“I don’t understand why India looks up to the Oscars… Audience is my Oscar.” – Mira Nair, quoted in The Telegraph, Kolkata, December 1, 2012
On April 23, 1992, a man died. A tall man once blessed with broad shoulders, a headful of dark, well-set hair, and sharply chiseled features; a man who touched several art forms, enriching whatever he touched. Satyajit Ray had served the cause of art and aesthetics as few modern Indians had before him, or after. When he died, India mourned and the Bengali people immediately realized that they had lost their last renaissance man.
Recalling that fateful day, novelist Amitav Ghosh has written: “The day of Satyajit Ray’s death was like none that Kolkata had ever seen before. When the news began to spread, a pall of silence descended on the city. Next morning hundreds of thousands of people filed past his body, braving the intense heat. In the evening when his body was taken to the crematorium, the streets were thickly lined with people standing in silent vigil. Many held up placards which referred to him as “The King”. The whole city was sunk in an inexpressible sadness; everybody knew that an era had ended, and with it, Kolkata’s claim to primacy in the arts. The city was orphaned; its king was gone and there was none to take his place.”
There can be no other opinion about Ray the filmmaker than that he was one of the greatest of the tribe to which he belonged. But one did not have to be in awe of everything that he directed to be convinced of his cinematic pre-eminence. Having said that, it needs to be pointed out that his life-long espousal of the “Hollywood cause” – if one may put it that way – was a kind of blot on his otherwise enviable record. In 1992 when Hollywood gave him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Ray was in no physical condition to travel; so he received the award lying in his hospital bed. Ray had then said that getting the Oscar was the greatest moment in his life – or words to that effect. Many people were deeply disappointed at the way Ray had invested respectability, nay legitimacy, on a doubtful American invention like the Oscar. That a master who had been honoured with the top prizes at prestigious festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice should come to attach such importance to the Oscar was even read by some as a sign of the mental deterioration of a dying man. Whatever the reading, the fact remains that many a cinephile was left cold, if not aghast.
These words have a direct connection with what Mira Nair said 11 years ago in Goa about the Oscars – “I don’t understand why India looks up to the Oscars…” It may sound like blasphemy to Ray-worshippers, but the truth remains that if any single person is to be held responsible for misleading some Indian filmmakers and a section of the viewing public into believing that getting the Oscar is the same as being born again, it is Satyajit Ray for whom otherwise one and all have deep veneration. Everyone has an “Achilles’ heel”; in Ray’s case it was his unrestrained enthusiasm – at times looking like a pathological excess – for practically anything smelling of American Cinema, particularly of the ’30s and the ’40s. He repeatedly spoke and wrote about how he grew up on that kind of cinema. True, once in a while, he doffed his cap at Italian neo-realism, particularly Vittorio de Sica, or at Jean Renoir who he had grown close to in Calcutta when the great Frenchman was shooting The River, but much of the space in the chamber of Ray’s appreciation of foreign cinema was taken up by Hollywood.
In this context, a thought that has exercised many Indian minds is, whether Ray’s passionate advocacy of Hollywood had anything to do with Martin Scorsese and his friends taking great pains to persuade the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to give the Oscar to Ray. This is not to undermine their stated admiration for the maker of the Apu triology and other masterpieces, but to air a popular suspicion in the matter. After all, Hollywood has repeatedly proved to be a “political” place complete with a vigorously-pursued agenda of playing favourites and speaking up for people seen to be tilting towards “Uncle Oscar”.
Coming nearer home, the Indian nation did all it could to show its appreciation of the tall man. Both, the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian decoration, and the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the most prestigious recognition for an Indian filmmaker, were duly conferred on him. No less a figure than the Prime Minister of India travelled to Kolkata to hand over the Bharat Ratna medallion to Ray. One would have thought that the filmmaker would be a little expansive about his happiness at being decorated with these awards. But no, he has very little, if anything, to say about the national outpouring of affection and admiration; all he can think about is the Oscar. How pathetic! But, at least this much can be said in his defence that the man was consistent in his praise for Hollywood.
To return to the point where we started – Mira Nair’s admiration for Ray’s creative powers is unbounded, as proved by this extract from an interview she gave years ago. Nair: “Obviously, I admire greatly Satyajit Ray for his purity and capacity to film human truths in an apparently simple way. In art there is nothing more difficult. My admiration, often transformed into emotion, has a personal and cultural motive as well. The Bengali regions he describes are very similar to those in which I grew up, and in his characters I recognize types and nuances that I know very well.”
Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a film critic