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On TikTok And Satyajit Ray
For Ray's birth centenary I look back at his filmography, deconstructing awe, reconstructing a world where Ray still lived.
Last week I wrote about what art will look like when it is all over — a lot of anger towards the system, indistinguishable from anger towards the self. This week I am looking at a filmography that has kept me company this past year.
It was not until the pandemic that I started watching Satyajit Ray’s movies with a more conscious fervour — the kind when you are so moved by a film, you are consumed by the idea of devouring filmographies. Initially, I didn’t understand why the allure was so gripping. Like the early days of TikTok and later, when it was banned in India, Instagram reels, it gave a sense of ephemeral, studied life passing by. It was performed, it was lived-in, and you couldn’t take your eyes off the screen where images perfectly cut into one another, save for the occasional awkward fade-out. Perhaps my explanation in this piece will fall short of the total thrall I am in when watching his greatest movies play out (some of his movies, though, especially as he moves to colour and genre-trappings, are mood-heavy but emotionally barren). To celebrate his centenary, here is an attempt. Subscribe and spread the word, if it struck a chord. Words don’t come easy.
You don’t have to have seen Ray films to read the piece, though I do hope it gives you some entry points into his intimidating oeuvre of 36 films — averaging a film every one and a half years from 1955 when he made his first film to 1992 when he died. I compiled a streaming guide for those in India.
There is a scene in Sonar Kela (1974), The Golden Fort, where Feluda, the detective is lying on his bed reading a borrowed book on parapsychology. The enemy has planted a scorpion in Feluda’s room to sting him to death. Topshe, Feluda’s assistant sees the scorpion inching towards him, and screams just as it is about to strike him. Feluda’s instinct isn’t to hammer the scorpion to death — as would be mine, as would be most people’s — but to place a glass upside down over the arachnid, and marvel at the creature, the poisonous hook on the tail that can render a young, healthy man paralyzed. The scorpion is eventually shoe-stamped off-camera but not before it is observed empathetically, emphatically. That is Satyajit Ray at his best.
Even when he gives us evil — the conman godman of Mahapurush (1965), the jewel-obsessed criminals of Sonar Kela (1974), the antique thief of Joi Baba Felunath (1979) — he stamps them out of the story at the end, without giving us the joy of them being extinguished. The narrative triumph, the narrative catharsis isn’t located in the enemy being vanquished. It is instead located in the good men (always men in these later films) emerging triumphant, standing on two feet, alive. This can explain why Satyajit Ray’s later films, where there is an obvious good-bad dichotomy in the characterization, can be his least exciting to watch.
It’s because as a viewer you don’t get to see the enemy, sketched like a coal-caricature invulnerable to introspection, squashed. At the end of Mahapurush the hero whispers at the conman godman, telling him his façade has been unmasked and that he must leave, or else humiliation awaits. The scene could have easily been written as a melodramatic public shredding of reputation, a spectacle of shame, like in PK, like in OMG, like in Singham Returns, like in Jaadugar. But Ray prefers otherwise— the conman godman and his assistant melting into the night, wondering what awaits them next. Evil isn’t reformed. Evil isn’t destroyed. It just moves on to the next target.
This good versus evil dichotomy is more washed-up, watered-down in his earlier films, where you are invited to suspend judgment. These are flawed characters played with such tender humanity that you want to marvel at them, their limbs, their lives, for a moment, under an upside down glass, before seeing them stutter off. The husband in Mahanagar (1963), for example, who is initially willing, even strongly encouraging of his wife seeking work. But, later he has a change of heart when she starts working, bringing in wads of money and wrappers of gifts, and the emasculating emotion strikes strong. Now, he insists she give up her job. This is a great example where his character could have been sketched with menace, but that was never the point of this film. The point was, at the very end, when husband and wife, both unemployed, stare at each other, looking up at the tall building, wondering how many opportunities the city will yield, “Cheshta toh kori” (Let’s try, at least), before melting into the crowd as two bulbs — one beaming, one not working — foreground the frame. The point of these stories, these characters is possibility, not perfection. It is when looking at these earlier films with their muddier morality that critic Pauline Kael noted the following:
We see his characters not in terms of good or bad, but as we see ourselves, in terms of failures and weaknesses, and strength and above all, as part of a human continuum — fulfilling, altering, and finally accepting ourselves as part of this humanity, recognizing that no matter how much we want to burst the bounds of experience, there is only so much we can do.
What aids this moral agnosticism is the lived-in quality of the characters — they betray a reality that even we partake in. This lived-in quality of the characters comes from the lived-in, immersive quality of the setting. Every prop, even the poster that is behind the mounting layer of books, the Thanjavur thalayatti bommai in Mahapurush, the picture of “great men” on Apu’s wall, the box of treats that Dayamoyee keeps at the top of the shelves to feed her nephew in Devi, all of this comes together not as disparate elements of set-design, but a part of the consummate world-building exercise that Ray is engaged in. He storyboarded his movies with such pedantic fervour, these images often took the place of scripts. In a storyboard for Pather Panchali he had sketched the interior of the family’s living quarters, adding the question: “Sarbajaya taka rakhe kothay? (Where does Sarbajaya keep the money?)”.
