When Satyajit Ray Came to Hollywood

East and West: the twin myths cast lasting shadows on the mind of the Apu Trilogy filmmaker. 

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty has also written for The Nation...
 

On June 1, 1967, Satyajit Ray landed in Hollywood. He had travelled there on receiving the news that Columbia Pictures was willing to support his latest project, The Alien. The Alien was based on a story Ray had written and illustrated for a children’s magazine some years before, in which a small extraterrestrial creature, with identifiably human traits, ends up in a forest in rural Bengal and finds a friend. The script had been prepared in February, just four months ago, after a man named Mike Wilson—an American living in Sri Lanka at the time—had written to Ray, expressing his interest in co-producing such a film. Ray had no reason, then, to decline. Wilson had written to him again, this time from Hollywood, telling him that Columbia had agreed to back the film. Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were both eager to play the American engineer in the script; Saul Bass was overseeing the special effects. Earlier, in April of that year, over lunch with Ray and Wilson in Paris, Peter Sellers had seemed open to playing the Indian businessman. Now Sellers was in Los Angeles, shooting The Party. He was keen to meet Ray again.

All of this was strange to Ray—theatrically bizarre. He reached Hollywood, as he wrote later, “with the hum of the machinery in my ears.” He had become used to certain modesties in the profession: reasonable production costs, decent returns, standing ovations in European film festivals, and courteous criticism. During production, he preferred to rehearse on finished sets and edit the rushes as they were filmed: seldom did he shoot anything in excess. To be picked up, then, from the airport in a Lincoln convertible, checked into a cottage in the ritzy Chateau Marmont, and taken later to a gathering in a mansion that had once been owned by Greta Garbo and was now frequented by Rita Hayworth, William Wyler, Jennifer Jones—Ray found Hollywood rather perplexing. But Wilson was at hand, shadowing him everywhere, eager to drive him to these meetings and parties. “Don’t worry, Maestro,” he told Ray. “Columbia has made an advance against expenses. You can’t afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!”

Ray did not see a cent of that advance, nor did he met Brando or McQueen. Peter Sellers, he soon learned, was happy impersonating Indians and Frenchmen in blockbuster franchises, where the humour, if any, was of the toilet kind and the point was to convey a set of cultural incongruities. But what rankled Ray most was the discovery that the script of The Alien was no longer under his name. Duplicate copies, on a desk in his Chateau Marmont cottage, bore an unexpected credit: Copyright: Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray.” Beyond the one or two suggestions he had made to the dialogue of the American engineer, Ray did not recall Wilson contributing in any significant way. When asked about the credits, however, Wilson was not worried. “Two heads are better than one, Maestro.”

Columbia disagreed. It emerged that the studio was interested so long as Wilson could be persuaded to sign away his rights. Ray left Los Angeles without making any progress. But it was in London, later in October, that he understood what Wilson’s expectations were from the project. In Ray’s telling, Wilson is almost a stand-in for the archetypal Hollywood studio head—sly, and predictably paranoid:

On my way to the airport Mike had commissioned a Rolls with a built-in cocktail cabinet for the journey. A sheaf of papers was slapped down on my knee. “If you would just sign here, Maestro.”

I said: “I’m sorry. I can’t even read what I’m supposed to sign.”

Mike zipped out a pocket torch and flashed it on the top page of the bunch.

“It’s just to say you and I are partners.”

“I can’t sign anything in a car, Mike,” I said. “Not even in a Rolls Royce. Send the papers over to me in Calcutta.”

The papers never arrived, according to Ray. The Alien remained unmade.

*

Even though Wilson, a maverick, appears more responsible for The Alien’s demise than any studio or star system, it is unlikely that Ray would have done well in Hollywood. His career, until then, had been marked by instances in which institutions were successively sidestepped; never had he compromised his vision, nor had there been a case of blunt confrontation. The impediments at every stage—the fear of being stymied by the carelessness and the lacklustre equipment and the general contempt for cinema as an art that, he wrote, made all serious Indian filmmakers vulnerable to heart disease—Ray had negotiated these problems quietly with persistence and imagination: he had managed to not become a renegade or a stooge.

