Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Mumbai local zindabad!

Angelina Jolie boards a Mumbai train! So what?! Big deal!

For more on Jolie's Mumbai darshan, see
Also Brangelina in Pune

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Parash Pathar

Ray made Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) in late 1957 during a break in the shooting of Jalsaghar (The Music Room) enforced by the lead actor, Chhabi Biswas’s absence (Biswas was away in Berlin to receive an award). Based on a short story by the renowned Bengali writer, Rajsekhar Basu, Parash Pathar was Ray’s first attempt at comedy. Basu, who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Parasuram’, was already a household name in Bengal; he was a prolific creator of verses, short stories, plays, novels, and had also authored a very comprehensive Bengali dictionary.

In a letter to Marie Seton, Ray describes Parash Pathar as “(it is a) sort of combination of comedy, fantasy, satire, farce and a touch of pathos.” Tulsi Chakraborty (who had earlier played the grocer-teacher in Pather Panchali) as the protagonist Paresh Chandra Dutta seems to embody perfectly Basu’s humor and Ray’s satire. The actor was already a familiar face in Bengali cinema, having acted in countless melodrama films. With a pair of eyes “as bulbous as a frog’s which he opens wide with every emotion known to Man” (Robinson), Chakraborty brings to life the humble Bengali clerk both blessed and cursed by picking up ‘the stone that turneth all to gold’. Paresh initially transforms only a few household items, ‘a little something’ for his and his wife’s old age. But soon greed and the craving for limelight seduce him, and the humble clerk dreams of a place among Calcutta’s elite. Against his better instincts, Dutta decides to keep the stone. When he receives an invitation to his first cocktail party, he is overjoyed – he has been finally accepted in the exclusive clique of the rich and famous. However, incensed by the snooty disdain of the ‘Brown Sahibs’ (anglicized Indians) at the party, an inebriated Dutta decides to reveal his secret. What follows is a hilarious account of Dutta’s ordeal.

Though the dominant mood of the film is Paresh Dutta’s innocent delight in being important, Ray’s satire is often biting. His contempt for the rich and powerful in Indian society is evident in his treatment of Calcutta’s elite in the cocktail party scene. Opinion remains divided whether the scene is successful or not. Some, like Bansi Chandragupta, Ray’s art director, are critical of the scene – “Satyajit has preconceived notions about the rich… They appear as caricatures and types rather than people. In Parash Pathar he has an unusual disgust for alcohol and drunkards. It is this prejudice against drink that has influenced this scene.” (Bansi Chandragupta in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

For the cocktail party scene, Ray assembled some of the Bengali film industry’s most accomplished actors (Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal, Kamal Mitra) and for the Bengali viewer it is often a treat to watch this eclectic ensemble. For Ray shooting the scene was an equally enjoyable experience – “It was a great experience… Everyone had to be given something to do at that point, so that everyone would be happy. It was all equally apportioned – the various businesses – except for Chhabi Biswas. I told him, ‘You have just done something very important for me (Jalsaghar) so I’ll neglect you. So don’t mind.’ His very presence was enough.” (Satyajit Ray in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Ray was asked by the Censor Board to make black the white ‘Gandhi cap’ worn by Dutta after he becomes rich since the ‘Gandhi topi’ (Gandhi cap) is associated with politicians belonging to the Congress Party (though Gandhi himself never wore one). By insisting that Dutta wears it to only hide his baldness, Ray got permission to leave it as it was.

Andrew Robinson considers Parash Pathar “among Ray’s best work, were it not for some rough edges which betray the speed at which it was shot.” (Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Unfortunately the film did not receive a very enthusiastic response. When first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, Parash Pathar was received with ‘amused indifference’, with critics and audience preferring the Apu films to this modest tale. The film’s humor translates only partially to a non-Bengali audience. Part of the problem lies in its nuanced portrayal of Bengali social life, an ignorance of which reduces the clever caricaturing of the ‘Brown Sahib’ to merely hamming.

