Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ray of no hope.

I am ashamed to confess that I was no fan of Satyajit Ray to begin with. When I joined Clarion-McCann back in 1965, the Bengalis there with whom I had to hobnob used to speak of him in a hushed, deeply reverential tone. That must have kind of put my back up. I started to almost despise Ray for no reason at all but did not articulate my views to fellow Clarionites for obvious reasons. It was only later when I started to understand the rudiments of what cinema was all about that I did a complete about-face on Ray. This morning I read a piece in Mumbai Mirror (Interval by Chako) about a free screening of a Satyajit Ray film, Charulata, in fact, in – hold your breath! – Kolkata recently. There was only a solitary person in the auditorium – a homeless vagrant who had wandered in for the free air conditioning. Even he wanted to walk out half way but was detained by the two Ray enthusiasts who had organised the show. By contrast, the Satyajit Ray retrospective at the Lincoln Centre, New York, this April, organised by the eponymous Film Society, draws huge crowds of cinema aficionados with seats sold out weeks in advance. Chako also draws our attention to the fisticuffs in Venice between a female professor and a male journalist over the last ticket of Devi, a part of last year’s local Satyajit Ray retrospective. “A Ray film invites you in, but also demands that you accept it on its own terms. And those who open themselves to Ray's method are in for some of the richest experiences the cinema has to offer." This is the opinion of Richard Pena, the Film Society's director of programming. Pauline “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” Kael described Pather Panchali, the film that brought Ray to the world’s notice, "beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love". Akira Kurosawa wrote: “The quiet but deep observation, understanding, and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” “Ray's magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact, will always stay with me,” wrote Martin Scorsese. All of which brings me to the question that has always bothered me. Why are Indians so grudging in accepting genius amidst them? Why are we so petty minded? The problem, I reckon, lies in Ray’s propensity to portray life at its most humdrum as he sees it (“a 5-minute close-up of water being poured from a pitcher”). “We don’t go to the multiplex except to be bedazzled and razzmatazzed, man. We want kitsch-laden, glitzy tripe, man. Hang realism, man. For us, reality Tv with Rakhi Sawant is the only reality we can face. We are Indians. We are like that only.” Chako lays to rest the usual, most-bandied accusation against Ray that he got his fame by selling India’s poverty to the world. He points out that only the first Ray film was about the rural poor. The rest of most of his ouvre was about the affluent and educated Kolkatan Bhadralok of which he happened to be very much a part.