June 25, 2009

Pather Panchali - An exquisite article

Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s first film (1955), the epic one, was officially released on August 26, 1955 at the prestigious theatres of the then Calcutta like Sree, Basusree and Bina. It ran for quick six weeks at a stretch and then had a seven-week run at other theatres. The rare job of distribution was taken by Aurora Film Corporation with a pinch of doubt as many thought the young filmmaker’s film might come a cropper. But lo! Satyajit Ray wrote: “Pather Panchali was, in fact, a box-office hit”.

But, to one’s surprise, the great Ray divulged, and it was an irony of fate, that Pather Panchali was shown in the United States in 1955, much before it was released in Calcutta. Said Satyajit Ray: “The Museum of Modern Art in New York planned a big exhibition of Indian art, and one of their representatives, Monroe Wheeler, came to look for exhibits. He knew of me as a commercial artist and so he came to see me. I told him that I was working on a film project and he replied “If you finish it in time, I would like to show at the Museum of Modern Art”. Fortunately, the big American director John Huston arrived in Calcutta with actor Humphrey Bogart hoping to make his film The Man Who Would Be The King. Ray met John Huston and showed the ‘2500 metres of rushes’ to him and he, on seeing it, recommended to Wheeler thus: “I think this film will be very interesting. You must show it”. And then the film was finished in mad rush. Wrote Ray: “We took it straight from the laboratory to Pan American, where I fell asleep leaning on the counter. One of the Pan Am staff had to wake me up. The film left for New York, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art and released in Calcutta two months later”. It must be noted Pather Panchali broke the ‘record’ for the longest run at the Fifth Avenue cinema in New York.

Made on a budget of Rs. 1.5 lakh roughly, Pather Panchali was hailed as a ‘masterpiece’ by the Western critics like Robin Wood, Pauline Kael, Folke Isaakson and Robert Steele. Robin Wood, the scholar critic, praised the film thus: “Ray’s cinema is literary only in the sense that it is firmly rooted in the narrative. He thinks primarily in terms of plot and character, and the significance of the films grows naturally out of this, extractable ideas or themes being the product rather than the starting point. In this respect he is closer to the Hollywood masters than to European directors like Bergman, Antonioni or Godard”. Robert Steele heaped praise on Ray: “Here was an Indian film that was a film or that matched my concept of a film and a great one. It was the first film made in India that I had ever seen which did not embarrass, annoy or bore me”. Pauline Kael said: “Like Renoir and De Sica, Ray sees that life itself is good no matter how bad it is. It is difficult to discuss art which is an affirmation of life, without fear of becoming maudlin”. And the Time critic commented: “Pather Panchali is perhaps the finest piece of filmed folklore since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. It is a pastoral poem dappled with the play of brilliant images and strong, dark feelings, a luminous revelation of India life in language that all the world can understand”.

Pather Panchali, in fact, was shown at the competition section of Cannes International Film Festival in 1956. And the critics (Ray’s friends) who stayed to see the film, slotted at a very odd time of mid-night, included Lindsay Anderson, Lotte Eisner, Andre Bazin, Geoges Sadoul, Gene Moskowitch and Jules Dassin. They appealed to the Director of the Festival for another screening at a convenient time so that all the jury members could rightly judge the film, warts and all, in its given perspective. Ray lamented most of the Jury members did not see the film at the first screening. And surprisingly enough the second screening of Pather Panchali was held and it won the ‘special Jury prize ‘for the Best Human Document’, though the French filmmaker Francoise Truffaut left the hall half-way, degrading the film: ‘Pad, pad, pad through the paddy field’, a remark which he subsequently withdrew. And thereafter Pather Panchali, hailed as the path-breaking film, went on to bag a big dozen International awards and it now is history.
To complete Pather Panchali Ray had to pawn his wife Bijoya Ray’s jewellery for Rs.1200/-. Then he had to approach the then Chief Minister of Bengal Dr BC Roy, a legendary physician too. The Bengal Government finally gave the needed money to finish the film but not before Satyajit Ray had gone through a bad patch. According to Ray, he turned up at the office on the appointed date and met Dr BC Roy, the Chief Minister and gave Dr Roy an outline of what happened so far. Interestingly, by then Dr Roy had never heard the name of the great literary figure Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, author of Pather Panchali. Said Ray: “When the shortened story came to an end, Dr Roy asked: ’You have a tragic ending. The family leaves home to migrate to Benaras. Why? Couldn’t the other villagers persuade them to stay? Help them to rebuild their wrecked house? Can’t you inject a message which would go in favour of our work on community development?’ Well, finally the film got the rest of the finance from the West Bengal Govt. under the ‘Community Development Project’ and the rest is a golden history, emerging out of rough and tough struggle, many woes and pains, hiccups and hassles and human hope.
Pather Panchali, as it stands today, is not only 50 years old but lives with a celebration of life and Promethean pride.

Source: screenindia.com

June 14, 2009

Satyajit Ray and the art of Universalism: Our Culture, Their Culture

By Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen is the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge University, United Kingdom.

This article appeared on p. 32 of The New Republic, April 1, 1996. Reprinted with permission of the author.

The work of Satyajit Ray presents a remarkably insightful understanding of the relations between cultures, and his ideas remain pertinent to the great cultural debates in the contemporary world, not least in India. I would like to pursue these ideas. In Ray's films and in his writings, we find explorations of at least three general themes on cultures and their interrelations: the importance of distinctions between different local cultures and their respective individualities; the necessity of understanding the heterogeneous character of each local culture (even the culture of a common, not to mention a region or a country); and the great need for intercultural communication, attended by a recognition of the barriers that make intercultural communication a hard task. A deep respect for distinctiveness is combined, in Ray's vision, with a recognition of internal diversity and an appreciation of the need for genuine communication. Impetuous cosmopolitans have something to learn from his focus on distinctiveness, but it is the growing army of communitarian and cultural "separatists" — increasingly more fashionable in India and elsewhere, that most needs to take note of the persistence of heterogeneity at the local level and the creative role of intercultural and intercommunal communication and learning.

