At the outset let me disclaim all knowledge of the technical mysteries of film· making. Here I speak as an ordinary film-goer, who has not even seen all the award-winning films. I have some bookish notions about technical aspects of the film and can sometimes Dandy about terms like cutting’, ‘panning’, `dissolve’ and so on. But this is the basic language of the film, evolving on the basis of inventions and innovations of pioneers. At this stage of history, while a proficiency in its use is expected from the film-making by itself it does not guarantee artistic authenticity. Some slick products may get across or past the most vigilant critic by virtue of faultless execution, but with utter banality and emptiness as its spiritual and intellectual capital. I am prepared to salute a film-maker who betrays technical clumsiness or lapses here and there, but who is using his medium to communicate important insights into life.
Before we consider the story of the film in Eastern India since Satyajit Ray, a glimpse of the general social background of the late forties and early fifties will be quite in order. Though it is impossible to pin down the specific reasons for the emergence of any new art-form in any society, there can be little doubt that at its background there is a groundswell of major and massive social and cultural forces. The end of the second world war saw not only the collapse of the Fascist threat and the consequent expansion in dreams and aspirations of the oppressed and struggling people all over the world, but the sense of a new beginning out of the ashes of disaster. It was one of those epochal moments when mankind feels on the threshold of a new dawn. It is no accident that the so-called neo-realist movement began in countries as diverse as Italy, Japan and India all of them touched by some major upheaval or other in connection with the War, and all countries where famine and starvation cast their dark shadows and all ol them convulsed by great popular unrest.
No doubt the message could have been put across through other media and other forms. Yet there is something in the black-and-white film that evoked heightened sense of stark realities, of irreducible objects and situations. By that time the screen in the Anglo-American West had glimpses of opulence and magnificence, But the Italian, Japanese and the lone Indian film that belatedly joined them bore conspicuously on their footage the marks of poverty and want, hardship and struggle. Such had been the closeness of the film as medium to the subjects, the realities, it captured and conveyed, l cannot help recalling a poignant observation or an early witness to the rise of the Italian school, Writing in the June 1944, issue of the Partisan Review, Nicola Chiaromonte had remarked :
“Movie directors lived in the streets and on the roads then, like everybodyelse. They saw what everybodyelse saw They had no studios and big installations with which to take what they had seen and they had little money. Hence they had to improvise, using real streets for their exteriors, and real people in the way of stars.”
But that was also a guarantee against fakery and meretriciousness. Whatever the language they used, they were one with their visions of social reality. Of course there were differences. In Japan, so long under the physical and spiritual stranglehold of totalitarian and militant Fascism there was an awakening from a nightmare, a re-discovery of human frailties and basic human loyalties, of human dignity and of the overriding need for compassion as in Yukiwarisoo and Roshomon (1951). In Italy, Vittorio De Sica’s Bycycle Thief (1951) made a profoundly compassionate study of the violence and damage done to a man`s soul by desperate poverty and want, and the nothingness into which poverty threatens to suck one in. The poverty is old, what was new was the urgent concern the intense though controlled sense of deep outrage, the intimate and searching look at the laces distorted by pain and helplessness. By contrast Fellini’s 81/2 reveals acute distress at the loss of reality in a life cushioned by wealth and material security from the cruder shocks of life.
In India the IPTA had already pioneered in Dhani Ki LaI(1946), a discovery of common humanity and common fate binding together the rural masses in the grip of famine and the middle-class film-maker with a social conscience. It it did not have much impact, it might be because the new discovery was sheathed in the old, semi-operatic techniques of the commercial Bombay film. It was not until Satyajit Ray‘s first film that the sensibility and struggles of a suffering people found an authentic image in the film. The grinding poverty of the countryside wheeling with the cycles of the seasons, against a background of ineffable natural beauty and the simple delights and heart-break of a simple existence, or the ragged and clanging metallic background oi Calcutta where poverty blends with squalor but cannot yet dominate man, come through with unpredictable force in PatherPanchaIi and Aparjito. What gives significance to those visions of pathos and horror is the unwearying and indomitable struggle of the human spirit against such shackles. What links together the two films is not only the presence of the common hero, but a nostalgic farewell to the rural past with all its idyllic associations, and an adventurous quest for a more fulfilling life in a different human environment. The sense of movement overturning old roots is powerfully conveyed by the image ol the trainD which is in Pather Panchalia wonder and a promise, a romance and a vision, and grim but familiar everyday reality in Aparajllo.
It is not for nothing that Satyaiit Flay chose Bibhuti Bhushan rather than Rabindranath or Tarashankartor the stories of his first film. For Bibhdti Bhushan projects with elemental power the petit-bourgeois masses’ democratic hopes and fears, dreams and longings of the period of national struggle for independence, and Ray shared them without reservation. The movement remained alive down to the early sixties, during which period Ray made films like Abhijan and Mahanagar But at this distance in time there is hardly any doubt that he also shared their blindnesses and illusions. For example, the view of poverty in the countryside is fatalistic: it is like disease or natural calamity, a grim fatality. There is no awareness of the class-roots of this evil. The visions of direct exploitation that we find in Bibhuti Bhushan are edited out of the film. Apur Sansar, for all its poetic poignancy is too close to tawdry notions of middle-class salvation to strike us with the power of its predecessors. In the book on the other hand Bibhuti Bhushan shows Apu‘s best friend, a noble character, turning to communism and Apu choosing a different road in conscious divergence.
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