Sunday, November 08, 2009

Apu-in-the-World: A Response

Chandak Sengoopta's recent piece on the Apu Trilogy (brought to my attention courtesy Satyamshot) prompted the following:

I was struck by the fact that that the vast majority of the quotes Sengoopta cites appear to be from no later than 1961 — but things have come a long way since then, and this smattering of quotes surely does not exhaust critical reception of Satyajit Ray's trilogy in the West over the last half-century. Sengoopta's indifference to the continuing reception of Ray's work "abroad" (especially given that many of Ray's other films have only recently begun to garner a wider audience, thanks to retrospectives and DVD releases; a phenomenon Sengoopta passes over in silence even as he makes the sweeping statement that "[a]s Ray’s later films dealt in greater and greater depth with Indian history and culture, his western critics (with some honourable exceptions like Philip French or Ray’s biographers Marie Seton and Andrew Robinson) simply did not try to engage with the specifically Indian elements...."), leaves one with the impression that he is fighting a battle from long-ago.

The essence of Sengoopta's piece is contained in the following excerpt:

There’s no doubt western critics loved the trilogy—but to what extent did they comprehend its contents and contexts? Based on two classic novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the films were Bengali to the core, and often harshly realistic in portraying social change, economic malaise and individual growth. Although set in the 1930s, they were tinged, as Indian critics have rightly pointed out, with the optimistic modernism of Nehru’s India. How much of this was appreciated by viewers who knew little about India and Bengal? ... It is, no doubt, a good thing that Ray’s Indianness is no longer explained with ethnocentric stereotypes. Is it much of an advance, though, to strip away his Indian identity and regard him only as a purveyor of universalist “nuances”?

I share Sengoopta’s unease with the “local” being stripped away from Ray’s work in favor of a “universalism” that threatens to submerge identity, but the article proves too much: for instance, what does “India and Bengal” mean? Many, if not most, of the film’s non-Bengali viewers will not have intimate “insider” knowledge of rural Bengal either; indeed, how many Calcuttans would either? (Conversely, how many of Bengal's rural denizens -- themselves a diverse group -- will get the opportunity to watch Ray's films?) If the point is that one needs to be well-versed in the social and political intricacies of early twentieth century-Bengal, then Sengoopta should make that point (although, even there, the point is surely amenable to general application; does the average global reader of Jane Austen really know more about her world than the average viewer of Ray's films does about Bengal?) — rather than setting up some kind of halfway house, whereby the point is juxtaposed with the implication that a certain segment of viewers, simply by virtue of being Bengali or Indian, have unfettered and unproblematic access to the world of the film. That is, while decrying ethno-stereotyping, Sengoopta seems to have himself made the Apu Trilogy into something akin to "folk art", not only a Bengali work of art but a work of art that is nothing more nor less than its Bengaliness. Indeed, the answer to the question of just who the "outsider" is cannot be assumed. Taking just two examples, given that the Apu Trilogy is the cinematic adaptation of a Bengali novel (itself an art-form invented in Western Europe, and, arguably, assuming "Western" notions of subjectivity and narration); and that Ray was obviously very familiar with Western culture and learning (more so, perhaps, than many in his Indian audience) it is obvious that questions of access run the other way too...