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Essay

Satyajit Ray’s Cinematic Universe: Can Isolation Create a New World?

 By Rebanta Gupta

The Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács coined the term “transcendental homelessness” in his essay The Theory of the Novel, to explore the feeling of homesickness prevalent in the arena of modern philosophy. The ecosystem of the epic was governed by the cosmic laws of fate, the transcendental signified was ever-present to protect mankind, and the human soul found a transcendental home in that cosmic destiny. The celebrated Postcolonial scholar Edward Said, in his essay, ‘Reflections on Exile’ observes, “Classical epics, Lukács wrote, emanate from settled cultures in which the values are clear, identities stable, life unchanging.” Novel, the brainchild of modernity, is the site where this “transcendental homelessness” functions. The European novel emerged out of a changing society, where the omnipotent figure of God had been effaced, with the invasion of skepticism and rationality. Novels germinate from a societal structure, Said writes, “in which an itinerant and disinterested middle-class hero or heroine seeks to construct a new world, that somewhat resembles an old world left behind forever.” A sense of retrogression, an insatiable urge to return to that erstwhile home haunts the modern world, which suffers from an ontological homelessness. The shadow of this sense of homelessness and estrangement also haunts cinema, which has a novelistic structure. Cinema, which is engraved on celluloid, is written by an auteur, the director, who is analogous to the author of a novel. The characters of the celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s films suffer from a sense of perpetual homelessness; pangs of isolation and estrangement haunt their sinews and nerves, in the midst of a kaleidoscopic world. This essay would focus on two of Ray’s films: Kanchenjungha (1962) and Charulata (1964) and try to analyze how they create an atmosphere of isolation and estrangement.

Satyajit Ray. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Kanchenjungha (1962) narrates the saga of a wealthy aristocratic family, during the final lap of their vacation at Darjeeling. Inclement weather has shrouded the peak of Mount Kanchenjungha with mist, and a parallel mist of confusion, contradictions, unrequited desire, and unspoken words has enveloped the characters. The film describes the primacy of the father figure in the family ecosystem through the character of Indranath (played by Chhabi Biswas), who is a snooty, pompous, and authoritarian figure, who wants his daughter Manisha (played by Alokananda Roy), to marry a wealthy man whom he has hand-picked for her, but she seems to be reluctant to accept this unilateral decision of her father. William Wordsworth, in the poem Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798), had instructed his sister Dorothy to believe in the ways of nature, which fills the mind “with quietness and beauty” and “lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men” can demotivate her. But Indranath, it seems, stands vertically opposite to the arena of Wordsworthian exhortations; he is completely alienated from nature, his materialistic drive has effaced his capacity to appreciate the beauteous aspects of Darjeeling and the Himalayan wildness. When the ornitho-enthusiast Jagadish, his brother-in-law (played by Pahari Sanyal) talks about his search for a bird, Indranath nonchalantly asks, “Roast hoy? (Could it be roasted?”). He is marooned in his sequestered island of materialism, and his desire to catch a glimpse of the snow-clad Kanchenjungha is basically a competitive desire to acquire a coveted product, real love of nature is not associated with that. He has high opinions about Banerjee (played by N. Viswanathan), the potential groom for Manisha, because he has a starting salary of twelve hundred rupees, which was indeed a handsome amount in the postcolonial context of the film. Indranath’s wife Labanya (played by Karuna Banerjee) is a subjugated woman, who has a feeble presence before the domineering existence of her husband, and her subjectivity finds no outlet. She, therefore, sits on a bench by the abyss, and at the hour of descending fog, sings the Tagore song E Parabase Rabe Ke Hay (“Alas, who will live in this forlorn and alien land”), set in the Hindustani Classical Raga Kafi, which uses the notes komal gandhar (E-Flat) and komal nishad (B-Flat). The raga creates a melancholic mood, as the song touches the somberness of gandhar and the solitary bohemianism of nishad (which is widely used in the mercurial and melancholic Bengali folk music), and it reflects the alienated state of a woman, who has not had her share of love from her husband. Fog dilutes the outlines of the horizon, as her hopes slowly get extinguished and desperation reigns supreme, and the last line, “Temon apon keho nahi e prantare hay re (There is no one dear and near in this alien world)” mingles with the fog to create an atmosphere of perennial loneliness. Jagadish’s comment, “You have sung after such a long time,” indicates that Labanya’s daily hectic life and Indranath’s iron fist have isolated her from her artistic persona. Rabindranath Tagore talks about the importance of aesthetics in his seminal work Japan Jatri (Travels through Japan, 1919) if humans become too much obsessed with the utilitarian domain, they become machine-like entities, whereas the domain of aesthetics is the area where they can actually realise the true nature of their existence, leading to the experience of the Lebenswelt (life-force)described by Edmund Husserl. The song not only translates Labanya’s melancholia into musical notes, but it also signifies her urge to rediscover her real self, as she expresses concern over the possibility of the smothering of Manisha’s artistic qualities and urges after the marriage. The golden Kanchenjunga, which appears in the last few frames of the film, signifies that cosmic home, the abode of hope, which has hitherto remained elusive to the characters. But in this journey to the cosmic abode, the rogue Indranath is left behind, as he frantically searches for his compatriots, and a terrifying wave of isolation hits him, along with a mocking, derisive tune of a hilly song.

