John W. Hood. Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2008. xi + 476 pp. $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-81-250-3510-7.
Reviewed by Sakti Sengupta (Asian-American Film Theater)
Published on H-Asia (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha
Indian Neo-realist cinema
Satyajit Ray, one of the three Indian cultural icons besides the great sitar player Pandit Ravishankar and the Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, is the father of the neorealist movement in Indian cinema. Much has already been written about him and his films. In the West, he is perhaps better known than the literary genius Tagore. The University of California at Santa Cruz and the American Film Institute have published (available on their Web sites) a list of books about him. Popular ones include Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) by Marie Seton and Satyajit Ray, the Inner Eye (1989) by Andrew Robinson. A majority of such writings (with the exception of the one by Chidananda Dasgupta who was not only a film critic but also an occasional filmmaker) are characterized by unequivocal adulation without much critical exploration of his oeuvre and have been written by journalists or scholars of literature or film. What is missing from this long list is a true appreciation of his works with great insights into cinematic questions like we find in Francois Truffaut's homage to Alfred Hitchcock (both cinematic giants) or in Andre Bazin's and Truffaut's bio-critical homage to Orson Welles.
In Beyond the World of Apu, John W. Hood, a scholar of Indian art cinema and a translator of Bengali literature, has done an eloquent and ardent study of twenty-nine films by Ray. In the preface, Hood mocks the "Bengali Bhadrolok" ("Bhadrolok" means "gentleman" in the Bengali language and Ray himself was a Bengali) who "consider themselves pillars of culture and thinkers of India," and who, in spite of being a Bengali, "would know far more Bombay commercial films than films of Satyajit Ray, and yet be quick to defend him as one of their cultural giants" (p. 2). He goes on to write, "there is a small minority of intelligent, sensitive and well-read aficionados of cinema (in India) whose knowledge of Ray" is "often profound and acutely perceptive," and who "appreciate sound criticism and readily admit that not every film is a masterpiece" (p. 3). Such a high-handed approach makes one wonder which readership Hood is targeting for his book.
He groups Ray's films not chronologically but into thematic chapters, each chapter covering more than one film. He explores each film in terms of its story, plotting, characterization, camera shots, aesthetics, and sociopolitical significance, arguing and illuminating its merits and demerits and also sometimes comparing the films with each other. Although the majority of the films discussed are not based on original story-ideas by Ray, Hood's zealous annotated narration of them with frequent reference to visuals adheres to their rendition on celluloid by the master filmmaker without any allusion to their sources.
From the title of the book, the reader would anticipate discussions of Ray’s other films, but Hood begins his discussion with a chapter titled "Apu Trilogy," and goes to great length in proving once again, like his many predecessors, that these three films (Pather Panchali , Aparajita , and Apur Samsar ) "might well be regarded as the single greatest achievement of the Indian cinema" (p. 4). Unfortunately, in the end, he offers us few new cinematic insights into them. He is at his best in discussing Ray's masterpiece Charulata (1964) in the chapter titled "Tribute to Tagore" (which includes two other films: Tin Kanya  and Ghare Baire ). He demonstrates a deep understanding of filmmaking here and makes the framing of the camera shots sublimely meaningful while introducing the story and its characters.
Hood has taken up the daunting task of writing a kind of a study guide for the great director's films and judiciously avoids being indifferent to any of them. We see equal earnestness in his exploration of films in each chapter. In a span of over four hundred pages, he canonizes a prolific artist full of many virtues with big accomplishments and few failings, a filmmaker who is an epitome of the "cinema of rigor" and has ventured in different directions with arguably varying degrees of success (p. 2). In the beginning of the book, Hood hypothesizes by saying that Ray's "masterpieces are few," and thereafter, throughout the remainder of the book, he perseveres to prove it by identifying the masterpieces, and the mediocre and less-than-masterpiece films (p. 2). Hood writes lucidly without cinematic jargon, yet his writing is formalistic like a PhD dissertation.
He maintains an interesting precision in his arguments: for example, in discussing the film Sadgati (1981), he states that "Ray offers some ten shots to describe the removal of the corpse of Dukhi" (p. 316). He is copious in his praises, but subdued in his criticisms of lesser works like Parash Pathar (1958), Abhijan (1962), Kapurush O Mahapurush (1962), and Chidiakhana (1967) (all included with one other film Jalsaghar  in a chapter titled "An Early Pastiche"). His grouping of films into chapters is well conceived and will be helpful for the uninitiated readers to plan out a viewing schedule of Ray's oeuvre.
Hood's diligent approach is sometimes marred by his overwriting his discussions of a few particular films. The chapter "The Calcutta Triptych" covers Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975)--three films set in the turbulent, ailing, and moribund Calcutta of the seventies with its morally bankrupt wealthy upper class and teeming middle-class denizens. Pratidwandi, being the most elliptical of the three, is the most prominently featured film in this chapter. Hood, at the cost of slighting the merits of the other two films, devotes an inordinate amount of space in interpreting the film's leading character's dreams and thoughts."
"Devi" (1969), a critique of superstition and idolatry in Hindu religion, and "Sadgati (1981), dealing with untouchability (both films included in the chapter "The Cry against Tradition" and based on two powerful stories by two famous writers), are minor masterpieces. Ray's real genius lies in transporting those stories into a visual media with masterly strokes. Hood goes even further to unearth signs of overflowing humanism in the composition of camera shots and tends to portray Ray as the one who endowed these stories with such quality, thereby diminishing their progenitors.
"An Eye on the Past" is a chapter dedicated to two films--Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Ashani Sanket (1973)--Ray's not-so-successful foray into films based on historical events. At the time of their theatrical releases, the first one earned very limited critical acclaim while the second was panned by the critics for its incongruous treatment of a calamity like famine. Hood argues cogently in defense of both films ("two works that must be assessed as cinema, not history”) in an effort to rescue them (p. 9).
Constrained by failing health, Ray shot his last three films (Ganashatru , Shakha Prashakha” , and Agantuk ) mostly indoors, and they were loquacious and inferior works. Hood does not hesitate to be critical of them, but ,his critique is more like the disappointment of a devotee and lacks the discursiveness with which he praises the master's better works.
Overall, in spite of being a comprehensive study, the material in Beyond the World of Apu resembles the Cliffs Notes for high school and college students. It is hard to imagine that the uninitiated would be able to appreciate its usefulness or be motivated by it without first watching the films under discussion.
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Sakti Sengupta. Review of Hood, John W., Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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