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Ray’s Scientiphilia

June 13, 2020 | By

Satyajit Ray never made a film on any scientific theme. Yet, science philia or a love for science manifests in many of his films. But if one picks on the mention of science and technology in his body of work, one can trace a trajectory of developing ideas and convictions about the powers and limitations of science. What begins as a fascination for science in everyday life, culminates in disillusionment with ‘big science’ and a conviction that science does not have the ultimate key to the mysteries of Creation.


Apu tries out a siphon at home

In Satyajit Ray’s second film Aparajito, we witness a young Apu doing science experiments at home with great enthusiasm. He siphons water from a bucket and he explains to his mother how the shadow of the earth falls on the moon during total lunar eclipse. One of the first impacts of formal education on Apu was initiation into the world of science, into understanding the mechanism behind celestial and terrestrial phenomena; an initiation into the mechanistic worldview driven by a cause and effect chain. This was something distinctly different from the scriptural learning he had inherited from his father. Empowered by this new knowledge and understanding of the world, Apu chose to shelve the legacy of classical learning and pursue higher education in science in the big city Calcutta. In other words, western science catapulted Apu into the realm of modernity, just the way, in the mid 19th Century, scientific knowledge had catalysed a medieval society to transform into a modern nation – a nation that would soon emerge from its superstition filled cesspool and be connected to the rest of the world.

Aparajito Apu examines the globe

Apu examines the globe in the train on way to Calcutta

A small globe forms the leitmotif of Aparajito. Apu had acquired it as a child – most probably a gift from the school headmaster. The globe becomes a constant companion of the teenager Apu on the threshold of adulthood. It is a toy – a talisman that Apu refuses to let go of. When Apu runs out of the house after being slapped by mother, the globe and a lamp are there on the porch of their mud hut. Apu runs out of frame in indignation, but the camera lingers on the globe and the lamp. After a while – may be 10 minutes, may be 15, Apu’s mother Sarbajaya slowly emerges out of the darkness of the house and stands on the threshold. The light of the lamp makes her countenance softly radiant. After her initial resentment at Apu’s decision, she has emerged into the faint but steady glow of ‘enlightenment’. We know, she will make her sacrifice – a sacrifice not half as dramatic as that of Radha in Mother India (released one year later), but a quiet sacrifice to allow her son to take the path of modernity – and by extension, to take India towards modernity.

After Sarbajaya pours out her meagre savings to make Apu’s journey to modernity smoother, the jubilant Apu shows the globe to his mother and points at Calcutta on the globe. Next morning, before catching the train to Calcutta, he sees the time in the sundial and asks his mother to hurry up.

Critics and followers of Ray’s life and works, have found strong autobiographical strains in Aparajito. In this film about Apu growing out of his mother’s wings and choosing to embrace the bigger world outside his village, they have found resonances of Ray’s own formative years. Apu’s lively interest in science, too resonates with autobiographical writings left behind by Ray. In Jokhon Chhoto Chhilam, Ray’s autobiography written for children, he has written about his accidental discovery on a lazy afternoon, of the pinhole camera effect. In his lucid Bengali prose he has described, how, after discovering this effect, he turned his bedroom wall into a movie screen and watched inverted images of passers-by and vehicles on the street outside. Jokhon Chhoto Chhilam is replete with descriptions and drawings of all kinds of contraptions that were make shift toys in his childhood – an earthen pot turned into a lamp, a cracker made with a key and a rusty nail and optical toys like stereoscopes and magic lanterns. These vivid descriptions are indicative of his lively interest in tinkering and technology.

Childhood toys of Satyajit Ray

Childhood toys of Satyajit Ray

Much like Apu, Ray had started his college career as a science student. In My Years with Apu, Ray has written, “With these two pursuits (music and movies) eating up my time, I began to neglect my studies. I read science the first two years, barely surviving the onslaught of sines and cosines and the rude facts of physics and chemistry. In my third year in college, for my graduation, I decided to take up humanities.” Ray did not measure up to the mathematical rigour required to pursue higher studies in science, but his curiosity about science and what it can reveal about the workings of nature, remained fresh and alive. This healthy interest in science and things scientific has surfaced in interesting ways in some of his films. Years after Aparajito, in the 1971 film Pratidwandi, we witness Siddhartha (a modern day Apu) in a class of medical science. Siddhartha is an eager student and internalizes what he learns in class. Even though he has to give up medicine because of his father’s untimely death, he recalls his medical lessons at crucial junctures in his life.