In emphasizing the need to honor the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. Indeed, opening doors was an important priority of Ray's work. In this respect, Ray's attitude contrasts sharply with the increasing tendency to see Indian culture (or cultures) in highly conservative terms, to preserve it (or them) from the "pollution" of Western ideas and thought. He was always willing to enjoy and to learn from ideas, art forms, and styles of life from anywhere, in India or abroad. Ray appreciated the importance of heterogeneity within local communities. This perception contrasts sharply with the tendency of many communitarians, religious and secular, who are willing to break up the nation into communities and then stop dead there: "thus far and no further." The great filmmaker's eagerness to seek the larger unit — to talk to the whole world — went well with his enthusiasm for understanding the smallest of the small — the individuality, ultimately, of each person.

From such a vision, I believe, we have much to learn right now. There can be little doubt about the importance that Ray attached to the distinctiveness of cultures. He also discussed the problems that these divisions create in the possibility of communication across cultural boundaries. In Our Films, Their Films, he noted the important fact that films acquire "colour from all manner of indigenous factors such as habits of speech and behaviour, deep- seated social practices, past traditions, present influences and so on." He went on to ask: "How much of this can a foreigner — with no more than a cursory knowledge of the factors involved — feel and respond to?" He observed also that "there are certain basic similarities in human behaviour all over the world" (such as "expressions of joy and sorrow, love and hate, anger, surprise and fear"), but "even they can exhibit minute local variations which can only puzzle and perturb — and consequently warp the judgment of — the uninitiated foreigner." The presence of such cultural differences raises many interesting problems. The possibility of communication is only one of them. There is also the more basic issue of the individuality of each culture. How might this individuality be respected and valued, even as the world grows steadily smaller and more uniform? We live in a time in which many things are increasingly common, and the possibility that something important is being lost in this process of integration has aroused understandable concern.

The individuality of cultures is a big subject now, and the tendency towards the homogenization of cultures, particularly in some uniformly Western mode, or in the deceptive form of "modernity," has been sharply challenged. Anxieties of this kind have been expressed in different forms in recent cultural studies, which flourish today in Western literary and intellectual circles. There is an irony, perhaps, in the fact that so much of the critique of "Western modernity" has come straight from the West to the Third World; but these questions are being plentifully asked in contemporary India as well. Engaging arguments in this direction have been presented by, among others, Partha Chatterjee, in The Nation and Its Fragments (1993) and elsewhere, and in the literary, sociological and anthropological writings of such diverse and forceful authors as Ashis Nandy, Homi K. Bhaba and Veena Das, to name a few. These approaches share, to varying extents, a well-articulated "antimodernism," rejecting, in particular, "Western" forms of modernization, which Chatterjee contrasts with the preferred form of what he calls "our modernism." Sometimes the defiance of Western cultural modes is expressed in India through enunciations of the unique importance of Indian culture and the traditions of its communities.

At the broader level of "Asia" rather than India, the separateness of "Asian values," and their distinction from Western norms, has often been asserted, particularly in east Asia, from Singapore and Malaysia to China and Japan. The invoking of Asian values has sometimes occurred in rather dubious political circumstances. It has been used to justify authoritarianism (and harsh penalties for alleged transgressions) in some east Asian countries. In 1993, at the Vienna conference on human rights, the foreign minister of Singapore, along with the Chinese Foreign Minister, cited the differences between Asian and European traditions and argued that "universal recognition of the ideal of human rights can be harmful if universalism is used to deny or mask the reality of diversity." The championing of "Asian values" has typically come from governmental spokesmen and not from individuals opposed to the established regimes. Still, the general issue is important enough to deserve our attention; and so, in examining the implications of cultural diversity, I must also take up this question.

Even though he emphasized the difficulties of intercultural communication, Ray did not take cross-cultural comprehension to be impossible. He saw the difficulties as challenges to be surmounted rather than as strict boundaries that could not be breached. He did not propound a thesis of "incommunicability" across cultural boundaries; he argued instead that we need to recognize the difficulties that may arise. And on the larger subject of preserving traditions against foreign influence, Ray was not a cultural conservative. He did not give systematic priority to inherited practices.

I find no evidence in Ray's films or in his writings that the fear of being too influenced by outsiders disturbed his equilibrium as an "Indian" artist. He wanted to take full note of the importance of a particular cultural background without denying what there is to learn from elsewhere. There is much wisdom, I think, in this "critical openness," including the prizing of a dynamic, adaptable world over a world that is constantly "policing" external influences and fearing "invasion" of ideas from elsewhere.

The difficulties of understanding each other across the boundaries of culture are undoubtedly great. This applies to the cinema, but also to other art forms, especially literature. The inability of most foreigners, even of other Indians, to grasp the beauty of Rabindranath Tagore's poetry (a failure that we Bengalis find so exasperating) is a good illustration of this problem. Indeed, the thought that these non-appreciating others are being willfully contrary and obdurate (rather than being thwarted by the barriers of languages and translations) is a frequently aired suspicion.

