Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye: By Andrew Robinson

"Ray is a rich and multifarious person in an age of impoverished specialization" Andrew Robinson couldn’t have said it better. Sudhir Raikar recalls his biographic epic "Inner eye"; unarguably the most sensitive and selfless work on the life, times and films of Satyajit Ray.


Legendary English writer Samuel Johnson remarked in the context of a biography: "It is rarely well executed. They only who live with a man can write his life with any genuine exactness and discrimination; and few people who have lived with a man know what to remark about him." Samuel Johnson would have been proud of Andrew Robinson whose ‘Inner eye’ is much more than a well-executed biography of Ray, who, in the words of another namesake and Chaplin biographer David Robinson, is undoubtedly ‘one of the world’s great artists, not just for the cinema.’

From the earliest memory of watching Ray’s ghost story ‘Lost Jewels’ on BBC TV as a ten-year old, Andrew’s fascination for Ray remained admittedly vague even during his Oxford film school days as also his brief India stint. It was the rare viewing experience at the 1977 world premiere of the Ray period saga ‘The Chess Players’ which drew Andrew to Ray in a manner that now seems providential in hindsight. In Robinson’s words "The warmth and urbane humour of the film, coupled with its unobtrusively innovative style, suggested that its creator must be a highly civilized individual; and its intriguing range of references showed him to be equally at home in both East and West."

Andrew’s unique relationship with the master filmmaker probably gained momentum with Ray’s congenial typewritten reply to his faltering fan letter that enquired whether Ray had ever considered writing his autobiography. The fact that Andrew had landed a job with a publishing house seemed merely incidental to his proposition. The real motivation must have been the stirring realization of Ray’s inimitable self-effacement found in the pages of the book "Portrait of a director: Satyajit Ray" by Marie Seton, Ray’s first biographer. "Without exchanging a word with Ray, I had begun to feel I already knew him." Andrew endorses the sentiment of those Ray admirers who have known him solely though his own writings.

From the first reply to the last interaction, Robinson found Ray ‘frank and informal’, a clear reflection of their special bond more than Ray’s characteristic inaccessibility and humility. As a result, we now know through Robinson about many unusual and amusing aspects of Ray’s persona including his addiction to one-armed bandits and his obsession with casino slot machines. Even in the widely known traits of Ray, Robinson’s account is strikingly value-added. "He’s willing to talk to anyone at any level but finds it difficult to tolerate insincerity, insensitivity or stupidity in a person or artistic production for very long." This, as Robinson contends, makes Ray seem remote or aloof to most but the reality is diametrically opposite. "I have yet to meet anyone with a genuine feeling for a subject that interests Ray who did not enjoy talking to him about it – whether it was cinema, music, painting, literature, a new scientific theory, cricket, the fast-changing face of Calcutta, someone he admires, or any host of things, often quite unexpected.". Above all things, Robinson consistently accentuates one of Ray’s most appealing qualities, his phenomenal sense of humour that remained intact till the very last, even in the slurred, bed-ridden 1992 acceptance speech following the honorary Oscar, only three weeks prior to breathing his last. "No one who knows Ray well would ever call him solemn; he is the inheritor of a long family tradition of making Bengalis laugh." Robinson observes.

The 400+ pages of ‘Inner eye’ begins with a thoughtful note on the Bengali pronunciation and spellings, a linguistic challenge that Robinson himself surpassed with flying colours following Ray’s implicit but qualified consent to his biography "I don’t want another foreigner writing a book about me without learning Bengali."