These films, especially the ones from the 50s and 60s, are so immersive, that often it is hard to think of them as films. They read like punctuated documentaries. I get a whiplash every time I see Soumitra Chatterjee — his first film as the circumstantially cloistered rag-tag post-graduate unemployed writer in Apur Sansar (1959) — suddenly become this suave bhadralok detective in coats and shawls in Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979), the worldly wise man who, in another film, sings of traveling across the globular world, stepping onto new lands in fresh cloth, and then, last year, his obituaries. Every time I see the image of him from Apur Sansar at the back of the tram as the wind brooks his hair, penniless, unaware that soon he will be married, widowed, and vagrant, I am suddenly moved by the hairpin bends that life will augur. I forget he is a character.
First Love Him, Then Know Him
My first year at Berkeley the local art museum had a Ray retrospective. I had not watched a single film of his, though I knew of his reputation vaguely from the one redolent Bengali friend I had. I knew that he was one of those artists whom, if you have consumed, you must bring up at every possible juncture. Not only to collect cultural capital, but because these were artists who actually had things to say about almost everything. They rounded off anecdotes and cultural experiences with an aesthetic heft. (What French critic Andre Brezin said about Renoir holds here too, “First, to love Renoir, and then to know him.”) It was 7$ a screening, or a 35$ flat rate to check out all his movies. I was struggling with calculus and Shakespeare that semester and so let it slide. Besides I did not know what to do with black and white films then. They just seemed so innately unappealing and academic, wearing their boredom and desire to be studied and explained on their sleeve.
The appreciation for black and white came much later with Cold War and Ida, though I suspect that had a lot to with the sexual tension of the film. It was around the time I made a switch from Economics to writing that I began to look back at all the old films. A desire to have them explained, over time became a desire to have them seen. Ray came somewhere in between. Charulata (1964), the first of his I encountered, held me in a daze — so much beauty, and so casually strewn, a disinterested glory. It didn’t make sense to me, because beauty in cinema, in life, I thought must screech its existence. Bhansali’s maximalism made sense, because if you have silk and brocade, gold and gauze, why not carefully orchestrate close-ups, consciously stage eruptions of fabric? When watching Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), I was constantly unnerved by how these rich Awadhi landlords were wearing their intricate pashmina shawls so casually, so carelessly, folded, sometimes inside out, as if there wasn’t a camera capturing this moment for posterity. They wore it like a handed down shirt.
But that is it, isn’t it? For Ray, it was important that characters act in a scene, the way they would live through a moment, and no one lives through life with a constant phantom hum of a camera crew around them.
At first I had a Marxist explanation for this. That Bhansali came from poverty, living next to brothel, in small houses where his mother dancing to crackling radio was a performance. He instead used his cinema as a catchment area for anything beautiful, graceful, expensive, yielding its beauty with its worth. That Ray, coming from a landed class, growing up in an ancestral mansion, was aware of and perhaps, used to brocaded beauty.
It was later, over time, as I watched more of Ray, set in and around devastating rural poverty, or working class urban poverty that I saw that this casualness is rooted in something deeper. When Ray noted the “integrity of atmosphere [is] the first essential of a good film,” this is what he meant — a radical presence of being, where the room you are watching looks not just lived in but ravaged through.
He Would Have Made A Great TikTok Star
TikTok or its rebirth as Instagram reels has produced a new kind of Renaissance Person — many of these TikTok and Instagram stars write, design, shoot, edit, and promote their own work, which itself upturns the pastiche of India we have held onto in popular culture. As Amit Varma in his course on TikTok noted, “Tik Tok gave me a picture of Indian society that no other medium could”. A reflection of Ray who wrote his own adaptations, designed his title cards, credits sequences, and posters, and later even composed his own music, is easy to see — a kind of consummate control over the output, the text, subtext, and paratext.
Of course I must note here that Ray was quite the snooty Ivory tower mind when it came to popular culture, dismissing it as “trash”. But there is so much that goes into reels — a postmodern disinterest in traditional plotting, a fixation on awe, economy, cultural specificity, and potential for repeat viewing — I can’t help but wonder that Ray would have been besotted by it. Or at least intrigued.
“Devices are there for artists to use if they so wish. With them they can say new things in a new way, or even old things in a new way. Or, if they choose, they can ignore the devices and say new things in an old way, or old things in an old way.” — Ray in his essay All These Devices
One of the arguments he makes in the essay is that the New Wave emerged in Europe only because now artists could afford to experiment inexpensively because the new tools that were available were cheaper and more portable. Surely the smart-phone, one in every hand, making every user into a photographer, editor, promoter, and archivist in the same breath, would have gained his approval, or at least his interest.
