REVIEW: DVD Release: The Satyajit Ray Collection: Volume 3

Film: The Satyajit Ray Collection: Volume 3
Release date: 6th September 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 284 mins
Director: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Victor Banerjee, Swatilekha Chatterjee, Satya Bannerjee, Om Puri, Smita Patil
Genre: Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: India

Reflecting a profoundly Indian attitude of acceptance and detachment, the cinema of Satyajit Ray is often characterised by its meditative rhythms and a contemplative quality often mistaken as being apolitical. This collection brings together three of Ray’s more overtly political films, and sheds light on a generally overlooked aspect of the great director’s work.

Deliverance (1981)
Based on Munshi Premchand’s short story, Deliverance is the tale of Dukhi, an Untouchable (the lowest of the Hindi caste system) who sets out towards the home of the local Brahmin in order to secure an auspicious date for his daughter’s wedding.

The Brahmin assents to Dukhi’s request, but first orders him to complete a number of menial tasks that slowly begin to take their toll on the ailing and underfed out-caste. The final straw comes when he is ordered to chop a huge block of wood with a blunt axe, the exertion eventually leading to Dukhi’s death from exhaustion.

The corpse lies close to the road used by the Brahmins to go to the village well. The other Untouchables shun moving the body for fear of police investigation. Eventually, it is the very Brahmin responsible for Dukhi’s death that is forced to forego all the lofty tradition, including that of being untouchable, which he holds to so dearly…

With a running time little over fifty minutes, Deliverance has the power of a short, sharp hammer-blow. It is perhaps the darkest and cruellest of Ray’s films. It is certainly the angriest. In a statement that hints also at the underlying political import of the film, Ray referred to that anger as being “not (that) of an exploding bomb, but of a bow stretched and quivering.”

It’s a stark film, with an austerity perfectly in keeping with the bleak existence of its doomed protagonist. Music is sparely employed. There is a sun-bleached quality to the cinematography, a tangible sense of heat-dizzied, underfed exhaustion that places us in the main character’s head. There seems to be a problem with the print quality, with abrupt shifts in tone and quality between some scenes, but this only adds to the effect – the way colours alter under malnourishment and exhaustion. It would be pushing things to suggest this is intentional on the director’s part, but it is an effect nonetheless.

Despite its brevity, it is a film filled with great moments. One deeply moving scene sees an exhausted Dhuki (a note-perfect performance from Om Puri) breaks down in tears of frustration and impotent, directionless rage – recognising the wretchedness of his existence, but not the social system that has reduced him to this status. The almost mythical magnitude attained in the scene involving the fatal chopping of the unyielding wood works also as a great metaphor for the rigidity of the caste system. The dark satire of the Brahmin’s attempts to move the untouchable corpse which would be comic if it were not so macabre. There is an irony in Dukhi’s being delivered to his final resting place by no less a figure than that of the local Brahmin, an event that would have been beyond his wildest imagining while he lived. But there is a brutality to the body dumped outside the village limits, surrounded by the bones and carcasses of various livestock, and it is further evidence of how little an Untouchable could expect in death as in life.

Ray never loses sight of the human cost amongst the satire and metaphors. It is anger finally that re-emerges as the dominant tone. The film closes with an epilogue showing the Brahmin already on his way to convincing himself the Untouchable never existed, as he walks around the log with the axe still embedded, sprinkling water and chanting Sanskrit slokas to purify the spot. The pessimism is leavened by the outrage roused in its audience, anger as impetus for social change.

The Home And The World (1984)
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, the film recounts through flashback the events in Bengal in the troubled winter of 1907-1908 as seen through the eyes of Bimala Choudhury, the young, beloved wife of the liberal, English-educated Nikhil Choudhury.

Nikhil, as a modern man, desires to bring his wife out of purdah (the seclusion in which married women were kept), both as a duty owed to his radical belief in female emancipation, and also as a means by which he can accept her love as truly genuine.