The problem is perhaps less extreme in films, so far as film is less dependent on language. People can be informed by gestures and actions. Still, our day-to-day experiences generate certain patterns of reaction and non-reaction that can be mystifying for foreign viewers who have not had those experiences. The gestures — and the non-gestures — that are quite standard, and are "perfectly ordinary," in India may appear altogether remarkable when they are seen by others. Also words have a function that goes well beyond the information that they directly convey. Much is communicated by the sound of the language, and a special choice of words conveys a particular meaning or creates a particular effect. As Ray observed, "in a sound film, words are expected to perform not only a narrative but a plastic function," and "much will be missed unless one knows the language, and knows it well." Even the narrative may be inescapably transformed by language barriers, owing to nuances that are missed in translations. I was reminded of Ray's remark the other day when I saw Tin Kanya again, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a recent festival of Ray's films (in their wonderful reissues by Merchant-Ivory). When the obdurate Paglee at last decides to write a letter to her spurned husband, she conveys her new sense of intimacy by addressing him with the familiar form tumi rather than the formal apni. This could not be caught in the English subtitle. The translation had to show her sign the letter as "your wife," to convey this new sense of intimacy; but the Bengali original form in which she signs as "Paglee" but addresses him as tumi, is infinitely more subtle. Such difficulties cannot be altogether escaped. Ray did not design his movies for a foreign audience, and the Ray fans abroad who rush to see his films know that they are, in a sense, eavesdropping. This relationship between the artist and the eavesdropper is by now very well established among the millions of Ray's admirers around the world. There is no expectation that his films are anything other than those of an Indian director — and a Bengali director — made for a local audience, and the attempt to see what is going on in these films is a decision to engage in a self-consciously "receptive" activity.

In this sense, Ray has triumphed and on his own terms. This vindication of his belief that he will be understood, barriers notwithstanding, tells us about the possibility of understanding across cultural boundaries. It may be hard, but it can be done; and the eagerness with which viewers with rich experience of Western cinema flock to see Ray's films (despite the occasional obscurities of a presentation tailored to an entirely different audience) indicates what may be accomplished when there is a willingness to go beyond the bounds of one's own culture.

Satyajit Ray makes an important distinction between what is or is not sensible when one tries to speak across a cultural divide, especially across the divide between the West and India. In 1958, two years after Pather Panchali won the Special Award in Cannes, and one year after he won the Grand Prix at Venice for Aparajito, Ray wrote the following, in an essay called Problems of a Bengali Film Maker: "There is no reason why we should not cash in on the foreigners' curiosity about the Orient. But this must not mean pandering to their love of the false-exotic. A great many notions about our country and our people have to be dispelled, even though it may be easier and — from a film point of view — more paying to sustain tile existing myths than to demolish them." Ray was not alone, of course, in pursuing such an approach. There have been several other eminent directors from India who have essentially followed the same route as Ray. As an old resident of Calcutta, I am proud of the fact that some of the particularly distinguished ones have come — like Ray — from this very city. (I think of Mrinal Sen, Rhtwik Ghatak, Aparna Sen and others.) But what Ray calls pandering to the "love of the false-exotic" has clearly tempted many other directors. Many Indian films that can fairly be called "entertainment movies" have achieved great success abroad, including in the Middle East and Africa, and Bombay has been a big influence on the cinematic world in many countries.

It is not obvious whether the imaginary scenes of archaic splendor shown in such "entertainment movies" should be seen as mis-descriptions of the India in which they are allegedly set or as an excellent portrayal of some non-existent "never-never land" that is not to be confused with any real country.

As Ray notes in another context, quite a few of these traditional Indian films, which attract large audiences, "do away wholly with the bothersome aspect of social identification" and "present a synthetic, nonexistent society, and one can speak of credibility only within the norms of this make-believe world." Ray suggests that this feature "accounts for their countrywide acceptance." This is true; but this quality of make-believe also contributes greatly to the appeal of these films to some foreign audiences, which are happy to see lavish entertainment in an imagined land. This is an easily understandable "success" story: acceptance abroad brings both reputation and revenue. In contemporary India, where "export promotion" is becoming a supreme value, who can deny such an achievement? In fact, the exploitation of the biases and the vulnerabilities of the foreign audience need not be concerned specifically with the "love of the false-exotic." Exploitation can take other forms — not necessarily false, nor especially exotic. There is nothing false about Indian poverty nor about the fact — remarkable to others — that Indians have learned to live normal lives in the midst of this poverty, taking little notice of the surrounding misery.

The graphic portrayal of extreme wretchedness, and of heartlessness towards the downtrodden, can itself be exploited, especially when supplemented by a goodly supply of vicious villains. At a sophisticated level, such exploitation can be seen even in Salaam Bombay!, the wonderfully successful film by Meera Nair. Nair's film is powerfully constructed and deeply moving; and yet it mercilessly exploits not only the viewer's sympathy and sentimentality, but also her interest in identifying "the villain of the piece" who might be blamed for all this suffering. Since Salaam Bombay! is full of villains, and of people totally lacking in sympathy and any sense of justice, the causes of the suffering portrayed in the film begin to look easily comprehensible even to distant foreigners. Given the lack of humanity around these Indian victims, what else can you expect? Nair's kind of exploitation draws simultaneously on the common knowledge that India has much suffering and on the common comfort — for which there is a demanding seeing the faces of the "baddies" who are causing all this trouble, as in, say, American gangster movies. (This easy reliance on villains is less present in Nair's subsequent film, Mississippi Masala, which raises some important and interesting issues of identity involving ex-Ugandans of Indian origin in the United States.) At a more mundane level, City of Joy does the same with Calcutta, with clearly identified villains who have to be confronted. By contrast, even when Ray's films deal with problems that are just as intense (such as the coming of the Bengal famine in Ashani Sanket), the comfort of a ready explanation through the presence of villains is avoided. In Ray's films, villains are remarkably rare, almost absent. When terrible things happen, there may be nobody clearly responsible. And even when someone is clearly responsible, as Dayamoyee's father-in-law most definitely is responsible for her predicament, and ultimately for her suicide, in Devi, he, too, is a victim, and by no means devoid of humane features. If Salaam Bombay! and City of Joy ultimately belong in the "cops and robbers" tradition (except that there are no "good cops" in Salaam Bombay!), the Ray films which portray tragedies have neither cops nor robbers. Ray chooses to convey something of the complexity of social situations that makes such tragedies hard to avoid, rather than to supply easy explanations in the greed, the cupidity and the cruelty of "bad" people.