This is not to say that Ray’s realism is similar to the heightened reels realism. It is to say that they come from the same well-spring, where the actor simulates a kind of indifference to the camera as a fiction-producing piece. In Ray’s films the camera is the neutral, distant observer, and in reels it is often the thing being performed to, breaking the fourth wall as if it were the last limits of fiction. In both cases there is the pungent sense of seeing a life being lived, even as it is being performed.
This “integrity of atmosphere” is almost essential to becoming a TikTok or a reels star — a deep awareness of space. It is different that with reels, the maker is often documenting their own space, whereas Ray constructs this space with the same specificity of experience. Ray has often noted how after seeing Pather Panchali, critics were disappointed when they found out that the film was not a documentary, and that these were not real-life people. Ray understands this disappointment, seeing in his movies the potential for “pictorial reportage”. Yet these films do not, in my opinion, feel like documentaries, because the urge isn’t to educate but enthrall. Perhaps it is because I see both Ray and reels on my phone, letting both take on their own life, the former dictated by a broad story, and the latter dictated by an algorithm, another kind of broad story.
Maybe this feeling is about the fact that if you see “high art”, “low art”, pornography and Picasso on the same phone, over time, they all begin to loose the hierarchical standing they had otherwise. Maybe the loss of the theater was the loss of a space that to many was an architecture of taste. The thing about architecture is that it holds meaning by creating an inside and an outside, an insider and an outsider. Like Jeremy Atherton Linn wrote in Gay Bar, the architecture of gay bars became, over time, a space to hold the identity of gay longing. Theaters held the identity of taste, or artistic chauvinism. To have lost theaters, lost film festivals, is to thus have lost that taste.
With respect to reels, maybe the resonance with Ray is deeper. The ones I have been recently watching are the “vibe” reels — where they show mundane things like your night-time desk, your kitchen counter, your window, your wardrobe, cleansed by an aesthetic conviction, like Ray’s eye for beauty among the mundane, or the mundane as beauty, these reels, as Kyle Chayka noted in his piece TikTok And The Vibes Revival, are moments of “audiovisual eloquence… a concise assemblage of image, sound, and movement.”
A vibe can thus be a radical connection to both space and time. Chayka notes the different ways it has been confined into water-tight words— the German philosopher Gernot Böhme called it “atmosphere”, Heidegger uses “mood”, and Walter Benjamin had identified “aura”. The point of vibes is to, as Mary Retta wrote, “shape time into pleasure”. That is also, incidentally, a perfect distillation of Ray’s movies. It is why I think Ray would have made incredibly astute vibe reels.
Last year I wrote, as an introduction to a photo essay, about how Ray’s films, Aparajito specifically, had this meditative quality to it. That vibey vibe.
I realized this weekend that watching Satyajit Ray’s films is an act of guided meditation. The details, swamped in lush lighting and careful articulation of space, draw you in so wholly, so calmly, so steadily. I am not using the phrase “guided meditation” lightly; it is not a ponderous label to give any good, beautiful film. It is about forgetting where you are, and believing that you exist in this other universe, ultimately bringing you back to this world, calmer, and more perceptive.
There is, of course the other side of TikTok and reels, which is people performing as people, heightened to comedy and remixed tracks — a physical manifestation of vibing.
TikTok is not perfect, imbued with the sexism and racism of casual India, much like Ray’s movies weren’t exempt from the sexist, racist world he internalized. He black-faced Simmi Garewal as a tribal (though she does, I must admit, look like something out of a Kalighat painting, with those big eyes, almost unreal when I first saw her), and in interviews has noted how women are psychologically stronger as a compensation, for they are physically weaker. I struggle to think how he would have written a 21st Century third wave feminist. The thing is, part of discovering a yesteryear artist in the present day is wondering what space, other than nostalgia, do they carve for themselves in contemporary life. Ray is especially tricky because the conversion of people who have heard of him to people who have seen his films is a trickling bunch of cinephiles eager to place him on a pedestal.
It is hard to imagine Ray characters or even Ray in another world save for the one he shows us. The outside, the beyond have an almost mythic quality that despite their airy proclivity, you probe.
When Apu leaves the village for the city, his headmaster in the village gives him a globe. His destiny is Calcutta. One of Ray’s side characters is described as a “globe-trotter”, with random name drops of African countries and native animals. An exotic other-world. Just look at the titles of his pop-detective writer, Jatayu’s books — Shivering in Sahara, Havoc in Honduras, Mishap in Myanmar. But I can't imagine these characters anywhere else but Bengal, weaving in haughty accented English. Just look at the loving-names of his characters — Feluda, Topshe, Apu — rooted yet reaching.
If his characters existed, if he existed in another world, what would they, what would he be like? What would that world be like? I am imagining an Instagram feed of kol balish, sel roti, Murakami, and his deep voice. I am imagining an Instagram handle, a Twitter tirade, and in between a movie with wide eyed actresses, and thin lipped beautiful men.