Though science never forms the central idea in Ray’s films, Ray’s literary work, penned mostly for teenagers, is strongly founded on his scientific ideas.

Professor Shonku

Professor Shanku in his laboratory in Giridi

Two popular characters created by Ray, detective Feluda and scientist Professor Shanku, are founded on two distinct facets of scientific thinking. Feluda is the epitome of scientific temper. For him there cannot be anything inexplicable. There is a cause behind every effect, a reason behind every event. The human intelligence has to figure out the reason, trace the cause behind an occurrence.

Professor Shanku's robot

Bidhushekhar nods his head sideways

Professor Shanku, on the other hand, is engaged in scientific experiments to unravel the mysteries of nature. He is a practising scientist who applies the principles of science to invent gadgets programmed to perform strange actions. His microsonograph can listen to the cries of plucked flowers and whispers of ants, his annihilin tablet can cure 250 types of diseases and his carbothene vest can protect one from electrocution. Shanku’s laboratory is tucked away in the small town Giridi, but he is a part of the global scientific community. He works all by himself. His interest and expertise spreads across different disciplines of science. In many ways he is like Ray, tucked away in 1/1 Bishop Lefroy Road and working on the various facets of his film all by himself. Just like Ray, Shanku is autonomous. Just like Ray, Shanku believes that working with limited resources is not a hindrance.

What is noteworthy here is that, in many of the Shanku stories and other stories penned by Ray, there is an inexplicable factor at the core of the story – something that cannot be rationally explained. In the very first Shanku story, Vyomjatrir Diary Or Diary of the Space Traveller, the robot Bidhushekhar shakes his metallic head as a warning when Shanku is about to take a false step in his scientific experiment and nods his head in approval when Shanku pours the correct chemical in the conical flask. Shanku, the creator of Bidhushekhar, is surprised by this agency demonstrated by the robot. He writes, “I had not programmed this into my robot. However, many a times, my creations perform better than expected. They go beyond what they are expected to do.”

Professor Shanku and his robot

Bidhushekhar nods his head in approval

Many Shanku stories end with an aura of mystery, as if telling the young readers that science does not have an answer to everything.

Through Feluda Ray championed rational thinking and scientific temper and through Shanku Ray dwelled not only on the limitations of science, but also on the not so honorable side of the scientific world. These conflicting thoughts surfaced in many of his films. His 1960 film Devi is pivoted on the conflict between two generations – the older generation believing that humans can be endowed with divine powers and the western educated rational thinking modern generation guided by reason. The older generation’s blind faith proves to be disastrous when Doyamoyee’s divine powers cannot cure her nephew. “The stubbornness of an old man unable to see the absurdity of blind faith results in a tragedy. The tragedy lies in the fact that it was unnecessary and could have been avoided. The patriarch, responsible for the mess isn’t spared either. By the end of the film, you’ll be convinced that the barbarity of superstition takes pleasure in harassing the old and the young alike”, writes Sourodipto Sanyal in his 2017 review for Youth Ki Awaaz.

Many years later, Ray made Ganashatru, based on Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People. In this film too the doctor fights a losing battle against the rest of society in his attempt to explain to the world that the charanamrita or holy water given out at the temple is full of bacteria and is the cause for the recent spurt of diseases in the community. Political ambitions of the doctor’s younger brother comes in the way of shining the light of reason on the people. The one holding the torch of reason becomes an enemy of the people.

If Devi and Ganashatru underline the tragic consequences of blind faith, some of his other films hint at tragic consequences of science as practised by myopic, power hungry humans.

If one examines Ray’s body of work carefully, one will realize that Ray himself did not have blind faith in the power of science. In the 1962 film Kanchenjungha bird watcher Jagadish Bandyopadhyay (Pahari Sanyal) expresses his fear, “I lie on my bed at nights and think, all these nuclear tests are filling the atmosphere with poisonous radioactive gases. One day I might find that the migratory birds haven’t appeared; that they have lost their minds and forgotten the way. Or perhaps they’ve all died on the way and like raindrops fallen one by one on the ground.”

