My apologies to Satyajit Ray: A personal essay

Satyajit Ray Productions/Courtesy

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In trying to explain myself I’ve come up with the following plausible defenses.

One: 

When I was younger I had a natural disinclination toward reality that I can’t say I’ve completely grown out of. I spent days and nights dreaming up the lives of others and imaging soundtracks for fictional characters’ next greatest adventures. My favorite pastime, to the chagrin of my more practical parents, was staring out beyond the trappings of the world as it whirled around me caught up in its own devices, mundanities and intricacies. I lived for wizards and castles, robots and aliens, secret agents and ordinary girls who had been Chosen to save the world.

Two: 

It followed, then, that one afternoon, when my mother sat me down to watch her own favorite movie, a dismal-looking black-and-white film in which the soundtrack was made up of heartbreaking sitar ragas and the main character was a dark girl who very much resembled me, with seemingly no secret powers, fantastic destinies or fabulous inheritances to speak of, I was less than enthusiastic. 

The girl’s mother, a gaunt woman whose haunted, all-seeing eyes were set above twin pits of darkness like two thumbs pressing her face in, berated her daughter in the language I’d grown up learning alongside English. I grew antsy, and my mother noticed. “She’s speaking Bengali. Can’t you understand what she’s saying?” she asked. I told her I could not. It was jarring to hear my parents’ and my parents’ parents’ language onscreen when I was not yet ready to claim it as my own. I threatened to walk if she didn’t exchange that depressing, dour DVD for “How to Train Your Dragon”; grudgingly, she capitulated.

Three: 

I think the point when someone truly begins to grow up is when they start to pay attention to the fact that real life, at times, is almost scarily cinematic. There are patterns, plot devices, symbols and denouements, same as any good action flick. The only difference is that the cycle keeps turning at different levels; the Hero goes on her Journey, over and over on a day-to-day scale, on a monthly basis, on the lifelong sojourn. 

Our lives are thrilling, beautiful, desperate. Stories exist because we live them. I happened to come to this realization quite late, given all the time I’d spent forcefully dunking my head into the apple barrel of other more exciting plots. 

I think the point when someone truly begins to grow up is when they start to pay attention to the fact that real life, at times, is almost scarily cinematic.

When I got to Berkeley and had sufficient distance from home, I began looking back. Why had the movie upset me? Was I simply unequipped to fully understand things that should be important, things that should belong to my heart as they did to my mother and my mother’s home country? 

I learned that the movie was “Pather Panchali,” meaning Song of the Little Road, Satyajit Ray’s 1955 neorealist film about a girl and her younger brother in a village in West Bengal. I had begun to regret my initial quick judgement and subsequent ignorance. This was partly due to my mother’s reminders of my snubbing, partly because on every list of the greatest movies of all time I’d eagerly skimmed, a certain small Bengali drama seemed to keep appearing just to remind me of my folly. 

Finding myself at home and with seemingly endless free time over the strange suspended void of the past few weeks, I sat down with my family to watch my mother’s favorite Ray films. Here is what I learned.

One: 

Ten-year-old me was not alone in my hurried assessment. Reactions to “Pather Panchali” were not universally positive, although the reasons behind some other dissenting opinions were less than civil. François Truffaut said he didn’t want to see a movie about peasants eating with their hands. I hate to disappoint Mr. Truffaut but like Apu, the boy in the movie, and Durga, his sister, my family, along with probably 99% of the entire subcontinent of India, eats with our hands. 

Watching “Pather Panchali” in full, I was struck by the fact that the film isn’t about poverty at all. It’s a coming of age story about children being introduced to the horrors and wonders of life. The part of the movie where my mother always starts to cry is when Apu and Durga crouch among tall stalks of grass waiting for the familiar whistle of a train they have never seen. They run to the sound of the train as one, as if some unspoken truth has passed between them, free for a moment from the quiet desperation of their home, their great aunt’s illness, their absentminded father, their mothers’ worries. They catch a glimpse of the train as it chugs away: one perfect moment of liberation. When they return home, reality will catch up quickly, and they will both be irreversibly damaged by the crash back to Earth.

“Pather Panchali” was Ray’s debut film. He shot it with no screenplay to speak of, just a collection of sketches later developed into storyboards and notes. His visual language is attentive and impossibly melodic; the camera focuses on insects, on butterflies, on small miracles, on the minutiae of village life in West Bengal. Most of all, it focuses on Durga, who is funny, charming, a bit of a thief; she has quick hands and kind liquid eyes; she is loving and forgiving and girlish. 

His visual language is attentive and impossibly melodic; the camera focuses on insects, on butterflies, on small miracles, on the minutiae of village life in West Bengal.

Two:

Women and girls are often central to Ray’s movies. They are enigmatic, mystical, humorous, powerful, careful and true. In his “Three Daughters” anthology film, his most astonishing character is Ratan, a young orphan who is about 10 years old. Ratan works as the housekeeper for the new Postmaster, who has arrived from a big city. The Postmaster decides to teach her to read and write as a way to kill time, and she begins to think of him as a father figure; only later does she realize he does not similarly emotionally depend on her. 

Eventually the Postmaster chooses to move away from the unfamiliar village life back to his big city, abandoning Ratan. On his way out of her village, he attempts to apologize to her by handing her a tip. When she refuses to accept his money and strides past him toward her empty future without so much as a backward look, he and the audience as one are shocked by the force of her fury, maturity and sudden understanding of what it means to be a woman in this world. Ratan emerges with all the strength this realization brings, while the Postmaster is now overwhelmed, lost and alone.

Three: 

Satyajit Ray is important because he saw life for what it was and loved it all the same. His camera watches with patience and fondness as people reveal the mysteries within themselves. He was a pioneer of Bengali cinema, and the astonishing breadth of his filmography covers everything from comedies to horror to detective stories to satire. In 1991, he won the Academy Honorary Award; he was the first and so far the only Indian filmmaker to win this distinction.

I can see his influences in everything from Scorsese to Wes Anderson, but what I find truly important is how the lyrical rawness of his films have always stayed true to his distinctive vision. Reality is a plot beyond invention, and Ray somehow managed to catch its essence through his camera and distill it onto a screen.  

Ray’s films are crafted to be simultaneously universal yet intimate. He is letting you in on a secret that belongs, at once, to both existence at large and your own small world. In learning about his career and correcting my initial perceptions of the movies he made, I’ve come away with truths about myself and how I perceive the things around me. 

Sometimes it still feels like I am struggling in a subliminal space between India and the United States, with a certain lingering uncertainty of who I am in either setting; I am constantly in a state of adaptation. Ray’s movies are small microcosms of adaptations: adaptations to coming of age, to marriages both young and decaying, to friendships coming and going, to death. I wish to convey my gratitude to him because when I watch his films, I feel known.

Contact Ankita Chatterjee at [email protected].