After an unflappably precise introduction narrating the history, geography and gravity of his personal tryst with Ray followed by a detailed account of Ray’s incredible grandfather-father duo of Upendra Kishore and Sukumar, he judiciously sketches the paternal and maternal characters of the Ray family, highlighting the chronicles of the influential ones in particular, astutely handpicked from Ray’s memoir ‘Jakhan Choto Chilam’ (When I was small). From his school and college years to the legendary Santiniketan stint and the interaction with Tagore, we trace Ray’s evolving thought patterns and pre-occupations that briefly culminated in commercial art with British ad agency D J Keymer before he switched over to independent film making. Here, Robinson unfolds Ray’s dignified authority as a profound film critic which was indicative of his holistic approach to cinema, also a great primer on the art and science of review writing.

There couldn’t have been a better description of Ray than Andrew’s. "Ray is a rich and multifarious person in an age of impoverished specialization". Robinson cites "a cynical materialism masquerading as liberation" as the prime reason for the ridiculous inference that Ray is now hopelessly outdated. Indians don’t merely share the Western indifference to Bengali and Indian culture as he’s observed; a good number of them even treasure this apathy as an emblem of progression, partly explaining their insatiable appetite for and unqualified appreciation of even the most inane Hollywood films. On the other end is a vast majority given to sentimental worship and sloganeering who are still being cinematically spoon fed by popular cinema ‘reducing them to a state of unredeemable vacuity’ as the master had impeccably observed way back in the 80s.

The chapter ‘Unmade Films’ is a valiantly informative account, one of the few outspoken records of the various unfortunate events that led to Ray’s failure to film E M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ and ‘The Alien’ based on his own script. It’s prudent to note the dubious (and hence indignant) claim of star director Steven Spielberg who remarked when quizzed about the striking familiarities between ‘E T’ and ‘The Alien’. "Tell Satyajit I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood" Robinson poignantly underlines Ray’s quiet dignity with which he overlooked such shady dealings around him including the infamous parliamentary debate in which ‘Mother India’ MP Nargis Dutt accused Ray of distorting India’s image abroad in rather unparliamentary fashion. Even though his supporters including the maverick Utpal Dutt immediately came forward to defend him, he went about his quiet affairs unperturbed, guided by his own maxim "The right people will continue to do the right things"

‘Ray as Designer, Illustrator and Writer’ tells us about his awesome proficiency in typography, calligraphy and illustrations as also his endearing vignettes and short stories including ‘Patol Babu, Film Star’ which we recently saw in adapted form – as Dibakar Banerjee’s film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the commemorative ‘Bombay Talkies’ (with due credit to Ray’s script, we hope) ‘Some aspect of his craft’ beautifully highlights Ray’s holistic approach, a great companion reference complementing Ray’s own thoughts penned in "Our films, Their Films".

Robinson’s critique of Ray’s films (as also his character sketch of the great man) is wonderfully sensitive, carefully excavating the underlying insights and analytically underlining the vulnerable links. Unlike most critics – revered and otherwise – he has no qualms either to revisit his earlier perceptions about certain Ray films or point out facts like Ray’s susceptibility in scientific matters that often showed in his films. After a preface on the making of Pather Panchali, Robinson offers detailed notes on Ray’s body of work – from the inaugural ‘Apu Trilogy’ to ‘Agantuk’, Ray’s last film. Robinson’s smart classification of Ray’s common genre films under suitable heads like comedies, musicals, detective films and documentaries and the all-inclusive bibliography at the end help novice Ray viewers explode two popular myths: one, Ray should be best known for his Apu Trilogy and two, Ray films are only about the grim and grave matters of life. Robinson’s examination of most films is undeniably comprehensive including notes on Ray’s methodical research and preparation. In the process, he unearths such intricate aspects which are hardly ever discussed even in film circles. Andrew’s book is unquestionably a great handbook for our high and mighty critics aptly described by Ray as "anyone with access to print" (and now web and electronic media as well)