At twenty-one, Ray had dropped out of Shantiniketan, the idyllic university Rabindranath Tagore had set up in Bengal’s countryside. Returning to Calcutta he had not hesitated, despite being a student of painting, to join an advertising agency as a junior visualiser. He worked there for thirteen years. In 1952, he borrowed money to begin shooting Pather Panchali, the first film in the Apu trilogy. The idea was to film some footage to get producers interested. Ray, and the crew he had gathered for the project, were by and large cinema enthusiasts with scarcely any experience in the business. They would learn while on the job; and it would take more than two years to procure enough funds to complete the film. And even after, the first public screening of Pather Panchali was held not in Calcutta, or Bombay—epicentres, respectively, of Bengali and Hindi movies—nor, indeed, in Hollywood, but in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of an exhibition of Indian textiles and ornaments. Along with his editor, Ray had scrambled to meet the Museum’s deadline and consequently the audience in New York that evening sat through a black-and-white Bengali picture for two hours without any subtitles. Ray was not present at his first international premiere.

Quite apart from his history with institutions, there was also the question of how films were made and packaged in Hollywood—what Ray might have meant by the “hum of the machinery in my ears.” Where Ray wrote his own screenplays, preferred to operate the camera as often as possible, composed his own music, designed publicity posters and fonts, the studios of the West Coast were known for the scale of their operations and compartmentalised efficiency, so that by the time a film went to the floors its appeal for different audiences would have been sorted out, and everyone in the cast and crew—from the director to the actors to the set workers and sound technicians, all protected by their respective unions—everyone worked in fixed roles to advance that appeal. What has worked once will work again, the Hollywood credo went; prior success was desirable because it could be endlessly replicated. Hollywood, like every longstanding establishment, had a house style guide.

In so far as Ray’s films had a style, it was one of profound synthesis, where script, sound, image and technique come together to achieve a self-possessed density. He believed that cinema was unique because it was capable of “absorbing and alchemizing the influence of inferior arts.” A Ray film is immediately recognisable from its stills, despite being based often on a Bengali short story or novel. His method was so refined, from Pather Panchali onwards, that his appeal was crudely attributed to the strength of his images. Pigeons dispersing from a roof at the exact instant that Harihar, Apu’s father, is breathing his last; the opening sequence of Charulata (The Lonely Wife) in which a bored Charu is shown flitting from window to window alone in the afternoon, tracking the movements of random people in the street: sure, many of his early triumphs may seem visual. But they linger precisely because in these moments the other aspects too are functioning at their best. It is the accompanying sound of the flute, after all, that makes Harihar’s death scene so redolent of a line spoken by Vladimir in Waiting for Godot: “The air is full of our cries.” And it is the camera swooping down on Charu’s hands and face, while simultaneously situating her alone in every single room—the camerawork conveys her restlessness so perfectly that the voices from the street outside seem like looping vibrations in her head.

*

This synthesis was instinctive, fuelled as much by the evenings he had spent watching the latest American releases during wartime in Calcutta as by the years in Shantiniketan, which he later credited with instilling in him “an awareness of our tradition.” His attachment to western classical music was strong, having been exposed to Beethoven and Mozart as a teenager. At the same time, his talent for Bengali and English calligraphy, his work as a designer, illustrator, and writer of detective stories—all of that he seemed to have inherited from his father. East and West: the twin myths had cast lasting shadows on his mind. But there was also a third myth, not inextricable perhaps from the other two, for the period of Satyajit Ray’s trials as a filmmaker happened to overlap with the early years of India’s nationhood. When Ray and his crew were making the rounds of producers’ offices in Calcutta, showing the parts of Pather Panchali they had shot on their own, Jawaharlal Nehru—the first prime minister of India—and his cabinet were resettling the eight million refugees left homeless by the bloody partition of the subcontinent, or debating, with other elected representatives, the shape of the new republic. Nehru, like Ray, had grown up with the glories and contradictions of both the East and the West: born in Allahabad, a pivotal town in Hindu mythology, the future prime minister was educated in Harrow and Cambridge. Together with Gandhi, he had been at the vanguard of the long non-violent campaign for self-rule, and when the British finally left in 1947, Nehru was chosen to be at the helm. Independence had meant division: Pakistan was formed, on the western and eastern parts of British India, as a separate homeland for Muslims; more than 500 scattered territories across the subcontinent were controlled by monarchs who were free now, at least theoretically, to branch out on their own. Yet Nehru envisioned a united, democratic country, where the rights of an individual were progressive and paramount; which would not align itself to either of the Cold War power blocs; and where every religion, caste, and class would be respected and treated equally. Ray would often remark that while shooting he had the whole film in his head at all times—“the whole sweep of the film.” Nehru, in those first overwhelming days of freedom, appeared to have the whole sweep of the nation in his head.

