The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: In the Prison-house of Humanism

in Overview
Published on: 06 September 2018


Satyajit Ray (1921–92) is no longer the only Indian filmmaker the world has heard of, but he remains the best-known. Ray’s international reputation, however, does not adequately reflect the complexities and ideological nuances of his films.  Initially hailed as an Indian incarnation of Robert Flaherty or Jean Renoir, Ray came to be celebrated in the West for his 'humanistic' focus on individuals and their destinies and for his supposed distance from such nasty things as politics or ideology.  One American admirer enthused, 'Like Chekhov, Ray refuses to take sides either with characters or ideologies; since he is interested above all in the complexly human … there are no real heroes or villains in his work, no simple winners and losers.'[i]  In India, Ray was something of a heroic figure, but he did face significant criticism from sections of the left; this criticism, however, did not really analyze his ideological affiliations but, rather, accused him incessantly of lacking 'commitment' to the critics’ favoured ideology—one variety or another of Marxism.  For East as well as West, Ray was the apolitical artist par excellence.


Over the decades since Ray’s death, the Western image of India has changed spectacularly and scholars and commentators now show a far deeper understanding of the complexities of Indian culture. Ray’s reputation, however, remains largely unchanged.  As a comprehensive Ray retrospective opened in New York in 2009, the critic Terrence Rafferty hailed the Indian master’s 'bottomless curiosity about how people negotiate the most urgent demands of nature and culture.'  Although sensing that some of Ray’s films 'might make you feel as if you needed to know a good deal more about the history and politics of the subcontinent,' Rafferty swiftly dismissed such concerns. He assured his readers, 'Ray, has nuances to burn: you can miss quite a few and still feel as if you know his people intimately.'[ii]  In the New Yorker, David Denby had this to say about Mahanagar ('The Big City'), a 1963 film about a middle-class housewife going out to work: 'The basic themes are feminist … but the family situation is captured in such fleshy immediacy and psychological detail that one never thinks of the film as the demonstration of a thesis.  Intimacy is Ray’s natural mode.'[iii] 


Ray, in other words, continues to be portrayed as the gentle humanist, a purveyor of nuance and emotional depth but an artist whose ideological position is of no great importance.  It is certainly true that Ray always denied that he made films to change the world and, unlike his Bengali contemporaries Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak, he never showed much interest in Marxism.[iv]  But that should not obscure the simple fact that Ray, in his own way, was as ideological an artist as his peers.  Ray’s narratives might be classical and his characters complexly delineated but that does not mean that Ray’s interest in human beings was all-forgiving.  True, even his most negative characters are permitted to speak and act freely, but it is that very freedom that reveals their social and moral worthlessness to the viewer.  Like his mentor Renoir, Ray believed that everyone has his reasons—but all reasons were never equal in Ray’s universe. 


Despite two comprehensive biographies and numerous smaller studies that have stressed its importance, most critics still do not appreciate to what extent Ray’s work was rooted in a specifically Indian version of modernist, cosmopolitan liberalism that goes back at least to the 19th century.[v]  Liberalism in India was never the monopoly of any particular party.  It was always a broad church and embraced champions of free trade as well as cultural critics who despised commerce.[vi]  In the colonial era, the average Indian’s prospects for participation in national politics or global trade were, of course, very limited and much liberal thought during this period was directed toward the reform of Indian society and took on strongly individualistic and moralistic overtones.  Diverse reforms were called for but all Indian liberals, like their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, emphasized the need for individuals to be rational and morally responsible for their actions.[vii]  As usual in India, different regions had their own distinctive versions of liberalism and many, if not most of the ideological convictions of Satyajit Ray stemmed ultimately from the social and moral thought of the Brahmo Samaj. 


Influenced by Unitarian Christianity and staunchly monotheistic, Brahmos had plenty to say on the reform of Hindu theology, but many of them were even more energetic in their pursuit of wide-ranging social, intellectual and educational reforms.  Women’s education, for instance, was a major Brahmo cause.  Brahmos aimed to regenerate Hindu society through hard work, probity, cosmopolitanism, rationality and respect for science.[viii]  Ray’s ancestors were prominent in this movement and he himself was briefly a student at the university established by the Nobel-winning poet and perhaps the most famous Brahmo of all time, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).[ix]  Tagore has often been seen as Ray’s most important mentor but this link has been interpreted in terms that are far too individualistic.  It would be more correct to see both as representatives—exceptionally able and articulate representatives, of course—of progressive Brahmoism in their own distinctive ways.[x] 


