Monday, September 20, 2010

10 Scenes from Satyajit Ray

To justify my favourite pastime - of trawling through YouTube for old movie & song clips - I end up writing posts on nostalgic themes, which is very satisfying for me to spend Sunday afternoons on. What it does for you, persevering reader, I am not too sure. 

While thinking about today's post, I tweeted for suggestions. Needless to say, several intelligent, perceptive and articulate individuals (read: Bengalis) jumped up with their suggestions - all of which were absolutely spot-on and pretty much covered the best sequences from Ray's works. However, I also realised that they are also quite obvious. In fact, I had many of them in my mind myself. And the number of scenes exceeded 10 by a factor of 1.5!
I also got a nice suggestion from @indrayanc on the selection criteria for the scenes - "intelligent humour on screen, restrained portrayal of human tragedies & wonderful acting by child actor". 

I have chosen for myself a different parameter.
For many decades, there have been controversies around Ray's cinematic adaptations of Bengali literary classics in which he deviated from or embellished the original plot. And my list of scenes are ones which did not figure in the original literary work the films are based on. They were devised as exclusively cinematic set-pieces and I believe the original stories became richer with these additions. (But then, what do I know?)

Aranyer Dinratri - Memory Game
There were many departures in the screenplay from the original novel (by Sunil Ganguly) in which four unemployed young men traveled ticket-less to the jungles of Palamau. In the film, they were four friends from the same background but of different affluence levels - creating interesting, new tensions. 
The most famous scene from the film - in which the four protagonists and their two lady friends play a memory game - was not in the novel. It is a masterly use of the cinematic medium to depict the mental conditioning, outlook towards life and the interplay between the six main characters. 

Gupi Gayin Bagha Bayin - The Morning After
The fable of the singer and drummer who get three boons from the King of Ghosts and change their lives totally was written by Ray's grandfather. Exuding great imagination, it was a very short story and Ray added several lovely scenes to take it up to feature film length. The most famous one is, of course, a Dance of Ghosts that experiments with different kinds of music and forms to create a magical sequence.
My favourite scene - though - is the one that occurs right after this one. When Gupi (the singer) wakes up in the morning, he is a little unsure if he really got the boons or if they were part of a dream. To test it out, he lets out an alaap (in the magical voice of Anup Ghoshal) and goes delirious with joy. The innocence, the ecstasy and the beautiful song that follows - oh, joy!
GuGaBaBa had an overdose of brilliant scenes including a demonstration of musicians from different schools - just before the two heroes burst on to the scene and save the king from boredom! 

Pratidwandi - The Vietnam Interview
Yet another novel by Sunil Ganguly takes a look at Calcutta of late 1960s, through the eyes of a young unemployed man - Siddhartha Chaudhuri - who tries his best not to leave his city or his dreams.
To establish the character & background of the articulate, intelligent and sensitive Siddhartha, Ray constructs an interview scene (right at the beginning of the film) in which he is asked to name the 'most significant event of the last decade'. After a considerable amount of thought, the protagonist comes up with 'the war in Vietnam' and 'the plain human courage' that the war brought out. Unfortunately for him, the correct answer had already been decided as had been the allegiances of those who thought highly of the Vietnamese people.
On popular demand, I also include the last scene of the film. For those who haven't seen Pratidwandi, I can explain the significance of the bird call, the funeral chant and the words that end the film. But it would be so much better if you just watched the film once.

Shonar Kella - Jatayu
Shonar Kella, based on Ray's own story, was the first Feluda film. But nobody caught the imagination of the viewers as Jatayu, played by the hyper-talented Santosh Dutta. In an unprecedented move, Ray changed the illustrations of Jatayu in the novels released after the film in a homage to the actor who made the role his own. 
My friend, Udayan (he of the defunct blog, Bandra Blues) recommends that all scenes of Shonar Kella that have Santosh Dutta in them deserve to be included. And he is right.
But for purposes of variety, I will just include the introduction scene (from 1:45 onwards in the clip) - where Jatayu enters the same train compartment as Feluda at Kanpur station and hangs on for the rest of the adventure.
In the book, Ray introduces the thriller writer in two lines which highlight the disparity between his diminutive physique and explosive plots. "Jerokom golpo lekhen, ami to bhabchhilam dekhtey hoben ekebarey James Bond-er baba..." In this sequence, he steals the thunder from Feluda like no one else can.

Apur Sansar - The end of the manuscript
The third and final part of the Apu Trilogy is based on the latter part of Bibhutibhushan's sequel to Pather Panchali - Aparajito. It also has the most deviations from the original among the three films. Maybe, it was a sign of the director's growing confidence.
In the book as well as the film, Apu is shown as a sensitive, talented person with a flair for writing. In fact, his friend Pulu praises his work-in-progress novel to the skies. In the book, Apu becomes a successful novelist after the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel.
The film, however, unfolds differently. Totally shattered after his beloved wife's death, Apu leads a nomadic life - devoid of any meaning. In the most poignant scene of this film, Apu takes out his wonderful manuscript and scatters it over a valley at sunrise. The tragedy of losing a fantastic book is juxtaposed with the beauty of the setting and for a moment, we forget the original tragedy of Aparna's death. As a part of the reader in us dies.
By popular demand, I will also include the last scene of the film - where Apu finally wins over his son, not as a father but as a friend.

