It isn’t easy to be flip about Satyajit Ray, especially since the films he made decades ago continue to be fussed over by film critics and scholars. Post-Ray film-makers simply haven’t managed to get the kind of critical attention that was accorded to the multifaceted Bengali director by the rest of the world. Apart from marvelling at Ray’s cinematic mastery, there’s another reason I love watching his films—for his flawed and troubled, but undeniably charismatic, leading men.
In sync: Directing Soumitra Chatterjee in Ghare-Baire. AFP
Indian art house cinema has an unfortunate reputation for being drab and dull. But anybody who watched Doordarshan’s regional cinema slot on Sunday afternoons through the 1980s would know that parallel films had their own glamour quotient. The movie may have been about the lack of water supply or the oppressiveness of traditional family structures, but it would often contain some rustic eye candy, mostly concentrated in a colourful location or a hand-woven costume. Unfortunately, most of the glamour was weighted in favour of the women. Not so in Ray’s films. He gave us Soumitra Chatterjee, and also made films with Dhritiman Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar—delicious leading men all.
Even my scratchy black-and-white DVD of Apur Sansar can’t dim the luminosity of Soumitra’s smile, made even more charming by his uneven teeth. Soumitra lit up several of Ray’s films, and especially cut a dash in Aranyer Din Ratri, where he surveys tribal Palamau and Sharmila Tagore from behind dark glasses.
Soumitra, of course, also appeared as a hero in several commercial Bengali films. I was very pleased to learn that one of his landmark films, Teen Bhubaner Pare, has the song Ke Tumi Nandini, Aage To Dekhini (Who are you, lady? Haven’t seen you around) which remains popular all these years later.
Ray used Uttam Kumar’s matinee idol looks to superb effect in Nayak, and got the pin-up to play an insecure superstar. And a few years before Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man persona burst forth in Zanjeer and Deewar, Dhritiman Chatterjee lurked into view in Pratidwandi. Pratidwandi is the first movie in what came to be known as the Calcutta Trilogy, and it drips with youthful angst about unemployment, the Naxalite movement that had taken root in West Bengal, and sexual freedom. Who better than the dishy Dhritiman to run amok through 1970s Kolkata in search of a job and a joint?
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Of course, Sharmila Tagore and Madhabi Mukherjee were not exactly part of the furniture in Ray’s films—Devi and Charulata have the best roles that a female actor could ask for. It just so happened that the actors who worked with Ray embodied elegance even while being kitted out in drab threads. Ray certainly didn’t try to inject glamour into his films, except ironically in such films as Aranyer Din Ratri and Seemabaddha. But he did have an understated, yet marked, eye for beauty and grace, which he extended to his production design, his musical scores and his actors.
A few years later, Shyam Benegal introduced a whole new generation of women to the charms of handloom saris and Naseeruddin Shah and Anant Nag. Otherwise, most male characters in offbeat films have reflected the average Indian male so closely that they are quite charmless. Only a male director (Basu Chatterji) could have directed a film (Rajnigandha) in which the beauteous female lead (Vidya Sinha) falls for the absent charms of a bearded gent wearing outsized spectacles and a stringy beard (Dinesh Thakur). Ray, ultimately a film-maker of great taste and discernment, wouldn’t have made that mistake.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org