Friday, September 25, 2009
A Note on Two Satyajit Ray Charmers...
[Image courtesy Ballygunge Government High School Alumni Association.]
One of my great pleasures is exploring a master's minor work -- often it is only in the latter, especially when one has attained canonical status, that some vestiges of the whimsical remain. Strictly speaking, this is only partly true of Satyajit Ray's work (he actually seemed to get more whimsical with age and directorial maturity), but nevertheless, an acquaintance with the Ray of less serious subjects is highly rewarding. One isn't overawed, but most decidedly charmed.
[Image courtesy Rodney Koeneke's blog Modern Americans: Poetry, Poetics, Portland. I urge readers to check out his suggestive reading of Joi Baba Felunath.]
The two Detective Prodosh Mitra films I saw recently certainly fit the bill: Sonar Kella ("The Golden Fortress"; 1974), an odd little tale of a boy who is apparently obsessed with images from a past life, and endangered when the promise of treasure associated with that past life leads to two criminals to abscond with him; and Joi Baba Felunath (1979), a more conventional detective story about a missing idol of Lord Ganesh in Varanasi, are both as compelling as fables, but in a comforting manner. One has never any doubt that Detective Mitra (Soumitra Chatterjee) will get to the bottom of everything, and the films thoroughly partake of the pleasure of detection, the pleasure to be obtained from uncovering secrets and figuring things out -- a pleasure that almost seems anachronistic to me, inasmuch as I think of it as a quintessentially nineteenth century (and English?) sentiment; as well as of the whimsicality of a Tintin adventure. (This is especially true of the older film, and Ray acknowledges as much in a seemingly casual shot of Mitra's cousin and sidekick Topshe (Siddhartha Chatterjee) reading a Tintin comic on a train.) It is perhaps the supernatural element that makes Sonar Kella the superior film, so saturated with atmosphere one is sorry to be parted from it when the film ends. But with respect to both films, Ray effortlessly manages to convey what too few directors are capable of: the condition of being a traveler. When the characters in these films travel to an "exotic" location (Jaipur, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer, all feature in Sonar Kella; the later film is set entirely in Varanasi), the audience -- no matter where it is from -- is also taken out of its comfort zone, and transported. One can only wonder how much more effective these films would be with high-quality DVD transfers: especially in Sonar Kella, the faded colors do not do justice to Ray's visuals of Rajasthan.
[Image courtesy CalcuttaWeb.]
No reflection on these films could ignore Soumitra Chatterjee, a Ray favorite. His Prodosh Mitra is a model of languidness and stylized understatement, in the process elevating dowdy dhoti kurtas and kurta pyjamas into Bengali babu chic, and generally providing both these films with the calm poise of a center. Which isn't to say other characters aren't important, especially the baddies, ranging from the pint-sized slimeball Mukul Dhar (Kushal Chakravarti) in Sonar Kella, to the fantastic villain of Joi Baba Felunath Maganlal Meghraj (Utpal Dutt) -- the latter especially welcome for Hindi film viewers who are more familiar with Dutt as the lovable presence from so many Hindi film comedies from the 1970s.
[Image courtesy the wonderful Satyajit Ray Film & Study Center, University of California, Santa Cruz.]