By the middle of the 20th century, the Brahmo movement had lost much of its intensity.  Ray himself had little patience for the religious observances of the Brahmo Samaj and acknowledged no religious influence on his work.[xi]  But Brahmoism had never been an exclusively religious movement and much of its ideological and social fervor was carried forward within the nation-building project of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and perhaps the most liberal leader India has ever had.[xii]  Nehru and Ray thought highly of each other and the prime minister earned Ray’s personal gratitude when he, prodded by Ray’s future biographer Marie Seton, rejected the advice of his bureaucrats that Pather Panchali should not be shown abroad because of its unvarnished portrayal of Indian poverty.[xiii]  After Nehru’s death, his daughter (and, eventually, India’s prime minister) Indira Gandhi, too, showed high regard for Ray and his work.[xiv] 


Ray was drawn to Nehru not because of Nehru’s passion for state socialism, centralized planning, industrialization or non-alignment with the two superpowers, but on account of Nehru’s secularist nationalism, cosmopolitanism, interest in social reform, and faith in reason, science, and progress.[xv]  In 1970, Ray told an interviewer: 'I admired Nehru, I understood him better, because I am also in a way a kind of product of East and West.  A certain liberalism, a certain awareness of Western values and a fusion of Eastern and Western values was in Nehru, which I didn’t find in Gandhi … I always understood what Nehru was doing.'[xvi]  Ray even felt close enough to Nehru to wish to make a short film boosting national morale in the dark days of the Indo-Chinese war of 1962.[xvii]  That film never materialized but Ray’s faith in the Nehruvian project was expressed eloquently in his earlier films, a fact that some critics have noted but not explored at any great depth.[xviii]


The early Ray: 'One-way traffic in time'


Ray’s celebrated first film, Pather Panchali, set in the 1930s and shot in an apparently timeless, lyrical style, seems to many to be a virtual documentary about poverty in an Indian village.  More perceptive observers have noted that the film was no paean to rural stasis.  As a smoke-belching train hurtles through the fields in the film’s most famous scene, the 'seemingly idyllic rural world' is shaken by 'the dynamism, perhaps the adventure, perhaps the latent menace' of modernity.[xix]  But the train was not the only modernist element in the film.  Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu—the three films of the Apu trilogy—comprise an epic of progress, recounted in classically liberal and linear terms.


The protagonists of the Apu Trilogy—the Brahmin boy Apu and his family—are, of course, desperately poor and their condition, the films imply, could never improve unless they left the village.  'Living in a small place makes one small-minded,”'sighs a neighbour in Panchali, and it is only Apu’s mother who sheds a tear when the family leaves the village for Benaras.  In Aparajito, Apu and his widowed mother return from Benaras to a different village in Bengal, but Apu does not remain there.  As soon as he begins school, he is gradually drawn away from the world of the village to the larger universe of the city.  That trajectory continues in the final film of the trilogy, Apur Sansar, which ends with Apu taking his son Kajal away with him to Calcutta.  It is rarely appreciated that this linear sense of progress and development was not derived from the two novels by Bibhutibhusan Banerji on which the Apu trilogy was based.  The concept of time in Bibhutibhusan’s novels is cyclical and regenerative, which is one reason for their apparently rambling structure.  'Even as his [Apu’s] life moves forward the details of his childhood do not simply fade away and drop out of his life,' critic Meenakshi Mukherjee observed.[xx]  Towards the end of Bibhutibhusan’s Aparajito, Apu strides off again into the unknown but the author ends his tale with Apu’s son Kajal being left behind in the ancestral village Nischindipur, where the story had commenced so many years earlier.  Whilst wandering about in the village, the 10-year-old Kajal stumbles into the now-decrepit cottage where his father had grown up and the narrator imagines the shades of a long line of ancestors welcoming their youngest scion to his native land.  For Bibhutibhusan, time does march forward, as with Apu, but it can also fold back upon itself; generations do progress but they can also return to the past, perhaps in tune with a primordial rhythm. 


In Ray’s adaptations of Bibhutibhusan’s novels, the consciousness of time is radically different.  The ancestral village is never seen after the first film and the third film ends with Apu taking Kajal away to Calcutta, not to their ancestral village. Apu’s memories of his dead father or sister are evoked sparingly in the second and third films, and almost entirely through repetitions of key musical passages from Pather Panchali.[xxi]  The narrative Ray designed for Apu was essentially identical to the progressive, nationalistic narrative Nehru and the post-independence generation wished to compose for India.  The constraints of history would be surmounted completely; each difficulty would be resolved by rational, secular means and the road to the future might be hard but it would always be straight.  'There is no going back to the past; there is no turning back even if this was thought desirable,' Nehru once wrote in a different context.  'There is only one-way trafffic in time.'[xxii] 


That same liberal nationalist sense of inevitable progress was also expressed in one of Ray’s most misunderstood films, Jalsaghar (1958).  A study of the decline and fall of a music-loving landowner and the rise and rise of his unrefined bourgeois neighbor, the film has recently become a great favourite among Ray’s Western admirers.  For some critics, however, it is a problematic work that comes close to being a reactionary celebration of feudalism whilst others find it to be pervaded by patrician anxieties about 'the modern onslaught of materialistic vulgarity.'[xxiii]  Ray does portray the 'self-made' bourgeois neighbour rather too negatively in his film but the aristocratic connoisseur, although presented with great care and even affection, is shown to be doomed.  Indeed, the film rubs it in with a clumsily-visualized final scene of the drunken, bankrupt hero riding to his death.  Devi (1960), also set in an upper-class milieu, was even harsher.  A landowner dreams that his daughter-in-law is the incarnation of the mother goddess and ordains that she should be worshipped as divine.  Her husband, a college-educated young man who has learnt a lot from a rationalist professor, protests his father’s action but to no avail.  He tries to take the 'goddess' away with him to Calcutta but she is virtually insane by then and escapes into a mist-shrouded field, where, presumably, she dies. 