While Satyajit Ray insists on retaining the real cultural features of the society that he portrays, his view of India — even his view of Bengal — recognizes a complex reality, with immense heterogeneity at every level. It is not the picture of a stylized East meeting a stereotypical West, which has been the stock-in-trade of so many recent writings critical of "Westernization" and "modernity." Ray emphasized that the people who "inhabit" his films are complicated and extremely diverse. Take a single province: Bengal. Or, better still, take the city of Calcutta where I live and work. Accents here vary between one neighbourhood and another. Every educated Bengali peppers his native speech with a sprinkling of English words and phrases. Dress is not standardized. Although women generally prefer the sari, men wear clothes, which reflect the style of the thirteenth century or conform to the directives of the latest Esquire. The contrast between the rich and the poor is proverbial. Teenagers do the twist and drink Coke, while the devout Brahmin takes a dip in the Ganges and chants his mantras to the rising sun. It is important to note that the native culture which Ray stresses is not some pure vision of a tradition-bound society, but the heterogeneous lives and commitments of contemporary India. The Indian who does the twist is as much there as the one who chants his mantras by the Ganges. The recognition of this heterogeneity makes it immediately clear why Ray's focus on local culture cannot be readily seen as an "anti-modern" move. "Our culture" can draw on "their culture" and "their culture" can draw on our culture." The emphasis on the culture of the people who inhabit Ray's films is in no way a denial of the legitimacy of the interest in things originating elsewhere. Indeed, Ray recollects with evident joy the time when Calcutta was full of Western (including American) troops, in the winter of 1942: Calcutta now being a base of operations of the war, Chowringhee was chock-a- block with GIs. The pavement book stalls displayed wafer-thin editions of Life and Time, and the jam-packed cinema showed the very latest films from Hollywood. While I sat at my office desk ... my mind buzzed with the thoughts of the films I had been seeing. I never ceased to regret that while I had stood in the scorching summer sun in the wilds of Santiniketan sketching simul and palash in full bloom, Citizen Kane had come and gone, playing for just three days in the newest and biggest cinema in Calcutta. This interest in things from elsewhere had begun a lot earlier. Ray's engagement with Western classical music goes back to his youth, and his fascination with films preceded his involvement with music.

In his posthumously published book, My Years with Apu: A Memoir Ray recollects: "I became a film fan while still at school. I avidly read Picturegoer and Photoplay, neglected my studies and gorged myself on Hollywood gossip purveyed by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Deanna Derbin became a favourite not only because of her looks and her obvious gifts as an actress, but because of her lovely soprano voice. Also firm favourites were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, all of whose films I saw several times just to learn the Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern tunes by heart." Ray's willingness to enjoy and to learn from things happening elsewhere in India or abroad is plentifully clear in how he chose to live and what he chose to do. (In addition to Ray's own autobiographical accounts in Our Films, Their Films and My Years with Apu: A Memoir his involvements in ideas and arts from elsewhere are discussed in some detail in Andrew Robinson's Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, which appeared in 1989.) When Ray describes what he learned as a student at Santiniketan, where he studied fine arts at Tagore's distinguished center of education, the elements from home and abroad are well mixed together. He learned a great deal about India's "artistic and musical heritage" (he got involved in Indian classical music, aside from being trained to paint in traditional Indian ways) and "far-eastern calligraphy" (particularly the use of "minimum brush strokes applied with maximum discipline"). When his teacher, Nandalal Bose, a great artist and the leading light of the Bengal school, taught Ray to draw a tree ("Not from the top downwards. A tree grows up, not down. The strokes must be from the base upwards..."), Bose was being critical of some Western conventions and introduced Ray to the styles and the traditions of China and Japan. (They got the tree right, Bose had decided.)

Ray does not hesitate to indicate how strongly Pather Panchali — the profound film that immediately made him a film maker of international distinction — was influenced by Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. He saw Bicycle Thief within three days of arriving in London for a brief stay, and noted: "I knew immediately that if I ever made Pather Panchali — and the idea had been at the back of my mind for some time — I would make it in the same way, using natural locations and unknown actors." Despite this influence, Pather Panchali, of course, is a quintessentially Indian film, in subject matter and in style, and yet a major inspiration came from an Italian film. The Italian influence did not make Pather Panchali anything other than an Indian film; it simply helped to make it a great Indian film.

The growing tendency in contemporary India to champion the need for an indigenous culture that has "resisted" external influences and borrowings lacks credibility as well as cogency. It has become quite common to cite the foreign origin of an idea or a tradition as an argument against its use, and this has been linked to an antimodernist priority. Thus, even a social analyst as acute as Partha Chatterjee finds it impossible to dismiss Benedict Anderon's thesis linking nationalism and its "imagined communities" by referring to the Western origin of that "modular" form. "I have a central objection to Anderson's argument. If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain "modular" forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?"

Anderson's concept of "the nation as an imagined community" may or may not have much to commend it (I think that it does); but the fear that its Western origin would leave us without a model that is our "own" is a rather peculiar concern.

Indian culture, as it has evolved, has always been prepared to absorb materials and ideas from elsewhere. Satyajit Ray's heterodoxy is not out of line with our tradition. Even in matters of day-to-day living: the fact that the chili, a basic ingredient of traditional Indian cooking, was brought to India by the Portuguese from the "New World" does not make Indian cooking any less Indian. Indeed, chili has now become an "Indian" spice. Of course, cultural influences are a two way process: India may have acquired the chili from abroad, but we have also given the world the benefits of our culinary traditions. While tandoori came from the Middle East to India, it is in its Indian form that tandoori has become a staple British diet. In London last summer I heard something described as being "as English as daffodils or chicken tikka masala."

The mixture of traditions that underlie the major intellectual developments in the world dictates strongly against taking a "national" (or "regional" or "local" or "community-based") view of these developments. The role of mixed heritage in a subject such as mathematics, for example, is well-known. The interlinkage between Indian, Arabic and European mathematics has been particularly significant in the development of what is now called Western mathematics. These connections are beautifully illustrated by the origin of the term "sine" in Western trigonometry.

