From December 4 to January 8, the Austrian Filmmuseum presented a retrospective of the early works by famous Indian director Satyajit Ray. Not only did it show a complete overview of Ray's work from 1955 to 1965, but also some of the most spectacular works in the history of world cinema that were shot in India. I got completely lost inside the cinema and once again the strange force of the screen has taken me on a trip to different places, different feelings and different times.
One of the most famous films shown was Jean Renoir's The River, a film that many filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese cite as one of their favorite films ever. Seeing this colorful cinematic innocence projected on film was not only a great pleasure but it also allowed a critical reevaluation as it was presented next to completely different works playing inside the same cultural borders.
Ray himself was Renoir's assistant director and with his well known debut feature Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) feels he made a move Renoir might have been heavily envious of. It is a quiet but brutal observation of childhood, love and family. It became known as the first part of the so-called Apu Trilogy about the eponymous protagonist (who is for a long time more of an observer than a real protagonist) but it perfectly works as a film in its own right. It is one of the purest achievements in the history of film.
But in relation to Renoir's take on a foreign culture it also asks the question that many films in the program tended to provoke: What are the differences in representation when a culture is looked at from a foreign perspective (Renoir, Rossellini, Malle amongst others) and when it is looked at from an artist who is part of this culture?
There are two answers to this question. The first one is that of course, there is no such thing as a fair and total take on any subject. There is always subjectivity and a certain point-of-view involved but presenting films from outsiders next to Ray's work certainly helped a lot in getting a glimpse of truth. In his political fairy-tale comedy Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone) and in the second part of his Apu Trilogy, Aparajito (The Unvanquished), Ray shows his birth place Calcutta. But he is more interested in global topics such as family and relationships than in showing the social problems of the place.
That does not mean that Ray ignores them. He just makes them part of his plots. Many problems for the protagonist appear due to a certain social structure and political problems. But compared to Louis Malle's Calcutta, Ray's movies almost seem to be tame.
Malle went to Calcutta shooting a film that is so loaded with images of poverty, suffering and social injustice that one gets almost slayed by the sheer misery. There is certainly a harsh truth to the documentary of Malle that one cannot ignore but on the other hand it is thought provoking that Ray's films always have an element of dignity within misery.
The other answer to the question is much simpler: Forest of Bliss by Robert Gardner. In this documentary about the cremation processes in Benares, there is no dialogue, there is no commentary, there are no explanations. If one searches for protagonists one might find a few recurring characters but they are just part of daily observations.
The ethnographical filmmaker Gardner brings cinema back to a true innocence where it is all about watching and hearing. It simply exists and one gets drawn into this different world by the power of cinema and beyond any cultural preoccupations. It was a fascinating experience that really felt like being somewhere else.
Being out of a Bengali artist family Ray is never shy to make jokes on his culture. As with the great directors of Italian Neorealism it is astonishing how well Ray was able to portray poverty although he never faced it. Sometimes he feels a tad too intellectual facing his existential topics like in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). But when he portrays decadence and superstition like in Jalsaghar (The Music Room) and Devi (The Goddess) he truly finds himself.
Mirrors, poetic tracking shots, a minimalistic yet effective use of light and a perfected use of deep focus make every single one of his early films a cinematic explosion. The way he treats sound and music is unique. Ravi Shankar's music beats at the heart of Apu, it seems to feel menace, suffering and joy always a few moments before they appear and therefore work as a completely independent device in the cinema of Satyajit Ray.
In Jalsaghar, there is a dancing sequence of rarely-seen beauty. It appears in the midst of a decaying feeling of death and desperation and therefore deeply touches anyone who is ready to get involved. In Devi, Ray always hovers in the fashion of Carl Theodor Dreyer between his characters and never touches them. Today I was made aware that the reincarnation of the mother appearing in the film is the very same actress that dies in Apur Sansar.
Ray's answer to poverty is dignity and his answer to richness is decay, his answer to faith is superstition and his answer to his culture is film. And the same is true for all the directors coming from different cultures.
Poetry and misery are going hand in hand and Roberto Rossellini maybe found the best scene to describe this paradox in his India: Matri Bhumi when a tragic ape defends his dying master in the desert against approaching vultures.
As there were many more films I was able to watch (some surprising genre films by Ray) and I have written way too much it is time for me to leave India again. In almost all the films shown, tribute was paid to the Buddhist circle of life by ending more or less where they began, so I want to return to Renoir's The River. The best scenes of the film are those glimpses of daily live that appear as if a child was watching something new. The same was true for me.
And therefore my secret favorite of the retrospective was a short film called (Calcutta) GO by Hans Schleugl. It was merely a phantom ride through Calcutta and it felt like finally sitting in my father's car again and watching the world from the back seat.