Since the beginning of the ‘talkies’, a select group of feature films have had the power to express a vision of national identity that appeals to both the nation depicted in the film and to the rest of the world. Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) from France, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) from the United States, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) from Britain, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) from Japan, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) from Sweden and, more recently, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat (1984) from Germany, are well-known examples.
So too does Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). These films appeared during the second half of the 1950s, yet they remain India’s pivotal artistic works of the post-Independence period. Though not planned by Ray as a trilogy, his three films, about the childhood, adolescence and manhood of Apu in the first four decades of the century, seemed to many to capture the awakening of the Indian creative spirit from long years of fitful sleep. No doubt the new post-colonial mood of the period had something to do with this widespread view, both in the West and in India. However, a link between the Apu Trilogy and burgeoning Indian nationalist feeling was never more than oblique. After all, the films deeply affected even the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, who saw Pather Panchali several times and thought it ‘the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.’ Kurosawa became a lifelong admirer of Ray, and made the remarkable statement: ‘Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.’
Whilst reviewing the entire 1956 Cannes Film Festival for the London Observer, the upcoming director Lindsay Anderson enthused most of all about Ray’s maiden film. ‘Cannes 1956 has discovered a new masterpiece of poetic cinema,’ he wrote. ‘With apparent formlessness, Pather Panchali traces the great designs of life … You cannot make films like this in a studio, nor for money. Satyajit Ray has worked with humility and complete dedication; he has gone down on his knees in the dust. And his picture has the quality of intimate, unforgettable experience.’ Anderson’s advocacy, along with that of some other influential European critics, ensured that the unheralded Indian film by an unknown director triumphed over its detractors and was awarded a special prize by the festival jury. The following year, its sequel, Aparajito, won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival, though again not without a severe struggle inside the jury.
Another future director, the teenaged Martin Scorsese, saw the Apu Trilogy when all three films were first screened one after the other in New York in 1960. Three decades later, Scorsese recalled:
I was as totally absorbed as one would be reading a great epic novel. Satyajit Ray’s ability to turn the particular into the universal was a revelation to me. I was 18 or 19 years old and had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience … Ray’s magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact, will always stay with me.
Soon after writing this, Scorsese took the lead in persuading Hollywood to give Ray an Academy Award for lifetime achievement just before his death in 1992 – the first Oscar to be won by a film director from Southasia.
In India, the reaction was, and continues to be, more complex, as we might expect. Ray was a Bengali; the language of the three films was Bengali, deriving from two Bengali novels, one of them a classic; the story and its settings revolved around the lives of Bengali families, in their ancestral villages in undivided Bengal, in Benaras and in Calcutta. Bengalis were therefore quick to recognise themselves in the three films and fast fell in love with them, especially the first one. Some saw it over and over again when it was released in 1955. ‘All middle-aged and older men and women know the furore … that followed its first release in Calcutta’, one of them, R P Gupta, recalled in the 1980s.
Indians not from Bengal showed less immediate appreciation. Audiences who could not follow Bengali were in almost the same position as non-Indian audiences, since the producers did not find it commercially worthwhile to make prints with subtitles in Hindi or other languages. Also, the films’ Bengali milieu held less appeal for non-Bengalis, naturally enough, who in addition have long been put off Bengali culture by the hubris of some Bengalis, epitomised by their worship of Tagore. Finally, there was the obstacle posed by the colonial mindset of many Indian audiences, especially those educated solely in English, which encouraged them to look down upon some aspects of Indian ‘vernacular’ culture, especially that portraying the poor. This attitude lay behind the inaccurate rumour in India that Pather Panchali was a success in India only after it was crowned with glory in the West.
On the whole, India’s official class showed a shameful, philistine indifference or opposition to the Apu Trilogy, redeemed only by the personal admiration of Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and a few enlightened civil servants and diplomats able to see beyond its depiction of poverty. Indeed, Nehru had to override the opposition of government officials in Calcutta and New Delhi to ensure that Pather Panchali was allowed to represent India at Cannes in 1956. The head of the Home (Publicity) Department of the West Bengal government (the official producer of Pather Panchali) privately advised his chief minister during production: ‘My impression is that even when exploited, this picture will not pay as much as is being invested in it. Pather Panchali is rather dull and slow-moving. It is a story of a typical Bengali family suffering privation and family embarrassments, but at no point does it offer a solution or an attempt to better the lot of the people and rebuild the structure of their society.’
