Satyajit Ray Alan Ross - Essay

Alan Ross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ray's films—arguably the most considerable achievement in the art of our time—have made only a modest impact in relation to their quality. What the curious but weary West has wanted from India has been its peripheral and largely discarded mysticism, not its human problems and statistics of defeat.

Where much of even the best cinema is a game, played in isolation and its interest dependent on awareness of cultural cross-references and its own improvizations, Ray's films have an organic growth, to which the actors in prescribed situations contribute, that makes discussions of technique and influence almost superfluous. (p. 150)

In The Adversary the visual and dialogue references to politics are more obvious than usual, but it is what Ray makes out of nothing, in purely cinematic terms, that is significant, not what his films can be reduced to in terms of theme and incident.

In fact, each of his films can be regarded as a series of beautifully conceived set-pieces, but so much are they part of a whole, so gently do they flow into each other, that anecdote or style are never obtrusive. Robin Wood and others have drawn attention to the Mozartian aspect of Ray's art [see excerpt above], to his debt to Renoir, to the stylish innovations he has borrowed from others, but ultimately the films quite simply are—aspects of growing, struggling, loving, dying, while the sun shines, the rains fall, the forms in offices are made out in triplicate, and the candidates wait. In the end the trains that are one of the most potent images of Indian life shunt their passengers separately away to new beginnings, new endings.

The Adversary is more or less this too; a few marvellously observed interviews in stifling heat, with hundreds of applicants overqualified for the most modest of jobs, some desultory walks about Calcutta, an unconsummated visit to a whore, the start of a love affair. It is a study, like nearly all Ray's films, in frustration and in hope, where only political references date it. (p. 151)

Alan Ross, "A Postscript in Bengal," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1973), Vol. 13, No. 1, April-May, 1973, pp. 149-51.