That modern term came to India through the British, and yet in its genesis there is a remarkable Indian component. Aryabhata, an Indian mathematician and astronomer who lived in the fifth and early sixth centuries, discussed the concept of "sine," and called it Jyanardha, or "half-chord," in Sanskrit. From there the term migrated in an interesting way, as Howard Eves describes in An Introduction to the History of Mathematics: "Aryabhata called it ardha-jya ("half-chord") and jya-ardha ("chord-half"), and then abbreviated the term by simply using jya ("chord"). From jya the Arabs phonetically derived jiba, which, following Arabic practice of omitting vowels, was written as jb. Now jiba, aside from its technical significance, is a meaningless word in Arabic. Later writers who came across jb as an abbreviation for the meaningless word Jiba substituted Jaib instead, which contains the same letters, and is a good Arabic word meaning "cove" or "bay." Still later, Gherardo of Cremona (ca. 1150), when he made his translations from the Arabic, replaced the Arabian jaib by its Latin equivalent, sinus [meaning a cove or a bay], from whence came our present word sine. " Given the and intellectual interconnections, the question of what is "Western" and what is "Eastern" (or Indian) is often hard to decide, and the issue can be discussed only in dialectical terms. The characterization of an idea as "purely Western" or "purely Indian" can be very illusory. The origin of ideas is not the kind of thing to which "purity" happens easily.

This issue has some practical importance now, given the political developments of the last decade, including the increase in the strength of political parties focusing on the Indian — particularly the Hindu — heritage. There is an important aspect of anti-modernism, which tends to question, explicitly or implicitly, the emphasis to be placed on what is called "Western science." If the challenges from traditional conservatism grow, this can become quite a threat to scientific education in India, affecting what young Indians are encouraged to learn, and how much emphasis is put on science in the general curriculum.

The reasoning behind this "anti-foreign" attitude is flawed in several ways. First, so-called "Western science" is not the special possession of Europe and America. It is true that, since the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment, most scientific progress has occurred in the West; but these scientific developments drew substantially on earlier work in mathematics and science done by the Arabs, the Chinese, the Indians, and others. The term "Western science" is misleading in this respect, and misguided in its tendency to establish a distance between non-Western people and the pursuit of mathematics and science.

Second, irrespective of the location of the discoveries and the inventions, the methods of reasoning used in science and mathematics give them some independence of local geography and cultural history. To be sure, there are important issues of local knowledge, and of the varying perspectives regarding what is or is not important; but there is still much of substance that is shared in methods of argument, demonstration, and the scrutiny of evidence. The term "Western science" is misleading in this respect, too.

Third, our decisions about the future need not be parasitic on the past we have experienced. Even if there were no Asian or Indian component in the evolution of contemporary mathematics and science — this is not the case, but even if it were the case — their importance in the contemporary India need not be deeply undermined for that reason. Rabindranath Tagore nicely illustrated the tyranny of being bound to the past in his amusing but profoundly serious short story Kartar Bhoot ("The Ghost of the Leader"), in which the wishes of the respected but dead leader make the lives of others impossibly constrained.

There is a similar issue, to which I referred earlier, about the role of "modernity" in contemporary India. The recent attacks on modernity (especially on a "modernity" that is seen as coming to India from the West) draw greatly on the literature of "post-modernism" and on similar approaches that have been quite influential in Western literary and cultural circles, and in India, too. There is something interesting in this dual role of the West, the colonial metropolis supplying ideas to post-colonial intellectuals to attack the influence of the colonial metropolis; but there is no contradiction here. This dual role does suggest, however that the mere identification of the Western connections of an idea cannot be enough to damn it. The critics of "modernism" often share with the advocates of "modernism" the belief that being "modern" is a well-defined concept — they are for "it" and we are against "it." But this type of identification is not at all easy, given the historical roots — the long and tangled roots — of recent intellectual developments, and given the mixture of origins in the genesis of the ideas and the methods that are typically taken to characterize modernism.

The point is not that all modern things are good, or that there are reasons to doubt the wisdom of many developments that are justified in the name of modernity. Rather, the point is that there is no escape from the critical scrutiny of ideas, norms and proposals, no matter whether they are seen as pro-modern or anti-modern. When we come to decide what policies to support in education, health care, or social security, the modernity or the non-modernity of a proposal is neither here nor there. The relevant question is how these policies would actually affect the lives of people. Similarly, when faced with communal tensions in contemporary India, there is much to be gained from reading the tolerant poems of Kabir, or studying the political priorities of Akbar, in contrast with, say, the intolerant approach of Aurangzeb. The discrimination among ideas must be made in terms of their worth, not on the basis of some claim that Kabir or Akbar was "more modern" or "less modern" than Aurangzeb. Modernity is not only a bewildering notion, it is also largely irrelevant as a measure of merit or demerit in assessing contemporary priorities.

What about the specialness of "Asian values," about which so much is now being said by the authorities in a number of East Asian countries? These arguments, used in Singapore and China, appeal to the differences between "Asian values" and "Western values" to dispute the importance of human rights and press freedoms in Asian countries. The resistance to Western hegemony — a perfectly respectable cause in itself — takes the form, under this interpretation, of justifying the suppression of journalistic freedoms and the violations of elementary political and civil rights on the grounds of the alleged unimportance of these freedoms in the hierarchy of what are claimed to be "Asian values."

There are two problems with this mode of reasoning. First, even if it were shown that freedoms of this kind have had less importance in Asian thought and tradition than in the West, this would still be an unconvincing way of justifying the violation of these freedoms in Asia. To see the conflict over human rights as a battle between Western liberalism and Asian authenticity is to cast the debate in a form that distracts attention from the central question: What is right, what makes sense, in contemporary Asia? The history of ideas, in Asia and the West, cannot decide this issue.

