When “Ray”, a four-story anthology based on stories by late Satyajit Ray, drops on OTT later this month, it will be an interesting attempt by a set of new-age artistes and filmmakers at exploring the thought process of an auteur who passed away nearly three decades ago, but who continues to topline any discussion on world cinema if it involves India.
For the record, the anthology has two films directed by Srijit Mukherji, and one each by Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala.
Let us see how the cinema of Satyajit Ray touched upon these ideas in his era.
Ray couldn’t have possibly foreseen what the world is going through currently, as there was no virus outbreak of the proportion of Covid between 1955 and 1992, the time span when he made 29 feature films, five documentaries, and two short films.
Yet, two films resonate the idea, in different ways. His 1973 film “Ashani Sanket” is a fiction based on the Bengal Famine of 1943, when an estimated two to three million died of disease and starvation, even as World War II raged on in the West. While the film’s premise is war-induced famine in British India, the horrors it portrays are not far from newspaper images and news TV vignettes that have dominated over the past year.
The second film is “Ganashatru”, his 1990 release adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People”. Ray’s Indianised plot is set in a small town, where the major draw is a temple that attracts local devotees and tourists alike. A doctor discovers that the rise in jaundice cases in the town could be linked to the contaminated water being distributed as the ‘charanamrita’ (holy water) that devotees consume.
At a time when many nations are run by right wing governments, and the shadow of dictatorship keeps rearing its ugly head, Ray’s 1980 film “Hirak Rajar Deshe” could make for an interesting watch. Billed primarily as a family entertainer, the sequel to the 1969 release “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne” actually unfolds a layered narrative about a fictional dystopian world.
This is a world where fascism — portrayed by a mighty king — uses science (symbolised by a scientist who invents a machine that can brainwash people) to bring the masses under his control. Everyone speaks in rhyme, symbolising that thought process is curbed to sound nice and politically correct, except the teacher, who represents education that sets off free will and, hence, free speech.
Goopy the singer and Bagha the drummer represent the power of art, which ultimately joins forces with science and education to bring down fascism.
The first would be Karuna Banerjee as Apu’s mother Sarbojaya in “Pather Panchali” (1955) and its sequel “Aparajito” (1956). She holds her family together against every storm, and is a classic template of the quintessential mother who cares and protects.
Sarbojaya strikes a contrast to Ray’s most unforgettable female protagonist — Madhabi Mukherji as the titular “Charulata” in the filmmaker’s 1964 gem of the same name. Based on a Rabindranath Tagore story titled “Nashtanir”, “Charulata” highlights a traditional housewife of a conservative, upper-class Bengali household in pre-Independent India. The film was ahead of its time, and the poignancy with which Ray sketched Charulata on screen remains unparalleled.
Madhabi Mukherjee also stars as the remarkable Arati in Ray’s 1963 film “Mahanagar”. Widely acknowledged as a celebration of feminism, the film narrates the story of a middle-class Kolkata couple. The film was outstanding in its understanding of a woman’s sense of freedom as an entity that’s equivalent to that of a man’s.