Charulata - Rabindrasangeet on a swing
The most criticism Ray had to endure for deviations from original novels was for his Tagore films. Needless to say, Bengalis - like rest of India - want their gods unblemished and untouched. And no upstart from Presidency College had the right to mess around with Tagore's songs and stories, even if he did spend some time at Shantiniketan.
The original short story had a very understated description of the relationship between a lonely wife and her brother-in-law while the film depicted it a little more openly. Two of the best scenes are wonderfully embellished with songs from Tagore.
My favourite scene is one in the garden, where the duo relaxes and Madhabi Mukherjee sings an unplugged version of Phuley phuley dholey dholey, while riding on a swing. The scene composition with POV shots, the camera movement and Madhabi's expressions are all perfect.
Again, on popular demand, I will include a full Rabindrasangeet by Kishore Kumar, which was recorded in Bombay to fit into the star singer's alarmingly busy schedule. As you will realise, it was totally worth it.Of course, the Tagore mafia screamed blue murder at the conversations in between the songs as well as the changed word at the end of it. Sigh! 

Joi Baba Felunath - The Climax
 This is the second Feluda film and by and large, follows the original plot.
Except for one major change in the climax. One of the amazing scenes earlier in the film is a knife-throwing incident where the mild-mannered Jatayu became the target of a wheezing knife-handler. This scene exuberantly performed on screen by Kamu Mukherjee was delightful to see but was not a deviation from the original.
The climax was. It paid back Maganlal Meghraj - Ray's most awesome adversary, played with great relish by Utpal Dutt - in his own coin. Watch it.

Mahapurush - The Roasted Hippo
The story of the god-man was taken from a much-loved novel by Parashuram. While the film added several jokes to establish the divinity of the Birinchibaba, the basic plot & scenes remained the same.
The novel had a passing speculation that the smooth-talking, name-dropping Baba might be receiving some assistance one his patron's shady relatives. In the film, this became a full-fledged scene (watch from 44:00 onwards) in which the connection and the monetary incentives thereof were clearly established. And this wasn't done simply. It had biting wit, a dash of slapstick and Robi Ghosh.
And of course, there was the tip on where to find a roasted hippo in Calcutta. "New Market-ey cheshta kora jetey parey... okhaney toh ajkaal shobi pawa jai." (We could try New Market. Nowadays, you get everything there.)

Seemabaddha - CTC and Nobel Prize
Based on Sankar's novel of the same name, Seembaddha traces the rise and rise of a corporate executive in a multinational company. What sets apart this film from many others in the same genre is the amazing detailing of the corporate life in 1970s Calcutta - the offices, the clubs, the race courses, the beauty parlours, the company flats.
In what I consider a fantastic scene, the executive's (trophy?) wife explains the many priorities of her life to her sister. Her son's stay in a boarding school, her husband's impending promotion... and his fat salary. Rs 1,20,000 per annum, she says. Her culturally inclined sister gasps in wonder - that's what Rabindranath Tagore got as cash award for his Nobel Prize!
Sorry, could not dig out a clip of this one. Will be much obliged if someone locates it for me.

Chiriakhana - What do you know of love?
Uttam Kumar played Byomkesh Bakshi in this adaptation of Saradindu Banerjee's novel of the same name, which is widely regarded as Ray's weakest film.
It was one of the first Ray films that I saw and therefore, I have a soft corner for the film. Actually, I like it a lot despite its obvious rough edges. Byomkesh was no longer the cerebral Bengali bhadralok and quite a handsome rake, not beyond forcibly entering homes of Anglo-Indian beauties!
A missing film actress forms a vital link in the story and what is presented merely as the interview of a film buff in the novel comes across as a full-blown song in the film (which I cannot locate a video of, and hence making do with an audio link). The song - apparently starring the elusive actress - is shot and sung in the typical heavy-handed style of old Bengali cinema. Ray has made fun of this genre quite often but when it came to shooting a romantic number of the same genre, he did a fab job of asking the nyaka question - Bhalobashar tumi ki jano?

So, those were my best scenes in my book that did not come out of the books. What are yours?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Real Estate: Places of Mahabharat

Writing about Mahabharat - I don't tire of!
So, here is a quick list of places one comes across in Mahabharat and where they exist the in present-day sub-continent. Unlike most of my posts (which have zero research), this is extensively researched and cross-checked (read: one afternoon of Wikipedia browsing!).

Hastinapuri - The original capital of Kurus, this is located in present-day Meerut district of Western Uttar Pradesh. As far as I can recall, it is about 30 kms out of Meerut town and that makes it about 100 kms out of Delhi.

