Rooms With Views

BY TERRENCE RAFFERTY

THE MOVIES OF the Indian director Satyajit Ray tell stories the way faces and houses and landscapes do. Ray’s narrative methods are like the time-lapse photography that’s sometimes used in nature films, showing us almost imperceptible processes like growth and erosion as a sequence of images captured at precisely metered intervals and then projected at normal speed: the changes that in life we would notice only after the fact, in Ray’s films seem to happen before our eyes. Ray’s new film (his twenty-fifth) is The Home and the World, an intimate epic set in Bengal in the early twentieth century, when nationalist movements were gathering force and ancient traditions were beginning to lose their strength. The director first planned to film Rabindranath Tagore’s novel thirty years ago, and the movie he has now made seems to link all the stages of his career in one elegant and continuous motion—to arrange in sequence three decades of images of characters wandering through the familiar rooms of their homes and along the intricate roads of the world, looking for a place in themselves where the two dissimilar geographies might coincide.

Like Charulata, an earlier Ray adaptation of a Tagore story, The Home and die World is about a triangle that’s as much philosophical as it is romantic. Nikhil, a rich, liberal landowner (played by Victor Banerjee, best known to Western audiences for his splendid Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India), encourages his wife, Bimala, to come out from behind the screen of purdah—the traditional seclusion of the Indian wife—and enter the world. The first person she meets is his old friend Sandip, now the leader of the swadeshi movement to boycott foreign goods. She is attracted by the radical’s ideas and his forceful personality, which seem to her more worldly than her husband’s sensitive, ambivalent temperament. Sandip manipulates her easily. both for his cause and for himself, and Nikhil can only watch as his wife grows further away from him and the tenuous political harmony of Bengal is disrupted.

Although Ray makes an occasional gesture toward reproducing the novel’s multiple-narrator technique—a few brief scenes in which the three main characters express their thoughts in voice-over—for the most part he tells the story straightforwardly. The meanings emerge, as always in his films, from looks and gestures and the movement of people within spaces that are rigorously defined—emotionally as well as physically.

In the first part of the film Ray explores the geography of Nikhil’s mansion, where most of the action takes place, and we always know exactly where we are—in the sitting room, in the zenana (the apartments where women in purdah spend their days), in the corridor between the zenana and the outer apartments, or in the couple’s bedroom, which opens onto that corridor. Little events keep accumulating in these rooms, in a leisurely, apparently aimless way, until at some point we realize that the spaces have been charged with all the sparks of awareness we’ve seen in the characters’ faces.

In the later scenes Ray hardly needs dialogue to tell us what the characters are feeling, because the house is radiant with associations. We’re always aware that the sitting room, where the wife and the revolutionary meet, is a kind of neutral territory, neither Sandip’s world nor fully Bimala’s; every scene in the zenana carries the memory of Nikhil’s early attempts to educate his wife and the disapproving glances of his conservative, widowed sister-in-law. The corridor between the inner and outer apartments seems to vibrate, throughout the film, from the force of the early scene in which Bimala takes her first steps out of the zenana—her pace momentously slow, fear and pride mixed in her eyes. And the scenes in the bedroom—reserved but intimate early on, chilly and tense later—build to a moving sequence of reconciliation followed abruptly by separation, and a final scene in which the world appears for the first time from the perspective of the house: a tableau framed, with heartbreaking plainness and clarity, by the bedroom window. The last act of this tragedy is played out according to a kind of moral choreography in which every entrance and exit is thrilling, significant, in which even the most delicate movements expand to fill the room, the screen, the mind.

THE HOME AND THE WORLD isn’t one of Ray’s masterpieces; for all its grace, it can’t always get out from under the philosophical weight of Tagore’s original. But it’s a fully characteristic example of the director’s narrative means, and of the complicated effect his films have on Western audiences—often puzzling us with their cultural remoteness yet seducing us with their extreme emotional accessibility. In a Ray film we don’t know the names of the trees but we seem to know the most intimate thoughts of the people strolling among them; we couldn’t say, perhaps, what a rupee is worth, but we’re able to measure the weight of every transaction — the exact value of what’s been bought and the spiritual price that’s been paid.

