Review: A Tribute to Satyajit Ray, ‘Aparajito’ Brings the Magic of Cinema to Life

Anik Dutta’s film Aparajito made an all-India release on May 13 with rave reviews in Kolkata followed by a remarkable box office collection. In Mumbai, it received a standing ovation, while Shyam Benegal praised the casting and performance of Jeetu Kamal in the lead role. In Delhi, the audience turnout was low though the city is teeming with Bengalis, Ray-fans and intellectuals.

When someone mentions Aparajito here, the puzzled answer is, “Of course, I’ve seen it years ago,” referring to Satyajit Ray’s film in 1956, the second in the Apu-trilogy. Following in the footsteps of the Master with a black and white film and paying a heartfelt tribute to Ray’s iconic Pather Panchali, Dutta probably used the same name Aparajito to stress the meaning of “The Undefeated”. He presents Ray swiftly conquering all problems confronting him while making his epic movie which brought him international glory.

Dutta’s reputation was established with his debut Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012). In his sixth venture, he is making a film about a film. He attaches his storyline to a radio interview that centres upon the successful Aparajito Ray, while his mother and wife tune in to listen. Many will remember Samik Bandopadhyay’s early interview with Satyajit Ray on television from many decades ago. Bandopadhyay’s clipped accents in Bengali and English hold the present audience riveted to the story, until the moment he reads the review of Pather Panchali which received a standing ovation at the Cannes Festival (1955).

Dutta captures conversations at two very prominent clubs in Calcutta where people peremptorily change their opinions regarding the somewhat doubtful film made by a young, unknown director once he receives a foreign award. It is a poignant moment in Dutta’s film when Ray’s mother blesses him before his father Sukumar Ray’s picture.

Dutta’s casting of Jeetu Kamal is fabulous. He is Ray’s doppelganger, emphasised by mannerisms which include the way he positions his arm behind his head, smokes the perennial cigarettes or stares unflinchingly at sponsors telling him to add songs, dances and romance to his plot.

Dutta’s triumph lies in his quick movement of scenes, very different from the original but interspersed with them. He weaves together anecdotes collected from different sources, such as the first cine club in Calcutta and scenes from an ad agency where English bosses are prepared to give Ray paid leave for travel to England accompanied by his wife. Ray sees Battleship Potemkin and Bicycle Thieves, which impacts the way he visualises screenplay. The concept of the story-board is what Ray learns in London, and it is inevitable that his genius with pictorial images later help his crew to shoot the rain scene in his absence. Similarly, the bald villager upon whose head the first raindrop must fall on is tracked easily from Ray’s quick sketch.

The recreation of three iconic scenes emphasises Dutta’s tribute to Ray. He recaptures Indir Thakurun’s death when Durga/Uma unwittingly pushes her over; alongside, an older, heavy camera moves on rails. Later when Sarbajaya/ Sarbamangala, played by Anjana Basu, claims she cannot cry for her dead daughter, Ray’s gentle treatment of the actor causes him to reframe his focus upon the saree the father has brought home. This captures the pathos more vividly, especially as the camera pans towards Apu/Manik watching his parents’ grief with childish curiosity.

The most captivating scene of all is the siblings running to see the train, with the feathery Kaashphul blowing in the breeze. It is more intense for those who remember the chapter where Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay writes, “Abar daur, daur, daur.” The explanation attached to shooting the engine from one side and then another is something that will make film buffs sit up even now, just as they will smile at the delay in filming because cows had eaten the catkins.

Dutta introduces wit and warmth into the script written with Utsav Mukherjee and Sreeparna Mitra. Ray’s home life, especially his close relationship with his wife Bijoya Ray – renamed Bimala in the film – is well-defined by Saayoni Ghosh. Her support, where she offers her jewellery to fund his movie is a fact, but the game of Scrabble where Ray apparently does not know the meaning of “nave” although he must have visited cathedrals in London is questionable.

In another scene, Dutta deliberately reassigns biographical details. He depicts an insistent mother’s desire for her daughter to play Durga. Finally, Bimala takes them inside and dresses the girl in a saree to convince Ray. This incident happened with Sharmila Tagore when Ray was searching for his Apur Sansar heroine (1959). When she reappeared in the saree, she had discarded the city-girl look and was instead Apu’s dark-eyed Aparna come to life. This is recorded in Bijoya Ray’s autobiography Manik and I.

Also read: ‘Ray’ – a Tribute to a Master Filmmaker – Is High on Ideas, Low on Execution

Cinematographer Supratim Bhol deserves special credit for the pond scene when the siblings are clearly reflected in the water while a dog follows them for a hidden biscuit. By recording 11 hours of music for future selection, Ray solved the problem of coordinating with musicians, including Ravi Shankar. In replacing the plaintive notes of raga todi by ahir bhairon, Dutta affirms that Ray was well versed in Indian classical music too.

Dutta could simply have made a biopic or called Aparajito a historical film. He must have watched movies regarding the magic of cinema like The Making of Gandhi or Cinema Paradiso, so the experimental zone was dispensable. Besides, Dutta had Sandip Ray’s permission to use materials from the family archives. To play mind games with the audience and rename de Sica’s film Bicycle Rider, or call West Bengal’s chief minister Biman Roy rather than Bidhan Chandra is meaningless.

In fact, it was ironical that the final funding for the original came from the Public Works Department, which fitted so well with the English title, Song of the Little Road, now changed into Ballad. The phone-call from someone called Michael Scots is none other than Martin Scorsese who recalls, “The few interactions I had with Ray are memories I treasure.”

Lindsay Anderson, having watched Pather Panchali, commented that Ray had “gone down on his knees in the dust” and created “undoubtedly a new masterpiece of poetic cinema”.

Dutta may have felt intimidated by his study of Ray’s cinema and his transference of names was another way of paying tribute. Thus the young boy takes Ray’s own name Manik for Bibhutibhushan’s Apu, later Apurba Ray in the autobiographical novel. Durga reappearing as Uma is only another name for the same goddess. Bimala’s name again honours Tagore’s heroine in Ghare Baire, filmed by Ray.

It is significant that Dutta has not changed the name of Tagore himself in referencing the verse he wrote for Ray as it is implied that was the talisman the director carried when he looked close to home for a story representing not one, but many impoverished families of rural Bengal.

Aparajito is a remarkable cinematic experience which has made its mark because of its sensitive portrayal of Ray – not as a distant or non-communicable auteur, but as a man who had a dream and knew how to make it come true.

Dr. Ajanta Dutt is a Professor of English at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University and she can be reached at the email at [email protected]

Featured image: Jeetu Kamal in Aparajito/Friends Communication