Satyajit Ray’s Sakha Prosakha: A Critic of Contemporary Ethics
Ray’s preoccupation with truth, beauty and goodness is destined to survive because it essentially presents a human programme, man’s perpetual struggle to become human.
Like any other serious artist, Satyajit Ray has never been either a mere entertainer or a pure fantasist. A modern humanist that he is, he usually holds the balance even between aesthetics and ethics, and thereby eschews the twin evils of propaganda and didacticism.
The last phase of his long directorial career, however, shows two noticeable changes. First, instead of cinematizing others’ writings, he opts to script his last two films, namely Shakha Prosakha and Agantuk. Second he foregrounds in them ethical and metaphysical issues. Presumably his burning desire to achieve the fullest possible self-realization inspires this dual shift.
Shakha Prosakha was produced in 1990; Agantuk in 1991, the heyday of postmodernism. Arguably they reflect Ray’s response to this new socio-cultural phenomenon. I am not aware of Ray’s published comments on postmodernism as I am of Amitav Ghosh’s. As Ghosh is a modern humanist and also a Ray enthusiast, his critique of postmodernism may do duty for contextualizing the present topic.
As Ray’s, so Ghosh’s first commitment is to his art. The question that has engaged Ghosh a lot is whether this commitment to art can be exclusive of all other commitments.
Dzevad Karahasan’s essay “Literature and War” prompts Ghosh to spell out his idea of the relations between ethics and aesthetics. Karahasan holds that “The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon ─ completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth ─ is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world” (quoted in The Imam and the Indian, 60).
What Karahasan identifies as the contemporary trend, Patricia Waugh conceptualizes as the postmodernist project of pan-aestheticization: “Postmodern theory can be seen and understood as the latest version of a long-standing attempt to address social and political issues through an aestheticised view of the world, though it may be more thoroughly aestheticising than any previous body of thought” (6).
Ghosh is strongly opposed to this replacement of ethics by aesthetics, to the consequent “aesthetic of indifference”, and to the sacrifice of “goodness and truth”. As a conscientious artist, he is all for “the affirmation of humanity” (The Imam and the Indian, 61), and for art’s moral responsibility. On this issue, Ray is at one with him. Predictably Ghosh totally repudiates the “logic of late capitalism” and the ethics of consumerism, which together underpin the ethics of postmodernism. He argues that,
the market ideal as a cultural absolute, untempered by any other ethical, political, or spiritual ideals, is often so inhuman and predatory in its effects that it cannot but generate dissent. It is simply not conceivable that the majority of human beings will ever willingly give their assent to the idea that the search for profit should be the sole or central organizing principle of society. (The Imam and the Indian, 285)
Less theoretical than Ghosh, Ray nevertheless perceives the canker of inexorable materialism eating into the foundations of our long-cherished ethical values:
Looking around me I feel that the old values of personal integrity, loyalty, liberalism, rationalism, and fair play are all completely gone. People accept corruption as a way of life, as a method of getting along, as a necessary evil.
Incisive is Ray’s insight that consumerism begins by blunting sensibility and ends up by smothering conscience:
In acquiring material comforts you grow numb with placid acceptance. Maybe you resist in the beginning. But the internal and external pressures crowd to a point where you learn to overlook the moral decline they spell. (qtd. in Robinson, 340)
Now we turn to Ray’s concrete, cinematic handling of these abstract ethical issues.
The central figure in Shakha Prasakha is Anandamohan. An unflinching idealist, he was a philanthropic captain of industry who rose from rags to riches. He lived and worked by the twin gospels of “Work is worship” and “Honesty is the best policy”. Before he retired, he did so much for the welfare of his employees and for the all-round development of the locality that the beneficiaries gratefully named the place after him. He lives his retired life with his second son, Prashanta, a prodigy reduced to a mental patient by an accident in London.
Of his other three sons, Probodh, the eldest, is the general manager of a big company, Prabir, the third, is a businessman and Pratap, the fourth, holds a good position in a corporate house. Naturally they live away from their parental home. The old father nurses the fond belief that his successful sons follow his lofty ideals. In any case, he himself does not agree “when people say that a person can’t stay on the path of truth and honesty”.
Anandamohan’s sudden critical illness brings together his scattered family. The four brothers occupy different positions on the moral spectrum. Himself a teetotaller, Probodh nevertheless treats his rich guests to expensive foreign liquors. He uses his clean public image as a cover for his corrupt practices. He is such an astute role-player that his middle-aged wife looks upto him as a model of probity.
In contrast, Prabir is a known gambler and drunkard. The unctuous Probodh’s taunt at the dining table provokes him to unmask his elder brother in presence of other brothers, their two wives and a young boy. Prabir argues that however large his salary, Probodh cannot own two palatial houses and two air-conditioned cars, maintain his grand lifestyle and host lavish parties without access to a large amount of illegal money.
Probodh avoids rebutting the accusation. But what he says in self-defence to his wife amounts to admitting the charge: “The way father defined them (truth and honesty) there’s no place for them”. He is both immoral and heartless. He betrays himself when he responds to his nonagenarian grandfather with the ejaculation “Such a useless existence”.
It is, therefore, not at all surprising that he would like Prashanta, his lonely father’s only companion, to be sent to a mental asylum. That he has come to visit his ailing father more out of a sense of duty and propriety than out of any warmth of heart is evident from his impatience to return to his work.