These films make sense, even to Western viewers, because the director gives each character a dense, detailed history, and because Ray’s storytelling has a history too—a continuity with Western forms of narrative. The Apu trilogy—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu—is the cinema’s purest Bildungsroman (the nineteenth-century novel form that tells the story of a young man’s education in the ways of the world). Many other films have used the classic plot elements—the provincial boyhood, the adolescent schooling, the move to the city, the poverty and the idealism of the beginning writer, the first love. But the pace of Ray’s trilogy is distinctive and surprisingly apt: a reflective unfolding of action and consequence which seems novelistic without being self-consciously literary. The long stretches without dialogue, the many scenes of people just walking around (especially in the last and richest film of the trilogy. The World of Apu) frame the story’s action in an almost discursive way. Like the passages of analysis in a George Eliot novel, they give us images of both the expectation before an event and the reflection after it, images that complete the human significance of the action: Apu’s slow walk across the railway after a series of dispiriting job interviews; his buoyant crossing of the same tracks after receiving a letter from his absent wife, as he anticipates seeing her again; his wandering in the forest after her death, his face in close-up, so that the leaves around him seem to pass by in a blur.

That blur reappears in the opening sequence of Ray’s superb Days and Wights in the Forest, made eleven years later. This time it’s a Bengal forest seen from a speeding car whose occupants, four well-off, Western-educated young men from Calcutta, are on their way to a holiday in the country. The men are laughing, bantering, in weekend spirits, but the flowing, indistinct shots of the forest are vaguely melancholy. Though the patterns are lovely, they aren’t clear, because the car (whose driver, Ashim, is played by Soumitra Chatterjee, the Apu of the trilogy’s final film) is going too fast: they suggest the passengers’ murky awareness of the world and therefore of themselves. Once the men arrive at their rural guest house, the film adopts a strolling rhythm, a pace at which the individual features of things can be made out and patterns become more lucid and more complex. Real characters begin to emerge from a forest of types, and new people—two vacationing Calcutta women, the reserved, ironic Aparna and her brother’s young widow—are added to the initial four. The forest itself, while losing none of its density, takes on a shining clarity, each leaf catching the light as a mirror would. Days and Wights in the Forest is about the gradual reawakening of sensibility, of attentiveness to the world, and it builds to a scries of small, piercing revelations in which the characters seem to be moving, hesitantly, toward one another from behind their screens.

There’s a slow, beautiful scene near the end, in which Aparna discloses to Ashim the suffering that is the source of her cool, protective irony. The distance between them varies, and they never do quite touch, but they have at least remained still long enough to get a good look at each other. Ray’s composition includes a huge, solitary tree, whose leaves and intricate bark become by the end of the scene as familiar and memorable as a beloved face.

In his three decades of moviemaking Satyajit Ray has slowly revealed more and more of his own face to the audience. From the stark, neo-realist beginnings of Pather Panchali and Aparajito Ray’s work has grown to include elaborate dissections of the Hindu aristocracy (The Music Room, Devi), ferociously pointed contemporary morality plays about Calcutta’s commercial middle class (Company Limited, The Middleman), and even lighthearted detective stories for children (The Golden Fortress, The Elephant God). Over the years he has assumed more and more of the diverse tasks of filmmaking: since his seventh movie, Two Daughters, he has composed his own scores, and he now operates the camera as well. As far as it is possible in this complex art, Ray’s films are the expression of a single sensibility—one that combines what V. S. Naipaul has called the “passionate introspection” of AngloBengali culture with the probing attentiveness to experience of the nineteenth-century European novel. Just as the young men from Calcutta are vaguely disturbed by the ancient Bengali customs they come upon during their days and nights in the forest, audiences in this country may be jarred, and moved, by the “Western” characteristics of Ray’s art, by our uneasy recognition of a moral and aesthetic territory that was once a more prominent feature of our own cultural geography. His work has the qualities— the patient analysis of character, the scrupulous and sympathetic way of understanding the world—that our own art seems, at times, to have simply speeded past.