Having said that, it was disappointing to find no mention of versatile singer Kishore Kumar (and his wonderful chemistry with Ray) in Robinson’s comprehensive notes on ‘Charulata’ and ‘Ghare Bhaire’, ditto for Amitabh Bachchan’s voice over in ‘The Chess Players’. Also, Robinson’s take on Ray’s ‘Nayak’, we are afraid, seems more punitive than persuasive in its argument. As he’s rightly noted, ‘Nayak’ was certainly not among Ray’s best but the phenomenal performances of support players, notably Mukunda Lahiri (Bireswar Sen), Somen Bose (Sankarda), Premangshu Bose (Biresh), Pritish Sarkar (Kamu Mukherjee) and Nirmal Ghosh (Jyoti) deserved special mention. Most important, Uttam Kumar’s act is true to life if you compare it with Soumitra Chatterjee’s taxi driver in ‘Abhijan’. Here, Ray clearly banked on Kumar’s established stardom more than his lack of ‘Burton-like real star qualities’ that Robinson points out. For the Bengali audience in particular, he was very much a ‘modern Krishna with a flute’. As far as his acting is concerned, there are umpteen scenes which more than attest his credence like the one in which union leader Biresh gate crashes at Kumar’s place seeking a favour just when Kumar is giving measurements for one of his film costumes. Uttam’s interpretation is a case study in effortless acting, especially the way he makes room for Biresh by politely dispersing the crowd packed with diverse requests, exactly like a well-meaning busy star would in similar circumstances. In fact, in our reckoning, it’s Ray’s ‘Seemabaddha’ that needs careful examination under the microscope. The concluding scene of this film appears rather theatrical by Ray’s high standards: the way the protagonist and his sister-in-law accentuate their contrasting gestures to underscore the central message and the manner in which the ‘wristwatch’ motif has been force fitted for poignant appeal. Given that Ray was a master in accurately estimating the intrinsic range of emotions of his chosen characters, the sister in law’s morality seems rather bewildering, not exactly in line with her screen sensibilities and circumstances. But that’s only a subjective argument, nothing right or wrong about it. And it does not take away even an ounce from Robinson’s sincere and studied effort.

Many people often talk of a pronounced shift in Ray’s fag end work, away from the subtle lyricism of his earlier work towards stark prose and absolute clarity as they call it. For one, prose and poetry in a Ray film is not chalk and cheese for anybody to discern them in absolute terms. Secondly, even if Ray did eventually move to stark reality as they claim, that’s absolutely fine as an observation as Robinson puts it. But some of our distinguished friends try and read more. They hint at a possible dilution or even deterioration in this shift. That’s absolutely uncalled for. It’s obvious that Ray’s failing health would have a taken a toll on his cinema of later years. That the green signal to indoor shoots came under strict medical supervision would have naturally affected his filmmaking in some way or the other. Even to the public eye, his exhaustion is glaringly evident in the 1989 Pierre-Andre Boutang interview in which he appears extremely frail, slightly crestfallen and noticeably resigned, clearly a direct consequence of an ailment-driven ageing that robbed him of his characteristic upright demeanour. In fact, we should be happy that Ray didn’t put a full stop to his filmmaking voyage even during these trying circumstances.

The fact is many people including some of his best known peers can’t accept the fact that Ray’s towering profundity and hovering versatility could go neck-deep in all areas of filmmaking (Richard Attenborough splendidly described it in his TV interview during the making of ‘The Chess Players’). Besides, he was a gifted painter, writer, designer, illustrator and composer with an impressive body of work spanning disparate worlds - from children’s literature to adult fiction, from composing music to creating fonts. To top it all, he was a simple man with an austere lifestyle by film fraternity standards. His marked aversion to public platforms obviously offered no scope whatsoever for weaving juicy news bytes linked with his name. For the ‘impoverished specialists’ among our filmmakers, filmgoers, experts and enthusiasts, Ray continues to be a formidable challenge. Precisely why they invariably fall short of the commensurate effort to delve deeper into the subtleties of Ray’s consummate work which calls for, as Robinson recommends, "a wide understanding of world cinema, Western and Indian classical music, informed appreciation of the language, literature, music, art, religions and the cultural confluence of India among other things." Phew, that’s quite an effort.