For many years after its release, the trilogy’s unanticipated fame outside India disturbed prosperous Indians – especially those working in the commercial film industry of Bombay – because of its unsentimental portrayal of poverty. In 1981, the same official objection to the first film was raised in Parliament, this time by Nargis, the former actress who played the village heroine at the centre of the 1957 blockbuster Mother India (Bollywood’s answer to Pather Panchali) and one of the biggest box-office stars of her time. Nargis accused Ray of distorting India’s image abroad – first in a parliamentary debate, then in an Indian magazine interview, in which she said: ‘What I want is that if Mr Ray projects Indian poverty abroad, he should also show “Modern India”.’
A group of respected Indian filmmakers and writers responded:
The Modern India you speak of is the India of dams, of scientists, steel plants and agricultural reforms. Do you honestly believe that it is this India that is portrayed in the so-called commercial films of Bombay? In fact, the world of commercial Hindi films is peopled by thugs, smugglers, dacoits, voyeurs, murderers, cabaret dancers, sexual perverts, degenerates, delinquents and rapists, which can hardly be called representative of Modern India.
Compassion and sensitivity
The rapid expansion of the Indian economy since the mid-1990s, and the consequent spurt in affluence and self-confidence of India’s middle classes – if scarcely of India’s labouring poor – have almost eliminated the earlier official objections to showing Indian poverty in films seen abroad. In 2008, the film Slumdog Millionaire (British-made, but based on a novel by an Indian), which revels luridly in the desperate slum poverty of Bombay, won massive audiences outside India along with a fistful of Oscars. There was much rejoicing within India, comparatively little protest, and no reference to the earlier controversy over Pather Panchali. Unlike Ray and his Apu, the director of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle, shrewdly set his money-minded young protagonist in ‘Modern India’, with a cast of thugs, smugglers, murderers, perverts and degenerates sufficient to keep audiences everywhere eagerly watching, helped along by a thumping musical score and a Bollywood-style song-and-dance finale.
Faced with such a crass representation of India, and its numerous Bollywood equivalents, it is worth reflecting on the views of one of the Bombay film industry’s more sensitive figures, the Urdu poet, scriptwriter and hugely successful songwriter Javed Akhtar, who began his film career in the early 1970s. Delivering the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture in Calcutta in 2009, Akhtar expressed his feeling of discouragement with modern Indian movies: ‘In a way, they mirror the fact that we are not ready to stop and think,’ he said.
Everybody is in a hurry and is looking for instant gratification without caring for those around them. We are making films that sell this lifestyle to a small, affluent, multiplex-going audience that doesn’t bother about the small town and rural population. Ray’s films depicted a compassion, a sensitivity that is sadly missing not just from films, but from our lives as well.
In Ray’s own telling words, published in Sight and Sound in 1982, by which time he had made more than 25 films: ‘What is attempted in most films of mine is, of course, a synthesis’ – of East and West. ‘But it can be seen as such only by someone who has his feet in both cultures. Someone who will bring to bear on the films involvement and detachment in equal measure. Someone who will see both the wood and the trees.’ The problem is, neither the Bengali nor the Western audiences for his films share their creator’s easy, but virtually unique, familiarity with East and West. Bengalis are too close and too involved with the stories, while Western audiences are too distant and too detached from them.
Fortunately, the problem impinges least on the Apu Trilogy, compared with Ray’s later films. For all the sophisticated Bengali identity of their creator, these three films do indeed convey to non-Bengalis an elemental simplicity, as mentioned by Kurosawa and Scorsese. What makes them great films is, finally, that they speak to us – whether we are Indians, Europeans, American, Japanese or whomever – not primarily through their plot, dialogue or ideas, but through their apparently inevitable current of ineffable images.
~ Andrew Robinson has recently published The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray and the making of an epic. He is based in London.