As Robinson puts it: “To appreciate Parash Pathar, requires some feeling for the vacuousness and pretentiousness of the Calcutta rich and the nouveau riche, for the Indian obsession with gold, as well as for the struggling Bengali clerk – the downside of the Bengali Renaissance – those thousands upon thousands of Bengalis who have Apu’s dreaminess and frustrations but not his talents, and who must get by through deference to office superiors.” Though some non-Bengalis have appreciated it, the general reaction is summarized by Eric Rhode’s comment in Sight and Sound – ‘mannered facetiousness’. Parash Pathar remains one of Ray’s least recognized works in spite of its popularity in Bengal. The film was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958.

Apur Sansar

“If Ray was in love with his first lyrically young film, in the second it was more adult and mature…the final act, in Apur Sansar, is a restrained, deliberate bit of work…it comes firmly to grips with reality, and yet does so with tenderness and humanity.” Amita Malik

With Sarbojaya’s death in Aparaito, Apu’s estrangement from his village, Nishchindipur, and the tradition of his ancestors is complete. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) opens with its protagonist in Calcutta, with a graduate degree but jobless, and singularly devoid of any ambition. Living in a one room tenement near the railway tracks, with only his books and flute for company, Apu is idealistic and dreams of becoming a writer. The resemblance between the Apu of Apur Sansar and his literary counterpart is scant. “Ray’s Apu is here a nobler creation. He has dispensed with some of Apu’s contradictions, attenuated his narcissism and drawn him as someone of heightened sensitivity and refined emotion.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Apu was the contemporary Indian man at the crossroads of tradition and modernity – a predicament that the Indian youth, grappling with the issues of a newly independent nation, could identify with.

For Soumitra Chatterjee, who dons the mantle of the adult Apu, the character symbolized the idealism shared by his generation – “We were to a great extent the Apus of our time.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Chatterjee, whose acting experience included only amateur theatre in college, had approached Ray during the making of Aparajito but was rejected since he was too old for the role of a teenage Apu (later played by Smaran Ghosal). The actor went on to become a regular in Ray’s films, from Apur Sansar in 1959 to Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) in 1990. Chatterjee regards Ray as instrumental in changing the acting style in Bengali cinema. Since the actors were usually from a theatre background, their acting was heavily influenced by stage histrionics. “Ray’s films brought about a real change…actors began trying to be cinema actors.” (Soumitra Chatterjee in Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray)

Apur Sansar also marks the debut of Sharmila Tagore. Tagore, who later became a major Bollywood star in the 1960s-70s, also acted in subsequent Ray films – Devi (The Goddess), Nayak (The Hero), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited). She was only fourteen when Ray ‘spotted’ her outside her school, St. John’s Diocesan. Sharmila is related to the more orthodox branch of Rabindranath Tagore’s family, and it took Ray considerable time and effort to convince her father. Though remarkably good, her performance in Apur Sansar was ‘heavily directed’. “Ray literally talked her through each shot: ‘Now turn your head, now look this way, now look that way, now look down, now come with your lines, pause here, and now come with your lines again.’” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Like its predecessor, Apur Sansar owes more to Ray than to Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel. Eliminating the various other plot complexities, the film concentrates primarily on two aspects – the relationship between the struggling intellectual Apu and his uneducated wife, Aparna, and Apu’s reconciliation with his estranged son, Kajal. Unlike the film, Bandopadhyay’s Apu has a much wider contact with other girls before marrying Aparna. While in Benares, he becomes attached to Leela, the granddaughter of his mother’s employer. Later in the narrative, Leela is part of Calcutta’s charm that alienates Apu further from his mother. Failure to find a suitable girl had forced Ray to write off Leela from the narrative, a decision that he felt weakened the dramatic element in Aparajito. However, Leela’s absence is hardly felt in Apur Sansar. It is a simple and poignant tale of the idealistic Apu and his na├»ve child-bride, with the scenes between the newly married couple “one of the cinema’s classic affirmative depictions of married life.” (Robin Wood). What perhaps makes it all the more poignant is that they take place in the very same dingy one room apartment, where we had earlier seen Apu the bachelor, lying alone on a crumpled bed, playing his flute listlessly; there seems to be a new joie de vivre in Apu now.