The landowner does not get much sympathy from the director, nor does tradition.  The tenderness with which the doomed aristocrat was portrayed in Jalsaghar is absent from Devi.  Western modernity is presented virtually uncritically, with no allusions to the colonial exploitation associated with it.  The supposedly negative representation of Hinduism in the film troubled many at the time and the film’s international distribution was held up by their protests.  Reportedly, Nehru once again countermanded his bureaucrats, enabling the film to be shown overseas.[xxiv]  Even though Ray’s biographers do not endorse this story, it is easy to imagine Nehru loving the film.[xxv]  Here was the new India setting its own house in order, secure enough to face its past and condemn its irrational traditions, but striding confidently toward a rational, modern future. 


These Nehruvian themes continued to shape Ray’s work into the 1960s, even when the optimism of the first decade of Indian independence had waned.  Anxieties about the 'fruits of independence' or growing unemployment began to be expressed in Ray’s films, especially in Kanchenjungha (1962) and Mahanagar (1963), but the director held on, with perceptible strain, to the Nehruvian ethos. Mahanagar, for instance, was forthright in acknowledging the contemporary difficulties of the Indian economy—Arati, the heroine, goes out to work only because her husband has lost his job due to the failure of his bank.  When Arati herself loses her job after a showdown with her boss, she and her husband face the bleakest of futures.  Still, in a controversial final scene, they decide that no matter how hopeless life might seem to be at the moment, they would somehow survive and find work in the big city with its infinite possibilities. 


The original story by Narendranath Mitra, however, had ended, as Ray himself told Marie Seton, on a totally pessimistic note.  'Ray, being an optimist, changed the ending so as to suggest there is hope,' Seton recorded.[xxvi]  It was not simply a matter of Ray’s personal optimism or pessimism, however.  The change reflected a particular ideological conviction.  The sense of socio-economic possibility in modern, urban India was, as Sunil Khilnani has emphasized, characteristic of liberal nationalism.  In the age of Nehru, the village represented the past that had to be transformed and transcended through developmental projects; the city, on the other hand, was synonymous with modernity and progress.[xxvii]  That faith was becoming more than a bit dated by 1963—the calamitous war with China in 1962, the ensuing erosion of Nehru’s authority, the efflorescence of Marxist politics, rise in unemployment, and the decay of urban economies all heralded a period of disllusionment for Indian liberals.  Ray’s Bengal, in this period, was doing even worse than the rest of India—the state with the highest per capita income in 1950, Bengal had declined so rapidly over the following decade that by 1967-68, 80% of Bengalis were officially defined as 'poor'.[xxviii]  The optimistic conclusion of Mahanagar fit neither the original story nor the times—it did, however, reveal the persistent power of liberal ideology over Ray’s supposedly non-ideological art.


Things fall apart


From the late 1960s, however, even Ray had to acknowledge that there was something rotten in the state of India.  Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister from 1966 to 1977, a period characterized by socialist rhetoric, increasingly authoritarian governance, and pervasive corruption.[xxix]  Bengal, as usual, was even worse off, with industrial unrest, an influx of refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, Naxalite (Maoist) terrorism, and economic stagnation combining to extinguish liberal dreams of progress and prosperity. 'Intellectuals outside the government slumped into despair or catatonia,' as Sunil Khilnani has shown.  'The sense of a "crisis" was everywhere: India’s original project seemed to have fallen into corruption and degeneration.'[xxx]


Instead of becoming catatonic, however, Ray reacted with a series of remarkable but still underrated films, in which he explored the vicious new world and its denizens.  The first signs of the tectonic shift were visible in Aranyer Din Ratri (1969).  Many Anglo-American critics consider it to be one of Ray’s finest works but usually for formalistic reasons.  A story about four moderately prosperous young(ish) men from Calcutta on a vacation in a hilly tribal region in the neighboring state of Bihar, the film is indeed deft in organising its four-stranded narrative, but its primary concern is to demonstrate the social and moral failings of the urban bourgeoisie.  The witty but ultimately unappealing male characters, their clumsy interactions with the women of another vacationing urban family, their drinking, self-pity (two of them are quondam Marxists who have sold out for corporate jobs), and their callous exploitation of the local santhals, all reveal a class unworthy of leading the nation.[xxxi]              