To the extent that independent India was a film under production, Nehru was the veritable auteur—and, as with any auteur on set, his idealism in the face of odds must have proved hard to resist. Ray, in his Lake Temple Road apartment in Calcutta, was far away from Nehru and the other leaders in New Delhi, but perhaps he too had subconsciously imbibed the idea that things would work out well in the end. When we last see Apu, he is bearded, lugging his estranged little son on his shoulders, and grinning through his teeth. The son rests his chin lovingly on his father’s hair; the camera, capturing the moment from below, makes it seem as if the child is the crown on the father’s head. What warrants this happiness, one wonders? Through the three films we have seen Apu lose his sister, his father, his mother, his wife, all in an untimely manner. Who is to say that the son won’t die early as well, or that he will grow up with his father by his side? Or think of the final scene in Mahanagar (The Big City). Husband and wife, both unemployed now, have arrived at a mutual understanding for once, and are seen crossing a busy road together while, above them, streetlamps and office windows flicker after sundown.

Many of Ray’s early films end hopefully, even in their ambivalence. Charulata, for instance, doesn’t conclude so much as come to a standstill with a series of photographs: Charu’s half-lit face; her husband’s half-lit face; their hands not quite touching, but reaching out hesitantly. But given the loss of trust in their relationship, would the hands have been extended at all? Ray seems naïve in this light, despite his superior sensibility. Perhaps he thought he could work for a while in Hollywood and return unchanged.

*

The film he made first after returning from Los Angeles was a children’s musical. It wasn’t until 1969 that he released another film for mature audiences. Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) follows four Calcutta men on a holiday away from the city. The men are under the impression that by travelling to a tribal hamlet they have escaped from the constraints of human civilisation. All ties have been severed, they assume; and by refusing to shave, burning a newspaper, drinking local liquor, and howling like Tarzan on their afternoon treks, they convince themselves they have become “hippies” at last. But urbanity is ultimately a way of being in the world, and the four of them, even by their silly standards, are hopeless as hippies. They offer cash at the simplest of provocations, and are always looking to be a little more comfortable. The moment one of them sees two city women—“saree and slacks”—he rushes to shave. The two women are the Tripathis; they own a farmhouse not far from where the men are boarding. Though also from Calcutta, they seem to move in this new environment with the composure it demands. It is the women’s self-awareness, the willingness to reckon with their own deeper feelings and desires, which embarrasses the four men. They realise, possibly for the first time in their lives, how others may view them; they cannot escape anymore from their inadequacies.

Two scenes are especially memorable. One afternoon, the men and the Tripathi women get together in a sort of impromptu picnic. They settle down on bedsheets under a tree and, after some chitchat and snacks, decide to play a memory game. The game itself is innocuous—each player gets to add the name of a famous person of his or her choice after recalling, in sequence, the names already said—but Ray portrays it with the intensity of a poker session in progress. Often, the camera will stare at a player from a second player’s shoulders; or it will swivel from face to face as the choices are being recalled, like a referee looking for signs of foul play. The names that they choose—Tagore, Karl Marx, Helen of Troy—reveal not only their individual personalities, or the preferences of cosmopolitan Calcutta in those years, but also clarify many of their earlier private conversations. In the background, we hear the low rustling of leaves, the occasional murmur of insects from the forest. It is almost as if the audience is also being lulled to forget.

In a later scene, Ashim, the winner of the memory game, is walking with Rini, the younger of the Tripathi women. They stop near the window of a cabin. The cabin belongs to the watchman of Ashim’s guesthouse. All through the film the four men have put the watchman at considerable risk. From staying illegally in the guesthouse, to coaxing him to prepare meals for them despite his wife’s illness, to bribing him each time he so much as demurred—the watchman’s future has never been a qualm. Now Ashim, following Rini’s lead, peeps inside the cabin. In the dim light they can see some naked children wailing. The wife is in bed, breathing heavily, and fanning herself with one hand: it is clear that her fever has increased. Rini and Ashim move on, unable to watch any longer. She asks him if he knew about the extent of the wife’s sickness. “Somewhat,” Ashim says. “That is why I have avoided coming this way.” But before he can even complete his response, she nudges his shoulder in excitement. “Look there!” she says, pointing to the forest. Two deer are prancing merrily in the bushes. Ashim and Rini have distracted themselves again. They need not worry anymore about the watchman’s sick wife. The children, too, can be forgotten.