Apur Sansar was conceived only after the completion of Aparajito and released in 1959, with Ray working on two other films, Jalsaghar (The Music Room) and Paresh Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) in the intervening years. Though the film’s fidelity to its literary source was a question of much debate and controversy, it was a commercial success in Bengal and won the President’s Gold Medal. The release of Pather Panchali and Aparajito in England, and then in America, had aroused interest among the international audience. However, the Venice Film Festival refused to screen the film in the competitive section on the grounds of its similarity to its predecessors – a decision supposedly influenced by the Festival’s director, F. L. Ammannati’s penchant for favoring Italian films. As a mark of protest, the London Film Festival, normally devoted to films that had won festival awards, invited Apur Sansar to inaugurate the Festival, awarded it the Place of Honor, and also the largest number of screenings. The film won the Sutherland Award for “the most original and imaginative film first shown to a British audience at the National Film Theatre.”

Apur Sansar also won the NBR Award for the Best Foreign Film, the Diploma of Merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and was nominated for the BAFTA Award. Edward Harrison, who had earlier distributed Pather Panchali and Aparajito in USA, screened the Apu Trilogy films as part of a single program in New York, lasting five and a half hours, with two breaks for coffee, thus giving the audience the opportunity to view the Trilogy as an unified work.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Aparajito - The Unvanquished

While Pather Panchali never leaves the village, Aparajito is constantly on the move as Apu grows up and becomes restless for new experience. Set in the 1920s, the film opens in the holy city of Benares on the Ganges, where the family has moved after Durga’s death. Though poor, they seem relatively happy – Harihar earns his livelihood as a priest, reciting Hindu scriptures on the banks of the holy river Ganges, and Apu has found new friends. Ray, who often compared Benares to Venice, paints a visual collage of this ancient Indian city, with its bathing ghats, priests, wrestlers, festival fireworks.

Aparajito is based on the second half of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali and the first half of his novel Aparajito. While translating Bandopadhyay’s popular Bengali novel into a cinematic text, Ray eliminated numerous characters and episodes. For Ray, books were not primarily written to be filmed – “If they were, they would read like scenarios; and, if they were good scenarios, they would probably read as bad literature.” The documentary elements and visual passages of Pather Panchali was subordinated by studio sets and Ray’s decision to concentrate on the relationship between the widowed Sarbojaya and her son, and their gradual estrangement.

After Harihar’s death, mother and son return to the village and live in their uncle’s house – a situation reminiscent of Ray’s own life, where he lived in his uncle’s house for twenty years after his father’s early death. Though he prepares himself for the vocation of his father and forefathers, Apu is already lost to a traditional way of life. There is pathos in Apu’s efforts to learn the priestly rituals when all he desires is to run off and play with the other boys, and go to school. However, it is at this point that the narrative of Apu evolves into that of a boy who must script his own destiny, and venture outside the microcosmic world of the village and its environs. The transformation that comes to Apu with adolescence becomes intensified when Pinaki Sengupta, as the boy Apu, is replaced by Smaran Ghosal as the youth Apu who captures the interest of his teacher, a stark contrast to the grocer-teacher played by Tulsi Chakraborty in Pather Panchali. However, Apu’s quest for knowledge and his desire to explore the world beyond the village alienates him from his mother, who wants him to continue in the tradition of his ancestors and become a village priest. Sarbojaya, with her half-hearted enthusiasm for Apu’s dreams, ceases to hold interest for him, and he, unconsciously, pays less and less attention to her wishes.

