ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN COLUMN | Remembering Manikda, the Ray who lit up Indian cinema

Satyajit Ray combined in himself the spirit of the traditional and the mind of the modern. For a long time, Indian cinema was synonymous with him to the world outside.
Satyajit Ray sharing a light moment with Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Photo | The Adoor Archives)
Satyajit Ray sharing a light moment with Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Photo | The Adoor Archives)

My generation of filmmakers who belong to the New Indian Cinema owes a lot to Satyajit Ray on many counts.
As a consummate artist, it was Ray who brought a high degree of esteem and respectability to the practice of filmmaking as a profession. The whole body of his work in cinema is distinguished as art and not a consumer product. And he was never given to the temptation of making compromises for the sake of saleability.

Although he had excelled in many other areas of artistic endeavour like painting (he was a student of Nandalal Bose and other masters at Shantiniketan), music, literature, theatre, design etc, cinema was the one field he concentrated all his faculties on. In cinema, he expressed himself to the fullest. All the faculties he was endowed with have gone into the making of Ray the redoubtable filmmaker. Ray came to own and carry on to the present the great legacy of the Bengal Renaissance spearheaded by Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries.

Today's Indian cinema would have been unthinkable without Ray's immense contributions. There were of course other important filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Their contributions have been significant too; but the ready universal acceptance and adulation Ray came to enjoy from the very start was something very unprecedented and his compatriots in comparison had to struggle hard even to catch the attention of the world.

Ray combined in himself the spirit of the traditional and the mind of the modern. For a long time, Indian cinema was synonymous with Ray to the world outside. He stood tall and apart with his keen observation of life in its varied manifestations and the multi-layered complexity of human nature with deep sympathy and understanding.

Once I asked Ray, "Manikda, Pather Panchali is rich in minute details and keen observations of life in a remote Bengal village. You must have contributed so much to the original text."

His answer surprised me, "No, Adoor, it is all in the book."

I am sure any filmmaker in his place would have made tall claims as the film came to be universally acclaimed.  

My association with Ray started in 1980 when my second film, Kodiyettam (Ascent) was privately screened in Delhi at the time of the International Film Festival of India. I had invited Ray and a few selected guests to the screening at the Army Photo Division's mini theatre near Rashtrapati Bhavan.
A few minutes into the film, Ray started laughing aloud. And it continued as the film progressed. I could see that he was very much involved in the film.

After the screening, we went back to Hotel Ashok where we stayed and sitting in the foyer we had a long chat. I felt very happy he liked the film a lot. He asked me why I did not use any background score in the film. I explained that the use of music would have somehow stereotyped the situations in the film and limited its scope. Then he inquired, "Are you going to do away with the background score altogether?" I said, "No. My first film Swayamvaram had a background score." Then he commented, "Used minimally and judiciously, music can be an effective element in storytelling." I could not but agree fully.

The two masters - Adoor and Ray.(Photo | The Adoor Archives)
The two masters - Adoor and Ray.(Photo | The Adoor Archives)

After Kodiyettam, Ray saw every film of mine screened in Kolkata. The last one was Mathilukal (Walls) in 1990. The screening was part of the International Film Festival of India, held in Calcutta that year.

Ray was convalescing after his heart operation and I knew it would be difficult for him to come and watch the film at Gorky Sadan. All the same, as usual, I telephoned him and informed him of the screening. "Adoor, I am advised by doctors not to climb any steps, and as you know there is no way but to climb a long flight of steps to reach Gorky Sadan. Anyway, I shall try, I am not sure," Ray sounded unhappy about being absent at the screening.

I did not give up. Ten minutes before the start of the screening, I positioned myself at the top of the stairs simply hoping for the arrival of Ray's car. It was not to be in vain. As the appointed time neared, there came and stopped the car I was waiting for and Ray slowly got out of it.

I rushed down the steps to receive him and greeted him, "Manikda, I am so happy you could make it."

"I did not want to miss the film," was his response and he started climbing the steps slowly.
"Marvellous, Adoor, marvellous," was his comment after the screening.

For me it was most heartening. And the news spread. There came the invitation for the film from the director of the Venice Film Festival who was present at the screening. There was a news item in the papers the next day, with the caption, 'Ray goes to see Adoor's film'.

