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John W. Hood. Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray.

New Delhi: Orient Long-


man, 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 far more Bombay commercial films than films of Satyajit
besides the great sitar player Pandit Ravishankar and the Ray, and yet be quick to defend him as one of their cul-
Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, is the father of the tural giants (p. 2). He goes on to write, there is a small
neorealist movement in Indian cinema. Much has already minority of intelligent, sensitive and well-read aficiona-
been written about him and his films. In the West, he dos of cinema (in India) whose knowledge of Ray is of-
is perhaps better known than the literary genius Tagore. ten profound and acutely perceptive, and who appreci-
The University of California at Santa Cruz and the Amer- ate sound criticism and readily admit that not every film
ican Film Institute have published (available on their Web is a masterpiece (p. 3). Such a high-handed approach
sites) a list of books about him. Popular ones include makes one wonder which readership Hood is targeting
Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) by Marie Seton for his book.
and Satyajit Ray, the Inner Eye (1989) by Andrew Robin-
son. A majority of such writings (with the exception of He groups Rays films not chronologically but into
the one by Chidananda Dasgupta who was not only a thematic chapters, each chapter covering more than one
film. He explores each film in terms of its story, plotting,
film critic but also an occasional filmmaker) are char-
characterization, camera shots, aesthetics, and sociopo-
acterized by unequivocal adulation without much criti-
cal exploration of his oeuvre and have been written by litical significance, arguing and illuminating its merits
journalists or scholars of literature or film. What is miss- and demerits and also sometimes comparing the films
ing from this long list is a true appreciation of his works with each other. Although the majority of the films
with great insights into cinematic questions like we find discussed are not based on original story-ideas by Ray,
Hoods zealous annotated narration of them with fre-
in Francois Truffauts homage to Alfred Hitchcock (both
quent reference to visuals adheres to their rendition on
cinematic giants) or in Andre Bazins and Truffauts bio-
critical homage to Orson Welles. celluloid by the master filmmaker without any allusion
to their sources.
In Beyond the World of Apu, John W. Hood, a scholar
of Indian art cinema and a translator of Bengali litera- From the title of the book, the reader would anticipate
ture, has done an eloquent and ardent study of twenty- discussions of Rays other films, but Hood begins his dis-
nine films by Ray. In the preface, Hood mocks the Ben- cussion with a chapter titled Apu Trilogy, and goes to
great length in proving once again, like his many pre-
gali Bhadrolok (Bhadrolok means gentleman in the
decessors, that these three films (Pather Panchali [1955],
Bengali language and Ray himself was a Bengali) who
consider themselves pillars of culture and thinkers of In- Aparajita [1956], and Apur Samsar [1959]) might well be
dia, and who, in spite of being a Bengali, would know regarded as the single greatest achievement of the Indian

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cinema (p. 4). Unfortunately, in the end, he offers us few cutta of the seventies with its morally bankrupt wealthy
new cinematic insights into them. He is at his best in dis- upper class and teeming middle-class denizens. Pratid-
cussing Rays masterpiece Charulata (1964) in the chap- wandi, being the most elliptical of the three, is the most
ter titled Tribute to Tagore (which includes two other prominently featured film in this chapter. Hood, at the
films: Tin Kanya [1961] and Ghare Baire [1984]). He cost of slighting the merits of the other two films, de-
demonstrates a deep understanding of filmmaking here votes an inordinate amount of space in interpreting the
and makes the framing of the camera shots sublimely films leading characters dreams and thoughts.
meaningful while introducing the story and its charac-
ters. Devi (1969), a critique of superstition and idolatry
in Hindu religion, and Sadgati (1981), dealing with un-
Hood has taken up the daunting task of writing a touchability (both films included in the chapter The Cry
kind of a study guide for the great directors films and against Tradition and based on two powerful stories by
judiciously avoids being indifferent to any of them. We two famous writers), are minor masterpieces. Rays real
see equal earnestness in his exploration of films in each genius lies in transporting those stories into a visual me-
chapter. In a span of over four hundred pages, he canon- dia with masterly strokes. Hood goes even further to un-
izes a prolific artist full of many virtues with big accom- earth signs of overflowing humanism in the composition
plishments and few failings, a filmmaker who is an epit- of camera shots and tends to portray Ray as the one who
ome of the cinema of rigor and has ventured in differ- endowed these stories with such quality, thereby dimin-
ent directions with arguably varying degrees of success ishing their progenitors.
(p. 2). In the beginning of the book, Hood hypothesizes
An Eye on the Past is a chapter dedicated to
by saying that Rays masterpieces are few, and there-
two filmsShatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Ashani Sanket
after, throughout the remainder of the book, he perse-
veres to prove it by identifying the masterpieces, and the (1973)Rays not-so-successful foray into films based on
mediocre and less-than-masterpiece films (p. 2). Hood historical events. At the time of their theatrical releases,
writes lucidly without cinematic jargon, yet his writing the first one earned very limited critical acclaim while
is formalistic like a PhD dissertation. the second was panned by the critics for its incongru-
ous treatment of a calamity like famine. Hood argues
He maintains an interesting precision in his argu- cogently in defense of both films (two works that must
ments: for example, in discussing the film Sadgati (1981), be assessed as cinema, not history) in an effort to rescue
he states that Ray offers some ten shots to describe the them (p. 9).
removal of the corpse of Dukhi (p. 316). He is copious in
his praises, but subdued in his criticisms of lesser works Constrained by failing health, Ray shot his last three
like Parash Pathar (1958), Abhijan (1962), Kapurush O films (Ganashatru [1989], Shakha Prashakha [1990], and
Mahapurush (1962), and Chidiakhana (1967) (all included Agantuk [1991]) mostly indoors, and they were loqua-
cious and inferior works. Hood does not hesitate to be
with one other film Jalsaghar [1958] in a chapter titled
critical of them, but ,his critique is more like the disap-
An Early Pastiche). His grouping of films into chapters
is well conceived and will be helpful for the uninitiated pointment of a devotee and lacks the discursiveness with
readers to plan out a viewing schedule of Rays oeuvre. which he praises the masters better works.
Hoods diligent approach is sometimes marred by Overall, in spite of being a comprehensive study, the
his overwriting his discussions of a few particular films. material in Beyond the World of Apu resembles the Cliffs
The chapter The Calcutta Triptych covers Pratidwandi Notes for high school and college students. It is hard to
imagine that the uninitiated would be able to appreciate
(1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975)
its usefulness or be motivated by it without first watching
three films set in the turbulent, ailing, and moribund Cal-
the films under discussion.

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Citation: Sakti Sengupta. Review of Hood, John W., Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray. H-Asia,
H-Net Reviews. March, 2009.

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