May 4, 2010

In Apu's World

I met Satyajit Ray only once, when I was seven years old. Like every month, my father had taken me to the office of Sandesh, the children's magazine that Ray co-edited, to collect my copy. We rang the bell, and the door was opened by the tallest man I had ever seen. Far above me hung a huge face seemingly carved out of granite, which now turned and called inside in a voice of distilled thunder: "Mini-di, here's a subscriber of yours." (Mini-di, or Nalini Das, was Ray's cousin, whose home doubled as the Sandesh office.) As we waited, my father kept prodding me in the back: "Ask him, ask him!" So, finally, shyly, I did. "I sent in a story three months ago..." I squeaked to this unknown giant. (Sandesh had a section which carried the literary efforts of its underage readers.) "What's it called?" asked Ray. I told him. "I'll see," he said, and we left. The next month, the story was published in Sandesh.

In many ways, this little incident has, for me, epitomised Ray's art. I have always directly connected the fact that he remembered a random child and took the trouble to find his story in the stack of manuscripts lying with him, to the compassionate humanism that illuminates his films. In Pather Panchali, the octogenarian Indir Thakrun is greedy and thieving, yet we weep for her. In Charulata, the unscrupulous Umapada will betray Bhupati, but he is also devoted to his artless wife Manda. In Kanchenjunga, it's the wastrel son-in-law who tells Manisha that she should not marry for any reason other than love. "Villains bore me," Ray wrote once, famously. In Camus' The Plague, Tarrou said: "I understand everyone, so I judge no one." Ray made us understand.

In the sparest and the most refined of cinematic idioms, he gave us a world. Other thanAbhijan, Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Sadgati, his body of work is an exquisitely crafted narrative of a century in the life of a society. If Joyce captured a man in full through the relentless description and analysis of a day in Dublin, Ray's films are delicate vignettes sculpted in time recording an entire culture. While the anglophile yet patriotic aristocrat in Charulata brings out a newspaper at the turn of the century, Apu is being born to an impoverished priest in Nishchindipur village in Pather Panchali. As he goes to school, Nikhilesh and Sandip are debating the use of violence as a political tool in the aftermath of the Bengal Partition in Ghare Baire. Apu grows up, as the feudal system crumbles in Jalsaghar. And even as he sets off with his son Kajol at the end of Apur Sansar, Bengal is careening towards history's most devastating man-made famine, when the Brahmin Gangacharan will break all taboos and cremate an untouchable woman dead from hunger in Ashani Sanket.

If Charulata ever had a child through her husband, it's conceivable, in a warped way, that he'd grow up to be the Raj-relic autocrat Indranath in Kanchenjunga, watching petulantly as the next generation shrugs its way into rebellion. And Siddhartha in Pratidwandi, Ashim and Sanjoy inAranyer Dinratri, Shyamalendu in Seemabaddha and Somnath in Jana Aranya, could all be Apu's grandsons, charting different probability pathways determined by chance and circumstance. The jungle makes Ashim, the yuppie, a better man, but timid yuppie manque Sanjoy will possibly go back and marry his boss' daughter. Siddhartha will have to leave his beloved Calcutta in search of a livelihood but will retain his romanticism. And the two Apu progeny who will make the most appalling compromises will be Shyamalendu, the mnc high-flier who will wreak misery and death on his way to a directorship, and Somnath, who will supply his friend's sister to a rich businessman to get a contract. Yet, victorious or vanquished, morally perpendicular or prostrate, they all carry a bit of Apu within them.

Ray chronicled Bengal. When asked in the early 1970s by a magazine what it meant to be a Hindu, he said: "I consider myself a Bengali, not a Hindu." But he turned his Bengal into something universal, drawing from it the essence of the human condition. I once watchedAparajito in my college hostel common room. The boy sitting next to me, weeping unashamedly, was from Mauritius. "The scenes between Apu and his mother..." he told me, "I have had exactly the same conversations when I have gone back home during the vacations." Forget the technical jargon of montage and mise en scene, fade-outs and jump cuts; Ray performed, better than any other Indian, the basic duty of a filmmaker. He communicated. He touched. Singularly British and Brahmo at his core, uncomfortable with overt displays of emotion and bodily contact, the only man who refused to be kissed by a French president while receiving the Legion d'Honneur, Ray touched you. He gave you the fundamentals, in a way that always seemed right.

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