Every time I made a new film, I made it a point to show it to him. And he would want me to meet him the next morning to talk about it. I was fortunate he always had something good to talk about it. It gave me a lot of confidence and a feeling that I was on the right track.

Once he told me, "You should go ahead and make at least one film a year; now you are well recognized." I tried to explain the reason for my not being prolific and the long intervals in between films; as suggested it has been my wish too but it does not work out in reality. I had to do practically everything about the production of my films and the period of preparation itself takes a long time. Once a film is made, I am also involved in its promotion and release resulting in a protracted period of struggle long after the completion of each film.

In June 1983, Ray was in Trivandrum in connection with a major retrospective of his films by the Soorya film society headed by my friend Krishnamurthy. He had sought my help to persuade Ray to accept his invitation and visit our capital town. Those three days of his visit were memorable as audiences as well as fans and professionals thronged around him wherever he went. The functions he attended here were front-paged by the print media. At the Tagore theatre where he was given a standing ovation by an audience of more than 2000 admirers, Ray admitted in his response to the reception that he had never had an experience like it before. We had seen to it that the Kerala government treated him as a state guest.

While he was here, we arranged a screening of Mukhamukham for him. Coming out after the screening, he asked me if it was based on any published work. I said, "No, it is an original idea and script." Then came his comment, "Now I understand."

Apu trilogy

There is this mistaken notion shared by critics abroad that Ray's Apu trilogy is neo-realistic.

It is true Ray saw Bicycle Thief in London and liked it. In fact, it was simply an endorsement of what he was already planning to do with Bibhutibhuhan's novel, Pather Panchali.

Neo-realism as we all know was an after-effect of the Second World War and the total devastation it caused to life and properties in Italy, particularly Rome. Utter poverty, unemployment, loss of values, hopelessness and frustration weighed heavily on the minds of the people. Naturally, a few sensitive artistes in cinema took their cameras and recorders to the streets to portray life in the raw. They had ordinary people performing/behaving and there was no trace of any star glitter to outshine the veracity of the original. All those films with such true passion and verve together came to be termed neo-realistic.

Bibhutibhushan's Pather Panchali was written in the 1910s. None of the conditions of life in the 1950s could even be imagined then. Maybe the only common element was poverty as the novel portrayed the life of a poor Brahmin priest and his small family. The comparison ends there. Even in the midst of hardships what we find held aloft here is the dignity of their demeanour -- characters holding on to hope, humanity and expectations. There are situations of grief but they do not precipitate into frustration. Life is accepted as it unfolds -- sometimes offering little pleasures, at other times setbacks and sorrows but all the same, it is to be lived. What comes through is an elevating experience of the indefatigable human spirit.   

Indian cinema made a quantum jump with the advent of Pather Panchali. Suddenly a demarcation line was drawn -- Indian cinema before Pather Panchali and after Pather Panchali.

The reception Pather Panchali got at the Cannes Film Festival made people take note of the arrival of a true and accomplished artiste of cinema. We should all be grateful to the renowned French critic and historian Georges Sadoul, a member of the Cannes jury, for insisting that the film be recognized with a special honour of citation in the least.  

Of the three in the compendium, my favourite is Aparajito (The unvanquished). I have not come across any fiction or film that portrays with such subtlety and understatement the enduring and endearing relationship between a poor widowed mother and her only son who is growing up from childhood to boyhood and youth. The growing loneliness of the loving mother and the expanding world of the son, now a dreaming college student, the bond of love between the two and also the eventual, inevitable distancing between the two are all beautifully, touchingly and lyrically portrayed here.

Once in a conversation, I confided to Ray that my favourite of the three was Aparajito. Ray smiled and said, "The film required a little more pruning but I had to rush through the editing as the Venice people were insisting on the early dispatch of the print." (The film got the Golden Lion Award at Venice – the first major international award Ray was to receive). I quickly interjected and pleaded, "Manikda, please don't touch it, it is a great film."  