Prabir’s candour contrasts with Probodh’s hypocrisy. His father forced him to go into business at an early age. At the same time he started drinking and gambling. Pique at his father’s presumed discrimination kills all his filial love. He looks forward to his father’s death so that with his inheritance he can pay off his debts. The dissolute Prabir is something of a philistine. Unable to share Prashanta’s passion for Western music, he dismisses Bach as “rubbish”. Unlike the self-righteous and so irredeemable Probodh, the contrite Prabir admits that he has been unfair to his father and to his wife. He promises to her to reform himself.
A mental patient, Prashanta is cut off from the workaday world. Not required to earn a living, he is not exposed to any temptation. Exempt from the pressure of social living, he is absolutely free from any taint of hypocrisy. The motor accident in London has affected only his surface consciousness, but not his sensitivity to the deeper rhythms of life. He is, like Ralph Touchett in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, a mere spectator “at the game of life”.
In his own way, he is deeply alive to the goings-on around him. Thus when Probodh and Prabir engage in exposing each other’s misdeeds, he bangs the table to express his disgust. His passion for Western music is deeply significant. Music is the purest of all arts. Its appreciation is the most disinterested of all pursuits. For Prashanta music acts as a stilling, transforming agent: “The tunes of the songs, those melodious tunes, they make home in the heart”. His love for his father is as pure and profound as his love for music. The irony is that this mad, and so failed, son ultimately appears to his father the only upholder of his pure and therefore unpractical idealism.
In the film’s variegated character scheme, Prashanta and Pratap are intended to be the two foils to Probodh and Prabir, one passive and the other active. Far from succumbing to the seduction of a fast buck, Pratap first protests against his colleague’s fraudulence. Then realizing that he has to choose between his ideals and his job, he chucks it. He enters instead upon the uncertain career of a thespian to preserve intact his moral integrity. He gives vent to his moral indignation to his elder brothers: “The moral code of today’s professional world, the values, or the ethics, whatever you might say, I couldn’t accept them”.
Pratap thus combines in him both the idealism and the indomitable will of his father. He is thus his true torchbearer, though unknown to him. It is worth noting that Ray pits Prashanta and Pratap, the two votaries of the Muses, against the Mammon-worshipping Probodh and Prabir. The unmistakable implication is that when all other sources of spiritual values dry up, the arts alone continue to function as their fount.
Ray’s exalted idea of Indian womanhood is well reflected in his portrayal of the noble wives of the ignoble Probodh and Prabir. The warm-hearted Uma is Probodh’s polar opposite. Unlike her husband, she is caring about her senile grandfather-in-law and looks him up. A measure of her solicitude for her convalescing father-in-law is that she is reluctant to leave him. With her feminine sensitivity, she perceives a profound change in Anandamohan’s countenance at the time of leave-taking.
Uma is good but docile. In contrast, Tapati, Prabir’s wife, is a modern emancipated woman. She tells him to his face that though they married for love, they are mentally poles apart. She is as critical of Prabir’s profligacy as she is appreciative of Pratap’s spirited stand against corruption. Sister of a music-loving brother and herself a singer, she admires Prashanta’s passion for music which Prabir detests. In her love-starved life, Pratap’s affection for her has been a balm. But the real pivot of her life is her son: “Right now my biggest priority is bringing up my son”.
Ray remarked in an interview that the duty-conscious Indian women can triumph over all temptations. Uma and Tapati show this in action. The two wives and their husbands work out the dialectic of the home and the world as enunciated by Partha Chatterjee:
The world is the external, the domain of the material; the home represents one’s inner spiritual self, one’s true identity. The world is a treacherous terrain of the pursuit of material interests, where practical considerations reign supreme. It is also typically the domain of the male. The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world − and woman is its representation. (Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments, 120)
Ray very subtly uses the child’s innocent prattle to acquaint Anandamohan with his sons’ corrupt way of life. In a bid to dazzle his grandfather with the range of his knowledge, he blurts out amidst other things that he knows “No.2”. He thus reveals how his elders’ immorality has eroded his innocence. As the full import of this accidental knowledge sinks in, the world of the lifelong idealist comes tumbling down. In his agony, he seeks solace in the embrace of the insane, incorruptible Prashanta. The spectacle of this disillusioned idealist writhing in pain is a devastating indictment of the contemporary go-getting materialism.
Ray’s ethical moorings combine with his mellowed agnosticism. The film is replete with references to cosmic determinism and miraculous incidents. The stoical Anandamohan accepts Prashanta’s derangement as God’s decree and considers his very survival in the London accident itself as a miracle. The music-loving, clairvoyant Prashanta has a premonition of the disaster that is going to strike his father. Anandamohan fails to interpret his warning couched in a metaphorical language. Prashanta’s precognition arises from his feeling of “integrative participation in an experience which transcends the boundaries of the self” (Koestler, 119). This explains his consummation as a “seer”.
Anandamohan’s mad son thus proves to be the wisest of the quartet. Amidst a crumbling edifice, Ray thus sees in the individual’s potential the seeds of a better society. What liberates an individual in the face of deleterious forces is his self-integrity. Ray’s preoccupation with truth, beauty and goodness is destined to survive because it essentially presents a human programme, man’s perpetual struggle to become human.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Imam and the Indian. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2002.
Koestler, Arthur. The Roots of Coincidence. London: Hutchinson, 1972.
Robinson, Andrew. “Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye”. California: University of California Press, 1989.
Waugh, Patricia. Practising Postmodernism Reading Modernism. London: Arnold, 1992.
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(All pictures used in this article are movie stills of Shakha Prosakha taken from the Internet)
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