Apu’s Agony to Manomohan’s Magnanimity: Navigating Satyajit Ray’s Classics on His Birth Centenary

Apu’s Agony to Manomohan’s Magnanimity: Navigating Satyajit Ray’s Classics on His Birth Centenary

The birth centenary of Satyajit Ray comes at a time when the world is overwhelmed by chaos and despair, too deafening to sit and appreciate the finer aspects of his filmmaking. Yet, there is no denying that the films he made decades ago, continue to transcend the boundaries of time, language and geography, to enthral and inspire generations of audience across the world.

For film aficionados, Ray is not a genius to be celebrated only once a year. Rather, his legacy lives on through his creations, for us to cherish at every juncture of our bland, binary days.

Be it the simple magnanimity of Apu, the suave charisma of Feluda or the delicate regality in Charulata – the characters brought to life by Ray on screen are in many ways synonymous with our subconscious personas. Perhaps that’s what makes his movies so relatable, closer to heart yet so refined in their craftsmanship.

Source: Nemai Ghosh/Delhi Art Gallery

Aside from setting the parameters of modern filmmaking, Ray also left his mark in literature, music, and even art. But, that’s the subject for another day.

On his birth centenary, the co-founders of The Siyahi Columns unveil their ‘fangirl’ moments for Satyajit Ray, the iconic maestro who redefined movies in a whole new avatar.

Here are the top picks by our co-founder Sayantani Nath:

There is an unofficial yet unanimously acknowledged word on the street that Satyajit Ray was one of the first directors in the world to introduce the concept of a film series. Today, we are revisiting a few of the timeless classics he made.

1. Apu Trilogy

Through the canvas of three films, Ray navigates the life of Apu aka Apurbo Roy, a remarkable Bengali protagonist penned by Bibhutibushan Bandhopadhyay. In Pather Panchali, Ray’s storytelling revolves around the picturesque hamlet of Nischindipur, interspersed with the day-to-day struggles of the poor village priest’s family. Apu is portrayed as a little boy, the personification of innocence and childhood.

The second film follows him into adolescence and youth, as he encounters unknown battles of life. Though less popular than ‘Pather Panchali’ and ‘Apur Sansar’, ‘Aparajito’ manages to catch us off-guard in a plethora of emotions.

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Apu through the trilogy (Source: Hoichoi)

‘Apur Sansar’ marked the debut of Soumitra Chatterjee, who became to Ray as De Niro is to Scorsese or Samuel L. Jackson is to Tarantino. The movie navigates Apu’s journey into marital bliss and consequent tragedies, only to leave the audience in a melancholy trance at the final scene.

2. Goopy – Bagha series  

Way before Harry Potter or Star Wars universe encapsulated our imagination, Ray managed to successfully explore the fantasy genre – even creating a franchise out of it. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne introduces the mythical characters with their quirks and blemishes, while subtly laying out the message of peace in a world reeling from the horrors of warfare.

The second film, Hirak Rajar Deshe, remains to this date one of Ray’s most bold political statements. Through the semanticism of a fascist monarch in a fictional kingdom, he issues a strong political dissent against the autocratic policies doled out by the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (1991) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
Goopy – Bagha, played by Robi Ghosh and Tapen Chattopadhyay (Source: IMDb)

While the third film is often dubbed the least popular in the trilogy, Goopy Bagha Firey Elo, serves as a nostalgic ‘throwback’ for the viewers who grew up obsessed with Goopy Bagha.

3. Feluda Series

Move over James Bond, our boy-next-door sleuth Pradosh C. Mitter aka Feluda is here. Portrayed on-screen by none other than the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee, Feluda is adapted from Ray’s own mystery novels.

Both the movies in the series are iconic in their own terms. Shonar Kella takes us on a thrilling journey to the desert lands of Rajasthan, where the mystery aspect is accentuated by the incorporation of royalty, mythology, and old wives’ tales. As Feluda pursues two notorious criminals who have abducted a child, we are at the edge of our seats almost throughout the movie, except for the moments where Santosh Dutta’s Jatayu serves as the perfect comic relief.

In Joy Baba Felunath, we meet the criminal mastermind Maghanlal Meghraj, who can perhaps shush up even Don Corleone. He meets his match in Feluda and the dynamic villain-detective duo drives the film with utmost suspense till the final scene.

How Satyajit Ray And Soumitra Chatterjee Shaped Feluda Out Of The Best Of Sherlock Holmes And Tintin
Soumitra Chatterjee in Shonar Kella (Film Companion)

Here are co-founder Tamalika Chattopadhyay’s top picks, in her own words: 

1. Charulata (The Lonely Wife)

Based on Tagore’s unmatched novel ‘Nastanirh’, Charulata still stands as one of the finest cinemas on women and society. Under Ray’s perceptive eye, Madhobi Mukhopadhyay portrays Charu to perfection, be it the restless roaming while she is confined within her mansion with a volume of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Kapalkundala or focussing her lorgnette through the closed shutters of the window while she sees the outside world.