For Pather Panchali, the entire camera work was executed with direct sources of light – natural light for the daytime sequences and direct studio lighting for the night scenes. With Aparajito, Ray and his cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, began experimenting with the reflected light, which they continued to explore in subsequent films, including Ray’s first color film, Kanchenjunga.

In one of the scenes from Aparajito, as Sarbojaya stands waiting for Apu, she sees a group of fireflies swirling by the pond. Filming of this scene posed a technical challenge, as even the fastest available film stock could not capture the light emitted by the fireflies. Ray and his crew overcame the problem with an indigenous solution. Ray recounts in his ‘My Years With Apu’- We chose the toughest members of our crew, had them dressed up in black shirt and trousers and let each of them carry a flashlight bulb and a length of wire and a battery. The bulbs were held aloft in their right hands while they illustrated the swirling movements of fireflies in a dance, alternately connecting and disconnecting the wire to the bulbs."

Aparajito was not commercially successful in Bengal, unlike its predecessor – probably because Apu was not the archetypal Bengali son and the treatment of the mother-son relationship was devoid of the conventional norms. Aparajito seems to have upset the Bengali middle class, Ray’s primary audience and the people he had grown up with. The film failed in Calcutta, with reviewers comparing it unfavorably with Pather Panchali. This came as a shock to Ray, who regarded Aparajito as considerably more mature than his first work. Due to the film’s unenthusiastic reception in Bengal the State did not even consider entering it for the National Awards.

In spite of the laurels for Pather Panchali, Ray did not feel he had truly arrived in the international scene until Aparajito won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1957. It had been a British member of the jury, Penelope Houston who wanted Ray to win. After much argument, the chairman Rene Clair acquiesced with good grace; but on the boat back from their meeting place to the awards ceremony, Houston recalls Clair saying to her, without a trace of malice towards Ray, “But now I hope Ray will go away and learn how to make films.”

Apart from the Golden Lion at Venice, Aparajito also won many other awards – Cinema Nuovo Award, Venice, 1957; Critics' Award, Venice, 1957; FIPRESCI Award, London, 1957; Best Film and Best Direction, San Francisco, 1958; International Critic's Award, San Francisco, 1958; Golden Laurel for Best Foreign Film of 1958-59, USA; Selznik Golden Laurel, Berlin, 1960; Bodil Award: Best Non-European Film of the Year, Denmark, 1967

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Phalke for Suchitra Sen?

What Union information & broadcasting minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi has proposed, fellow Bengali Mrinal Sen seems set to dispose. Das Munshi wants the coveted Dadasaheb Phalke Award to go to the iconic actress Suchitra Sen this year, but Mrinal Sen has refused to play ball. Strictly, as he puts it, on grounds of principle. For it is he and other panel members who'll consider names and make a final recommendation to the ministry. "We haven't discussed Suchitra Sen's name at all. In fact, we're yet to discuss names," an angry Sen told Outlook earlier this week.

But that wasn't all; he threatened to resign from the Phalke award committee if the minister or the ministry were to suggest Suchitra Sen's name now. "I will resign and so will the other three members of this panel (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, A. Nageshwar Rao and Yash Chopra). What's the use of having us if the minister decides the awardees? If they want us to consider someone for the award, they should let us know in private instead of making suggestions through the media. We've taken strong exception to this," Sen added.

But even without Mrinal Sen, Das Munshi's wish could be difficult to fulfil. For it is unlikely that Suchitra Sen would interrupt her nearly three-decade-long Garboesque disappearance from the public eye to come out and accept the award. Still, sources in Das Munshi's camp say he has already spoken to Suchitra's daughter Moon Moon and asked her to persuade the mother to accept the award in person.