The man who saw movies like no Indian before and after him. (Photo | AFP)
The man who saw movies like no Indian before and after him. (Photo | AFP)

Chidanand Dasgupta, the well-known critic and Ray's good friend, was quite critical of the film's treatment and the two engaged in a war of words to the embarrassment of everyone around. Ray was just beginning his unique journey of achievements and glory and no one could deter it.             

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) was another artistic triumph for the filmmaker in Ray.

It enfolds some of the most memorable moments of a couple just got married in a strange turn of events. Overlooking a railway shunting yard in Calcutta the two -- the orphaned Apu and the innocent Aparna -- are perched in a little single-room tenement on the attic above the winding staircase of an old building. The young man, now quite unexpectedly saddled with the responsibility of having to look after his pretty wife has to do odd jobs overtime to make both ends meet. The two treasure every moment of their being together. Everything about their conjugal life is suggested in nuances and small little details often tinged with humour.

Time passes too fast and the girl is taken to her ancestral home in the far-out village for delivery. A couple of months pass in pangs of separation and then suddenly there comes the harrowing news of her death in child delivery. Apu is totally distraught and leaves Calcutta. He wanders around aimlessly as if there was no life after. Years pass and Apu feels the pull within to see his little son. He reaches the village, befriends his charming child and walks away carrying him on his shoulders with a sense of fulfillment in their togetherness and a will to live.

Other Ray favourites

Other than the trilogy, my favourite films are Jalsaghar, Devi and the children's film Sonar Kella.

In Jalsaghar, against the backdrop of an old palatial mansion in the middle of the vast open fields, Biswambhar Roy, the noble zamindar, lives in an otherworldly past, oblivious to a harsh and changing world around him with his old and loyal servants, often visited by an intruding neighbour Mahim Ganguly, the moneylender upstart.

In his glorious days, Biswambhar was no less than a lord master and his music room was a prized destination. The most elite singers and performers from different parts of the country would come to his estate to perform in front of him and his esteemed guests.

Now, when he could no longer afford it, following the abolition of the zamindari system and poor management of his estates, he continues with his ostentatious musical fests. In Ray's own words, Jalsaghar deals with "a music-loving zamindar who refuses to change with the times and thereby gets his comeuppance."

Jalsaghar was Ray's answer to many movie moguls in India who could not imagine a film without song and dance. And here was Jalsaghar full of singing and dancing, but neither the songs nor the dances were filmy. They were unadulterated Indian music and Indian dance not tailored for pandering to popular taste. And the film's very Indianness made it popular in the West. The oft-repeated adjective used about the film is 'evocative'.

Chabi Biswas' (as Biswambhar Roy) looks, bearing and brilliant performance lend the film, told in a series of flashbacks, a rare quality of authenticity and credibility.

He was one of Ray's favourite actors and when he died in 1962, Ray is reported to have said that he was no more inclined to have characters in their middle life that called for an exceptional performance.

Soon after Jalsaghar, we see Chabi Biswas cast in Devi (1960) in the role of yet another zamindar, Kalikinkar, in a 19th-century Bengal village, who wields enormous power and authority over his family and the people around. The widower lives with his two sons and their wives. The younger son, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) is just married. He sets out for Calcutta to earn an English education at a college, leaving behind his 16-year-old young wife, Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) in the care of his god-fearing father. His wayward elder brother Taraprasad and his disgruntled wife Harasundari and their little son Khoka are the other members of the family.

Those were the days! Ray (right) and Adoor together. (Photo | The Adoor Archives)
Those were the days! Ray (right) and Adoor together. (Photo | The Adoor Archives)

One evening, Kalikinkar has a dream wherein the eyes of devi Durga are superimposed on the face of Dayamoyee his daughter-in-law. He wakes up from the dream in the firm belief that Dayamoyee is an avatar -- the incarnation of devi Durga. As he prostrates before Dayamoyee, nobody dares raise any doubts or questions. His word is final, Doyamoyee is moved into a separate room and arrangements are made to worship the new Goddess.

The water used for washing her feet becomes teerth for the believers to drink. A mendicant who visits the house for alms watches his sick child sitting up cured on drinking the padamrutateerth. The news spreads and devotees start lining up in droves before the house for darshan.

Slowly, Dayamoyee too starts believing that she is an avatar of Goddess Kali.