Aranyer Din Ratri was but a prologue to the searing Calcutta Trilogy.  Comprising Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1975), this new trilogy chronicled 'the moral and spiritual collapse of the new urban India,' the betrayal of liberal nationalist dreams, and 'the death of a whole cultural ethos.'[xxxii]  These films are relatively little-known in the West and even in India, critics often dismiss them as illustrations of Ray’s inability to 'fashion a response to the radical and violent apprehension of the present that imposed itself on the contemporary artist' from the mid-1960s.[xxxiii]  The confusion, however, was not just in the mind of one artist—Ray’s Calcutta trilogy records the failure of a whole class and a whole ideology to 'fashion a response' to the demands of the cruel new age.        


This ideological dilemma is expressed starkly in Pratidwandi.  Large sections of the film focus on the debates, thoughts and ideological differences of two brothers, one a committed Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary and the other, an unemployed individualist and dreamer.  There is no doubt where the director’s own sympathies lie and the communist brother remains a simplistic stereotype.  It is the doubt-prone but morally responsible individualist Siddhartha whom Ray presents as the better human being and perhaps even a better revolutionary.  Lyrical scenes of the two brothers’ happy childhood punctuate the narrative but the film offers no optimism for the present or the future.  In interview after interview, Siddhartha fails to find a job—once because he expresses a sincere admiration for the people of Vietnam and is immediately suspected of being a communist—and ultimately, just when he has fallen in love, he does something so rash but so imperative in moral terms that he has to leave Calcutta and his lover, perhaps for ever.  An ambiguous ending, combining a Hindu funeral chant with the call of a mysterious bird that Siddhartha had heard in childhood and was trying to identify throughout the film, suggests that the young man may well have saved his soul by risking his worldly prospects, but the note of infinite possibility on which Mahanagar had ended is completely absent from Pratidwandi.      


Although Seemabaddha mordantly charted the vacuity and moral bankruptcy of the corporate classes, it was Jana Aranya, the final film of the Calcutta trilogy that revealed how deeply the iron had entered Ray’s soul.  Based on a lurid novel, the film depicted the vicissitudes of Somenath, a talented young man, who, for reasons beyond his control, fails to get high enough grades in his college exams and has to go into business.  Not having the capital to launch something big, he enters the business world of Calcutta as a humble 'order supplier,' a middleman who channels goods of any kind to big businesses from whole sellers, collecting a commission from the latter as his recompense.  Obtaining an order could be quite a feat—there was no shortage of order suppliers and why should a big businessman favour Somenath over those he already patronized?  The hitherto innocent Somenath discovers the power of the bribe and, in the end, gets a lucrative order by pimping the sister of his best friend (who was already working as a prostitute) to a businessman.  Somenath’s father, once a follower of Gandhi, sheds tears of joy when he learns that his son had got the order—and, in the light of a previous dining-table conversation about bribes, it is not at all certain that he suspects nothing.[xxxiv]


Made during the 1975-77 Emergency, when Indira Gandhi had 'suspended' democracy in India, Jana Aranya explored the putrefying world of petit-bourgeois Calcutta, plagued by power-cuts and darkened by economic misery, all-pervasive corruption and political turmoil.  Walls were spattered with Naxalite slogans, streets were full of unemployed youth and business districts seethed with unbridled greed and total disregard for morality or any kind of law.  The city was a place where bright students could be graded down because examiners were too poor to afford proper glasses, where the crooked rich sang hymns to Lord Krishna, where everybody had his—and her—price and a Public Relations man could find out (for a fee) what that price was.  Nothing was sacred, everything was for sale.  The melodramatic plot was as uncharacteristic of Ray as the large cast of often unscrupulous characters, the frenetically mobile camera, and the cynical word-play of the dialogue.[xxxv]  In his most explicitly political scene ever, Ray even showed a politician lounging under a portrait of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and spouting pernicious nonsense about the bright future about to dawn for the nation’s youth. 


In 1982, Ray called Jana Aranya 'the only bleak film I have made,' attributing that unprecedented darkness to the fact that 'I felt corruption, rampant corruption all around …'[xxxvi]  In Pratidwandi, Siddhartha, for all his doubts and failures, managed— albeit at enormous personal cost—not to betray his deepest moral convictions.   In Seemabadhha, too, insight and conscience were highlighted, though not through the central character, whose only aim in life is to rise higher on the corporate ladder.  Instead, it is his visiting sister-in-law, who shows up her amoral and self-absorbed host with inconvenient questions and subtly barbed comments.  Individuals and even systems might be losing their scruples, but society, Ray still believed, was not entirely bereft of people with a sense of individual moral responsibility. 


