All art are imitations of reality. The cinema, by the very uniqueness of its medium, needs to be a “true and bold”representation of reality. If we cannot identify with the moving images on screen, then the film can be considered to have failed with the audience. Some emotion or character within the film, need to find a resonance with those who sit in the darkness of the theatre. That being said, films are also a reflection of society — our culture, our ethos. Satyajit Ray as an auteur had the cinematic medium as well as his indisputable genius at his disposal for his distinctive style of execution.
Mind games which test the power of our intelligence and memory never lose their popularity among young and old alike. Ray had made his film, Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) based on the novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhay in 1969. Two years from now, the film commemorates 50 years of its making. Here four young men, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, Robi Ghosh, Samit Bhanja and Subhendu Chattejee, representing the hip-swaying, daring generation of the late sixties, embark on an adventure to the Palamau region in Bihar. There they encounter the other two female leads, played by Sharmila Tagore and Kaveri Bose. Simi Garewal, the tribal village belle adds to the prevalent mood of dark glamour.
Human mind and the revelation of its subterranean layers are pivotal to a proper understanding of Ray’s films. Ray, who had made films keeping in mind a hugely urban audience, had explored the intricacies of the human mind in each and every film. The memory game sequence used in the film under discussion, right in the middle of the progression of the plot, is pivotal in understanding the entire film. It is the supreme stroke of Ray’s genius. These sequences of shots serve as much a psychological commentary on the characters as bringing to the focus the height of experimental creativity achieved by Ray. A memory game, as part of a film’s structure, had never before been utilised in Bengali cinema.
All the actors are seated in a circle and the game starts. Ray had taken the shot himself, panning the camera, which spun on an axis, at approximately 360 degrees. Hence in each shot and its corresponding ones, the camera has the single close-up of the actor playing the game. It may be noted here that the memory game had not been originally a part of the novel on which the film is based. It was entirely a Ray innovation. Viewers may remember that Ray, in his penultimate film, Shakha Prasakha, had used tongue-twisters in the shot where the family goes for a picnic. Can we not relate these two films together and find the collateral of the memory game sequence in the latter?
The memory game scene in the earlier film is, well, memorable for all these reasons and more. It is enacted with juxtapositions of accurate and fluent body language from the actors themselves. I feel that if Ray had been alive now, he might have started the game not with eponymous ‘Rabindranath’, but maybe with someone else altogether. The game progresses through with the names of diverse personages as Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Atulya Ghosh, Helen of Troy, Shakespeare and Mao Tse Tung. Freudians would love to delve deeper and probe as to what prompted the choice of the names. Whatever they may divulge about the underlying psychology in this episode, the fact remains that the sequence has remained etched in viewers’ minds after so many years. Yes, still we find it enjoyable to watch. The cinematic gap, between what is said and what is meant is relayed by the movement of the actors and the panning of Ray’s camera.
Cinema shares an uncanny relationship with memory. Viewers may recall the film, A Beautiful Mind. If poetry is emotions recollected in tranquillity, then cinema is the pastiche of memorised moving images. If literature makes us think hard, cinema urges the viewer to feel at a deeper level. That being said, Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri stands as the totem for young directors who are trying to explore newer pastures. A handful of recent directors have been trying to base their films on contemporary works of literature. Satyajit Ray, nearly fifty years ago, had shown the way how to break the mould while remaining true to the original text.
The memory game sequence can be deciphered in many ways. But it would be best to simply regard it as a mimetic representation of reality. A memory game is still popular among the young and the not-so-young. It is a favourite sport which teases the brain, yet provides unalloyed enjoyment. Hence to have a memory game right in the middle of his film was but natural to a director who always had had his audience on the alert. Yet it was unique. There had been no precedent before.
Almost all the actors who had taken part in the sequence, with the exception of Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, are now no more. It seems as if Ray had deliberately etched in our collective memory a panning of actors, memorable in their own rights, an act which would trickle down through generations.