In Satyajit Ray: From Frame to Frame, Shoma Chatterji examines patterns emerging from Satyajit Ray’s body of work and groups his films under broad categories like hunger, masculinity, femininity. Subha Das Mollick reviews the book.
Published by Vitasta in 2022, Shoma Chatterji’s book Satyajit Ray: From Frame to Frame is an interesting addition to the oeuvre of literature on Ray’s cinema. This is by no means Chatterji’s first work on Ray’s cinema, but this book is more contemplative, more intertextual and has more cross references than her earlier work, perhaps because the lockdown gave her the leisure to contemplate.
In Satyajit Ray: From Frame to Frame, Chatterji examines patterns emerging from Ray’s body of work and groups his films under broad categories like hunger, masculinity, femininity. According to this categorization, the ‘hunger trilogy consists of Pather Panchali, Ashani Sanket and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. In all the three films we witness hunger and remission from hunger either through wily tactics or resourcefulness or redefining the idea of ‘edible and inedible’ by Ghost’s grace.
Chatterji writes, “Affluent cultures show food beautified in the form of still life paintings and sculpture. Indeed, the still life paintings of Jan van Kessel, Luis Melendez, Cezanne and others ooze with bounty. In Ray’s films too, scenes of eating and mealtimes are recurrent motifs fight from Pather Panchali to Agantuk – not in a gastropornographic sense, but as an element that brings the family together, that brings out a power hierarchy within the family or underlines secret bonding between two individuals. Pather Panchali is replete with scenes of eating. Chatterji writes, “Pather Panchali is scattered with items of food. Little Durga hides a stolen guava under a bunch of bananas in an earthen pot. Before going to school, Apu drinks milk from a big bowl. As he finishes it, some milk trails down the corners of his mouth. We never see Durga drinking milk.”
This brings us to the ideas of masculinity and femininity in Ray’s cinema. What are the Indian ideas of masculinity? Five Pandavas in the Mahabharata represent five avatars of Indian masculinity, from the sacrificing, gentle, dependable, truthful elder brother to the brutish Bheema to valiant Arjuna. Anand Patwardhan, in his seminal documentary Fathers Sons and Holy War, examines how ideas of masculinity and virility are propagated in Indian popular culture. Shoma Chatterji examines Parash Pathar, Pratidwandi, Nayak and Sadgati to give her readers an idea about different facets of masculinity that steer clear of cliched ideas.
Parash Pathar shows how a Bengali male cannot handle sudden change in his socio-economic status, Pratidwandi shows a male who is essentially a fence sitter but who, towards the end of the film explodes with rage in a typical Bengali fashion and takes a major decision in his life; Nayak is, of course, ‘a slice of a hero’s life’. Chatterji posits the film Sadgati in the perspective of Dalit politics and how in the span of 75 years ‘dalits’ have been represented in Indian cinema. In the process she lashes out at Lagaan for ‘giving a token nod to the dalit’. The chapter on Sadgati, replete with quotes from other critics and scholars, is a very rich treatise on ‘dalits’ that many researchers will find useful. Interestingly, Chatterjee does not include Feluda or the muscleman in Joy Baba Felunath in her discourse on masculinity in Ray’s films. This is because she devotes one whole chapter on Feluda in the last section of the book.
The section on femininity, as expected, revolves around Devi, Mahanagar and Charulata. Just as there is a psychoanalytical reading of Devi, there is Marxist, sociological and feminist reading of Mahanagar. The chapter on Charulata, on the other hand, deals with the importance of literature in the narrative – how literature binds and separates all the three protagonists in the film.
Chatterji’s book addresses the uninitiated reader. That is why she takes pains to sketch out the backstories of the films and the original literary works and posits every film discussed in its socio political context. Satyajit Ray: From Frame to Frame will be a valuable resource book for students of cinema and cinephiles who want to dig deep into Ray’s oeuvre.
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