Second, it is by no means clear that historically there has been systematically greater importance attached to freedom and tolerance in the West than in Asia. Individual liberty, in its contemporary form, is a relatively new notion both in Asian and in the West; and while the West did get to these ideas earlier (through developments such as the Renaissance, the European Enlightenment the Industrial Revolution and so on), the divergence between the cultures is relatively recent. In answer to the question, "at what date, in what circumstances, the notion of individual liberty... first became explicit in the West," Isaiah Berlin has remarked that "I have found no convincing evidence of any clear formulation of it in the ancient world."

This view has been disputed by Orlando Patterson in Freedom, Volume I: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. His historical arguments are interesting and forceful; but his thesis of a freedom-centered tradition in the West in contrast with what happened elsewhere seems to depend on attaching significance to particular elements of Western thought without looking adequately for comparable elements in non-Western intellectual traditions — for example, in the fairly extensive literatures on politics and governance in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Arabic, and other languages.

In the reading of Western tradition that sees it as the natural habitat of individual freedom and political democracy, there is a tendency to extrapolate backwards from the present. Values that the European enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made common and widespread can scarcely be seen as part of the long-run Western heritage, as if they were experienced in the West over millennia. In specific contexts in the Western classical tradition, of course, there have been championings of freedom and tolerance, but much the same can be said of many parts of the Asian tradition as well — not least in India, with Ashoka's inscriptions, Shudraka's drama, Akbar's pronouncements, or Kabir's poetry, to name a few examples.

It is true that tolerance has not been advocated by all in the Asian traditions. Nor has that tolerance typically covered everyone (though some, such as Ashoka, in the third century BC, did insist on completely universal tolerance, without any exception). But much the same can be said about the Western traditions as well. There is little evidence that Plato or Augustine were more tolerant or less authoritarian than Confucius. Aristotle certainly did write on the importance of freedom, but women and slaves were excluded from the domain of his concern. The allegedly sharp contrast between Western and Asian traditions on the subject of freedom and tolerance is based on the special nature of Asian values is particularly dubious. Further, even if it were the case that "Asian values" are more authoritarian, this would not have been grounds enough to reject tolerance and liberties in contemporary Asia.

The debate about "Asian values" draws attention to an important issue underlying attempts at generalizations about the East and West, about Europe and India, and so on. There are many sharp contrasts between Europe and India, but there are many sharp contrasts within India itself. And there are great differences between various parts of Indian intellectual and historical traditions. One of the things that goes deeply wrong with grand contrasts between "our culture" and "their culture" is the neglect of the tremendous variety within each of these cultures. Joan Robinson, the Cambridge economist, used to say that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.

It is not that cultural differences are of no importance; but the contrasts do not come in the tailor-made form of some immense opposition between, say, the West and India, with relative homogeneity inside each. The problem is even greater, of course, when there are attempts at generalizations about "Asian values." Asia is where about 60 percent of the world's entire population lives. There are no quintessential values that apply to this immensely large and heterogeneous population, which separates them out as a group from the rest of the world. Those who have written on the importance of cultural divisions have been right to point to them, and yet the attempt to see these divisions in the over-aggregated form of a dichotomy between East and West conceals more than it reveals.

Indeed, even generalizations about a single religious community within India (the Hindus or the Muslims), or about a single language group (the Bengalis or the Punjabis or the Tamils), can be deeply misleading. Depending on the context, there may be more significant similarity between groups of people in different parts of the country who come from the same class, have the same political convictions, or pursue the same profession or work, and that similarity can hold across national boundaries as well. People can be classified in terms of many different criteria, and the recent tendency to emphasize some contrasts (religion or community,) while ignoring others has overlooked important differences even as it has capitalized on others. The difficulties of communications across cultures are real, as are the normative issues raised by the importance of cultural differences; but these difficulties do not require us to accept the standard divisions between "our culture" and "their culture." Nor do they give us reason to overlook the demands of practical reason, and of political and social relevance, in favor of faithfulness to some alleged historical contrasts. Which brings us back to Satyajit Ray. His delicate portrayal of very different types that make us what we are cannot be matched.

Reflecting on what to include in his films, he posed the problem beautifully:

What should you put in your films? What can you leave out? Would you leave the city behind and go to the village where cows graze in the endless fields and the shepherd plays the flute? You can make a film here that would be pure and fresh and have the delicate rhythm of a boatman's song. Or would you rather go back in time — way back to the Epics, where the gods and demons took sides in the great battle where brother killed brother and Lord Krishna revivified a desolate prince with the words of the Gita? One could do exciting things here, using the great mimetic tradition of Kathakali, as the Japanese use their Noh and Kabuki. Or would you rather stay where you are, right in the present, in the heart of this monstrous, teeming, bewildering city, and try to orchestrate its dizzying contrasts of sight and sound and milieu?

The celebration of these differences — the "dizzying contrasts" — is far from what can be found in labored generalizations about the unique and fragile purity of "our culture," and in the vigorous pleas to keep "our culture", "our modernity", immune from "their culture", "their modernity." In our heterogeneity, and in our openness, lies our pride, not our disgrace. Satyajit Ray taught us this, and the lesson is profoundly important for India. And for Asia, and for the world.

The unsung verses of Pather Panchali

By Dhritiman Chaterji

Published in Newindpress, September 12, 2004

It is said that up until a few years ago, every time there was a solar eclipse, Doordarshan Kolkata had a simple but sure way of keeping people indoors - it showed Pather Panchali. I don't know whether the formula still works or whether PP has been displaced by some other film. Oddly enough, though, if you had to think of an alternative that would keep middle-class Bengalis of all ages glued to the screen, it would probably have to be yet another Satyajit Ray film - perhaps Gupi Gyne Bagha Byne.