Ray’s direction spoke volumes of women’s potential being dominated by society and consigned to the inside world of the household as they seek endless possibilities in the outer world, just within the first few minutes. Ray carefully crafted and explored Charu’s passion for Amal’s company, though being her sister-in-law, through their shared love for poetry. One of my favourite scenes has to be where Charu is sitting on her garden swing while Amal sits near her feet, singing a love song. Ray made that scene look like a Ravi Verma painting of Radha and Krishna, the two lovers bound by a socially forbidden love. 

Image Source – Satyajit Ray Org

2. Agantuk (The Stranger)

Ray’s final work, based on one of his short stories Atithi, has a special place in my heart. With the phenomenal Utpal Dutta, his last movie explores the arrival of a stranger, claiming to be the uncle of the women of a middle-class household. By far one of the best movies exploring the hollowness of the so-called educated modern society, Aguntuk asks some of humanity’s biggest questions. While we see Manomohan speak of the tribal communities as welcoming, who in general are labeled as ‘uncultured’ and ‘uncivilized’ by the bourgeois community, he is suspected as an intruder masquerading as a family member in his niece’s house. The movie’s true worth lies in Ray’s ‘no melodrama’ direction, though a storyline like this one would have had a lot of unnecessary bathos if it fell into the hands of some other director. 

Utpal Dutta in Agantuk (Image Source – Youth Ki Awaz)

3. Nayak (The Hero)

Ray’s work feels real because of the unfiltered truth it speaks and the relevance it holds through time. Nayak, his second original script, is one of those movies, that I personally feel will never lose its relevance due to its exploration of emotional dilemmas on a humane level. Starring the evergreen Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay (lovingly known as Uttam Kumar), the movie shows the life of an actor Arindam, who feels uncannily personal. Though the movie portrays a socially glamourized personality, his emotional conflicts, problems, and choices feel personal as we all share similar human emotions irrespective of our caste, class, or religion. The iconic and my favourite scene is definitely Arindam’s dream, where he sees himself getting drowned into the whirlpool of his wealth, something we all feel is the ultimate key to happiness. Ray through this scene thus explores the void that prevails in the human heart which cannot be fulfilled by materialistic possessions. Nayak thus paved the way for many similar-themed films, one of which was Srijit Mukherjee’s 2010 movie Autograph. 

Image Source – YouTube Screengrab 

4. Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players)

Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Rays’s only Hindi feature film based on Munshi Premchand’s short story needs a special mention. A period drama, based out of Lucknow, the movie tells the tale during Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s reign. What makes this movie be on my list is the fact that Ray moved out of his general themes of cinema and made exemplary research, though having limited knowledge of Hindi and almost no knowledge of Urdu and Awadhi.

That’s what makes it a classic Ray, as his research on a certain topic, be it for his films or books has always been extraordinary and very informative. The movie had a cast to die for with narration from none other than Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, which was again something that was beyond Ray’s comfort zone. Though a socio-political drama delving into the lives of elites, the movie takes its audience on a dreamlike journey into the world of Nawabs, their palaces, their hookahs, their nautch girls, kathak, and thumris, rich shawls, and clothes.

Image Source – Satyajit Ray Org

Honourable Mentions

While all his movies are absolute classics, these were some of the movies that found a special place in our hearts. Honourable mentions include Parash Pathar, Mahanagar, Jalsaghar, Aranyer Din Ratri, Gharey-Baire, Ashani Sanket, and Ganashatru.

Two

A special mention has to be his short film ‘Two’ which depicts a childish rivalry but serves as a promising commentary on the rich dominating the poor through materialistic possessions. Though the rich child shows his authority through his toys, he has to at last lose to the poor child’s indomitable spirit to rise up, even with the worn-out kite. You can watch this 12 mins of magic on Youtube.

 

In a conversation with Tathagata Ghosh, a close friend, and an award-winning film director, he stated how Ray has moved him over the years. He said – “I didn’t discover Ray. Rather Ray discovered me and all of us. It is said that all Bengalis inherit Ray in their genes and I am no exception. Ray is why I dared to dream as he taught me to be fearless like Goopy and Bagha, to have my head held high through Arati of “Mahanagar” or to be curious like Manmohan Mitra of “Agantuk”. He made me who I am. Be it through his stories, films, illustrations or interviews.”

Tathagata’s words celebrate Ray in all his glory as we mark his centenary birth anniversary today.

Shubho Jonmodin Priyo Manik Babu!

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