That people in cities have become too used to distractions is skillfully conveyed in Aranyer Din Ratri. So accustomed are Ashim and his friends to their metropolitan diversions that, outside of Calcutta, they remind one of the alien from Ray’s unmade film. The film verges on this apprehension, and yet it is the apprehension that tinges it now with a retroactive innocence: it seems not as much the thing as the foreboding of things to come. The innocence would evaporate in the films Ray made next. Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (The Company Limited), Jan Aranya (The Middleman)—all three stories take place in Calcutta. But it is not the Calcutta where Apu, despite struggling to make rent, spent all his time reading and playing the flute; or where, just over ten years ago, Ray had quit advertising to become a full-time filmmaker. The city now belonged to those who had pared down their ambitions—indeed, to those who were prepared to forget them. The male protagonists in all three films come to see apathy as the only remaining mode of survival. Years of escaping responsibilities have made them inept, blinded them to more imaginative options. Their convictions ring hollow to potential employers: a job is now the outcome of competitive grit, predicated on the ability to compromise. There is no space in the city for idlers and daydreamers, for those who are both impoverished and unwilling to work. The Calcutta Trilogy—as these three films were called—questioned the open-minded stance of The Apu Trilogy. Ray was growing aware of the pitfalls of synthesis: that it is dangerous to live always in your head.

*

Columbia Pictures did not forget about The Alien. From time to time an executive would write to Ray, or appear at his door, imploring him to urge Wilson to pull out. Peter Sellers pulled out, in July 1968. He told Ray that his role did not seem “complete.” Ray expected Columbia to withdraw as well, but they remained enthusiastic so long as Wilson wasn’t involved. This meant Ray couldn’t really move on. In a letter that year to Arthur C. Clarke, a mutual friend of his and Wilson’s, Ray appears to be both confessing and asking for help. The visit to Hollywood, Ray wrote, “was the beginning of a period of profound uneasiness…For one thing I was too deeply disturbed, and for another—I was in a strange sort of way fascinated by the sinister turn of events and waited to see which way and how far it would go.”

Such a fascination might not have been wholly inappropriate. Clarke replied that Wilson had shaved his head and become a monk: he was somewhere in the forests of south India, meditating. But other events around Ray were also drifting course. Nehru had died in 1964, and in less than two years, his daughter Indira Gandhi was prime minister: democracy could now accommodate bloodlines. There were food shortages and popular movements of unrest in many states. Wars with China and Pakistan had thinned resources. Closer to Calcutta, in the district of Naxalbari, a group of peasants had taken up arms to overthrow the feudal ownership of lands and forests. Naxalism, as the insurrection came to be called, spread rapidly; and soon factory workers in Calcutta were agitating for better wages and rights. The city, once second only to London in the British Empire, was now paralysed by riots and clashes. Shops began closing early in the afternoon; streets were quiet in the evenings, and policemen entered homes and colleges to arrest and kill radicals. Conditions only worsened when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, and refugees, escaping bloodshed in their hometowns, trickled in from across the border. Ray would later say that he contemplated leaving Calcutta during this period—especially after his son, Sandip, was mobbed and threatened with a knife. But he stayed on.

Siddhartha, the central character in Pratidwandi, seems to be waiting to see how much more desperate his situation can get. Having dropped out of medical college after his father’s death, he wanders about the city looking for employment. He senses a pushback at every bend: inside a public bus where standing passengers refuse to move, so that he is forced to travel on the footboard; outside a job interview where, for a single opening, too many candidates will show up; even from a well-to-do friend who brazenly steals change from a Red Cross donation jar, and calls Siddhartha a “thinker,” not a “doer.” His younger brother is preparing to join the insurgency. His sister must fend off her boss’s suspicious wife. All the older diversions have been exhausted. Bombs go off inside a cinema hall in the middle of the afternoon; while Siddhartha’s veiled resentment of modern women masks a fear of sex in the most expected of ways. He copes by regressing into his childhood frequently, or by recalling an old college professor pontificating on the female anatomy. That Siddhartha will have to leave Calcutta is evident from the first fifteen minutes of the film. We keep watching to see when.

The job interview in the opening sequence is a tour de force. Ray brings to the moment a marvellous sense of compression. We recognise Siddhartha as someone too sincere and lacking in tact: asked to pick the “most outstanding and significant” event of the previous decade, he chooses the Vietnam War. But we can also tell the interviewers are incompetent in their own way, alert not as much to the potential of a résumé as to the potential red flags. As soon as they wonder how the Vietnam War could have been more important than the landing on the moon, we know that, whatever Siddhartha’s reasons, they already consider him a “communist.”