Before you start feeling a warm glow about the timeless, universal appeal of Pather Panchali etc, let me tell you another story. A few months ago, I spoke at a Ray seminar organised by a senior film journalist here in Chennai. Soon after, a young lady phoned from one of the countless supplements (no, not health, horticulture or housing, fortunately) of one of our city papers, announced that she was doing a piece on the seminar and wanted to know whether I could tell her a little bit about "the movies Satyajit Ray makes". When I told her that he was no longer able to "make movies" as he was dead, she seemed a little bewildered.

So there you have it. 50 years down the road (the title of the film translates as The Song of the Road), responses to Pather Panchali range from utter devotion to utter ignorance. There is nothing particularly strange in that. Legends fade and icons crumble, whether it is in the arts, society or life in general. Sensitive societies, however, try somehow to distil the essence of the good and sometimes great things that happen; they try to absorb this essence in their fabric.

Volumes have been written about Pather Panchali. An occupational hazard of being a classic is that classics are analysed to oblivion, if not to death. One of the most perceptive comments about the film was made by one of our most perceptive film critics, Chidananda Das Gupta, in a 1981 article: "For all the sensation Pather Panchali caused at the time, it had done apparently no more than transfer the values of other contemporary arts to the cinema. Realist narrative, social awareness, compassion for the individual human being, trueness to the medium..."

Pather Panchali was in many ways a product of its times, born in a particular social, political and artistic context. What was so startlingly and refreshingly new about it was a sense of discovery, a spirit of adventure, a willingness to take risks. A thoroughly urban, some say thoroughly Western, man set about making a film about a milieu of which he knew nothing. Most of his key technicians, and many of his actors, were starting work in a medium of which they knew nothing. They didn't have much of a plot and even less money. And yet, in today's lingo, they made it happen! That, surely, was the essence of Pather Panchali - adventure, commitment, discovery. And from this emerged a distinctive, if not definitive, idiom that enriched the language of Indian cinema.

When we fret about the "legacy" of Pather Panchali and its "relevance" today, there are some hard questions we have to ask ourselves: where has the spirit of adventure gone? Why, at the heart of all the glitter, is there such emptiness? Why are even our once-admired veterans so unwilling to take risks even as younger filmmakers shine with Lagaan and Maqbool? Why has being the poor man's Hollywood, even if it's only Bolly, Kolly or Tolly, become the ultimate criterion of success? Why are we disowning the film language we had started to evolve even as Iran, China, Taiwan, Israel develop their own lively vocabularies?

The answers, if they emerge at all, will come not so much from theoretical constructs as from a renewed energy in practice, from the conviction that real life makes good cinema and, above all, from respect for the audience. That, if anything, is the legacy of Ray and of Pather Panchali. As for theory, Ray was always a little suspicious, if not disdainful, of it. Let me end with yet another story from a decade and a half after Pather Panchali.

We were shooting a scene in Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary), in which I played the protagonist. It was a dream sequence and the shot was an extraordinarily complicated one on the beach, involving a great deal of commotion in the background. In the foreground, my sister, whom I see as a nurse, runs towards me. Ray was a man of great economy and seemed to have got what he wanted in the first (or was it the second?) take. An assistant, however, tiptoed up to him and whispered that the shot needed to be done again. Ray demanded to know why. Because, explained the assistant, a hairpin seemed to have come loose from the actor's hair and was dangling next to her ear during the take.

"Don't worry," replied Ray. "This is a dream sequence. Critics will read some symbolic meaning into it." And his guffaw came close to drowning out the waves in the background.

Perhaps it's this guffaw, this sheer exhilaration, that Indian cinema needs to reclaim.

The writer worked with Ray as an actor in 1970 and in the early 90s, just before Ray died. He can be reached at DhritimanChaterji@electricshadows.org

Ray's Actors

By Dilip Basu and Dayani Kowshik

Clear Choices: Casting in Ray's Films

Ray had clear ideas as to what almost every character, certainly the main ones, ought to look like in his films. In his early period, he visualized the faces of main characters in sketches before making a film. In his later films he usually turned to actors he had already worked with before. In short, Ray was very clear as to what kind of faces he wanted for particular roles.

The little boy Apu in Pather Panchali is one role that Ray had a clear vision of before shooting. Based on description of the boy in the novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, Ray and his team members searched for the "right" face until Mrs. Bijoya Ray located a child in their old Calcutta neighborhood. The boy proved difficult, but Ray, taken by his looks, insisted on using him as Apu. Eventually, Subir Banerjee got used to Ray's playful approach to acting and did a wonderful job as Apu.

The story of how Ray and his unit found Chunibala Devi to play the old aunt in Pather Panchali is similar. After a long search and trying several older actresses he found the octogenarian Chunibala, an all but forgotten stage actress from the 1920s. Sometimes Ray would approach someone he saw on the road, by chance, that he thought fitted the character he had in mind. Ray spotted Ramani Sengupta from a distance on the ghats of Banaras while doing location shooting for Aparajito. Although Sengupta's somber personality intimidated him, Ray asked him whether he would be interested in acting the role of a grand uncle in the film he was about to shoot in the sacred city. Sengupta's answer was "Why not?" It turned out that not only had Sengupta never acted; he had never seen a movie in his life!

Ray always seemed to be interested in people and their faces. Saeed Jaffrey, a noted international actor in many British and American films once ran into Ray in an airport lounge in 1967. Jaffrey introduced himself and told Ray how his life-long dream was to work for him. Ray smiled. About ten years later Jaffrey got a call to play the role of Mir Roshan Ali in Chess Players.

Then Ray made a few films with some specific actors in mind. Without Chhabi Biswas, Ray said he would have not made Jalsaghar, Devi or Kanchanjungha. In the veteran actor Tulsi Chacravarti (Prasanna, the grocer-cum-school teacher in Pather Panchali and the main character, Paresh Chundra Dutta, in Parash Pathar), he found an incredibly expressive face that accompanied an equally incredible acting ability.

