Bong Shots is a fortnightly column on Bengali cinema.
There’s an irritating new trend in Bengali cinema: the Satyajit Ray themed film – presumably planned to coincide with his centenary. Bengalis love to revel in reflected glory and clinging on to their cultural icons is one of its greatest syndromes. Tagore, Netaji, Ray, Ganguly, Amartya Sen. The last time they experienced collective orgasm was when Abhijit Banerjee, the economist, won the Nobel prize and it has been a dry spell ever since.
The Bengali film industry, apart from being creatively bankrupt, is also shrewdly attuned to these sentiments. They will slip in a Rabindrasangeet in the narrative where they can; keep making Feludas till Ray actually resurrects himself from the dead, becomes a zombie, kills everyone and goes back to his grave with the rights. Easy nostalgia is good business, and bad cinema. The Ray tribute films haven’t released yet. Avijatrik, releasing next week, is a continuation of Apu’s journey from where we were left off in the end of Apur Sansar, the final film of the trilogy. The other one is about the making of Pather Panchali, the first film of the trilogy; it’s called Aparajito, which is also the name of the second film in the trilogy. A Facebook acquaintance of mine, and a part-time meme maker of Bangla pop culture, reacted with a nice term: ‘Maniksploitation’ (Manik being Ray’s nickname).
Aparajito hasn’t even begun its shooting but made quite a splash on social media last week when it released a series of ‘first look’ stills of TV actor Jeetu Kamal as Ray. It’s true that Kamal is looking strikingly like the filmmaker – although a bit model-like, as if he is posing for a spread in Vogue themed on the the suave handsomeness of Ray – and to be fair Anik Dutta is one of our better directors. But surely there are less obvious, and gimmicky, ways of channelling Ray than to cast a doppelgänger actor.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Ray and being a Bengali, being a film fan I think of him very often; but I see in these a refusal to move forward and part of why we are where we are, as a culture, as a cinema. The fans are the worst, so juvenile and blind in their judgement – they act like old geezers, reminiscent of the Rabindra Bharati purists, who scream blasphemy when they think someone is messing with their Manik; but give them a replica and they will call it a masterstroke. Ray would’ve despised such fans. They are emblematic of an audience that has gotten comfortable, and celebrates, mediocrity. They may have read his books and seen all his films but in practice they have imbibed none of his ideals. A close family member who had introduced me to his works as a child is now a raging right wing bigot. Nothing makes me sadder.