“I am not conscious of being a humanist. It’s simply that I am interested in human beings. I would imagine that everyone who makes a film is to some extent interested in human beings.”
“Without my being aware of it I have done quite a few important things and in a way created a bridge between Bengal and the rest of the world. That’s how I wish to be remembered.”
Born: 2 May 1921, Kolkata, India.
Died: 23 April 1992, Kolkata, India.
Directing Career: 1955 – 1992.
Movement: India’s Parallel Cinema, Post-war Global Art Cinema.
Collaborators: Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sharmila Tagore, Rabi Ghosh (actors), Subrata Mitra (cinematographer), Soumendu Roy (cinematographer), Dulal Dutta (editor).
Traits: A realist, humanist style, sometimes literary and philosophical. A nuanced treatment of complex emotions and internal feelings. A deep interest in Bengali culture and arts, stemming from his family’s own lineage within the Bengal renaissance. A multi-talented personality, who wrote novels and children’s books, designed posters, composed music, and controlled all aspects of his filmmaking.
Purely by coincidence, I notice that I’ve recently watched quite a few films with taxi driver protagonists: Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror, Ning Ying’s I Love Beijing, and now this atypical Satyajit Ray film that he only stepped in to direct after the assistant he’d written it for pulled out. When we consider Taxi the recent Berlinale winner by Jafar Panahi, Michael Mann’s Collateral, or that rather well-known Scorsese-Schrader collaboration, we begin to see that cabbies and their vehicles have, as profession and metaphor, been particularly well-served by the cinema. There’s something about the urban marauder looking at the city life through their windshield (itself not unlike a movie screen), while potentially interacting with any of its denizens across the back of their cab, that makes the taxi-driver cinematically potent.
In Abhijan, the taxi belonging to Singhji (Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee) works on different symbolic levels. Singhji is a proud descendant of the Rajput caste, a once impressive breed of warriors now scattered around India and without any of they bygone prestige. His beloved 1930 Chrysler he picks up fares in may be his pride and joy, but it is also a constant reminder to Singhji of what troubles him the most: his ‘lowly’ status. The ancestors he romantically wishes to aspire to, and even hangs pictures of up on his rear-view mirror, had noble horses and commanded admiration. He on the other hand has a mechanical machine and an unglamorous job that others look down on. Singhji is thus torn between his excessive pride over his background and the shame of being no more than a lowly driver himself.
It won’t surprise anyone that the film eventually ends up teaching him the lesson that one’s actions are more defining than ancestry, but Ray takes a long scenic, and never less than engrossing, route to get there. For an unusually melodramatic film by his standards, complete with tautly edited car chases and a fight scene (albeit not the most convincingly staged fist-fight you’ll ever see, but we can blame that on the heat and fake beards), Ray enriches what would have been a conventional film into a rich character study. The narrative is meandering in the best way, taking enjoyable detours with events that don’t have ‘Crucial Plot Development’ marked all over them. The film also adds up to a convincing portrait of the diversity of life near in North-East India, taking in a host of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-caste characters orbiting around Singhji, some good, some bad. There’s a pair of women, one a Christian teacher whose brother Singhji knew as a boy, and the other a forced prostitute, played by the beautiful Waheeda Rehman, who in their own way will afford Singhji a chance at redemption. This after his temptation by the threateningly malevolent Sukharam, whose sinister smile and portentous gun-shaped lighter, are already signs that Singhji may be better off rejecting his propositions for making quick money. Then there’s also Singhji’s sidekick Rami, played by another favourite actor of Ray, Rabi Ghosh, who offers plenty of comic relief and monkeying around along the way of Ray’s easy-going narrative mode.