There was none of that in Jana Aranya – not one character in the film was allowed any true insight into the events.  The good people, like Somenath’s father or sister-in-law, were blind—or turning a blind eye—and the bad people were legion.  The film sparkled with witty exchanges but all its comic flourishes merely outlined, with overpowering clarity, the moral vacuum at the heart of modern India.  And presiding over this terminal decay was Nehru’s own daughter whom, by the early 1980s, Ray even condemned in public.  'She has piled mistake upon mistake, the Emergency being the most glaring of them all,' he told the representative of India’s most prominent newsmagazine in 1983.[xxxvii] 


The old Satyajit Ray never quite re-emerged after Jana Aranya.  No matter what kind of film he made, his old liberal serenity refused to be revived.  The colorful, star-studded historical epic, Shatranj ke Khilari (1977) turned out to be as much a condemnation of Indian decadence as of British colonial ruthlessness.[xxxviii]  The Indian nobles were portrayed without much sympathy and the only character in the film who showed even a spark of patriotism was a peasant boy, who, in the words of critic Ujjal Chakraborty, 'holds the seed of the Great Indian Mutiny inside him.'[xxxix]  None of this was in line with standard liberal-nationalist versions of Indian history, in which the British were unquestionably, irredeemably exploitative, and peasants, although good, needed to be led in the battle for freedom by an enlightened bourgeois elite.  Ray’s interpretation has recently been seen as innovative and 'postcolonial' but at the time of the film’s release, he was severely rebuked by conventional Indian nationalists for his unflattering portrayal of the Indian elite.[xl] 


Ray made a couple of children’s films after The Chess Players but even those carried somber implications.  The more interesting of the two, Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980), was a parable on totalitarianism and its defeat by a combination of technology, liberalism—and bribery.  The political content of Diamonds has often been noted, especially because of a scene alluding to forcible slum clearances during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.[xli]  But the ideological meat of the film lay elsewhere.  A schoolteacher, aided by a singer and drummer (both possessing magical powers), take over the brainwashing apparatus used by the evil Diamond King to keep his subjects docile—and use it on the King himself.  (The King’s soldiers are kept quiet with diamonds stolen from the King’s treasury.)  A near-catatonic King then helps the liberators pull down his own giant statue, chanting rhymed slogans against himself.  Was this a simple victory of rational, liberal, democratic and progressive forces over tyranny?  Or was Ray suggesting, instead, that whilst despotism was evil, liberalism had its own brutal and retrogressive tendencies?  The use of the brain-washing device by the tyrant as well as the liberators seemed to hint quite strongly at the permeability of the boundary between totalitarianism and liberalism, a theme that would have been unthinkable for Ray in his early years. 


Such ambiguities were not readily apparent in Ray’s next feature, Ghare Baire (1984), based on a controversial Tagore novel about the formative period of Indian nationalism that Ray had wanted to make even before Pather Panchali.[xlii]  But this was not another retreat into old certainties.  Pitting a liberal landowner against his nationalist friend, Tagore’s novel had emphasized the superiority of constructive, liberal patriotism over xenophobic nationalist radicalism.  The liberal landowner Nikhil educates his wife Bimala and encourages her to come out of seclusion to meet his nationalist friend Sandip, with whom she falls in love.  Ultimately, however, she appreciates the worth of her husband and returns to him.  Ray not only retained but sharpened the contrast between Nikhil and Sandip—the quintessential liberalism of Nikhil strains credulity at points.  But heroic as he is in the film, his fate is anything but inspiring.  Tagore had in fact ended his novel ambiguously—Nikhil had been hurt while trying to prevent a Hindu-Muslim riot precipitated by his radical friend—but in the film, he dies during the encounter.[xliii]  Not only does an individual liberal die, but his whole dream of leading his wife into the world also fails.  Bimala’s education and brief romance do not lead to fulfillment or liberation—all she finds at the end of her passage from the home to the world is widowhood and self-mortification.   


Ill health kept Ray away from filmmaking for a few years after Home and the World.  He returned in 1989 with Ganashatru, based on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, but translated into a Bengali small-town setting.  The protagonist remained a doctor but the people in the town were falling ill after drinking infected holy water from a temple.  Ibsen’s play, of course, is full of swipes against 'the damned compact Liberal majority,' and ends on a radical individualist note—'the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.'  In his adaptation, however, Ray eliminated it altogether, replacing it with a scene in which the doctor, hounded by the leaders of his community as an enemy of religion, hears a group of young people marching in his support and exclaims with joy, 'So I am not alone after all!'  This gesture away from individualism and toward a kind of socialism was radical for Ray but the film (which began and ended with images of a stethoscope) revealed no real rethinking of his lifelong faith in science and rationalism.  Ray’s nationalism might have weakened considerably but he was still unwilling to reexamine the other elements of his old liberal ethos—scientism, secularism and individualism.   


