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The Father, and his Absence, in Satyajit Ray's Cinema

22 Apr, 2020 | Short Features by Amitava Nag
Pather Panchali (1955). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

Satyajit Ray was born in 1921, the same year his illustrious father Sukumar Ray fell ill to the then-deadly disease, kala-azar. The senior Ray finally passed away in 1923, when Satyajit was two-and-a half years old. Satyajit grew up in his maternal grandfather’s home under the strict norms of his young widowed mother Suprabha. His introduction and acquaintance with his father had been primarily through the latter’s literary works, a reflection of which surfaced and resurfaced in a number of Satyajit’s later creative work, in cinema also in his fiction.

In many of his early films, the father though logically existing is significantly inconspicuous by his physical absence.
It is from this perspective that we may observe the father figures present in Ray’s cinema, or their absence in general. In many of his early films, the father though logically existing is significantly inconspicuous by his physical absence. In Pather Panchali, for instance, Harihar leaves the house and young Apu only to return occasionally at the climactic turns of the linear narrative. In fact, the first two films of Apu Trilogy in a way symbolize Ray’s own restrained childhood under the supervision of his widowed mother. Even in his third film, Paras Pathar, the protagonist, Paresh, though middle-aged, remains childless. In the very next, Jalsaghar, the zamindar’s son’s accidental death shown in a flashback sequence robs the narrative of a chance to create any memorable father–son relationship. Ray continues this ‘fatherless’ trait in most, though not all his significant films.
The journey that started with Harihar, a village priest of an agrarian world, who is largely absent from Apu in his childhood, concludes with Apu returning to his son and moving on to an urban, albeit uncertain, future probably to become a city-bred bourgeois intellectual himself.
In Apur Sansar, the third part of the Apu Trilogy, there is a shift from the trend when we are introduced to Kajal, the young son of a grown-up Apu. In the last scene of the film the circle of life as depicted in the entire trilogy comes to a completion as Apu is affectionately reunited with Kajal. The journey that started with Harihar, a village priest of an agrarian world, who is largely absent from Apu in his childhood, concludes with Apu returning to his son and moving on to an urban, albeit uncertain, future probably to become a city-bred bourgeois intellectual himself. It is to be borne in mind that the Nehruvian ideal of nation-building in independent India in the 1950s did impact a number of film-makers including Satyajit Ray. In most of his early films till the mid-1970s there is a latent streak of conflict between the traditional and the modern. 
 
Apur Sansar (1959). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


And precisely in this context, in most of his films that have a significant father figure, it is the clash of the two generations that has allusive relevance in the narrative of those films. What is also to be observed is Ray’s ambivalent, and at times ambiguous stance in sympathizing with protagonists representing the ‘traditional’ fold of life. 
What is also to be observed is Ray’s ambivalent, and at times ambiguous stance in sympathizing with protagonists representing the ‘traditional’ fold of life. 
If in Jalsaghar, the director is compassionate towards Biswambhar Roy, who represents the feudal world as opposed to the newly cropped industrialists, in Devi the father is superstitious and authoritarian. It is in this latter film that the collision of generations representing a clash of ideas is depicted the most within the ambit of Ray’s cinema. The son, Umaprasad, is shown as a follower of Rammohan Roy and studying the modern, rational subjects in Calcutta, the seat of liberal culture as opposed to the father who is, in a sense, entrapped in his colossal mansion in his ‘backward’ village. The overbearing, patriarchal representation of the father figure is complete in Kanchenjungha, though here the conflict of ideas is not represented as an overt war between individuals. 
 
Mahanagar (1963). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


The disagreement of ideas, the transition from the old to the new is heightened in Mahanagar where the retired, old schoolteacher father-in-law feels that his age-old beliefs are being attacked when Arati, his daughter-in-law, is almost forced to work outside to earn a living for the family. This depiction of the working couple as a new symbol of enlightened gender equality is a means to transcend the barriers posed by patriarchal Bengali middle-class society represented by its father figures. 
It is a time of disillusionment for the youth. It is a time when the young sons of Ray’s cinema of the 1950s and 1960s need to graduate to responsible fathers of a modern India.
The fate of the father figure becomes complicated in Ray’s urban Calcutta Trilogy of the 1970s. It is a time of disillusionment for the youth. It is a time when the young sons of Ray’s cinema of the 1950s and 1960s need to graduate to responsible fathers of a modern India. Unfortunately, the social script of Indian history treaded a more complicated path at the time of youth unrest that rocked West Bengal first and the entire nation next. Pratidwandi starts off with the death of the protagonist’s father, a metaphor for the severed nation-state idealism of Nehru’s vision. In the next of the trilogy, Seemabaddha, the protagonist’s moral crisis is attenuated when he starts climbing the proverbial ladder of success in a corporate firm after leaving his father’s ‘noble’ profession of teaching. But the zenith of the father figure’s helpless cry comes in Jana Aranya when the father is significantly present in the narrative. Here, the conflict is not between generations any more, it is within and oriented towards the father figure himself – the death of his innocent beliefs and the emergence of distrust and uncertainties. Yet, he tries to come forward to understand the crumbling world of his two sons and the bleak future they are heading towards. In one significant scene he declares, ‘I no longer believe that the father’s opinion counts any more,’ – a harsh truth, an undeniable moral detachment in the world of modernism. 
 
Jana Aranya (1976). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
But the zenith of the father figure’s helpless cry comes in Jana Aranya when the father is significantly present in the narrative.
If we observe the course of Ray’s cinema, it is not surprising that the protagonists aged with Ray himself. It becomes obvious hence that the journey that started with Apu in Pather Panchali culminates in Manmohan in Agantuk, his last film. As if Apu took nearly four decades to become Manmohan, a childless father figure. Here, the ideological crisis of the protagonist is complete because, what loomed as a bleak future in the Calcutta Trilogy has now become an omnipresent reality that can never be shaken off. In his last three films, Ray’s father figures are helpless, distraught, subjugated to complete disenchantment with the societal practices in which they find themselves. It is no doubt Ray’s own personal take on the crumbling ideological world. 
 
Agantuk (1991). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
It becomes obvious hence that the journey that started with Apu in Pather Panchali culminates in Manmohan in Agantuk, his last film.
In the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Ray’s personal favourite film-maker, the father–son dichotomy forms a very important aspect of his oeuvre due to Bergman’s own tumultuous relation with his father. Not only in the seminal works but even the final ones including Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, Bergman returns to this theme to depict the crisis of the human condition and the fallacy of social existences in face of emotional turmoil. Ray’s camera had always been non-obtrusive. His lack of personal experiences with his own father probably enabled him to desentimentalize the relation and elevate his vision from the psychological to a sociological plane. 
 

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About the Author

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic and editor of film magazine 'Silhouette' (www.silhouette-magazine.com) since 2001. Till date Amitava has authored 5 books on cinema including 'Satyajit Ray's Heroes and Heroines', '16 Frames' and 'Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Films of Soumitra Chatterjee'. Amitava also writes poems and short fiction in Bengali and English and authored a collection of short stories each in English and Bengali, and an anthology of Bengali poems.His first anthology of English verses and a selected translation of Soumitra Chatterjee's poems are awaiting publication.

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