Indian films were shown abroad long before the advent of sound and Satyajit Ray just when that obscure Englishman Charles Spencer Chaplin was getting into his baggy trousers, David Wark Griffith was a year away from The Birth of a Nation, Sergei Eisenstein was still a freshman at the Civil Engineering Institute at St.Petersberg and Mary Pickford had not become ‘the sweetheart of the world’. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, the pioneer Indian producer, screened four of his early films in London to an audience which was as much intrigued by Phalke’s technical virtuosity as by the strange, quixotic charm of Hindu mythology his films depicted.
With war raging in Europe and men abandoning art in favour of guns, all East-West cultural communication ceased for a while. Five years after the armistice, Maharashtra Film Company’s Padmini was shown at the Wembley Exhibition in London. The film made enough impact on the cinema critic of Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, who called it ‘a most charming production, full of strangely wistful beauty and acted with extraordinary grace and dignity by a mixed cast of Muslims and Hindus, everyone of whom is a natural aristocrat’.
Close on its heels came the Great Eastern Corporation’s The Light of Asia, dealing with the life of Gautama Buddha. The film, starring Himansu Rai and Sita Devi, is said to have gone down well with European audiences. Ernst Iron, the Austrian scriptwriter, called it ‘a film of tremendous Indian festivals and …gentle lyrical situations’.
Barely two years later, in 1927, when the members (particularly the Europeans) of the Indian Cinematograph Committee saw Naval Gandhi’s Balidan (a.k.a. Sacrifice), based on Rabindranath Tagore’s play Bisarjan, they were so impressed by it as to record: ‘that film differed from most Indian films in that it had a strong and original plot, was excellently acted and intelligently and artistically directed.’ They went so far as to advise the producers to take the film abroad, where, they averred, it would be greatly appreciated.
In Europe, where Tagore was a highly honoured name, the film caught immediate attention and drew some fine notices. The Indian critics, who had somehow missed the opportunity when the film was initially released, now caught up with their counterparts abroad: Predicted one of them,’..he (Naval Gandhi) should win for India the name, prestige and distinction Meyerhold has won for Russia.’ The comparison, however, proved ominous. Meyerhold was banished to Siberia or possibly beheaded and Naval Gandhi never attempted another Tagore story.
Shortly afterwards, in 1930, Mohan Bhavnani took his Vasantsena (based on Sudraka’s immortal classic Little Clay Cart) abroad. Western critics already knew the play and many of them had written in glowing terms of its beauty and lyricism. The film, though not quite free of the anachronisms and anomalies that attended most historical works of the period, had several passages of sheer poetry.
Rewarding though all these journeys abroad had been, they did no more than give a glimpse of the ‘quaint and mysterious customs of the Hindus’. Much of what these films showed fell in place snugly with the mental pictures most Europeans had of this faraway land of fabulous maharajas on caparisoned elephants. Their impact was no more than that of an itinerant juggler pulling a familiar trick.
At the time, cinema in Europe was passing through a highly exciting phase. Film had created its own form of expression, its range of techniques extended by the French, significantly in the works of Louis Delluc, Abel Gance, Jacques Feyder, Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, and the avant-garde group of Fernard-Leger, Germaine Dulac and Luis Bunuel. In Germany, the expressionistic works of G.W.Pabst, Murnau, E.A.Dupont and Fritz Lang had established the kind of realism that put on the screen as ‘vividly as any painter the lights drowned in fog, the leperous houses, slimy staircases, poor dwellings and a whole downtrodden humanity’. Their films, together with those of Erich von Stroheim’s (Greed in particular), were the precursors of the post-war, neo-realism of Visconti, Rossellini, Zavattini and De Sica. On the eastern front, the Russian directors Eisenstein and Pudovkin made frontal assaults on the cliché temples of Hollywood and other movie making centres. In America, Chaplin, the superb clown, held the world at the tip of his bamboo cane, making it laugh and weep in turn.
Sound came and stayed. In the noisy deluge that followed, Europe and America lost the subtlety and precision of mime and gesture and, above all, the eloquence that had made silence golden. In this context, India, not having achieved any appreciable artistic level, had precious little to lose. In fact, it was only after the advent of sound that the Indian film discovered itself - though it is still groping for an indigenous idiom.
Karma, produced by Himansu Rai, was the earliest sound film to reach Europe. Shot in India and England, it was a co-production employing an all-Indian cast. When the film was released in London, the loveliness of its leading lady, Devika Rani, seemed to have stirred the usually staid and circumspect English (The Star, London) to proclaim: ‘go and hear English spoken by Miss Devika Rani. You will never hear a lovelier voice or diction or see a lovelier face. Devika Rani has a singular beauty which will dazzle all London.’
‘Morons! Not a word about the film,’ roared Erich Von Stroheim in a different though not dissimilar context. Perhaps, there was not much in Karma to write home about, save the ‘singular beauty’ of Miss Devika Rani.
Much was there, however, in Prabhat’s two films Amar Jyoti and Sant Tukaram, both of which were shown at the fourth and fifth Exhibitions of Cinematography Art in Venice. The latter, full of the rustic beauty of rural Indian life, was adjudged one of the best films shown at the exhibitions.