Where Siddhartha would have found himself agreeing with the conscientious objectors of his generation in the US, Shyamalendu, in The Company Limited, would not have bothered much with Vietnam—or, for that matter, Naxalbari. He is, as a British reviewer pointed out, what Siddhartha might have become if he had impressed his interviewers: a successful corporate executive. He lives with his wife in a lavish apartment furnished by his firm. Their son, though only seven, is away in a boarding school ten months of the year. Shyamalendu has one good reason for each of his choices: why he must incite a labour strike in a distant factory; why his child cannot go to a school in the city; why his parents, despite being in Calcutta, cannot stay with him and his wife. The reason is, of course, his job, his position in the company. He has become his work.

The film portrays this seclusion by narrowing the frame throughout. We seldom see Calcutta, except as a backdrop to Shyamalendu’s meetings and lunches. While travelling he looks not sideways at the streets, but at the insignia to the front of his company car. Though he enjoys exclusive access to clubs, cabarets and race courses in the city, he visits them mostly to hobnob with people from work. Only once does the camera depart from his perspective, panning across the empty living room after he and his wife have left for dinner. We see the furniture all spic and span, the books prettily displayed in shelves. A wind is blowing in through the open window, and yet it upsets nothing but the curtains. The cushions and sheets are impeccably arranged; every nook is well-lit and organised. The couple seem to live not in a home, but in an ad for Shyamalendu’s firm.

But it is in the third film, Jan Aranya, that Ray makes his sharpest statement. The protagonist, Somnath, is a synthesis of Shyamalendu and Siddhartha, a thinker and doer in equal parts. Somnath does not leave Calcutta when faced with the prospect of unemployment after college. He becomes a broker. Everything—“from a pin to an elephant”—is up for sale in a crumbling, corrupt society, and everyone—father, lover, teacher, friend—is implicated in the rot. The costs of staying on prove morally steep.

Around the time Jan Aranya was released in 1975, Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties and imprisoned thousands of opposition leaders across the country, declaring a state of internal emergency. Newspapers were told to submit every article for prior approval. Men were picked up routinely from their homes and given forced vasectomies. Indira’s India was far from the nation Nehru had imagined at independence; it was the opposite of synthesis. The dreamy Apu had no recourse now but to admit defeat like Siddhartha or turn self-serving like Shyamalendu—or, like Somnath, deliver his best friend’s sister to a client for sex. Like Ray, they had realised there was nowhere else to go. The endings of the films hinted as much. Pratidwandi concludes with Siddhartha in a shabby hotel away from Calcutta, having accepted a medical sales job in a small town, Shyamalendu is last seen seated in his living room, under a ceiling fan manufactured by his firm. They will languish in their jobs, Ray suggests, getting by in a narrow sense, unlikely ever to escape.

*

The Alien was finally abandoned after Ray watched two films by Steven Spielberg—E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. E.T., especially, seemed very familiar. There was the overall friendliness of the creature, its naïve curiosity about life on earth; there was also the fact that the film began as a project for Columbia Pictures, before being passed on to other studios. The size of the alien, and many of its special attributes, appeared to have a precedent in Ray’s screenplay. Until his death Ray would insist that E.T. “would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies,” though he never took the matter any further. Spielberg, on the other hand, felt he was too young to be influenced. “Tell Satyajit,” he apparently told Arthur C. Clarke, “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.” But that isn’t exactly a denial, as Andrew Robinson suggests in his biography, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. It “hardly resolves the doubts,” Robinson writes, “especially as Spielberg was already an adult and getting started in movies in the late 1960s.”

Such doubts, however, distract us from what is most significant about The Alien. It is the closest Ray would come to accommodating a global audience for his work. His films were, at best, regional successes in India; and all the acclaim in Venice and Cannes seldom showed at the box office. Yet, to Ray, it seemed natural to be in Calcutta and continue making films in Bengali. Anything else would have made his method inorganic:

The moment you’re on set the three-legged instrument takes charge. Problems come thick and fast. Where to place the camera? High or low? Near or far? On the dolly or on the ground? … Get too close to the action and the emotion of the scene spills over; get too far back and the thing becomes cold and remote.

This is Ray describing the first day’s shooting of Pather Panchali. “Near or far?” he asks—not “Calcutta or Hollywood?” One is a question of popularity; the other, of process. Ray was, from the beginning, more committed to the process.

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