Millennium Post (Kolkata)

Into the life of an iconoclast

Written in a fluid manner, Swapan Mullick’s immensely readable book ‘The World After Apu’ delves into the profound cinematic universe of Satyajit Ray and offers closely observed anecdotes around ‘the last renaissanc­e man of Bengal’

- Price: Publisher: Sampark SUBHA DAS MOLLICK The reviewer is a retired professor of Film and Media Studies and an independen­t film-maker

B`499 ollywood for Ray remained a distant island of untold wealth that offered sparks of brilliance that he could adapt to his specific needs. He had never felt the need to spring massive surprises.”

These are the opening lines of the last paragraph of the chapter ‘Bridge to Bollywood’ in Swapan Mullick’s book The World After Apu: Satyajit Ray in Retrospect. The Ray Centenary Year (2021) had witnessed a copious outpouring of publicatio­ns on Ray’s life and work in the form of books, special issues of magazines as well as scholarly papers in academic journals. On one hand, we have had books by close associates of Ray who had brought alive the maestro in his elements, leaving his midas touch on every aspect of the craft of cinema. On the other hand, we have had scholarly and well researched works by veteran critics.

Swapan Mullick’s book The World After Apu is a late entry into this overflowin­g oeuvre. Yet, the book deserves attention for several reasons. First, as Saibal Chatterjee has written in the foreword: “His oeuvre over an eventful 40-year career is as deep as it is varied. That leaves ample room to this day for writers and commentato­rs to find, with every excavation, startlingl­y new facets within the folds of his creative genius. No book, no collection of articles, no appraisal of Ray’s creative spectrum can ever, therefore, be one too many”.

Most importantl­y, the book is authored by a seasoned journalist who has closely followed Ray’s career for at least the last two decades of his life till his last days and has had several occasions to interview the maestro. The author also happens to be a renowned film critic who was the first recipient of the National Award 1985 for his writings on cinema and had later served as Director of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. The chapters in this book have sprung from the depth of his understand­ing and close observatio­ns for decades as a journalist, a film buff and as somebody who lived in the same city as his “subject”. Readers who cohabit the same city and are familiar with Ray’s body of work would derive an additional pleasure from the pages of this book. Mullick’s expert pen traverses effortless­ly from topic to topic, from film to film, from era to era, lovingly sketching the portrait of a genius who was awe-inspiring and approachab­le at the same time. The spirit of close observatio­n and fluidity of the language makes the book immensely readable.

Mullick begins at the end – the moment of crowning glory in the life of the maestro that came a few days before he breathed his last in 1992. Ray’s Oscar acceptance speech made all Indians proud and sad. “In the poignancy of the moment, he delivered an acceptance speech with the poise and power that had virtually moved Audrey Hepburn, the presenter, and the Academy audience to tears”. The moment heralded the end of an era. Satyajit Ray was the last renaissanc­e man of Bengal.

In the first chapter titled The Renaissanc­e Man, Mullick has outlined the essence of Ray as a renaissanc­e man. Having done that, he traces the career of Ray backwards from his unfinished film Uttaran (written wrongly as Jagaran in the book), through his Twilight Sparks in the last three films, through his adaptation­s of Tagore to Pather Panchali and the Apu trilogy. The pages are replete with nuggets of precious informatio­n like Uttam Kumar receiving the National Award for his role as Byomkesh in Chiriakhan­a or Govind Nihalani jumping on the parapet of Statesman House to shoot a sequence of Shyam Benegal’s documentar­y on Ray. The idea was to get the best angle of India Coffee House, where Ray had spent endless adda hours with his friends Chidananda Dasgupta, Radha Prasad Gupta, Harisadhan Dasgupta and other founding members of Calcutta Film Society. In this book, critical analysis of the films is deliberate­ly avoided except for summative comments like “Ray had created moments that added up to an extraordin­ary oeuvre. The more we delve into it, the more we stand to enrich ourselves.” Or “He represente­d the most gripping expression of liberal humanism, versatile wealth and classical depth combined with contempora­ry insights. It made him the complete artist, thinker and creator expressing himself with clarity and diverse shades. It put him in a class apart.”

What makes reading The World after Apu a richly rewarding experience are the author’s journalist­ic insights and observatio­ns and behindthe-scenes stories that only the author, as part of the senior editorial team of

The Statesman, was privy to. Here is an excerpt from the chapter Moments with the Master: “The premiere of

Jana Aranya, during the height of the Emergency in India found Ray sitting beside the state’s informatio­n and cultural affairs minister who was shifting awkwardly in his seat when it came to the scene of the unemployed young man meeting the local MLA who was being revealed in his true colours and expression­s”.

Ray’s response to the Government of India’s offer to make him the Chairman of NFDC, is fairly well documented. But the present generation of film critics and film buffs who have passed out of the Film Studies Department of Jadavpur University, are unaware of the fact that it was Ray, who first mooted the idea of a Film Studies curriculum in his acceptance speech at the Jadavpur University ceremony conferring a D.Litt on the maestro.

The chapter Ray and Rabindrana­th reproduces in totality the interview that Mullick took of Ray in 1982, when he was in the middle of shooting Ghare Baire, an adaptation of Tagore’s novel of the same name. The next chapter

Meeting of Minds, is an excerpt from a lecture that the author had delivered at the Nehru Centre in London. These two chapters together bring into focus the lines of convergenc­e and divergence in the thoughts and creations of the two doyens of the cultural life of modern Bengal. There are two recurring refrains in these chapters as also in some other chapters of the book. One refrain is the public furore over Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s novella Nashtaneer and the other one is Ray’s search for Bimala, the protagonis­t of Ghare Baire. This refrain spills into the next chapter Waiting for Bimala. The making of Ghare Baire was the fulfilment of an unfinished project which Ray had taken up before the idea of Pather Panchali started germinatin­g in his mind.

The book is divided into four sections—Dialogue and Debates, Actors and Associates, Ray and the West and Life after Ray. The short pieces in the section Actors and Associates are little gems, out of which the chapters on Bansi Chandragup­ta and Richard Attenborou­gh are rare impression­s to be treasured. Sadly, chapters on cinematogr­apher Subrata Mitra and editor Dulal Dutta are conspicuou­s by their absence.

After taking the reader through the travails and triumphs in Ray’s career, giving glimpses into the creative mind of the maestro and acquaintin­g us with the friends he made in India and abroad, the author comes full circle and concludes his discourse with the Honorary Oscar conferred on Ray.

Through the 32 chapters, Swapan Mullick has succeeded in putting views, impression­s, encounters and testimonia­ls collected over decades into a framework that helps the reader gain new insights into the all too familiar masterpiec­es and the creative mind behind these masterpiec­es. The new generation of cineastes will develop a better understand­ing of a classical approach to an art form that reinvents itself in every decade.

The last section of the book, chapter 33, is like an epilogue that explores the legacy of Ray in different areas of contempora­ry Indian cinema. The legacy will live on and perhaps grow stronger with time. A book like The World of Apu will adorn the bookshelve­s of Ray buffs and be read repeatedly for its privileged insights into the maestro’s mind.

His oeuvre over an eventful 40-year career is as deep as it is varied. That leaves ample room to this day for writers and commentato­rs to find, with every excavation, startlingl­y new facets within the folds of his creative genius. No book, no collection of articles, no appraisal of Ray’s creative spectrum can ever, therefore, be one too many”

What make reading the book a richly rewarding experience are the author’s journalist­ic insights and observatio­ns

—Saibal Chatterjee

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