The end of the Second World War unleashed new social forces that upset establishments and broke away from many old habits of thought and mind. Life stood naked, seeking no cover, bleeding, asking for no help - aware, perhaps, that even if it did, it would get none. Cinema, drawing its lifeblood from the people and their social and spiritual involvements, could hardly remain isolated. In fact, more than any other medium of expression, it was film that most faithfully and urgently conveyed the mood of the moment. This mood prevailed in France, Italy, Russia and Japan and, to a lesser degree, in India. An India perilously poised between the Old and the New, the one not quite dead and other still not born. To an extent (only a small extent, for it never found full expression in any of our literary or film work) this mood was conveyed in Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, Uday Shankar’s Kalpana and K.A. Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal. All these films were shown abroad and favourably commented upon. Of these Dharti Ke Lal, dealing with an urgent yet ancient problem, was, perhaps, the most significant. Its showing in England and Europe was restricted to critics and intellectuals who were greatly impressed by its utter sincerity and stark simplicity. In Eastern Europe, the film had a fairly successful commercial run.
From now on, Indian journeys to the various international film festivals are fairly frequent. And films like Chhota Bhai, Babla and Chinnamul, dealing with contemporary India with her great multitudes and even greater problems, were well received in Berlin, Venice and Czechoslovakia.
A little later came Bimal Roy’s outstanding film Do Bigha Zamin, which more than any other film tried to come to grips with a problem that hung like the sword of Damocles on Indian life. The film received a special mention at the Cannes film Festival and bagged another prize at the Czechoslovak Festival. Besides, it fared well commercially in the art theatres of Paris and London. In fact, this was the first Indian film so shown - barring, of course, Mehboob Khan’s inconsequential fantasy Aan.
Another film that evoked considerable favourable comment from the press and public alike when shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival and again at the National film Theatre in London was K.A. Abbas’ Munna. In the same year, an Indian film delegation, led by Abbas, visited the Soviet Union and Indian Film Weeks were held in several important cities. As a result, a man and a film that became something of a craze with the Soviet people were Raj Kapoor and his film Awara. Raj Kapoor had a big hand in popularizing Indian films in general and his own in particular in the Soviet Union.
Indian films are regularly shown in the commercial theatres of Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Iraq, Afghanistan, British Guinea, Fiji, South Africa and several other countries where Indians have settled in large numbers. Judging from the increase in the volume of business in recent years, these films must be vastly popular no less with the general public as with the Indians living there.
Notwithstanding, the Indian film woefully failed to register itself on the world map, especially in the columns of cinema critics and the chronicles of film historians. Largely because, to them Indian cinema was neither Indian nor cinema. It was an unseemly mélange of operatic forms and theatrical content and cliches with sheerest cinematic pretensions. Just then Satyajit Ray arrived more by accident than design.
The lone juror of the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, who saw Pather Panchali on a cold May morning, surrounded by the gloom of an empty auditorium, became so excited as to rush out shouting ‘Eureka’ and called others to witness the ‘great human document’, is perhaps the true discoverer of Ray.
Ray’s appearance was most opportune and one of cinema’s major gains, as was that of Akira Kurosawa a few years earlier. Nothing particularly exciting had happened to cinema since neo-realism, much of which had either dissipated or snugly settled into a cliché. Pather Panchali took the critics completely by surprise and led them to think afresh for the film stubbornly refused to fall into any familiar pattern or set category.
Ray had not only rebelled against the prevailing philosophies of Indian cinema but any cinema anywhere. His was a different language - a language faintly familiar like some distant chant of the nature worshippers, who marveled at the phenomenena of the sun, the moon, earth, water and lightning. It was the language of torrential rains, of humming telegraph poles, of the swaying wild Kavas flowers. It was the language of a child who had not yet learnt to speak. It was the language of a crotchety old woman who loved life but surrendered to death no less lovingly. It was also the language of Durga, neither girl nor woman.
Wrote Dilys Powell: ‘…it has been left to Indian cinema to give us a picture of a childhood which preserves under the shadow of experience not only its innocence but its gaiety.’ It is a measure of Ray’s undoubted genius that he has succeeded in preserving that innocence and gaiety in the whole of the Apu trilogy. From Pather Panchali to Teen Kanya he has abundantly shown the sweep and range of his great talent.
Ray’s art is free of the kind of commitment that the ‘angry young men’ ask for, as also the individualism the protagonists of nouvelle vague advocate. And yet, Ray is wholly individualistic in outlook, approach and expression. Deeply concerned with the destiny of man, he is not out to change the world but to understand it. He waves no banners, shouts no slogans and offers no solutions to our social and spiritual ailments. That would be too banal and vulgar for his taste. And yet, if you view his films closely (particularly the Apu trilogy) each moment is a continuous answer to some question. Great art is neither Left nor Right; it creates its own directions.
Ray’s films are a thousand removes distant from the shiny, sterilized products of the commercial studios. Notwithstanding the cash-collecting capacity of the latter, their echoes die out within our own frontiers. The one voice that reaches out to resound around the world is that of Ray. In time to come, more voices may, perhaps, join his. For, as Paul Rotha put it, anyone with a camera and a conscience can do it. To which I will only add, imagination and integrity.