When Nikhil introduces Bimala to his old college friend Sandip, a leader of an economic rebellion against the British, she begins to fall under the influence of the charismatic rebel, and soon takes up his political cause, despite Nikhil’s warnings.

As the story progresses, the relationship between Bimala and Sandip becomes increasingly sexually charged, and the political battles, pitting rich against poor and Hindu against Muslim, turn out to be not quite as simple as she was led to believe…

The Home And The World is more obviously political, but similar to Deliverance in its attention to the human and the personal. At over two hours in length (although it’s testament to Ray’s artistry that this is barely felt), and with its palatial setting, the film has a Tolstoyesque grandeur, though the full ramifications of the political events depicted may pass by those not fully versed in Bengali political history of this period.

It might seem ironic that Ray favours the romance aspect of Tagore’s novel, but his attention to the love story is so fully defined that it also succeeds in dramatising the events seen on the far horizon, just as we view the action through the eyes of Bimala. It is essentially a melodrama, a tragic one opening with a wife in mourning and a funeral pyre in the background, and a character-based study showing how people act in times of great political strife.

All three central players give faultless performances, but it is Victor Banerjee as Nikhil who really stands out. There is a slightly unreal, idealised quality to Ray’s conception of Nikhil, and it is only the brilliance of Banerjee’s performance that allows us to fully believe in him. In a way, Nikhil is too saint-like for this world, his actions towards his wife and the people who work on his estate reveal nothing less than government by love, the idealism of this apparent conservative actually far more revolutionary than the self-serving politics of Sandip. That Ray recognises this element in his hero perhaps explains why Nikhil must ride out towards his death, attempting to quell a riot on his estate brought about by a cause he warned against from the very beginning - a departure from the more ambiguous ending in Tagore’s source novel.

This is a beautiful, thoughtful film - a world as materially removed from that of Deliverance as can be imagined, but no less heartbreaking in its tragedy.

The Public Enemy (1989)
An adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, Ray changes the play’s original Norwegian setting to a small town in Bengal where Dr. Ashoke Gupta has traced the source of an epidemic to a revered local temple, where pilgrims are being served with contaminated holy water.

When he suggests that the temple be closed down temporarily to repair the source of contamination, he faces opposition from his own brother Nishith, who heads the town municipality, and an industrialist who owns the temple.

These powerful business interests, fearful of losing valuable tourist revenue, prevent Gupta from publishing an article exposing the source of the contamination, and then silence him further by sabotaging a public meeting. Finally, Gupta is declared an enemy of the people whose very interests he had sought to protect…

On paper, Ray’s adaption of an Ibsen play seems a good match - Ibsen was similarly concerned with the social ills of his time, the way individuals are constrained and constricted by society’s precepts. Unfortunately, Ibsen’s dedication to specific causes, his use of theatre as essentially social propaganda, often lead to a didactic quality in his plays, and a great deal of this carries over into Ray’s film.

Ironically, when he began making films, Ray himself stated that he wanted to “remove the last trace of theatrically” from his work. This he achieved primarily through his use of location. After suffering a heart-attack during the filming of The Home And The World, Ray was forced to accept medical advice and refrain from further location shooting. The constraint of shooting only in studio is felt in this film, and it does limit The Public Enemy as a whole.

Ray had stated that in this film he wanted to play with human faces and human reactions, character rather than landscapes and nature. It’s a valid approach, but the performances, while uniformly strong, are just not powerful enough to overcome the essentially static nature of the film. What the film lacks is anything approaching the extraordinary performances of Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes in Werner Herzog’s adaptation of Georg B├╝chner’s Woyzcek, or of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. As a result, its dramatic impact is considerably lessened.

The Public Enemy is not a bad film by any means, and its themes of religious fanaticism and environmental pollution does have topicality, but it pales in comparison to the other two films.

What is remarkable about these three films, though varying in their levels of dramatic success, is that they find none of Ray’s ability to explore Indian society undiminished. Containing two outright masterpieces in Deliverance and The Home And The World, this is a valuable collection that reveals Ray to have been a socially and politically conscious filmmaker all along. GJK

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