Harasundari, Taraprasad’s wife feels that the whole drama is ridiculous and she writes to Umaprasad to rush home and redeem his wife. When he arrives and entreats her to flee with him to Calcutta, she raises an innocent doubt, "In case I am an avatar, is it not sinful for us to be husband and wife?" (I can still recall the eloquent composition of the shot positioning the two facing each other with their wedding garland in the middle, now dry and shrunk, hanging from a nail on the wall in the background).

As Dayamoyee is kept aloof from everyone else, Khoka the little boy she is very fond of too keeps a distance from her. She is pitifully lonely in her elevated avatar.

When Khoka falls seriously ill, instead of taking him to a doctor, Kalikinkar insists Dayamoyee can cure him. Harasundari, his mother pleads they consult a doctor but to no avail. Dayamoyee is certain of her power to cure the boy and make him well again. But unfortunately, after a night's watch, the boy is found dead in the morning. Hell is let loose and Dayamoyee becomes the butt of all blame and accusations. She realizes she, like Durga, has to take the final immersion in the river bringing the whole chain of events in her nascent married life to a tragic end.

The film has often been cited as a parable of patriarchal dominance over women and its story is taken for a narrative of how superstition destroys innocent people’s lives.

In these discourses, what is lost sight of is the duality and doubts in faith. While Dayamoyee loves her husband, the innocent girl is not sure if she is really an avatar as believed by the zamindar and other people around. Also, she cannot dismiss it as mere superstition as there is evidence of her healing the sick. These grey areas lend complexity to the issue.

There is yet another angle to unravel here. Kalikinkar the widower and the powerful patriarch is undoubtedly besotted by the beauty and docility of the young girl who looks after him in all devotion. The strong libidinal urge in his subconscious is inventing and imposing on her the image of devi Durga one has to prostrate before.  

To approach the film as a plain story of superstition and its aftermath will be unfair to its auteur.  It is layered in nuances and allusions making it a complex work of art. The long opening sequence of Durga the deity being given shape to by artists and the final visarjan (immersion) of the figure in the river in the end lend the film a unique structure.

Sonar Kella in comparison is a much simpler tale of mystery, adventure and fun for the teenagers.

Mukul Dhar, a schoolboy, suddenly starts remembering his past life. It grabs the attention of the media. And Dr Hemang Hajra, a parapsychologist offers help imagining it could support his research on the subject.

The sombre and serious Mukul keeps drawing pictures of peacocks, forts and battles. He claims that he lived in a golden fort there that had treasures like gems. Dr Hajra decides to take Mukul to Rajasthan, which has many forts and also the desert landscape. In the meantime, two fraudsters plan to kidnap Mukul and take him along so that they can grab the treasure. The greedy duo kidnap a boy called Mukul from the neighbourhood but the attempt proves futile as it becomes known that he was only a namesake, not the wanted one.

Alarmed by the fear of abduction of the child, his father engages a private detective, Feluda to keep Mukul protected. Feluda sets out for Rajasthan with his aide Tapesh. On the way Jadayu, a thriller-detective writer, joins them. They go in search of Dr Hajra and Mukul who had left earlier.

By now, the fraudsters have kidnapped the real Mukul and pushed Dr.Hajra off a cliff in Jaipur.  One of them poses as Dr.Hajra. When Feluda arrives in Jaipur, he finds out that the person impersonating Dr Hajra is a fraudster and suspects foul play. In the meantime, the other fraudster who pretends to be a globetrotter hypnotises Mukul and finds out that the fort he mentions is Jaisalmar.

Looking for the golden fort, Feluda finds out that the Jaisalmer fort is built of yellow slates and it looks golden to the viewer. With this knowledge, they set out for the destination in a car also shared by the globetrotter. On the way, the car breaks down and the three hire camels for their journey to the next train station. On the train, the fraudster travelling with them tries to stab Feluda. Feluda had rightly anticipated the attack and escapes it, but the fraudster falls off the running train and meets his horrible end.

When they reach Jaisalmer, they meet Dr Hajra there who had escaped the attempt on his life and had been pursuing his search for the golden fort through many contacts along the way. Now they are all together and Feluda explains that there are no treasures hidden anywhere and Mukul may have simply imagined it along with many other visions. He is proven normal now and is no more haunted by his past life.