In his later films Satyajit Ray turned to professionals from screen and stage while recasting some he had used before. He gave two reasons for this change in his casting practices. The first was his realization that professional actors and actresses in India's commercial cinema who often appeared in "silly" roles had talent for "serious" ones as well. The acid test was Uttam Kumar, Bengal's all-time great matinee idol. Ray was often asked why he had not used the popular hero of contemporary Bengali cinema in any of his films. He did so in 1966 in Nayak, a film tailor-made for Uttam Kumar about the inner story of a great star's troubled life. In Chess Players, his cast included prominent Bollywood stars Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and Shabana Ajmi. In Sadgati he cast Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe. Both these films were in Hindi, and the Mumbai audience was an obvious source of his casting choices. In two earlier films, where he did not necessarily need to turn to Bollywood, he had used the noted stars Waheeda Rehman in Abhijan and Simi Garewal in Days and Nights in the Forest. Ray had received some criticism for going out of his way to cast stars from Mumbai in important but minor roles these two Bengali films. In retrospect, one can see why Ray chose them. It was Ray's infallible instinct to match the character with the face.

Some of the actors who had started their careers with Ray went on to become famous stars. The list includes Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Aparna Sen, Victor Banerjee, and Dhritiman Chatterjee. Aparna Sen has also distinguished herself as a director. Sharmila Tagore became a hot Bollywood star after working for Ray. Madhabi Mukherjee, who starred in three of Ray's major films in the sixties, did not work for Ray later, but went on to become a prominent Bengali screen actress in the seventies and eighties. Soumitra Chatterjee is, of course, in a class all by himself: he was Ray's all-time favorite and acted in fourteen of his films.

Films of Satyajit Ray: Getting Started

First in a series of Articles published in India Post

By Dilip Basu

Even before Pather Panchali (1955) was released to public screening and greeted as a masterpiece, it had received much critical acclaim in private.

In the Fall of 1954 Monroe Wheeler, a director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had come to Calcutta. He met Satyajit Ray and learned that he was making a film. He saw some stills and immediately invited Ray to send the film to the exhibition that would open at MOMA the following year. A few months later, John Huston arrived in Calcutta to scout locations for his film The Man Who Would Be King. He had already heard about Ray and his work. Ray showed him a half-hour of rough cut of the visual highlights — among them the scene of the running train in the field of white Kaash. Huston was moved: "A grim and serious piece of film making, which should go down well in the West," he commented. Wheeler got the glowing report from Huston. A hastily finished first print was sent to New York in May 1955. It was screened without subtitles to an adoring audience moved by the film's humanist appeal and imaginative photography.

Ray alludes to these vignettes and many more in his posthumously published Memoir on the making of the Trilogy (My Years With Apu, A Memoir, by Satyajit Ray; New Delhi: Viking, 1994).

He waited with great anticipation for the Bengali audience's first reaction to the screening of Pather Panchali in August 1955. Using his expertise in publicity gained as an executive at D. G. Keymer & Co., a British Advertising firm in Calcutta, he had designed five billboards for the film. The response was instantaneous. "For the first time I tasted triumph," Ray writes, "with unknown young people elbowing their way through the milling crowd to kiss the hem of my garment as it were." Contrary to common belief that Pather Panchali was appreciated in Ray's hometown only after it had received awards abroad, the film was in fact a box office hit from the day of its premiere. However, it ran only for six weeks. Ray explains why.

The theater in South Calcutta showing Pather Panchali was booked in advance for the screening of Insaniyat, a film by S.S. Vasan, the South Indian Cecil B. De Mille. The day after his film was taken off, Ray was awakened early in the morning by his servant. He had a dhoti-clad visitor: Mr. S.S. Vasan. Asked by Ray what had brought such a distinguished director to his door so early in the morning, Vasan replied, "You! I had been to see your film last night. If I had known that that was the film Insaniyat was going to replace, I would certainly have withheld my opening. You have made a great film, Sir."

Ray had fought against overwhelming odds to come to this point. Backed by a handful of young film buffs, equipped with sketches and notes on select episodes of Pather Panchali, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay's epic novel, he had approached all the major and minor producers in Calcutta. They included B.N. Sirkar, "a sort of Bengali Louis B Mayer," and a fledgling named Das who was trying to produce from a "seedy hotel in the heart of central Calcutta." These led him nowhere. But Ray had made up his mind. He had decided to go ahead on his own with a hand picked cast of mostly non-professionals and a crew of rookies. His cameraman Subrata Mitra, for example, had not handled a movie camera before. Ray's familiarity with this magic tool extended to possessing a second-hand Leica. While funding these faltering efforts, he had pawned his classical western music collection and his wife's jewelry. The project finally got going through his mother Suprabha Ray's intervention. She knew one Mrs. Bela Sen who was a personal friend of Dr. B.C. Roy, the Chief Minister. Dr. Roy agreed to offer state funding.

Moved by the film, Dr. Roy had arranged for a special screening for Pundit Nehru. Already vested interests in India's filmdom were building barricades against Pather Panchali. Nehru saw the film at Calcutta's Lighthouse Miniature Theater flanked by Dr. Roy and Satyajit Ray who did the occasional translation. Nehru too was moved and quickly acted to ruin all opposition to the film's proposed entry to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Officials attending the festival did precious little to publicize or promote the film. The screening took place on a holiday at midnight. The result: most jurors did not show up. Amongst those who did were Ray aficionados — Lindsay Anderson, Lotte Eisner, Andre Bazin, George Sadoul and Gene Moskowitz. They persuaded the Festival Committee to organize a second screening with all the jurors present. Pather Panchali went on to receive the Special Jury Prize for the Best Human Document. Later the film received a dozen or more national and international awards.

The recognition, writes Ray, persuaded him to take the plunge. He decided to give up advertising and turn to film making as a full time career. The choice was a logical one for Ray: He had been training, we now know, for years in the arts and sciences of motion pictures. But who were his role models, and which film making traditions was he attracted to?