Between Civility and Civilization: The Late Films of Satyajit Ray

These are films of literal and figurative interiors, where domestic spaces stand in stark contrast to idealisms sabotaged by the pettiness of politics and mistrust.

Above image from The Home and the World (1984)

As a young undergraduate many years ago, one of my fondest cinematic memories was watching Satyajit Ray‘s Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) on the big screen, in three consecutive nights at my college’s nearly empty theater. As each night passed, I became increasingly lost in Ray’s universe precisely because I was alone; without the distractions of neighbors or the undue influence of friends, I could calmly settle down within the film and allow my thoughts to develop as Ray’s grand narrative gestated, expanded, and ultimately enveloped me.

I am, admittedly, overly sensitive to my environment. Nevertheless, the relationship between the spectator and a good film should be as dyadic and hermetic as that required by a novel; bad films, those made for the heckling crowd, should probably be suffered with the crowd. But good films are meant for you alone.

For reasons that have more to do with carelessness than intent, I hadn’t watched Ray’s films in a quite a while, so Eclipse-Criterion DVD’s new box set, Late Ray, provided a welcome excuse to sit alone once again. All dating from the period of Ray’s ailing health, The Home and the World (1984), An Enemy of the People (1989), and The Stranger (1991) are intimate chamber pieces that begin simply but steadily accrue escalating levels of complexity through carefully cadenced, unhurried dialogue. These are films of literal and figurative interiors, where domestic spaces stand in stark contrast to idealisms sabotaged by the pettiness of politics and mistrust.

Though The Home and the World, an adaption of Rabindranath Tagore’s 1916 novel, is by far the most narratively and stylistically ambitious of the three, it remains a far cry from the luxuriousness of Ray’s Charulata (1964) or The Chess Players (1977), instead showing the aging Ray’s disdain for embellishment and ostentatious effects. As Andrew Robinson observes in The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker (I.B. Taurus, 1989), even many Indian critics at the time had difficulty adjusting to Ray’s valedictory phase, when he forsook youthful lyricism for unapologetic didacticism, languid atmosphere for forthright theme—in effect, poetry for prose.

In these final works, Ray’s deliberateness and deliberation are patient even by the standards of, say, an Eric Rohmer, and his sense of dramatic structure, rooted in the five acts of the stage and not the three-act contrivances of commercial cinema, summons inexorable rather than contrived conclusions. This certainty stems, perhaps, from Ray’s skill as a composer, as his films’ contrapuntal themes culminate in “symphonic” or totalized gestures that, though emotionally concentrated, also embrace the work as whole. The late films are also consistent with Ray’s general philosophy that music—the director had scored his own films since 1961’s Two Daughters—should be used as sparingly as possible, as brief underlines and not broad-stroked highlights designed (in the Hollywood manner) to camouflage a lack of content.

The Home and the World (1984)

The Home and the World is set in 1905, when Curzon, the British Viceroy of India, partitioned Bengal into Hindu and Muslim sectors to better divide and conquer the colonized. The film’s heroine, Bimala, is betrothed in an arranged marriage to Nikhil, a wealthy landowner who abides by resolutely liberal, pacifist values rare among the gentry. Indeed, initially Bimala is the conservative one, insisting far more than he that she confine herself to his palace’s inner chambers, voluntarily enacting the wifely submission expected of patriarchy.

In a telling exchange early on, Nikhil, unthreatened by his wife’s potential independence, encourages Bimala to modernize and explore the world: “I see no logic in confining women…I think Muslims introduced the custom,” he says, foreshadowing the religious conflicts to ensue. Bimala, foreshadowing her own romantic indiscretion, reminds her husband that in the classical era arranged marriages were never the norm, and that the Mahabharata’s Draupadi, hardly repressed, was fated to enjoy the company of five husbands.

Meeting Nikhil’s charismatic, philandering childhood friend Sandip, Bimala is roused not only to sexual desire but to political consciousness—Sandip is a leader of the Swadeshi, an anti-imperialist movement sworn to boycott (and later destroy) British-made imports. Western-educated Bimala, entranced by Sandip’s nationalistic oratory and soon realizing her dependence on foreign clothes, cosmetics, and other indulgences, is poised to become the first woman to join the Swadeshi.

