Satyajit Ray. The Wikipedia depiction of the man’s talent doesn’t do any justice to his artistry. A multifaceted person who was an auteur, a storyteller, an artist, a musician and […]
Satyajit Ray. The Wikipedia depiction of the man’s talent doesn’t do any justice to his artistry. A multifaceted person who was an auteur, a storyteller, an artist, a musician and an illustrator. One of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, he was among the stalwarts such as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa. Each of these gents represented a facet of cinema that was previously unheard of. Fellini moulded his films in a sensual way, making the whole process more indulging and scenic, thus offering the viewer a unique perspective about his craft while the complexities of a Bergman’s script always required the masterful touch of Bergman, the director. The philosophical nature, the emphasis on the minimalistic approach and the sheer expression of bare emotions was the trademark of a Bergman movie. Akira Kurosawa had the flair to portray the emotions in a more picturesque way, thanks to his ingrained ability as a painter. Being a perfectionist, he loved his camera angles and even stayed awake for days, to get that perfect take. What made Satyajit Ray stand equal among these greats were the characters of his films, the men and the women.
Satyajit Ray loved to emphasize the emotional turmoil of his characters. The celebrated critic late Robin Wood once wrote about Ray that more than expressing his ideas, he loved to indulge in emotional experiences. Ray’s filmography is a testimony of this statement. While many have delved into the layers of Ray’s heroes and heroines, there isn’t much talk about his treatment of the antagonists in his films. In one of the interviews, he had mentioned that antagonists or villains, as pop culture denotes them worldwide, didn’t interest him. He was more intrigued by the indecisiveness and torn nature of human beings. Perhaps that’s the reason, he crafted his characters in a more ambivalent way. The intention of this article is to discuss the negative characters of Ray’s films, the evil men and women of his world. It’s more of an insight into Ray’s headspace to understand what made him think of these characters.
From Satyajit Ray’s filmography, one of the most prominent villains is the character of Maganlal Meghraj, from the film ‘Joi Baba Felunath’ aka ‘The Elephant God’ (1979). It was based on Satyajit Ray’s own stories that he wrote, centring on the character Feluda. The character of Maganlal Meghraj was played by veteran thespian, the late Utpal Dutta. If one observes Ray’s films, his antagonists were the Marwari businessmen of the erstwhile Calcutta, who spoke in broken Bengali interspersed with Hindi. It’s more of a portrayal of the socio-economic fabric of the times that Ray had lived in. The writer Sudeep Chakravarti, in his book ‘The Bengalis: A Portrait Of A Community’ has attributed this unique hatred of the Bengalis towards the Marwari community, as a result of a Marwari businessman Jagat Seth conspiring with Robert Clive to sway the battle of Plassey towards the British, in exchange of money. In many Bengali short stories, one can observe the antagonist being a greedy, money lending Marwari who often despises the poor and extracts his riches out of the poor fellow’s misery.
Ray’s villain Maganlal Meghraj is a portly fellow who seeks a diamond-studded antique Ganesha statue. In his accentuated Bengali, he asserts that he gets whatever he seeks, by hook or crook. In one of the iconic scenes of the film, he invites the protagonists to his den and humiliates Feluda by making his associate Jatayu a hapless victim of his deadly game of knife throwing. He believes in ensnaring his opponents into his trap completely, as he calmly forces one of his accomplices into revealing the address of a prime witness. Interestingly, in this scene, Ray highlighted the manipulativeness of the character. Maganlal, in a sinister way, asks the accomplice for the address and calmly says that he knows a Bengali gentleman wouldn’t have the guile and daftness to kill someone, so he’ll send someone else to kill the witness! Utpal Dutta, with his calm demeanour, portrayed this vile yet formidable nemesis who matched Feluda wits for wits. Ray’s film ‘Abhijan’ (1962) also had a Marwari antagonist, the cunning Sukhenram, who in a way, was similar to Maganlal Meghraj. The character of Sukhenram was played by actor Charuprakash Ghosh. Sukhenram was a textbook description of a money minding businessman who can go to any extent to achieve his greed. Ray’s way of identifying his villains as the members of a particular community shows how deep this thought process has been ingrained in him.
Satyajit Ray had most of his antagonists appear in a more satirical way. In his film ‘Mahapurush’, Charuprakash Ghosh played the charlatan godman Birinchibaba, who claimed that he lived through time and had associations with Jesus Christ, Gautam Buddha and Plato. Here Ray aimed his gun towards the religious beliefs of people who blindly followed the godmen of our country. His antagonist Birinchibaba was a fraud, who proclaimed that he could turn the past and future in the opposite direction and could drive the Sun crazy by ordering him to rise every day! Here using humour as his medium, Ray showcases how unsuspecting people can be taken for a ride. In fact, he also shows a couple of rich businessmen of a particular community becoming the blind followers of this imposter who supposedly had taught Albert Einstein, his famous theory of relativity. No points for guessing which community! Satire played a major role in Ray’s films. Utpal Dutta also played the antagonist, the oppressive king in Ray’s ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’ (1980) which’s a satirical tale, based on the then political turmoil of the country famously known as the Emergency (1975-1977). As the king who is warm and benevolent on the outside but in reality, is a tyrant and exploits his subjects ruthlessly, Utpal Dutta gave one of his best performances. He, along with Charuprakash Ghosh and Jahar Roy, who played the scheming and conniving minister of Halla in ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (1969) completed the troika of Ray’s satirical antagonists.
