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Reading History with Satyajit Ray

by শমীক বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায় | Samik Bandyopadhyay
Reading History with Satyajit Ray

Eminent Litterateur and Critic 

Published in Monthly Bulletin of The Asiatic Society: Volume XLIX No.5, May 2020

In the short interview that preceded the first national telecast of his Sadgati, in 1981, Ray told me that he was entering new social territory, a whole new area of experience, the subaltern, which he would like to explore further, and was looking for stories; and had just discovered Mahasweta Devi. I could sense a desperation in him, as he could not find a story that would lend to his need. At the same time, with the political scenario changing, post-Emergency, he felt the need to take a critical look at Nationalism even as it was being redefined in the polity, with a quick delivery populist agenda eating into the secular, socialist direction that was withering away, with the beginning of what Arjun Appadurai has recently described as the new revolt of the elites, with the ‘masses’ in tow! Hence his choice of Tagore’s Gharey Bairey, practically aborted by his heart attack that interrupted the making, and when he came back to it after recovery, he was no longer the old Satyajit Ray, with his complete personal control of the mechanism of making, in which he took such legitimate pride. Gharey Bairey made its point of course, but not with the strength of the anger ‘of a bow stretched taut and quivering’ as he (in his own words) had achieved in Sadgati

As a matter of fact, Sadgati, in its barely 50- odd minutes, was a culminating point and a breakthrough at the same time in the reading of history that seems to run through the films of Ray. The narrative of Bengal social history that he chalked so laboriously, sensitively and meticulously from the Apu Trilogy (the trilogic scheme itself so significantly located, covering pre-World War I Bengal to the 1930s––Aparajito virtually starting with the title ‘Varanasi, year 1327 BE’ [1920]––registering at once the spirit of an urban culture that carries along with it the baggage of a rural culture through a history of migration) to the Calcutta Tetralogy, filling in prehistories in the earlier century in Devi, Jalsaghar and Charulata, with two symptomatic cadenzas––Parashpathar and Kanchanjungha–– lifting the historical reading to a more critical- analytic plane, with evocations of capital and class. 

The Calcutta Tetralogy—Aranyer Din Ratri, Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya— a typical product of the radical fervour consumed by confusion so characteristic of the times, is an elegiac lamentation over the collapse of values, rampant corruption, the devious machinations aiming at position and power, almost subsumed under a cynical despair, the only reliefs in sequences of dreams, nightmares and fantasies!

Sadgati followed as a turnaround, with its focus on labour, exploited by religious authority and fundamentalism. With the whole range of labour it brings into play, from the child making leaf plates to Dukhia, cutting grass, cleaning the brahman’s courtyard, building up in violence to cutting the monstrous block of wood, it abstracts the process of history to that elemental, with the nameless Gond bearing witness to it all, embodying the witnesshood of‘Hum Dekhenge.’