Beyond the bourgeoisie, beyond liberalism


It was only with his last film, Agantuk (1991), that Ray’s ideological vicissitudes seemed to find a radical resolution.  A mysterious man visits a middle-class Bengali family of Calcutta, claiming to be an uncle who had disappeared decades ago.  Having travelled the world and made a reputation as an anthropologist, he has now returned to Calcutta for a brief halt before moving on again. But are his intentions that innocent?  Is he even who he says he is?  His criticism of such liberal sacred cows as science or modern civilization offends his hosts and, after an unpleasant confrontation with a family friend, the stranger goes away to Santiniketan.  Santiniketan is no ordinary place in the Indian imagination—it is where Tagore had founded his world-university, that same institution where Ray himself had studied in his youth. 


The relatives follow the stranger and find him, not in the university campus, nor in the middle-class neighbourhoods surrounding it, but in a local village, consorting with saontal tribals and drinking their home-brewed liquor.  Gone is the exoticism of the saontal scenes in Aranyer Din Ratri, where a Bollywood actress in blackface had portrayed a sensuous saontal siren.  This time, the tribals play themselves, although, significantly, they are not allowed to speak.  The uncle lectures his niece and her husband on the historical significance of the saontals—they fought the British long before anybody else in India—and invites them to watch a tribal dance.[xliv]  In the course of the dance, the niece impulsively joins the dancers, linking arms with them and the uncle quips that until that moment, he had not been sure whether she was really his niece.    


In The Stranger, Ray was at his most personal.  He endowed the uncle with many of his own beliefs and attitudes and despite the clear mismatch of timbre, even his voice for three brief songs.  Tagore hovers over the film—the niece sings a complete song by Tagore, the uncle sings a couple of lines from another (in Ray’s voice), and then, of course, there are the crucial scenes in Santiniketan.  And yet, this is far from a simple return to traditional liberalism and certainly not a return to the genteel Tagoreanism of the Bengali middle classes or the bourgeois dreams of Nehru’s India.  If the Apu trilogy was a study of the 'sovereign subject' emerging from colonialism, Ray’s last film rejected virtually the entire discourse on which mainstream Indian nationalism was based, locating true patriotism amongst India’s tribals, the very people marginalized by the Nehruvian state and ignored by bien-pensant liberals. 


One of the film’s leitmotifs was the dubiousness of the distinction between 'civilization' and 'barbarism.'  The anthropologist uncle is a passionate critic of modern civilization and Ray acknowledged the supreme irony that the failure of civilization could only be conceived of and debated by the civilized.  Ray’s protagonist, when taunted whether he consulted an exorcist when ill, responds that he did not normally do so.  'Why can’t you understand that I am not a savage myself? … Long before I left home I had imbibed in my bones Shakespeare, Bankim, Michael, Freud, Rabindranath.'[xlv]  'Modernism sustains itself' as Amit Chaudhuri has reminded us recently, 'by challenging and berating the "modern".'[xlvi]  But although Ray’s condemnation of civilization may have been wholly modernist, he had, at the end of his life, undeniably left the Nehruvian fold and distanced himself from the Tagorean mainstream.  His whole understanding of progress, especially, had forsaken the comfortable certainties of the Nehru generation.          

Art, ideology, and criticism

It is the argument of this essay that the ideological complexity of Ray’s work has been obscured by the world’s obsession with his so-called 'humanism.'  Although rarely defined explicitly, a humanistic artist, it seems, is one whose vision is consistently above (or below) politics and who portrays every human being with objectivity and even sympathy. One might expect Bengali critics to have been rather more perceptive, but except for some appreciation of the Nehruvian dimensions of Ray’s earliest films, they have not done much to deepen our understanding of the ideological underpinnings of Ray’s art.[xlvii]  The contributions of avowedly leftist critics have been particularly disappointing.  Although they have predictably refused to endorse the humanistic reading of Ray’s films, their own approaches have scarcely been more illuminating.   An eminent Marxist historian from Calcutta, for instance, wrote that while history moved through class-conflict, Ray’s characters remained isolated, free-floating individuals.[xlviii]  This kind of statement shows how little of Ray’s ideological position has been understood even by sophisticated and politically astute viewers from his own culture.  The high prominence Ray gave to mavericks and off-message characters in his films stemmed not from some happy-clappy, apolitical humanism but from his ideological conviction of the importance of individual freedom.  One is under no obligation to approve of that ideology, of course, but a critic who shows no understanding of it is surely missing something crucial.  Sixty years after Pather Panchali and nearly a quarter-century after his death, Satyajit Ray, for all his renown, remains very imperfectly known, not just overseas but also in his native land.




My thanks to the Leverhulme Trust UK for funding the research on which this article is based, and to the editors of Cineaste, who published a preliminary version, and to Titas De Sarkar for his interest in this revised version.  My thanks, too, to Jane Henderson, David Arnold, Barun Chattopadhyay, Indira Chowdhury, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Soumen Paul, Andrew Robinson, Ujjal Chakraborty, Biswajit Mitra, Arup K. De, and Debasis Mukhopadhyay for their help and advice.  I owe a very special word of thanks to Sandip and Lolita Ray for allowing me full access to Satyajit Ray’s correspondence and manuscripts.