A man of many talents, Ray also composed the fantastic rhythmic score himself for this. His mastery is indicated throughout by the way he has raised a formulaic plot, taken from a pulp piece of fiction, and made it into an engaging character study. As is usually the case with Ray there’s a ‘message’, but it’s never didactically over-emphasised, and there’s some touches which it’s easy to tell he added in himself, which were not present in the source text. Most significant are the two large rocks in the badlands outside the town, which recur twice throughout the film, and where the action takes place. We are told their meaning, and that the locals have attributed to them the names of ‘Uncle and ‘Nephew’, making them redolent of the symbolic weight handed down through the generations, be it the burden of Singhji’s caste background or the intolerant prejudices society continues to foster. It might not be Ray’s greatest film, but if Abhijan is only ‘minor Ray’, then his filmography has many more treasures to discover. (May 2015)
In the final years of the Second World War, Satyajit Ray’s home province of Bengal was struck by a famine in which millions starved to death. The causes behind it were man-made, a result of the catastrophic consequences of the blockade of exports from parts of the British Empire surrendered to Japan, and a negligent colonial government who sent resources elsewhere to help the war effort. The rural parts of Bengal were the most severely hit, descending into a large-scale trauma which has scarred Bengali history just as much as the 1947 Partition. Ray at the time was starting employment as an illustrator for an advertising agency in Kolkata — perhaps this detachment is why it took him 30 years to broach the subject, he felt it too painful for someone who had not experienced the famine first-hand to make art out of. However, Ray ended up making one of his most resonant masterpieces from this subject matter.
In a small village in rural Bengal, Gangacharan (Ray’s regular lead actor Soumitra Chatterjee) and his pretty wife Ananga (Bangladeshi starlet Bobita) are the only Brahmin. He, played with a slight air of condescension by the ever-wonderful Chatterjee, makes just enough to feed the pair of them by teaching the local children, providing basic medical treatment, and performing religious ceremonies to keep cholera at bay from the villagers, who hold him in obsequious reverence. His wife is naive and innocent, blindly loyal to the rules of the caste system she has been taught — when an acquaintance from the untouchable caste visits from a nearby village, Ananga quite matter-of-factly avoids touching her. Overhead, and with increasing frequency, war planes come to be heard droning across the sky, making their way over to Southeast Asia — this is the distant thunder of the title, a reminder of the man-made ‘butterfly effect’ whose domino chain will result in disaster for these uncomprehending and unsuspecting villagers.
At first Ananga likens them to birds — a bitter irony for they are the symbol of Man wrecking nature. Other villagers ask Gangacharan how these strange flying machines work, but he can only give the vaguest of answers, just to barely save face. An unambitious man who enjoys being regarded as the wise pandit among a village of illiterate folk, Gangacharan is oblivious and short-sighted. Examples of him not knowing or seeing something are repeated across the film by Ray: when food becomes scarce Ananga goes to work to earn extra rice without telling her husband; when he inadvertently insults a guest in his house and is then reassured to see him asleep, only we the audience see that in fact the guest was pretending and heard all; or in a later scene when his wife, digging for yams in the forest, is jumped on by a rapist, he is absent, away in another village. All his powerlessness comes to stand in for that of the Bengal people as a whole, against more powerful forces which they couldn’t see coming and do not understand.
A stroke of genius from Ray and his camera crew is to depict nature too as oblivious, or at least unknowing and uncaring to the human dramas all around it. In a manner not dissimilar to what Malick would do a few years later on Days of Heaven, shots of nature, of butterflies, small insects, lizards, banyan trees, flowers, ponds, glorious cloudy skies, punctuate the scenes. Nature simply goes on, with the same beauty as before, even while the ugliness of desperately worrying where their next meal will come from slowly but surely hits home for the villagers. It is as unconcerned with them as the invisible faraway war is, but it is not their enemy. The powerful ending reminds of Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More in its effortless inference of the cycles of life and nature continuing: even amid the worst of disasters there is human survival and perseverance. Naturally, Ray does this without any heavy-handedness, showing just a modest shot of Gangacharan’s unassumingly taboo-breaking gesture followed by a quiet acquiescence to Fate, to imply something has changed and perhaps for the better.
This change is related to the other major theme of the film, alongside the progression of the famine and the place of Man amid nature, which is the caste system, something Ray always remained an unequivocal opponent of. The plot structure is so well-balanced, with every subplot and character having a precise purpose, and even those we initially suspected of being trivial ending up weaved into a crucial narrative juncture. Into this structure is kneaded the theme of caste, divisions which both exacerbate the famine before finally being levelled by it. Once all are starving together, there is a solidarity in adversity and austerity which transcends the restrictions of the caste system. It is perhaps in this film, paradoxically about the worst of tragedies he ever dealt with in film, that this profoundly humane filmmaker allows himself the most hope in a future for Bengal and India without caste orthodoxy. (April 2018)