Girish Kasaravalli says: Not all Satyajit Rai movies are equally great

Having a conversation with Girish Kasaravalli at his home in Bengaluru is not easy as his responses are often drowned out by the noise of the traffic outside. The world-renowned director has a clear opinion on the development of Indian cinema and the contributions of notable directors like Satyajit Rai, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. In an exclusive interview with The Week, Casaravalle says although Ray’s cinematic language was unique, it was missing from his last few films.

Edited excerpts:

Q: How do you rate Ray’s films?

A/ Movies like Charulata, Pather Panchali, Mahanagar and Kapurush are masterpieces. However, not all Ray films are equally great. He was unique in using the language of cinema. It was his trademark. But that was missing from his last three or four films that I call The Room Movies. Those films, such as Shakha Prosakha, Ganashatru and Agantuk did not have that touch.

Q: There is absolute realism in Pather Panchali.

A/I list Pather Panchali very high not because of realism. Ray’s greatness lies in how he describes the unbeatable spirit of human nature against all odds. He could capture what was known as the ancient world, and in that world, Ray was able to touch the hearts of many.

Q / But what is the reason for transforming the ancient world into reality?

A: He did not make films with a specific agenda. In his films, the story is not told, but it unfolds. When the story is told, you know the narrator is there. When it unfolds, you don’t know the narrator, only the inner voice. Lots of people have tried this form of presentation after Ray. But what he did was simply the best.

Q: What do you think of the political position he took in the film?

A: He did not take any extreme position. He looked at issues from all possible directions, unlike those with a fixed agenda. The purity of the ray was that it could be seen from different directions. He got the holistic perspective of the situation.

Q: He was known as a liberal leftist.

A / maybe. But he was politically neutral. He had a political perspective and a political message, but he did not take sides. This is the vision of a great man. It’s easy to take sides, but taking a point of view is difficult and very important in making a movie. When you say a left-wing liberal, you are saying that he takes a political side. He did not. But his films had political views. These two are different.

Q: Can you explain?

a/ Take, for example, Charu in Charulata, Arati in Mahanagar, and Biswambhar in Jalsaghar. He was sympathetic to Biswambar. One could say that he saw the figure of the feudal man in a sober way. But it actually depicted the fall of the Zamindari regime. This is the mark of Ray’s political perspective. It’s political, but it shows all sides. In Mahanagar, Arati goes to work against her family’s wishes. Rai took a very progressive stance on how Arati challenged the social order but at the same time her husband tried to put a pallu on her head. This is called perspective and show different angles.

Q / The sixties were marked by the movement of the Earth, and the seventies were characterized by the Naxal movement. But Ray dealt only with the classics and refused to address those burning issues.

A: What do you have to say about the 1971 movie Pratidwandi? It was all about such issues.

Q: But it was not a direct reference.

A/ It was not a direct reference, but nonetheless a reference to the upheavals of the 1970s. He wasn’t the type to embrace politics and take sides with his films. In Pratidwandi, he sympathizes with Sidhartha (a young man unable to get a job due to his Marxist pedigree), but at the same time he looks down on society as a whole.

Q/Ray portrayed women in a positive way, such as Sarbojaya in Pather Panchali, Charu in Charulata and Aditi in Nayak.

A/ It’s a misreading again. Ray gave importance to men as well. Why don’t you see Pather Panchali as Apu story?

Q/ Because Apu is missing somewhere between Durga (his sister) and Sarbojaya (his mother).

A: I don’t think it’s the right way to deal with the movie. Legendary directors tell the story both ways, so you have to look at it from all angles. Charu, for example, is the central character in Charulata. But Rai did not take the position that Bhupati Charo exploited. It was the social structure at that time. Ray saw social structure unlike many before and after him.

Q/ Did he avoid physical intimacy in his films due to heavy censorship?

A/ The physical intimacy we see in Europe has never existed in India. Husband and wife will never have overt emotional manifestations. Ray was, by and large, restricting himself from doing so.

Q: But in the ’80s when he did the laurel-Bayer, he showed physical intimacy.

A: Yes. There were one or two kissing scenes. I will not like it or reject it. Sex cannot be used to impress an audience. The kisses at Non-Bayer weren’t intended to tickle. so it was [Ingmar] Bergmann used nudity in silence. Look at the famous paintings, there is nudity, but that is not softcore.

Q/ Don’t you think a little physical intimacy would have made Charolata more elevated?

A: You can’t do that. Look at Charo’s background. She is confined to her home. The movie’s success lies in the fact that people like you think it was essential. For the audience to imagine. Ray assumed that people like you would think this way.

Q: What explains Ray’s commercial success?

A/ The main reasons are time and public awareness. In other parts of the country, the audience was not as strong as it was in Bengal. Rai and Adoor Gopalakrishnan created an audience. They have sponsored a large range of audience in Bengal and Kerala.

Q/ How do you see Bengali films after Rai, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen?

A: There is a huge gap and everyone is trying to ignore it. But I won’t. For me, Buddhadeb Dasgupta has created a kind of cinematic excellence. Moving away from tradition is just as important as taking a traditional approach. So we need to appreciate the person who breaks up. It may not be perfect, but it’s an indication that things are happening. If one were to go to the traditional part, the expectation would be much higher because people had already walked that path. But people who deviate from the path have the opportunity and time to grow even more.

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