Today, We Need Satyajit Ray's Vision of Politics More Than Ever

In each of Ray’s works we discover the difficulties and pleasures of life, portrayed through tangled human relationships, capturing shifts in politics and society.

For diehard Satyajit Ray fans, watching Ray films is an uplifting experience. Never mind how many times you see them. What make his films so special are their subtleties and nuances, qualities often sacrificed, in less mainstream cinema, at the altar of rhetorical political and social messaging.

The tension between the two forms of filmmaking is an old one. Not surprisingly, during the 1970s and ’80s, Kolkata’s dyed-in-the-wool leftists sparred with skeptics, drawing sharp boundaries between bourgeois and radical filmmakers, bourgeois and radical writers and poets. These ideological binaries set off animated – even acrimonious – debates often.

Many on the Left wished art would feed into a larger political or ideological project. What use was art unless it carried larger political and social insights? They would chant the verses of ‘He Mahajibon‘ (‘Oh Great Life’) penned by the radical 20th-century poet Sukanta Bhattacharya, who died at the age of 21. Outraged by the depths of poverty and hunger, Sukanta said the times were meant for hard prose and not poetry. One of the poem’s lines that came to acquire iconic status in Bengal’s radical circles was the poet’s invocation of the hungry and the poor. In the face of stark poverty, Bhattacharya wrote, “Purnima chand jaano jhalshano rooti (The full moon appears like burnt flat bread).”

Ray, on the other hand, often found himself berthed alongside Tagore. Both stalwarts bound by their shared commitment to humanism and a seeming lack thereof to political, more specifically leftist, ideology of one kind or another. Then as now, humanism was considered a ‘faith’ bereft of political inflection, let alone commitment to revolutionary values.

“In India, Ray was something of a heroic figure, but he did face significant criticism from sections of the left; this criticism, however, did not really analyze his ideological affiliations but, rather, accused him incessantly of lacking ‘commitment’ to the critics’ favoured ideology—one variety or another of Marxism. For East as well as West, Ray was the apolitical artist par excellence,” writes Chandak Sengoopta.

Also read: Satyajit Ray: When the Filmmaker Dons His Critic Hat

Unlike Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, Ray did not make films with a direct message about changing the system or the world. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Ray’s films were apolitical, or empty of politics. Not if we consider politics to be an interplay and negotiation of power relations defining most aspects of our life – from our engagement with everyday familial, educational and social institutions to our life lived in private.

As we watch religion, power and politics combine with gibberish claims dismissive of science and scientific thought in the midst of a pandemic, Ganashatru, one of Ray’s later films, makes for interesting viewing. Based on Henrik Isben’s play, An Enemy of the People, and released in 1989, Ganashatru reflects many shades of political and social life that continue to be relevant in India today. The film is significant in its resonance of majoritarian bigotry currently sweeping through the country. The narrative also nudges the viewer to reflect on deeper tensions within Bengali society, many of which contributed to the stunning rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state in recent years.

Ganashatru centres around a doctor, Ashoke Gupta, a resident of Chandipur, a small town in Bengal, who tries to warn villagers about people falling ill after drinking the infected holy water (charanamrita) of the Tripureswari temple. In attempting to mount a public campaign around an imminent medical crisis, Gupta finds himself pitted against powerful interest groups – Chandipur’s municipal administrator (Nishith, the doctor’s own brother), editors of powerful local papers, and those who have economic reasons for not allowing the temple to temporarily shut down, even for critical health reasons. The popular doctor becomes an enemy of religion, and by extension, an enemy of the people.

Ray reveals the depths of religious bigotry and its endorsement by the town’s “progressive” sections. The Tripureswari temple is not only Chandipur’s most sought after holy site, it’s the town’s biggest revenue earner. After the newspapers scuttle publication of his views, Gupta is heckled and interrogated by motivated sections of the audience at a public meeting where he was hoping, finally, to explain the crisis to the people.

“Does the doctor consider himself a Hindu? If so, why does he not visit the temple?” asks Nishith. His arguments are endorsed by the editor of the local paper, by now working in league with the municipal administrator. Power brokers running the town make it amply clear that regardless of the gravity of the medical situation, no shadow of doubt can be allowed to fall on the temple.

Also read: The Unintended Emancipation of Women in Satyajit Ray’s Two Iconic Films

Ganashatru is among Ray’s most directly political films, and by no means his best. Watching it now is enlightening, when religious bigotry and pandemic politics is playing out in Bengal as all over the country. The Hindu Right has spread its sway over much of India, to emerge, almost overnight, as a major electoral force in Bengal. In Ganashatru, Ray probes the tensions pulling apart Bengal’s progressive front. Some of these contrary pulls are visible on the ground today.

The film ends on a note different from Isben’s play, which, according to Chandak Sengoopta, signs off with a “radical individualist note—’the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.’” And here Ray perhaps made a break with his own skirting around politics in the narrow sense. The last scenes of the film are one of hope, where the dejected doctor hears groups of young people raising slogans of support and marching towards his residence.

Confined at home, as we watch terrifying dimensions of urban poverty unfold – exhausted migrant workers mowed down by trains on railway tracks, dying in the streets – we may recall Pather Panchali, the first film in Ray’s landmark Apu trilogy. That 1955 classic represented stark rural poverty stalking an obscure Bengali village set amidst a hauntingly beautiful landscape. The much talked about scene of the arrival of a train rushing through a field of kaash flowers, suggested an onward march of development, the advent of modernity and industrialisation.

However, as we have seen over time (and very acutely of late), the movement of the poor from villages to cities – or the transition from agrarian and feudal culture to modernity more generally – has been a jagged progression, leaving in its wake massive, dysfunctional infrastructures breeding urban poverty, glaring economic inequalities and yawning cultural gaps.

As Nehruvian aspirations began to fade in the 1960s, in films like Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya, Ray manifested the restlessness and alienation of the urban youth. Seemabaddha gestured towards a broken ethical and moral order.

Also read: Fifty Years of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’

The prime minister’s call, this Tuesday, that India should embrace economic nationalismswadeshi – as a response to COVID-19, reminds one of Ghare Baire (The Home and The World), Ray’s film based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel. A well-known critic of boycotting foreign goods, the novel is set against Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal. Its narrative revolves around Bimala, married to Nikhilesh Chowdhury, an educated and cultured aristocrat. When Nikhilesh’s friend, Sandip Mukherjee – an aggressive nationalist battling the British through the Swadeshi movement – enters their life, he ruptures and, eventually, destroys Bimala and Nikhilesh’s domestic life.

Although these other films may not have been as upfront about their politics as Ganashatru, in each of Ray’s works we discover the difficulties and pleasures of life, portrayed through tangled human relationships, capturing shifts in politics and society – sometimes tangentially, sometimes head-on. In an essay on Ray in this space, Sharmila Tagore wrote that it is regrettable that some charged Ray with marketing poverty to achieve international acclaim:

“The implication seems to be that to be a true nationalist one must sweep truths about India under the carpet. This is precisely what Ray’s cinema stood against and this indeed is the ideological difference between Sandeep and Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire. For Nikhilesh, as for Tagore and Ray, the people and their predicament came first and not love for one’s country in the abstract.”

Such a vision of politics could be what we most need at a time when it seems farthest from our reach.