Now the question is, why is Das Munshi so set on getting the reclusive Suchitra Sen to accept the award in person? Many say the minister is trying for a public relations coup—getting the legendary star to reappear in public—that would endear him to nostalgic Bengalis. At the least, it would allow him to bask in reflected glory for a long time to come. For Suchitra Sen is still a phenomenon that defies description. She may be 76, but countless Bengalis, right from contemporaries to GenNext teens, swoon at the very mention of her name. For them, Suchitra is what she was in, say, Saptapadi—a woman of hypnotic beauty, with chiselled features and a dramatic flair, a beguiling mixture of strength and vulnerability, innocence and wisdom; and the epitome of romantic appeal, especially paired with Uttam Kumar, that eternal hero of Bengali cinema. Her expressive eyes and luminous smile have cast a permanent spell on all Bengalis. "You look a bit like Suchitra," is still the best compliment you can pay a Bengali woman. And as she sang in that famous movie, "Ei path jodi na shesh hoi (What if this journey doesn't end?)," the Bengalis' affair with her seems set to go on forever.

Says Gopal Krishna Ray, once a close companion of the actress, "She's truly the Greta Garbo of India. She stepped off the stage when her fame and beauty was at its peak because she wanted people to remember her as she was then. And she has succeeded in doing so. That's the reason behind the awe and esteem people hold her in today." Ray, incidentally, has written three books on Suchitra. Veteran journalist Amitabha Chaudhuri, a close friend till he wrote a book on her, recalls that Suchitra was always enigmatic, careful to keep a distance from most people. "She was temperamental and moody. At the same time, she could be very affectionate and caring. She was also an intensely religious person. She had some odd habits, like keeping all her shoes and sandals in her car. She would step out of the house in her bathroom slippers and then slip into one of these when she got out of the car," he recalls.

Garbo too had such eccentricities. In fact, there are other eerie resemblances between the two. Garbo's father was a latrine-cleaner, Suchitra's father was a sanitary inspector.Both stars had disastrous marriages, both their husbands supported them in the early stages of their film careers, and both husbands died in foreign lands.

Men played an important role in Suchitra Sen's life, both on and off screen. Little more can be said about the legendary Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen on-screen pairing. They made 30 films together and as film director Buddhadeb Dasgupta puts it, "The synergy between the two made them a pair that remains unparalleled in Indian cinema. They were just perfect for each other".

A wandering monk had awakened her spiritual interests when she was a child. Later, in the early 1970s, she got close to a senior Ramakrishna Mission monk, Bharat Maharaj. Many believe it was Bharat (who, incidentally, was also close to the Nehru-Gandhi family) who influenced her decision to retire from the tinsel world in 1978.

Her husband, Dibanath Sen, was a marine engineer from an illustrious landed family, but given to drinking and gambling. He was the one who initially helped her get film roles, although her father-in-law Adinath Sen was also a source of encouragement. Still, it seems no one could ever get really close to her. "She would be warm and bubbly one moment, and suddenly turn cold and aloof the next," recalls Ray.

Born Rama Devi, in 1930 at Pabna (now in Bangladesh), Suchitra acted in a dozen-odd Bengali films before her first first Hindi film, Devdas in 1955, with Bimal Roy (who was also related to her in-laws). She acted in 60 films (53 of them Bengali, though she never worked with Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak). Her seven Hindi films also include memorable roles in Bambai ka Babu, Mamta and the phenomenal Gulzar film, Aandhi, in which her character was closely modelled on Indira Gandhi. Her last film, Pranay Pasha (with Soumitra Chatterjee in 1978) was a flop, and she went into retirement immediately after that.

In contrast to her on-screen sophistication and elan, in real life she is said to be a person with very spartan habits (a la Garbo)—she eats frugal meals, sleeps on a narrow bed with a hard mattress, wears simple cotton sarees and spends her time reading, listening to music and in religious pursuits. Daughter Moon Moon's family stays in the next apartment, but no one, not even her granddaughters, the glamorous Riya and Raima, have unrestricted access to her. She seldom also steps out of her apartment.

The Suchitra Sen mystique will remain intact, unless Priyaranjan Das Munshi has his way.

Jaideep Mazumdar (The Outlook, August 28 2006)