Charulata (1964) is widely regarded as one of the premier achievements of Ray. The film, which is based on the 1901 novella Nashtaneer (The Broken Nest), written by Rabindranath Tagore, narrates the heart-wrenching saga of the eponymous heroine (played by Madhabi Mukherjee), who walks down the solitary passages of an aristocratic house like a spectre. Her husband, Bhupati (played by Shailen Mukherjee), the editor of a political newspaper, nurtures the dream of expanding his business, while Charu suffers from lovelessness; sexual and intellectual dissatisfaction simmers within her. The much-lauded opening scene sets the melancholic tone of the film. The scene where Charu is seen knitting the initials of Bhupati’s name on a handkerchief might remind the audience of Alfred Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, who is imprisoned in an island castle. She weaves a colorful web in her solitary chamber under the shadow of an unknown curse, which will befall her, if she looks down at the city of Camelot. She can only catch glimpses of the “shadows of the world” in the mirror that hangs before her. Charu, like the Lady of Shalott, is imprisoned in an urban mansion, where household chores are managed by a fleet of servants. She watches the activities of the outside world through binoculars, in an effort to reconcile the differences between the home and the world. The images of the palanquin bearers, a man with monkeys, a fat man with an umbrella crossing the road- all these are reminiscent of the “shadows of the world” in Tennyson’s poem written in 1842, which have now appeared on the glasses of Charu’s binocular. But the Lady of Shalott had to pay the price for abandoning her loom and looking down at the blooming water lilies and the “helmet and the plume” of the gallant knight, as Tennyson writes,

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
      The Lady of Shalott.

Similarly, the curse of infidelity and adultery hits Charu, with the arrival of Amal, her attractive brother-in-law (played by Soumitra Chatterjee). He enters her life in a tempestuous way, which echoes the knight’s entry into the lady’s life. Charu’s isolated state makes her desperate to efface the boundaries separating the home and the world, and the entry of Amal signifies the eruption of the outside world in Charu’s domestic discourse. Ray portrays the psychological gulf between Bhupati and Charu by making Charu stare at the fleeting image of Bhupati through the binocular. He is engrossed in his world of political journalism with no time to accompany his wife, while the latter tries to find solace in literature and other artistic works. But the binocular episode underscores the irreconcilable differences between them. The camera unprecedentedly backtracks, as she lowers the device and stares at her husband with a note of derision in her eyes. This derision anticipates the arrival of Amal, who will occupy the void left by Bhupati will emerge as his sexual and intellectual rival.

The last scene, which incorporates the freeze-frame technique, is reminiscent of the final scene of François Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows (1959) where the teenage protagonist Antoine Doinel stares at the audience by rupturing the fourth wall, and the camera zooms in on his face and refrigerates time, to show the signs of discontentment on his face. Charu and Bhupati face each-other, and the latter’s heart is exploding because of his wife’s supposed infidelity. Though a note of reconciliation is hinted at, when Charu invites Bhupati inside, the frame eventually freezes, the music halts, and Bhupati cannot hold Charu’s extended arm, underlining the impossibility of their conjugal bond. Antoine’s discontentment, along with a sense of guilt, now appears on the couple’s faces, as the word Nashtaneer or “Broken Nest” appears on the screen.

Tagore had celebrated the grandeur of a peaceful abode when he wrote the song “Ohe sundar mama griha aji paramatsaba rati, rekhechhi kanaka mandire kamalasana pati (Beauty, I have laid down the bed of lotus in the golden pagoda for you, on this auspicious night of festivity)”. But Charu and Bhupati fail to construct that resplendent home, since they are separated by circumstances. They could be inhabiting the same house, but with an abysmal gulf between them, they would be suffering from a sense of metaphorical homelessness. In this regard, Charu, Bhupati, and Amal anticipate the ménage à trois between Bimala, Nikhilesh, and Sandip in Ray’s Ghare Baire (1984). Bimala (played by Swatilekha Sengupta) too becomes a victim of the broken nest syndrome, as her nationalistic aspirations are at loggerheads with her conjugal fidelity.

These two films illustrate the urge to reach a cosmic abode of love, unity, and security, which is throttled by the constraints of worldly relationships and circumstances. Charu is searching for that elusive home, where she can find her true self, and fine-tune her soul with the ethereal harmony of the universe, but her failure to touch the perimeters of that utopian abode fills her hearts with pangs of isolation and estrangement. Labanya’s personal moments of discovery through the song by the abyss marks the intersection of solitude and loneliness; solitude has a personal dimension, when an individual can explore the hidden self away from the worldly bustles, but loneliness has an excruciating and universal dimension, that unravels her marooned condition, when materialist forces have encroached and decimated her subjectivity. Kanchenjungha and Charulata underscore the desire of these characters to travel from the world of loneliness and estrangement to the world of solitude, where they can re-explore and rediscover themselves to understand the divine mechanisms of the universe. It is an inward spiritual journey, which intersects with the journey of Christian, the protagonist of John Bunyan’s magnum opus The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678,1684) who had embarked on a quest for the Heavenly City.

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Rebanta Gupta has completed his Postgraduate studies in English Literature from Presidency University, Kolkata. He is interested in Literary Theory, Hindustani Classical Music, Hermeneutics of Film, Narrative of Bengal, and Cultural Studies.

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