Nikhil, skeptical of Sandip’s machinations and prescient of the violence his nationalism portends, sees the revolutionary’s more dangerous, self-serving side and is unafraid to criticize his rhetoric as nativist rabble-rousing: ”If you are recruiting people who have never cared about their country’s problems before, how can you do it without using propaganda?” As the self-righteous Sandip admits to the necessity of exploiting his own followers to further his cause, Ray exposes the (occasional) narcissism of the revolutionary, complicating the righteous indignation that informs much anticolonialist film, from the works of Gillo Pontecorvo to Latin America’s Marxist “Third Cinema.”

As the story develops, Nikhil’s suspicions turn out to be more accurate than even he feared: Sandip engages in petty terrorism and burns the goods of uncooperative Muslim tenants, who cannot afford to purchase more expensive domestic products. Ironically, Sandip’s nationalism plays into (rather than subverts) Curzon’s divide-and-conquer colonialism, while privileged landowner Nikhil appreciates the plight of the underclass far more than supposed revolutionaries, now blinded by their jingoism. Unsurprisingly, Ray deliberately deglamorizes the escalating violence, keeping it almost entirely offscreen—one could easily imagine how a Bollywood adaptation would indulge in meretricious action scenes, totally undermining Tagore’s critique.

Though superficially an old-fashioned love triangle, The Home and the World refuses to engage in the usual aesthetics of female sexual repression. There is neither the masochistic spectacle of Edith Wharton nor the martyrdom of Asian cinema’s courtesan dramas, which typically operate according to immutable gender roles. The antithesis of the evilly stern patriarch, Nikhil is inordinately liberal, actively encouraging his wife’s freedom and willing to suffer for her worldliness. Unlike the anguished courtesans of Mizoguchi or the ill-fated dancer of Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), Bimala, delicately played by Swatilekha Chatterjee, is active and headstrong, willing to exchange her naiveté for revolutionary knowledge, both political and sexual—no matter how painful that knowledge becomes.

An Enemy of the People (1989)

There had often been a hint of Ibsen in Ray’s dramas, so it comes as little surprise that he would attempt a Bengali adaptation of the Norwegian’s 1882 An Enemy of the People, an adaptation that, like The Home and the World, lambastes the cowardice of the mob and the backwardness of organized religion. Here the villain is not nationalism but bald religious prejudice and self-interest, as bureaucrats and politicians worried about their town’s reputation band together to prevent a good doctor from revealing that their temple’s water supply is contaminated and spreading jaundice.

In Ibsen, the polluted waters threaten new public baths, a profitable tourist attraction. In Ray’s version, the baths become a touristic temple, a sarcastic comment on the indivisibility of organized religion and commercialism. Like the heroine of The Home and the World, the ingenuous doctor fails to see the depths of politicians’ Machiavellianism. He learns only too late that the forces massed against him—including his own brother and a “progressive” newspaper editor who quickly bows to public pressure—cannot be swayed by rational debate or believe that science is anything but a ruse.

Ray, an atheist impatient with religious bigotry, goes to lengths to show the vicious circle of unchecked religiosity and nationalist fervor. “Your medical science cannot understand our holy water’s properties, Dr. Gupta,” says the incensed temple leader, confident that the tulsi leaf, “known by Hindus for the thousands of years to remove impurities,” will safeguard the temple water for reasons both religious and nationalistic. Though the doctor is never outspoken in his atheism, he never apologizes for his scientism or irreligiosity. The irony, unspoken throughout the film, is that Gupta’s crusade would actually resuscitate religion by imbuing it with reason, while those who stubbornly imbibe religiously “pure” waters unwittingly destroy themselves. The uncorrupted become the unenlightened.

In the end, the doctor and his family are alienated from the entire town, their home besieged by rocks and brutish threats. As in Ibsen, however, the doctor realizes that outcasted independence is preferable to craven orthodoxy. As the doctor says in Ibsen’s original, “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” But Ray provides a slightly more sanguine conclusion than does Ibsen. In the original, the doctor, now a pariah, decides to educate his own sons, who signify a potential moral hope for the future.

