(Satyajit Ray and I have had very little in common, personally and certainly not professionally. Most mornings I drove past Ray’s house on Bishop Lefroy Road and parked my car close by. I had, however never thought of meeting Ray, let alone, discussing his films. Yet I did meet him once…)
I had seen most of Satyajit Ray’s films, many without subtitles, in Calcutta’s theatres and had just started going to the Sunday morning shows of a film society. The film society movement owed its existence to Ray; it was pretty active in the 1970’s and 80’s and had produced renowned directors like Basu Chatterjee, Kantilal Rathod and Shyam Benegal. I had heard something about Ray’s shooting style and schedules from my colleague in Metal Box, Dhritiman Chatterjee, who had an offer for the principal role in Ray’s film Pratidhwandhi and had just finished shooting. Dhritiman was a management trainee and it took a great deal of pleading and the intervention of a Director, for the British company to bend its rules and let him take two months off for shooting.
It was a cold, smoggy winter evening in Calcutta when my friend Mukherjee called and invited me to come and meet Satyajit Ray that evening. The invitation was sudden but irresistible. Mukherjee I had collaborated on some projects in Metal Box. I knew that his father had fantastic contacts and that the son was energetic enough to use them. He often surprised me with such invitations but I never had the chance to accept them. Here was one that I could not turn down.
I reached Mukherjee’s house early enough for the event. So did Mr. Ray. Here were the two of us face to face, with the host busy inside getting the dinner ready, I guess. Mukherjee’s father had left the house to the son that evening for he was nowhere to be seen. Ray had a reputation for as much economy of expression as his characters had in his films. And I was tongue-tied not knowing what to say. Ray had, I observed, a peculiar stare; at times piercing you, at others a stare into the unknown, vast expanse as if focusing single-mindedly on a single line of contemplation. He looked at me. I looked at him. I smiled and he too permitted himself to smile. Should I say I had seen many of his films and was a great fan? That would sound trite.. Should I ask him what he is working on? I had to make the opening. Time was precious: soon the others would start pouring in, Bengalis who may have a hundred questions to ask. I would have no chance to talk to him.
At last I introduced myself and I mentioned Dhritiman, a close friend at Metal Box. Not because I hoped for a role in Ray’s next film, following Dhritiman! Ray smiled and asked me whether I had seen Pratidhwandhi. I said I had. I then I asked him how, after Panther Panchali, he had not made a film set in rural Bengal. I said the scenes from Pather Panchali lingered in my mind. Ray replied that his next film was exactly that: a film based on a novel written by the same writer. I said Ray had a reputation, according to my perception, of being at his best in depicting rural life, as in Pather Panchali and that we thought he understood rural Bengal as very few persons did. He smiled and said that Pather Panchali was his first attempt to observe and depict rural life though his first experience in rural living was the time he spent in Shantiniketan as a student. To my surprise Ray was very forthcoming; forget, economy of words, he spoke at length on the subjects we took up that evening and the questions that were asked. In the company of young men, all of who knew Bengali and had seen his films and at least some knew a good deal about movies, he was warm, ebullient and expressive. He seemed a great listener; at the same time his words had a deep reflective gravity.
I sought some more information on Ashani Sanket. It had many things in common with the Apu trilogy. The film was based on a novel by the same writer, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya; the central role played by the same actor, Soumitra Chatterjee; the setting, rural Bengal; the theme, an awakening and the potential for big change.
Ashani Sanket is set in 1943 and is in a sense, the story of the Bengal famine. But it is much more than that. The village is tranquil. The warplanes occasionally roar and fly overhead; but they are as remote as the war itself. One villager remarks that the Germans have captured Singapore. He is quickly corrected and told that it is not the Germans but the Japanese. Traditional life goes on; caste is observed and the system respected.
The principal character, Gangacharan, is the only Brahmin in the village: he is a schoolteacher, priest and physician; all rolled into one and is therefore highly respected. He gets the material rewards due to that respect. He comes to this village with his wife Ananga and offers to start and run a school. The villagers are grateful and support him.
The film opens with lush green paddy fields suggesting a good harvest. Soon the roar of planes above suggest the distant thunder of war. The war leads to price rise and the price of rice shoots up. Hoarding by the merchants and consequent hardship lead to rioting by the villagers. Gangacharan tries to keep himself going as he is respected for his services. Soon the shortage hits him as much as the others. The scramble for sheer survival leads to rioting. The famine grows to catastrophic proportions and causes a long march out of the village, in search of food, with bodies falling by the wayside out of sheer exhaustion. So much that Anaga, the naïve wife of Gangacharan, is molested in the forest while looking for edible roots. As the film ends, we see Anaga telling Ganga about her pregnancy as thousands of the villagers approach them for help. Gangacharan suffers the shock. Towards the end, he begins to question the social system he has always accepted and taken as given. In the context of the film this is a revolutionary conversion.
The New York Times wrote a moving review of the film.
,” It is the work of a director who has learned the value of narrative economy to such an extent that “Distant Thunder,” which is set against the backdrop of the “manmade” famine that wiped out 5 million people in 1943, has the simplicity of a fable.
Though its field of vision is narrow, more or less confined to the social awakening of a young village Brahmin and his pretty, naive wife, the sweep of the film is so vast that, at the end, you feel as if you’d witnessed the events from a satellite. You’ve somehow been able to see simultaneously the curvature of the earth and the insects on the blades of field grass.”
5 million people died in a man made famine in one state of India. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, returned to England a year later and was rewarded for the good work he did in India. In the pages of history the Bengal Famine, may not get more than a couple of paragraphs, at best a page. Unlike the other holocaust, which around the same time killed in Germany 6 million people.
As I watched the movie my mind moved back to the short meting I had with Mr. Ray. I also thought of the way he ad grappled with the grim realities of rural Bengal. I remembered reading of Ray’s days in Shantiniketan that first prodded him to understand his own people. …….in his own words …
“In 1928, I went with my mother to Tagore’s university. I had my little autograph book, newly bought, and my mother gave the book to Tagore and said: ‘My son would like a few lines of verse from you.’ And he said: ‘Leave the book with me.’ The next day he said: ‘I have written something for you, which you won’t understand now, but when you grow up you will understand it.”
It read: “I have travelled all around the world to see the rivers and the mountains, and I’ve spent a lot of money. I have gone to great lengths, I have seen everything. But I forgot to see just outside my house a dewdrop on a little blade of grass, a dewdrop which reflects in its convexity the whole universe around you.”
Ashani Sanket mirrored precisely what Tagore had taught him.
The film, more than the get-to-gether, was the consummation of my wish to meet Ray. Thank you, Mukherjee, thank you, Ray for introducing me to a new world!