[i] Bert Cardullo, 'Ethics and Aesthetics,' The Hudson Review, 45 (1993):637.


[ii] Terrence Rafferty, 'Satyajit Ray’s World of Restless Watchfulness and Nuance,' New York Times, April 10, 2009, C9.


[iii] David Denby, 'Home and Away,' New Yorker, April 27, 2009, 12.


[iv] Bert Cardullo (ed.), Satyajit Ray: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), pp. 49-50, 66-67, 128, 139-40, 169.


[v] See, for instance, Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, rev. edn (Delhi: Penguin-India, 2003); Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, 2nd edn (London: Tauris, 2004); Nemai Ghosh and Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema (London: Tauris, 2005); Darius Cooper, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Suranjan Ganguly, Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000); Moinak Biswas (ed.), Apu and After: Re-Visiting Ray’s Cinema (London: Seagull, 2006); Gaston Roberge, Satyajit Ray: Essays (1970-2005) (Delhi: Manohar, 2007); and John W. Hood, Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2008).


[vi] See C.A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).


[vii] Ramachandra Guha, 'The Absent Liberal', Outlook [India], March 31, 2004, (accessed on January 5, 2009).


[viii] David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).


[ix] See Chandak Sengoopta, The Rays before Satyajit: Creativity and Modernity in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Satyajit Ray, 'The Education of a Film-Maker', New Left Review, I/141 (September-October 1983):83.


[x] For the standard view of Tagore’s influence on Ray, see Chidananda Das Gupta, 'Ray and Tagore', Sight and Sound, 36, no 1 (1966-67): 30-34.  For a critique, see Chandak Sengoopta, 'The Contours of Affinity: Satyajit Ray and the Tagorean Legacy', South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 35.1 (2012): 143-61.


[xi] See Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, pp. 32-33.


[xii] Judith M. Brown, Nehru: A Political Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003); Benjamin Zachariah, Nehru (London: Routledge, 2004); Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (London: Penguin, 2003); and Amit Chaudhuri, Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008), p. 76. 


[xiii] Seton, Portrait of a Director, 5-6; Satyajit Ray, My Years with Apu (London: Faber, 1994), 87; and Bidyut Sarkar, The World of Satyajit Ray (Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors, 1992), 8.  See also Ray’s tribute to Nehru, 'Silpidaradi Jawaharlal', Desh, June 6, 1964, 555–56.


[xiv] Seton, Portrait of a Director, pp. 50, 235.


[xv] Sunil Khilnani, 'Nehru’s Faith', Outlook [India], December 9, 2002, [accessed on September 9, 2008].


[xvi] Cardullo (ed.), Satyajit Ray: Interviews, p. 50.


[xvii] Letter from Ray to Marie Seton dated December 10, 1962, Marie Seton Collection, Section 2, Item 10, British Film Institute Special Collections, London.


[xviii] See Ashish Rajadhyaksha, 'Satyajit Ray', in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 682-83, at 682; M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 160-161; Suranjan Ganguly, Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern, 4; and Geeta Kapur, When was Modernism?  Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (Delhi: Tulika, 2000), p. 204.


[xix] David Arnold, 'Bodies of Knowledge/Highways of Steel: Science and Technology in Modern India' [1991], in Ian J Kerr (ed.), Railways in Modern India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 263.


[xx] See Meenakshi Mukherjee, Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985), 128-130.  See also Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Aparajito, in Upanyas-Samagra, 2 vols (Calcutta: Mitra-o-Ghosh, 2006), 2: 240-242; Gaston Roberge, Satyajit Ray: Essays (1970-2005) (Delhi: Manohar, 2007), 38-41; and Rushoti Sen, Satyajiter Bibhutibhushan, 2nd edn (Calcutta: Papyrus, 2006).


[xxi] In Apur Sansar, Apu mentions his sister to his bride Aparna but does not even name her.  At the end of the film, when the hitherto suspicious Kajal rushes to his father’s arms, the soundtrack reverts to the plangent music heard in the scene from Pather Panchali, where Apu’s mother breaks the news of her daughter’s death to her husband.  Ravi Shankar’s pastoral theme from Pather Panchali also reappears at crucial points in the later films, most noticeably in Aparajito, when Apu and his mother return to Bengal from Benaras.  Other than these instances,  there is scarcely any irruption of the past into the present in the films. 


[xxii] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India [1946] (Delhi: Penguin, 2004), p. 579.


[xxiii] Amitabha Chattopadhyay, Chalachchitra, Samaj o Satyajit Ray (Asansol, India: Film Study Centre, 1980), 171-98; and Andrew Sartori, Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 2.