In Ray’s version, the doctor has a grown son-in-law and a small coterie of leftist college students willing to promote his cause in their pamphlets—a slight distinction, but a political one nonetheless. Because the theme of religious bigotry is absent in Ibsen, Ray’s sunnier conclusion is perhaps necessary given the additional, gloomy burden of pious folly he heaps upon his hero.

Though a minor, admittedly prosaic film in Ray’s output, An Enemy of the People remains relevant in an era when the violences of religion are whitewashed with the feel-good label of “faith,” even as their underlying irrationalities remain sacrosanct. (Recall that media censorship in India for the sake of “religious harmony” is still common—in 2012, four participants at the Jaipur Literature Festival were charged with a criminal conspiracy designed to “outrage religious feelings” after reading from Salman Rushdie’s still-banned Satanic Verses).

The Stranger (1991)

The film’s anticlericalism also signals Ray’s growing animosity toward dogma of any stripe, a theme that informs his final film, The Stranger, arguably the clearest (but not simplest) articulation of the director’s humanism. The story concerns a long-lost uncle who returns to the home of his only relative, for reasons at best mysterious and, in the mind of his niece’s husband, suspicious and possibly criminal.

The uncle—a commanding, charismatic performance by theater legend Utpal Dutt—is immediately revealed as cultured and intelligent, and we never suspect, as does the husband, that he is an imposter. Through a series of conversations, interrogations, and philosophical discourses arranged by the prying husband, we learn why the uncle left India 35 years earlier. Disillusioned with India’s caste system and intractable religiosity, he traveled through the West, settling in Manhattan until he became equally disillusioned with rampant technology. Trained as an anthropologist, he then lived happily with aborigines, leaving behind the corrupting nationalism that murders in The Home and the World and blinds in An Enemy of the People.

And yet he returns to civilization, ostensibly to collect an inheritance, but really to confront the fact that civilization also includes the family he left behind. Though the viewer never doubts the uncle’s identity, the issue of identity remains largely at stake—as we all futilely navigate the same divides of old and new, of passive nature and aggressive civilization, the uncle, in his relativism, suggests that those who insist on strict notions of identity are themselves the imposters.

In the film’s strongest scene, the uncle argues with the husband’s friend, a confrontational lawyer whom the husband believes can ferret out the stranger’s secrets. Defending his nomadism against the nuclear age, the uncle sheds his avuncular façade and voices previously unseen, scandalized outrage: “It is one my greatest regrets that I am not a savage…long before I left home, civilization was drilled into my brain—Shakespeare, Bankim, Marx, Freud, Tagore…” Implicitly distinguishing “civility” (a behavior) from “civilization” (a reification), the uncle lists not only Western patriarchs among those who petrify civilization, but also Ray’s beloved Tagore and the 19th century novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, a nationalist. But the uncle’s exilic wisdom does not preclude existential frustration: much as he longs for noble savagery, he’d no more trade places with the aborigine than would Rousseau—ignorance is neither bliss nor the benign shadow of innocence.

The uncle’s venom is reserved mostly for the arrogant Bengali society he fled. In another conversation with a chauvinistic friend of the husband, the uncle extols the civil dialogues of Plato but disparages the traditional Bengali adda, the coffeehouse discussions of middle-class intelligentsia that, in the uncle’s view, devolve discourse into triviality and gossip—that is, into civilization. In the penultimate scene, the uncle retires to the uncontentious company of the Kols, an indigenous tribal society that once rebelled against British colonialists, without any jingoistic baggage.

Although viewers will probably anticipate the ending of The Stranger, its expectedness is highly civil, representing the only moral conclusion possible in the narrative. Though the arguments of Ray’s impassioned hero alternately distinguish and conflate the civil and the civilized, Ray himself is fairly clear, making an eminently civilized film that vilifies the institutions of civilization. As such, The Stranger is best enjoyed alone, far from the sway of the crowd.