprising. The fact that it was a year or 2 after watching Maine pyar kiya 7 times was shocking.
The east European cinema in the garb of soft porn had helped….
Something happened….
(Ray’s death and implications)
Something happened….
My life in bliss of academics, experimentation with dark elements and porn cinema was going along well enough as my higher secondary exams approached. A broken relationship and some bizarre experiences had shaken a bit of my equilibrium of existence. But overall it was a healthy existence in isolation with life rolling on towards the finite direction of engineering/medical entrance and college admissions. The HS exams went on as expected. And then something happened….
They say that when a big event happens the repercussions of the same is experienced by so many small common people which never gets noticed or accounted for. When Ray was holding his Oscar and communicating through the screen in the Oscar night I was sitting in front of TV with the realization of the hugeness of this person dawning on me for the first time. Till then he was this person who was a big filmmaker as per people around and everyone used to go gaga over his movies. I loved his Feluda and the GooGaBaBa series more. Had not seen much else.
Then this whole Oscar thing (Oscars till then was the biggest thing in movies for me) really gave me the perspective.
Ray died shortly after this. By then my exams were over. And for the first time I was free in life without any homework or any assignment to complete. The initial days of continuous TV watching exposed me to the world of ray with a 24/7 coverage of him, his life and his work. Kolkata and Bengal was like a melting pot flowing over with emotion in losing their last horseman of the famed Bengali renaissance. The last flag bearer of the great modern cultural upsurge for which Bengal was known for. And here I was sitting in front of the TV absorbing all of it and realizing how big the man was.
In the coming weeks my life was all about ray’s interviews, others talking about ray and most importantly the cinema of ray. While I ran around and started collecting every piece of document available on the man in magazines, newspapers and subsequently books, the most things which hit me about him was his cinema. DD Kolkata screened each and every piece of cinema which ray had made. Every day at 5pm. every day at 5pm my world around stopped. My world inside the world of ray came alive for those few hours. The world of apu, the world of Feluda, the world of arati, the world of bishwambhar roy, the world of paresh babu…..and so many others…
A few years later I had the fortune of watching a movie which was about a boy and an old man losing themselves in the joys of cinema in a rundown theatre somewhere in Italy. For me those days the 5pm appointments with the television were no less. It was that time of day everyday where life ahead of me was unfolding. Regardless of what profession I chose it was getting firmly cemented somewhere inside my being that cinema was going to be playing a very critical role in my life. As I had said in the beginning- when big events happen the repercussions travel far beyond the imagination of those events and people.
* * *
I am not here to write an autobiography. So I will end my indulgence into personal history here and now. I thought it was important to mention the impact which the person whose cinema I want to talk about had on my life and how. So that that and now we continue.
It’s funny. Who am I to talk about cinema of ray? Why should I have the audacity of actually writing about one of the greatest film makers the world has seen? Do I know or appreciate cinema better than him or even close to him? The answer to all these questions and doubts is obviously negative. after months of uncertainty and lack of clarity I have reconciled to the fact as mentioned in an earlier post- I write as a fan, a dreamy kid whose wonder world of fairy tales is woven around in the world of 35mm. ray for me has been and will always be the life-starter. In many ways I started living after ray happened. He happened through his death. Ironic…
Cinema of ray
The last few movies of ray talked about a world from which beauty was getting alienated. Shakha proshakha was about the disjointed family, ganashatru on Ibsen’s enemy of the people, and the final bow of the great man- Agantuk all dealt with the theme of social alienation. However the man started with a completely different approach to the world.
* * *
 
The trilogy
Pather panchali was not the first film which I saw of ray. In fact it was also not the first of the apu trilogy which I saw. Yet, when I ended up seeing pather panchali I was both shaken and stirred like the martini in the hand of Mr. Bond. After having seen many complicated “intelligent” forms of story-telling on screen the sheer straight-forwardness of ray in telling the original story of human-kind was enlightening. The characters in pather panchali could have been nova rich for all we cared. The story was really not about their struggle or their poverty. The story more was about the fact that life in any condition has its share of laughter, joy, sorrow, love and hatred. And that it ends. And that the same is not in our hands. And there is no point over-dramatizing the various facets of our lives.
Just like the scene where sarbajaya reveals durga’s death to harihar and pierces our heart without the use of a single dialogue, in the same way durga and apu’s discovery of the train for the first time brings out an unexpected thrill without any hi-tech complex plot-point. And the fact is that is the way life goes. A train of simple events which take a lifetime to complete. Before we make our passing. Dignity comes from accepting the same and making the best that we have. The beautiful trilogy of apu talks about a simple life of a simple man with simple dreams. And yet it makes such an engaging story.
The most endearing quality of Bibhutibhushan’s literature has been his celebration of the common man heroism. The common place thrill. His description of his first night in the jungle in aranyak was magical as it was like a kid seeing a fairytale for the first time. Bibhutibhusan throughout has been that kid. Discovering gems in everyday life. Gems of happiness, sadness, hatred love and so many other tapestries of human emotions and experiences.
There has been a section of critics who have criticized PP and other Ray films for show of poverty. They have thereby shown their ignorance and stupidity. For all anyone cares the characters of the trilogy could have been from middle or upper-middleclass, the reality of their lives would not have changed much. The story of apu was anything but poverty. It was the story of little nuggets of courage and heroism in adversity. And as I said- the fact the life keeps flowing in its own pace and direction and we humans just play our roles.
My favorite of the trilogy is aparajito. It is the least celebrated work in the trilogy, but it affected me the most. Perhaps because of the age I saw it. Aparajito was apu’s adolescence and journey into adulthood. The boy who loses his sister as a kid and his father before he can grow up. the boy who has the courage to move to the big city and then the boy who is torn between his urge to move on in life and his love and longing for his mother who has no strength left to go along. The final scene of the movie is liberating as well as devastating. The young soul torn between his need to grieve the loss of the last and the closest of his family and the realization that he is finally free. The cruelness of our options in life plays out in matter of fact simplicity and hypnotizes us into reflection of our own world and our choices.
Till date aparijito remains the ultimate growing up film for me. Urges of youth, the heartbreak of age all are too real and yet so serene.