In Pratidwandi, made almost a decade later, the protagonist Siddhartha is asked at a job interview, “What was the most significant event of the last decade?” Siddhartha thinks a little and answers, “The Vietnam War, Sir”. “More significant than the moon landing?” he is asked. In reply he says, “We weren’t totally unprepared about the moon landing. We knew that it had to come sometime. We knew about the great advances in space technology. So we knew that it had to happen. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the resistance put up by the common people had taken the world by surprise. Ordinary people, peasants. And nobody knew they had it in them. And this isn’t a matter of technology. It’s just plain human courage. And it takes your breath away.”

Hirak Rajar Deshe

The brainwashing machine kept in the Jantar Mantar room

Ray’s beliefs in the powers, limitations and politics of science are articulated in bold strokes in the two children’s films – Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (Guga Baba) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (HRD). These are the only two films of Ray that have scientists as key characters. But in both the films, the scientists are more like magicians at the service of powerful monarchs or their cronies. They have been employed to help consolidate the ruler’s exploitative power over his subjects. In Guga Baba the solution is offered in the form of a magic potion, in HRD it is a machine – a brainwashing machine kept in the Jantar Mantar room. In both these films the king and/ or his cronies are not interested in understanding how the chemical or the machine works. They are only interested in the result. That is why the scientist is like a magician to them. In both the films, the scientist/magician retains his autonomy. He is serving the ruling elite, but he is not in their control. There is always a respectful distance between the scientist and the ruler.

Barfi, the magician

Barfi, the magician

In Guga Baba, when the scientist/ magician Barfi explains to the minister how to use the magic potion on the people of Shundi to bring back their faculty of speech, both Guga and Baba are there in the room, hiding behind the minister’s chair. Barfi knows this, but still he gives away the secret, perhaps hoping to transfer his technology to responsible, well-meaning humans. Later in the film, on orders from the minister, Barfi arouses the army of Halla to gear up for war and then disappears into thin air. But he disappears only after spotting the two well-meaning souls Guga and Baba taking up the matter in their own hands.

In HRD the scientist from Java, who had landed in the land of diamonds and had promised the king that he will do something magical for him, shouts at the climactic moment of the film, “Ami eka. Ami ekam ebang adwitiyam”, meaning “I am my own master. I am the one and only of my kind”. Saying this, he brainwashes the king with the same machine that had been put together using the king’s funds. Thus in both these children’s films, Ray restores the young viewer’s faith in the scientist and his science.

But is Ray fully convinced about the good intentions of scientists? In his last film Agantuk the protagonist Manamohan lashes out at his adversary Prithish, “Who is civilized? Someone who can annihilate an entire civilization at the press of a button. He who decides to use weapons of mass destruction without turning a hair is truly civilized.”  

Ray’s message to humanity could not be clearer – science as a way of life, as a personal habit should be cultivated by everybody. But institutionalized science, like organized religion, is open to scepticism.


The apparent sizes are exactly the same. Magic

In the same film Agantuk, Manamohan, who is a personification of the idea of Apu and an alter ego of Ray, makes a profound philosophical statement. Sitting under the wisdom tree in the maidan, he tells his young listeners, “How come the distances of the Sun, earth and moon are adjusted in such a way that we have a total lunar eclipse and a total solar eclipse? No wise man, no scientist has an answer to that question. It is the biggest wonder of the cosmos.” Perhaps there is a grand design behind this mechanical universe. Perhaps science will never get at the bottom of things.

The scientific curiosity that was kindled in Aparajito, comes a full circle in Ray’s last film Agantuk. But the journey continues and so does the quest. In Aparajito, Apu had turned his back to the village Monsapota and walked towards an uncertain future, holding the little globe in his hand. In Agantuk Manamohan gifts his inheritance to his niece and sets off to an unknown land. Before bidding adieu, he has a small conversation with his young friend. He says, “You have promised me never to be …..”. Young Bablu replies, “Kupa manduk” (meaning, frog in the well). “Please keep your promise,” says Manamohan – Apu. He blesses Bablu and his parents and moves on.

Click here for exclusive features on understanding Satyajit Ray’s films coming up as part of Ray@100 Centenary Series.

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
All Posts of Subha Das Mollick

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