Indraprastha - When Dhritarashtra realised his brother's sons and his own brood would get into a tussle over the throne of Hastinapuri, he offered Yudhishthir a huge forest called Khandav and asked him to set up his kingdom there. Obviously, Yudi was a Lokhandwala in disguise and he happily accepted this land about 70 kms away from the centre of the universe (as it was then). His two brothers and adviser Krishna immediately set about burning the entire forest down - including all the animals (Maneka-ji, wake up! It is just a story...) and built a city fit for the king of gods, which they called Indraprastha.
And the land prices in present-day Indraprastha is about 100 times that of present-day Hastinapur!
ASIDE: The west bank of Yamuna was a great favourite of the Kauravs to fob off people with. As I mentioned earlier, they gave a village on the outskirts of what would become Indraprastha to Dronacharya for his services in teaching the princes the art of warfare.


Kurukshetra - For the mother of battles, a massive tract of plain land was required. In addition, this land had to be barren because fertile land could not be wasted in trifling matters like the war to decide the future of the country. Lesson for Buddha-babu, no?
A district in present-day Haryana, about 150 kms from Delhi (Indraprastha, if you will) was the chosen location - which was blessed because millions of bravehearts died a valiant death here. And the rivers of blood that flowed, the land became fertile. I don't know what crops are grown here but Kurukshetra University churns out a large number of graduates every harvesting season!

Gandhar - Homeland of the eponymous Gandhari, this corresponds - as the name suggests - to modern day Kandahar. In a strange turn of events, the Afghans married their daughter off to the blind nephew of Bhishma (who was a bit of dude in those times) - without actually realising the handicap. When the lady did find out, she did something even more inexplicable. Instead of screaming blue murder, she blindfolded herself and remained like that for the rest of her life.

Madra - The second wife of Pandu - Madri - came from this principality in present-day Punjab, split across the border and spreading between the Ravi and Jhelum rivers, with its capital in what would be called Sialkot. 
The first wife - Kunti - was from the Yadava clan based out of Mathura. When she was unable to conceive, a second wife was procured in the typical macho manner because it did not occur to the good Hastinapurians that their king could also be impotent!
Anyway, they got a sexy Punjaban (historical evidence: BR Chopra's Mahabharat) to get their king all excited but we all know how the impregnations really happened, don't we? The sexy Punjaban lived up to her reputation when she was taught by Kunti on how to call the gods for the not-so-immaculate conception. She promptly called twin gods - Ashwini Kumars - and had a rocking threesome to produce Nakul and Sahadev.

Panchal - The heroine of the epic was the daughter of the Drupad and was also known as Panchali for the region she hailed from.
Panchal roughly corresponded to modern Badaun and Farrukhabad districts with its capital Kannauj located around 80 kms from Kanpur.

Incidentally, all the major female characters of the epics were identified by their region. And this is true for Seeta as well, who was called Maithili (after Mithila - the capital city of her father's kingdom) or Vaidehi (after Videha - the kingdom) which are locations in present-day North Bihar or Nepal. 

Anga - When Karna challenged Arjun to a duel and was rebuffed for not being a king, he was immediately made the king of Anga by Duryodhan.
Now, Anga was not really next door as it corresponded to the region of Bhagalpur and Muger in present-day Bihar. Magadh was the western part of Bihar while Anga was the eastern part. In fact, Anga-Banga-Kalinga was a triad of regions located adjacent to each other. 

Mathura / Vrindavan / Dwarka - The seat of Yadavs (who eventually founded a great univsersity and seat of learning in the Eastern parts of the country) was Mathura, which is still called that. It is the same with Vrindavan.
When Mathura was threatened by Jarasandha (king of Magadh and Kansa's father-in-law), the Yadav king - Krishna - moved the capital out to a distant town on India's west coast which came to be known as Dwarka. By this move, Krishna avoided any casualties and gave himself time to fight Jarasandha some other day.
Being on the coast,  Dwarka was damaged by the sea several times but its resilient citizens managed to rebuild it every time and the city stands to this day, considered as one of the oldest cities in the world.

Chedi - This was the kingdom of Sisupala, another sworn enemy of Krishna - who got a boon from Krishna himself that 100 of his sins would be forgiven. He did not pay heed and committed his 101st sin at Yudhishthir's coronation, leading to his death by chakralet (read: Sudarshan Chakra).
This kingdom corresponds to present-day Bundelkhand - which means this dude was also hovering around Mathura to teach Krishna a lesson!

This post was inspired by a fine retelling of Mahabharat (Jaya by Devdutt Patnaik), which I am reading currently. I was again reminded of how much I love the epic and never tire of it. Rajshekhar Basu's version (in Bengali) was a constant companion during my growing up years. Actually, it still is. Bought on 19 August 1989, the dog-eared red book is still at eye-level on my bookshelf!
I suspect (hope?) Jaya will be the same for my son.