Not All Satyajit Ray Movies Are Equally Good, Says Girish Kasaravalli

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Having a conversation with Girish Kasaravalli at his home in Bengaluru is not easy as his responses are often drowned out in the din of traffic outside. The world renowned director has a clear opinion on the evolution of Indian cinema and the contributions of eminent directors like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Kasaravalli says that while Ray’s cinematic language was unique, he missed it in his later films.

Edited excerpts:

Q/ How do you judge Ray’s films?

A/ Movies like Charulata, Pather Panchali, Mahanagar and Kapurush are masterpieces. However, not all of Ray’s films are so great. He was unique in his use of cinematic language. It was his mark. But that was lacking in his last three or four films, which I call chamber films. Those movies, like Shakha Prosakha, Ganashatru and Agantuk didn’t have that touch.

Q/ There is absolute realism in Pather Panchali.

A/ I put Pather Panchali very high not out of realism. Ray’s greatness lies in the way he typifies the unbeatable spirit of human nature against all odds. He could capture what was called the old world, and in that world, Ray was able to touch the hearts of many.

Q/ But what could be the reason for making the old world a reality?

A/ He never made films with a certain agenda. In his films, the story is not told, but it unfolds. When the story is told, you know the presence of the narrator. When this unfolds, you do not know the narrator, only the inner voice. Many people have tried such a form of presentation after Ray. But what he did was simply the best.

Q/ What is your opinion on the political position he took in the film?

A/ He never took a radical position. He looked at issues from all possible directions, unlike those who had a fixed agenda. Ray’s purity was that he could look in different directions. He took a holistic view of the situation.

Q/ He was known as a left liberal.

A/ Maybe. But he was politically neutral. He had a political perspective and a political message, but he never took sides. It is the vision of a great man. Taking sides is easy, but taking perspective is very difficult and important in filmmaking. When you say left liberal, you mean that he takes political sides. He didn’t do that. But his films had political perspectives. These two are different.

Q/ Can you explain to me please?

A/ Take, for example, Charu in Charulata, Arati in Mahanagar and the owner Biswambhar in Jalsaghar. He was sympathetic towards Biswambhar. It can be said that he saw the character of a feudal man in a composed way. But in reality, it depicts the downfall of the zamindari system. This is the hallmark of Ray’s political outlook. It’s political, but it shows all sides. In Mahanagar, Arati goes to work against her family’s wishes. Ray took a very progressive stance on how Arati challenged the social order, but at the same time her husband tried to put a pallu on her head. This is called perspective and showing different angles.

Q/ The 1960s were marked by the Earth movement and the 1970s by the Naxal movement. But Ray only dealt with the classics and refused to address these burning issues.

A/ What do you think of the film Pratidwandi released in 1971? It was about such issues.

Q/ But it wasn’t a direct reference.

A/ It was not a direct reference, but nevertheless a reference to the turmoil of the 1970s. He was not the type of person to absorb politics and take sides through his films. In Pratidwandi, his sympathies were with Sidhartha (a youth unable to find a job due to his Marxist lineage), but at the same time he looked at society as a whole.

Q/ Ray portrays women positively, like Sarbojaya in Pather Panchali, Charu in Charulata and Aditi in Nayak.

A/ This is another misreading. Ray also gave importance to men. Why don’t you see Pather Panchali as Apu’s story?

Q/ Because Apu is somewhere lost between Durga (his sister) and Sarbojaya (his mother).

A/ I don’t think that’s the right way to treat the film. Legendary directors tell the story both ways, so you have to watch it from all angles. Charu, for example, is the central character of Charulata. But Ray did not argue that Bhupati was exploiting Charu. This was the social structure of the time. Ray saw the social structure unlike many before him and after him.

Q/ Did he avoid physical intimacy in his films because of heavy censorship?

A/ The physical intimacy that we see in Europe never existed in India. A husband and wife would never have public displays of affection. Ray had, to a large extent, limited himself to doing so.

Q/ But in the 1980s when he did Ghare-Baire, he showed physical intimacy.

A/ Yes. There were one or two kissing scenes. I wouldn’t admire it or reject it. Sex cannot be used to hypnotize the public. The kisses at Ghare-Baire were not meant to titillate. It was like that [Ingmar] Bergman used nudity silently. Look at the famous paintings, there is nudity, but these are not erotic.

Q/ Don’t you think that a little physical intimacy would have raised Charulata more?

A/ You can’t do that. Look at Charu’s past. She is confined to her home. The success of the film lies in the fact that people like you thought it was necessary. It’s up to the public to imagine. Ray had assumed that people like you would think like that.

Q/ What explains Ray’s commercial success?

A/ The main reasons are time and public awareness. In other parts of the country, the audience was not as powerful as in Bengal. Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan created an audience. They fed a large audience group in Bengal and Kerala.

Q/ How do you see Bengali films after Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen?

A/ There is a big gap and everyone is trying to ignore it. But I’m not going. Buddhadeb Dasgupta, for me, created a kind of cinematic excellence. Breaking with tradition is just as important as becoming conventional. So we have to appreciate the person who stands out. It may not be perfect, but it’s an indicator of things to come. If one has to go to the conventional part, the expectation will be much higher because people have already walked on this track. But people who think outside the box then have the chance and the time to grow more.

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