As a new stage of religious tension arises in the subcontinent, it was heartening to see Australians warming up to the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray.
Although there is an undoubted genius in his cinema, the work has also sparked interest in the wider meaning of Bengal in Bangladesh, India and the subcontinent.
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Ray’s films were celebrated this month at one of Australia’s most important cultural gatherings. It was promoted by one of Australia’s most renowned film critics, David Stratton. The two met in 1980 when Ray was first invited to the Sydney Film Festival.
The selection of ten films attracted a large audience, almost entirely non-Indian and non-Bangladeshi. My family and I were among the few people of South Asian descent.
Varsha Bansal, whose grandfather RD Bansal had produced six Ray classics, told The Times of India that restored copies of ‘Nayak’, ‘Charulata’ and ‘Mahanagar’ had been sent to Sydney for the festival.
“We need to understand the value of our heritage cinema and preserve it for posterity, so it behooves us to ensure they are seen the way Ray made films over half a century ago. ” said Bansal.
I watched “World of Apu,” the third in the Apu trilogy, and “Devi,” about the dangers of religious dogmatism. I was struck by how topical the themes were, especially in the wake of the resurgence of religious tensions in India.
I grew up in a time when Islamic extremism was at the forefront, but “Devi” reminded me that no religion has a monopoly on extremism.
Much like white nationalism in the Western world, Hindu nationalism emerged as a kind of Newtonian response to concerns about Islamic terrorism. Just like in physics, it is an equal and opposite reaction. Religious fundamentalism is wrapped hand in hand with renewed nationalism.
The image of idyllic rural life is a mainstay of Bengali literature, whether in the poems of Tagore or in artistic films. Ray delights in simple yet transcendent imagery, from insects gliding across a pond to the violent energy of a thunderstorm.
Beneath the veneer of natural beauty, however, there has always been crushing poverty and daily drudgery, especially for women. This is beautifully captured in both films. The piercing gaze of actress Sharmila Tagore in both films is reminiscent of the cage South Asian women are still trying to escape from, despite significant improvements.
But “Apu’s World” is ultimately about a man coming to terms with the grave responsibility of adulthood, especially in the wake of a tragedy. Her marriage is depicted with great tenderness. In one particularly beautiful scene, husband and wife take turns waving a fan while the other eats rice, daal and vegetables.
But Apu’s character aspires to be a great writer. He reveals to his friend Pulu the subject of an autobiographical novel about a village boy moving to town, overcoming the world of superstition, remaining poor but living as a free spirit.
These films will be familiar to readers, but as someone who grew up in the West, there is an exhilaration in watching the great art of my ancestors. Ray’s ambition for his character may also be an ambition for his country.
One of Australia’s greatest writers, Booker Prize winner Thomas Kenneally, wrote about the Bengal famine in his book “Three Famines”. His Irish background meant he focused on Ireland’s traumatic past of the Potato Famine, but he weaves similarities to Bengal, particularly that despite drought and pestilence being a natural phenomenon , famine is inevitably man-made, disproportionately affecting the poor.
This overlaps with the great economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who was a child during the Bengal famine of 1943, recounting in his famous book “Poverty and Famines” (1981) that famine is the phenomenon of some people who have no not enough food to eat, not that there is not enough food to eat.
But Bengal is much more than famine.
For so long the center of Indian cultural and intellectual life, not to mention Calcutta which was the capital of the British East India Company for decades, the region has seen a steady decline in influence and wealth.
In his book “The Bengalis”, journalist Sudeep Chakrabarty compares Bengal to France – celebrated for its cultural and intellectual achievements but steadily losing economic and political authority as influence receded elsewhere.
Ray’s films show glimpses of wider Bengal, known for its creativity, radical politics, a critical center of partition and cosmopolitanism. Much like Satyajit Ray’s identity, many Bangladeshis have connections across Bengal and networks across borders, religions and of course, as far as I’m concerned, the Diaspora.
It is essential that the whole world has an understanding of Bengali culture, apart from India and Bangladesh. India’s growing Hindu nationalism and a more Islam-centric identity in Bangladesh both threaten to dilute what is one of the world’s richest cultures, the fundamental roots of nearly three hundred million people.
Satyajit Ray’s rise within the Sydney film community is a wonderful step in that direction.
The author is an Australian-based psychiatrist, author of ‘The Exotic Rissole’ and founder of www.bddiaspora.com.