Masters of different mediums

Posted on April 3, 2012


The essay that inaugurates Filming Fiction: Tagore, Premchand, and Ray (edited by M Asaduddin and Anuradha Ghosh) makes a persuasive case for the existence of this anthology, which, at first glance, presents itself as simply yet another book on Satyajit Ray. In a disquisition titled His Films, Their Stories (whose name, of course, looks back at Ray’s own anthology, Our Films, Their Films), Meenakshi Mukherjee writes, “Twenty-three of Satyajit Ray’s thirty feature films were based on fiction written by well-known writers, and even out of the remaining seven films for which Ray himself wrote the stories, four were based on already published texts.” Thus, she concludes, translation from the printed page to the screen was the director’s most common mode of filmmaking, and she goes on to look at his adaptations of short stories by Tagore and Premchand, “attempting to trace a pattern in his changing relationship with the original literary texts.”

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Ray’s oeuvre – in the context of the writers who precede him in this book’s title – is distinguished by three adaptations of Tagore. Teen Kanya (1961), an interpretation of three short stories (Postmaster, Monihara and Samapti), was created to commemorate Tagore’s birth centenary. Over two decades later, Ray made Ghare Baire (1984), one of the most exquisite late-period films of any filmmaker, based on the novel of the same name. And in between, in 1964, he transformed the novella Noshto Neerh into the justly acclaimed Charulata, though Brinda Bose, in an essay that argues that Ray’s film is “surely to be seen as autonomous from its literary ‘original’,” views the cinematic work as strong but problematic, its greatest weakness being the final freeze frame that, unlike Tagore’s unambiguously tragic end, hints at reconciliation between the heroine and her husband. Bose writes, “Ray fails to deliver on his promise of a provocative ‘postcolonial aura’ for Tagore’s transgressive, if colonially modernist, fiction.”

An uncontested master of one medium is thus found wanting when viewed through the prism afforded by a master of another medium. Like Bose, Deepti Zutshi focuses on a single work – the latter amongst Ray’s adaptations of Premchand’s short stories, Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) and Sadgati (1981). Looking at the film exclusively in terms of the director’s handling of the Dalit question, she contends that the adaptation “suggests that he could not grapple with the subject the way in which Premchand had (perhaps owing to his progressive politics with a socialist bias).” These passionately argued essays, along with others from leading academics and emerging scholars, simmer not with the schadenfreude of witnessing a golden god felled at his knees but the sobering truth that an artist, in his limitations, is merely a man. Not everyone is critical, of course. Jayita Sengupta, in the conclusion to an appreciation of Ghare Baire, may have provided the perfect conclusion to the book as well. “All his adaptations from Tagore reveal his understanding of the great visionary. But Ghare Baire, in particular, is possibly Ray’s greatest tribute to Tagore in recognition of his ideas political yet personal.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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