Monomohon Mitra comes down the stairs accompanied by his niece, Anila, her husband Sudhindra and their son, Bablu. He is leaving for the airport. As they come down the stairs you can hear the honking of taxi horns, quintessential of an average Kolkata street. Against this uneventful backdrop they converse about regular matters, how Monomohan has struck a deal with a book publisher. The camera zooms on Bablu’s face as he looks up at his grandfather and asks, “Won’t you ever come back?” The forming of a lump in your throat catches you unawares. You do not understand at which point in the movie you begin to form an attachment with Mr. Mitra, in spite of the awkward place he had thrown his hosts in, for he does not fit in your loveable grandpa template, nor does he fit the part of the indulgent foreign-return uncle. He commands reverence when he is being funny, when contemptuous, when sarcastic, when sensitive and even at his weakest moment. It is unlike any character I had seen in any film and therein lies the genius of its creator, the ever relevant Satyajit Ray.
There are few moments in his films (brilliant, as they are in their entirety) which I can easily recall, which scream the sheer potency of his capabilities as a film maker. In one scene from his iconic Pather Panchali, Durga, on finding the withered frame of her grandmother drooped under the shade of a tree, shakes her in the belief that she is asleep and Indir Thakuran falls on the ground lifeless as her small water pot clunks down the slope hitting the rocks on its way downward. Never has the sound of a single empty pot echoing across the screen reverberated thus with the hollowness within the viewer, one which he never knew existed, and engulfed him in such a colossal sense of loss. The world stood transfixed with the intensity of the poetry being depicted on screen. And that was just the beginning. It had shown the world something hitherto unknown and the regular commercial cinema-going audience that there was another way of telling a story
The ingenuity of the director lied in his refusal to treat his audience as one who needs to be spoon-fed with explanations of everything that is being depicted. One was expected to notice the subtleties of his scenes to understand all the accompanying messages the maker is trying to convey. In another of his masterpieces, Mahanagar, Arati is the dutiful housewife who starts working in an office in order to support the household that is struggling to make ends meet with the meagre salary of its sole breadwinner, her husband. Though she is encouraged by her husband initially, he is quick to develop a sense of insecurity, as he loses his job and she becomes the only earning member in the house. In a subtle pointer towards her growing stature at her in-laws’, the mother in-law is shown coaxing her to eat the portion of the head of the fish served to her. For the uninitiated, this part of the fish is considered to be the most desirable, and hence, like all privileges in society, was usually reserved for the male (read “earning”) member of the household. Through this small gesture, the director makes us aware of the complete turn that Arati’s position in the household had taken. His understanding of the female psyche and the development of the character arc of Arati (conveyed powerfully in her putting on her lipstick for the first time) is baffling. In the climactic scene, when a crestfallen Arati expresses her despair to her husband and finally wonders aloud “This is such a big city, won’t one of us get a jobs at least?” he is shown lifting her up and saying “I feel maybe both of us can get a job.” The camera pans out, revealing the huge buildings against the Calcutta sky and the characters are shown getting lost amidst swarms of people. That one scene, even in the deepest pit of despondence, shows grit, courage, and most importantly the reconciliation of two souls, this time more as equals in the journey of life.
A creation is called a classic when its light fails to dim in the face of time. Moreover, a classic is one which gifts you a new dimension, a new learning every time, which you were not matured enough to understand or appreciate earlier. Of all the noteworthy creations in the annals of cinema, Satyajit Ray remains the father of some of the most magical ones.