Ray believed that his films exuded a strong moral attitude. Among his last few films such as ‘Ganashatru’ (1980) and ‘Sakha Prosakha’ (1990) had the family members depicted as corrupt and morally decadent. This was his way of showing that not all fingers are the same. In his prominent films, ‘Pratidwandi’ (1970), ‘Seemabaddha’ (1971) and ‘Jana Aranya’ (1975) famously known as the ‘Calcutta Trilogy, which depicted the contemporary society and the idealistic Bengali man not being able to cope up with the rising corruption, the protagonist himself was the antagonist. If ‘Pratidwandi’‘s Siddhartha had a ‘Travis Bickle’-Esque meltdown for the treatment meted towards him by the society, then ‘Seemabaddha’‘s Shyamal, in an epic race to the top of his office and to hide his own inadequacy, commits gross injustice towards the workers of the factory. Even ‘Jana Aranya’‘s Somnath truly symbolises the term ‘The Middleman’ as he pimps his friend’s sister, for his own benefit. Ray made these three characters self-destructing and the villains to their own stories. But the biggest self-destructing antagonist that Ray had ever created was Arindam Mukherjee, the protagonist in his epic ‘Nayak’. Arindam, played by the larger than life Uttam Kumar, though was the cynosure of all eyes, his insecurities, his guilts come out during a train journey, as he re-lives his whole life, in a discussion with a journalist. A superstar for the public, but in reality, a lonely man is what Arindam turns out to be. This is perhaps the biggest cinematic extravaganza of Ray’s characters that in a single frame he turns the protagonist into an antagonist.
Strong women have always been an integral part of Ray’s filmography. He believed that women, though physically weaker than men, make most of it by their core traits of being honest and direct, which makes them stronger than men. Most of his earlier films, which were based on the works of Bibhutibhushan and Rabindranath Tagore, depict women as morally strong and resilient. Not many female antagonists can be seen in Ray’s films but whenever they appear, they showcase their determination. In ‘Ghare Baire’ (1984), the widowed sister-in-law despises the free-thinking Bimala and secretly envies her. It’s not overtly shown but she becoming a widow at a young age and Bimala getting all the attention, eats her from within. In ‘Devi’ (1960), Doyamoyee, after living a falsified life of a deity, loses the script completely as she blurs the lines between blind faith and reality. A sustained blind faith in herself being the incarnation of goddess Kali eventually results in the death of the sick child Khokha. Here Ray again emphasizes people’s blind devotion while making a Doyamoyee a victim of her own circumstances. ‘Pikoo’ (1980), a short film that Ray had directed for a French Television channel, has Seema, Pikoo’s mother in an extramarital affair with another man. In one of the interviews, Ray had acknowledged that the woman in ‘Pikoo’ is indeed very complicated as she’s relatively cold towards her son, because of her infidelity. As per Ray, being unfaithful has robbed the woman’s emotion towards her own son. It’s a deep insight into the fact that how Ray perceived his female characters.
Soumitra Chatterjee has acted in most of Ray’s films. According to Ray, he was one of his favourite actors. Known for playing mostly the leading man in his films, Ray kept two of his vilest characters for his favourite actor – Amitabha Roy in ‘Kapurush’ (1965) and Sandip Mukherjee in ‘Ghare Baire’ (1980). Amitabha Roy was closer to the characters that Ray showcased in his Calcutta Trilogy yet he imbibed the true sense of Kapurush meaning the coward. Here Amitabha is shown as the byproduct of the poor middle class who perhaps couldn’t commit to his girlfriend Karuna to get married, owing to his poverty and unemployment. Years later, now a successful man himself, when he sees Karuna married to a rich tea planter, he is jealous. Amitabha, for his cowardice, didn’t commit to Karuna, irrespective of the fact that she had left the comforts of her home to be with him and get married. He is eaten by the fact that a man with lesser intellectual gets to stay with the woman he so adored. He even contemplates suicide but his cowardice and Karuna’s climactic entry at the end of the film prevents that. Ray ends the film as we see the coward, finally alone and shattered, thinking about what went wrong.
Sandip Mukherjee is perhaps the most shameless, unprincipled and amoral antagonist that Ray had ever filmed. Though it is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s epic novella, set in the tumultuous times of 1906, right after the infamous partition of the Bengal province, Sandip is one of the most influential characters of Ray’s filmography. Putting the facade of an idealist man, Sandip stays at his friend’s Nikhilesh’s house and starts rousing the poor people, in the name of a nationalist movement. He sets his roving eyes on Bimala, Nikhilesh’s wife and impresses her with his fiery speeches about love for the country and soon has her dancing to his tunes. He literally seduces Bimala and corrupts her to steal in the name of the revolutionary movement. Finally, when the time comes, he escapes from the province after creating situations that ultimately lead to communal riots and ends in Nikhilesh’s death. Sandip is a devious man who is so self-centred that for his own lust and greed, he can destroy his friend’s life. His portrayal was an accurate depiction of the people belonging to rich Zamindar families who often joined revolutionary movements akin to pursuing a hobby or following a false ideology. Later, the same people left the movement, citing it as dead or unsuitable to their cause. Ray crafted Sandip in a mould that later perhaps became the inspiration for the character of Siddharth, played by Kay Kay Menon in Sudhir Mishra’s ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ (2005).
Satyajit Ray directed only 36 films in his lifetime, in which there were 29 feature films, 2 shorts and 5 documentaries. His characters became the trailblazers for the future generation. But the mark that he has left on the minds of the avid students of filmmaking and several filmmakers is indelible.
First published on ‘Drishyathalam’ – Satyajit Ray Centenary Special – Vol -3 – Issue 9 – 11 – 2020 Aug – Oct
Amitava Nag, ‘Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines’, Chapter – ‘Villains Bore Me’
Andrew Robbinson, ‘Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye’ Chapter – ‘Calcutta Trilogy’
Sandip Ray, ‘Satyajit Ray on Cinema’
Sudeep Chakravarti, ‘The Bengalis: A Portrait Of A Community’