From my first viewing of the film in the 70s the whole sequence of the train journey of Feluda through Rajasthan with the thriller- writer Jatayu and his assistant left a lasting impression on my mind. For Jatayu, it is a trip that would provide him with ideas for his next thriller novel. As the golden fort of Jaisalmer comes into view, Jatayu pronounces in excitement and wonderment: S- o- n- a- r  K- e- l- l- a !!

Whether one is a teenager or an adult, this film is for everyone to watch and feel thrilled about. Making films for children is not an easy task; Ray has proved his mastery in this area as well. His children’s films start with The Two featuring a slum boy and a well-to-do boy of the same age competing to outdo each other. It is a real treat to watch. In the end, the poor boy triumphs over the rich with sheer resourcefulness.

Ray and Ghatak

Our conversations had once in a while strayed into film technique and modern trends.

Ray had been a very keen observer of international trends in filmmaking. When Godard suddenly became an icon of cinema with his irreverence for conventions, Ray joked that his greatest contribution was the use of 'jump cuts'. He had universalised the practice of 'jump cuts', which in short is a negation of the conventional smooth transitions from one scene to another. Ray thought it was a useful device as the optical transitions like fade-in, fade-out, dissolve etc could not be executed without the usual technical glitches inherent in the optical technology.

There is a misconception amongst a few people that Ray and Ghatak were adversaries. The truth is far from it. Their approaches to cinema were different but each of them had high regard for the other. I remember Ghatak showing Ray's films in our class and exclaiming, "Here is great cinema!" to us students. Once, while talking about Ghatak, Ray had remarked to me, "Ghatak had cinema running in his veins."

I do not think these revelations from the two stalwarts of cinema can be dismissed as them 'just being nice'.

Very few know that it was on Ray's recommendation that Indira Gandhi, the then I&B Minister and also the Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies (Ray was the President of the Federation), appointed Ghatak to the post of Vice-Principal and Professor of Direction at the Film Institute, Poona.

Ray once narrated to me an unfortunate incident connected with Ghatak. On hearing about Ghatak's death, Ray went to the hospital to pay homage to the deceased and as he was coming out, a group of young people who had been waiting in the veranda outside pointed their finger at him and shouted, "You killed Ghatak!"

Ray asked me filled with emotion, "Adoor, can you imagine it?"

I really felt sorry for Manikda. How unfair and nasty to level such a charge against him! Only ignorance makes them so impudent.

While Ghatak died an untimely death in his middle fifties, leaving behind many of the projects unrealized, Ray lived a comparatively long and active life making as many as twenty-eight features and several short and documentary films, the most seminal among them being the one on Ravindranath Tagore.

Ritwik Ghatak, movie- <em>Jukti Takko Aar Goppo</em>. (Youtube screengrab)
Ritwik Ghatak, movie- Jukti Takko Aar Goppo. (Youtube screengrab)

If only Ray had not avoided fruits...

After his heart surgery, even as he was advised not to exert himself by actively involving in making films, he made a couple of films on the studio floor -- Shakha Proshakha and Agantuk based on his own stories.

I happened to chair the national jury when Agantuk came up for the National Awards. The jury took a unanimous decision to award it the prize for the best film and Satyajit Ray the best director. There were many elements in the film suggesting it was his swansong.

When it came to his heart problem, a visit comes to my mind.

Once when Ray was in Trivandrum, I invited him over to lunch at home. I had also invited my friends Krishnamurthy, Meera Saheb and MF Thomas to join. My wife had prepared a lunch with fish and other dishes she thought a Bengali would like.

Happily, Ray liked the food and when it was time for dessert, she brought in fresh-cut mangoes. Noticing that he did not touch the mango, I tried to persuade him, "Manikda, this is from the mango tree you see from here. I had planted it and it is very delicious." It was quite a surprise when he told me that he did not eat fruits. Instead, he preferred to have mishti (a preparation with fresh curd and sugar) which my wife produced before him in no time.   

Later when I heard about his heart failure, I told myself, if only he had not eschewed fruits rich in potassium and other nutrients that nourish the heart muscles!

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is one of India's finest filmmakers.


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