[xxiv] Archer Winsten, “Ray’s ‘Devi’ Opens at Cinema II.” New York Post, October 8, 1962, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Motion Picture Review Collection: 'Devi'.


[xxv] Seton, Portrait of a Director, 124; and Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, pp. 126-27.


[xxvi] Seton, Portrait of a Director, p. 235.   


[xxvii] Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, pp. 107–49.


[xxviii] Joya Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 238-39.


[xxix] Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (London: Macmillan, 2007), pp. 417-521.


[xxx] Khilnani, Idea of India, p. 55.


[xxxi] For a discussion of the film, see Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, pp. 192–99.


[xxxii] Ganguly, Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern, pp. 113–14. 


[xxxiii] Moinak Biswas, 'In the Mirror of an Alternative Globalism: The Neorealist Encounter in India', in Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema, eds. Laura E. Ruberto and Kristi M. Wilson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), p. 77.


[xxxiv] Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, 217-220; and Ravi S. Vasudevan, 'Nationhood, Authenticity and Realism in Indian Cinema: The Double-Take of Modernism in Ray', in Apu and After: Re-Visiting Ray’s Cinema, ed. Moinak Biswas (Calcutta: Seagull, 2005), pp. 80-115.


[xxxv] See Vasudevan, 'Nationhood, Authenticity and Realism in Indian Cinema', pp. 109–13.


[xxxvi] Cardullo (ed.), Satyajit Ray: Interviews, p. 127.


[xxxvii] 'I Don’t Live in an Ivory Tower', India Today, February 15, 1983, p. 51.


[xxxviii] Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, pp. 241-51; Satyajit Ray, 'The Chess Players' and Other Screenplays (London: Faber, 1989); and Reena Dube, Satyajit Ray’s 'The Chess Players' and Postcolonial Theory: Culture, Labour and the Value of Alterity (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005).


[xxxix] Ujjal Chakraborty, 'Those Who Work,' in Biswas (ed.), Apu and After, p. 303.


[xl] Rajbans Khanna, 'Ray’s Wajid Ali Shah'; Satyajit Ray, 'My Wajid Ali is not Effete and Effeminate!'; Rajbans Khanna, 'Ray has Missed the Wood for the Trees,' The Illustrated Weekly of India, October 22, 1978 and December 31, 1978; all reprinted in Sakti Basu and Shuvendu Dasgupta, Film Polemics (Calcutta: Cine Club, 1992), pp. 109-131.


[xli] Cardullo (ed.), Satyajit Ray: Interviews, 128.


[xlii] Nicholas B. Dirks, 'The Home and the World: The Invention of Modernity in Colonial India,' in Robert A Rosenstone (ed.), Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 44–63.


[xliii] Tapobrata Ghosh, 'The Form of The Home and the World,' in P.K. Datta (ed.), Rabindranath Tagore’s 'The Home and the World”' A Critical Companion (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), p. 66.


[xliv] The allusion, of course, is to the great 'Santal Rebellion' of 1855-56 against oppressive and corrupt Hindu (usually Bengali) moneylenders and traders but also, subsidiarily, the British government.  Although the insurrection was far from exclusively anti-British and pervaded, moreover, by millenarian and supernatural elements that Ray would have disdained in his early years, the anthropologist uncle is convinced that it was India’s first war of independence.  Although supposedly ‘uncivilized’, the santals’ patriotism was worth far more to him than the modernist nationalism of urban Indians.  On the insurrection, see Narahari Kaviraj, Santal Village Community and the Santal Rebellion of 1855 (Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 2001), especially pp. 116, 128.  As Prathama Banerjee has demonstrated, the Santals have traditionally been used by the Bengali middle classes as ‘primitive’ foils against whom they have constructed their self-image as ‘advanced’, an image that was in part born of their own subjugation by the even more ‘advanced’ British.  See Prathama Banerjee, Politics of Time: ‘Primitives’ and History-Writing in a Colonial Society (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006).  In his final film, Ray sought to dismantle this ‘politics of time’, portraying the ‘primitives’, who had gained the least from the creation of the modern Indian state, as the earliest and most genuine patriots, whilst ‘civilized’ Calcuttans were presented as shallow, smug and narrow-minded.


[xlv] Satyajit Ray, The Stranger: The Filmscript of 'Agantuk', translated by Antara Dev Sen (Delhi: TLM Books, 2003), pp. 103–04.


[xlvi] Amit Chaudhuri, Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008), p. 24. 


[xlvii] Ashish Rajadhyaksha, 'Satyajit Ray, Ray’s Films, and Ray-Movie,' Journal of Arts and Ideas, 23-24 (1993):7-16.


[xlviii] Gautam Bhadra, 'Satyajit-Chalachchitrey Kalchetana,' in Sheetalchandra Ghosh and Arunkumar Roy (eds), Satyajit Ray: Bhhinna Chokhhey [Satyajit Ray: Different Views] (Calcutta: Ajanta, 1980), p. 105.