It’s far easier to capture Ray in clichéd adjectives like "Classical" (whatever that means) or simply masquerade as Ray converts to appear intellectual. There’s a vast army of Ray colleagues who deem the hypocorism ‘Manikda’ to be a necessary and sufficient evidence of their Ray authority. And then we have a few adventurists who claim absolute knowledge of Ray’s limitations in obviously obscure terms. Like those who claim that Ray was not original and hence was lured by literary revisions. Why don’t they take a closer look at the quality of his adaptations instead? How many directors worldwide are capable of such magical insertions as the madman in Tagore’s ‘Post master’ or the boy Kallu in Premchand’s ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’. Both were born out of a purely cinematic need that Ray instinctively felt integral to take the story forward on screen. That’s originality at its sublime best.

It’s no surprise then that Ray’s followers commend him and his detractors condemn him invariably for the wrong reasons. Even in the occasional discord over beliefs and principles, the stance against Ray invariably stands on shaky ground. A case in point can be drawn from Robinson’s book although the author has refrained from expressing his own thoughts on the matter. One of Ray’s leading ladies voiced her dissent in response to Ray’s perceptible hint of a possible conflict that an unfaithful Indian wife could face as a mother, as depicted in the short film ‘Pikoo’, one that would make her forcibly insensitive to the child’s demands. Our esteemed actress-turned-director has sorely missed Ray’s subtle point in her perfunctory clarion call of feminism. She would rather do well to introspect on the prime reason why she looks unconvincing in her non-Ray films, like some other Ray regulars who later made a glamorous living in mainstream Hindi cinema that offered stardom on a platter. They owe it solely to Ray’s Midas touch that made even mediocre players seem like gifted actors. With the exception of artistes like Utpal Dutt and Victor Banerjee, we don’t have many who held their own in Hindi movies. And hard as they might try, they can’t blame the formulaic, larger than life Bollywood norm for the dilution. A good actor is supposed to make any role as convincing as possible. No wonder, Ray cast several Bombay artistes like Amjad Khan, Sanjeev kumar, Leela Mishra and David for their brilliant performances in mainstream Hindi films. Contrary to popular perception, Ray was appreciative of many redeeming features of Hindi cinema including its factory-like but inventive approach to musical compositions.

Despite knowing Ray from close quarters, Robinson refrains from making any exclusive claims that often colour the pages of any archetypal biography. His observations stem from genuine wonderment, reassuringly free of the imposing, half-baked pronouncements in the guise of analysis. We owe it to Robinson for introducing us to some of Ray’s close friends and acquaintances like the multi-faceted linguist David McCutchion, eccentric uncle Choto kaka, grand uncle and story teller Dhondadu, nonconformist Presidency College professor Humphry House, India’s bicycle pioneer and perfumer H. Bose, art historian Prithwish Neogy and polymath Kamal Kumar Majumdar, all mavericks in their own right.

The chapter titled ‘Inner Eye’ and the section ‘Legacy of Satyajit Ray’ of the concluding part forms the crux of Robinson’s heartfelt tribute to Ray. As he succinctly puts it "Satyajit Ray and his films, especially his very last films, would remind us of the wholeness and sanctity of the individual, and offer us intimations, if we cared to tune ourselves to him, of a mysterious unity behind the mysterious world." Robinson prophetically cautioned us some time back "In the future, there is a definite risk that Ray’s work, except for the Apu trilogy, will become trapped in an eddy by the very breadth and uniqueness of its creator’s range of eastern and western references: neither in the cultural mainstream like Kurosawa’s films, nor in the cultic backwaters like Ritwik Ghatak’s."

It’s definitely our collective responsibility to rescue the master from the eddy of our obliviousness and short-sightedness and Robinson serves as our best guiding light in this endeavour. What more can one ask from a sensitive biographer?