Bengalis take pride in three names -- Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and now Sourav Ganguly -- and these are the ones who often come to the Bhodralok's rescue when they're cornered in pseudo-intellectual debate.
My dad, being a proud Bengali, wanted his sons to absorb as much of Tagore and Ray, but as luck would have it none of his sons showed much interest in them.
However, being a subservient son has its own perils and the price I had to pay was life-threatening for, as a ten-year-old kid, I was asked to watch Pather Panchali with my dad repeatedly lecturing that the masterpiece was not about poverty, but human bonds. I could not relate to what he was saying; the film had no fights, no dhishoom-dhishoom, no songs and tough to interpret for a juvenile brain.
I cursed my dad that day for making me sit through the movie and despite being told that it was not about a bunch of hapless souls, all I could fathom was black and white images of hunger and suffering. This experience of helplessness stayed with me for days and it took weekly dosages of action flicks and cricket matches to finally dispel the depression.
Today, when I look back at those days a sense of nostalgia takes over. I can't thank my father enough for his bullheadedness in trying to inculcate in me an appreciation of Ray, an exercise that gave me a faint idea about his films and who he was.
May 2 marked Ray's 91st birth anniversary and as usual I am late in penning a few thoughts on him and his films.
I don't intend to wax eloquent on the legendary director, who gave us unforgettable treasures like the 'Apu Trilogy' and 'Charulata', but to counter the accusations that Ray 'exported' India's poverty through his films, although some of these were the finest pieces of cinema emerge from the country.
Many found Ray's portrayal of India's poverty gross and distasteful, but my question is 'does poverty not exist in this country?'
The first film of the Apu trilogy, 'Pather Panchali', released on August 26, 1955 -- just a few years after India's independence, when the nation was in a state of chaos and poverty was a way of life. So how was Ray supposed to show a rosy India to the world when the state of affairs was the exact opposite?
I do agree that the first of Ray's 'Apu trilogy' did portray poverty and starvation, but what we need to understand is that 'Pather Panchali' was set in rural Bengal where even today many are devoid of the basic necessities of life. 'Pather Panchali' narrates the lives of young Apu and his family in Bengal where they live in abject poverty as Apu's father earns a meagre living as a priest who, is easily and routinely exploited by village folk.
So what did Ray's detractors expect to see? Flashy cars not decrepit houses, decked up ladies not women in tatters, fancy mood lighting not kerosene-fuelled lamps?
People tend to forget that the movie, though threaded in misery still had sparkling moments of joy that brought a smile to the viewer's face. The scene in which kids try to steal sweets from the mithaiwalla, or the one where Durga and Apu go to see a train, or the small picnics where the village kids gather for a small party more than offset the grimy subject, breaking the elitist belief that happiness is a prop for only the rich.
This is what made Ray stand apart from others as he, in his own subtle ways, challenged the authority, blind faith and cast-in-iron rules that had become a part of our lives.
The old aunt portrayed by a lovely 80-year-old Chunibala Devi, who stays with Apu's family, is always treated as a burden due to lack of resources, but always manages to paint a smile on her face when offered a stolen guava by her niece, Durga. She is a cranky old lady who is deeply attached to the family and prefers to live with them despite being ostracized many a time by Apu's mother, and mutters her way out of any problem. The scene where she musters up the courage to take on Apu's mother when she thrashes Durga, for stealing a necklace, is heart-wrenching.
In another scene, when the aunt sees her niece eating fish a sense of greed overwhelms her but the very next moment it fades away as she realizes that she is a widow and has had to renounce all worldly pleasures; this was and still is the trend in many parts of our country. Ray again breaks away from the traditional to challenge customs and beliefs. In the old aunt, Ray shows how someone can suppress their rants in the fight to live.
Even when Ray shows poverty in 'Pather Panchali', it never becomes the cornerstone of the film. Much of Ray's work has been judged on the 'Apu trilogy' and seeing nothing but poverty in them is like missing the core of the story.
In 'Pather Panchali', all the auteur wanted to do was debunk the myth that poverty is only about unhappiness. Ray won international accolades for the film, not because he showed India's poverty to the world but because the film was about hope in the face of abject impoverishment.
Ray portrayed reality. His films 'Charulata' and 'Ghare Baire' depicted rich zamindar families, 'Nayak' was about a film star, 'Ganashatru' was about corruption, 'Devi' was about blind faith. . . . a majority of the films he made touched various themes and issues. Poverty was just one of the subjects which the master used as a means of illuminating the human condition.