Metrolife:The shapeless beast that Ray let loose

Metrolife:The shapeless beast that Ray let loose

A scene from 'Pratidwandi'.

In all of Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre, Pratidwandi remains the oddball. It was a gulp-inspiring venture of intelligent brashness that had no stylistic run-up in the films that preceded it, nor vestigial traces in the films that followed.

It was crafted possibly as retaliation to the local criticism that the maestro lacked political “commitment” (Ray’s quotes, not mine), and definitely as response to a new idiom in French cinema, with which Ray was smitten.

Pratidwandi was the result of Ray holding his own aesthetics by the horn and slamming it on its back.

The film has all the makings of just another melodrama. Siddhartha, an unemployed former medical student, before whom interview after interview falls like a stack of dominoes; his sister, a wannabe model, only glad to avail perks from her boss whom she is in all likelihood sleeping with; a brother who will be shot down for being a Naxal anyday; and a friend pig-headed in his determination to corrupt Sidhartha in the ways of women.

It’s easy to see how the story would have ended in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Sister cheated; brother killed; Sidhartha corrupted, guilty. Everyone’s life sucks. The End.

In fact, pretty much nothing happens in the life of these characters. The meat of the film is cooked in far more interesting corners.

The nurse scene

One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when the friend manages to get Siddhartha to a nurse, who moonlights as a prostitute. Siddhartha is facing the camera, while the friend lounges on a nearby bed. The nurse undresses teasingly in front of both of them and asks for a cigarette. The friend is out of stock; our hero must oblige.

Here, real cinema kicks in: Siddhartha gives her a cigarette, but doesn’t light it. “Manners, manners”, the friend shames him. With trembling fingers, he takes out a match, and the nurse, now only wearing a bra on top bends over. The match lights and Pratidwandi shifts to negative footage. We see their faces close together in negative, the tension visible even now.

The negative begins exactly at the moment the match is struck and ends exactly when Sidhartha blows it out.

Ray gives no explanation for this shift, nor any of the other ones in the movie. Why for instance, does a bunch of interviewees suddenly transform into skeletons and we hear a voice-over of a medical classroom lecture about the durability of bones? Go figure.

The dream sequences

Pratidwandi is composed of a series of prophetic nightmares, ominous daydreams and memories less about people and more about birds.

Dreams that are integral to the plot have been present in Ray’s stories since Devi (1960). But there the dream was shot merely as a utilitarian device — Ray was essentially saying: “Wake up, dude. We need to get the story going”.

He one-upped his game in Nayak (1967), where a superstar’s dream showed him drowning in a quicksand of money, from which we see hands of others who must have drowned earlier sprouted out, as if reaching out for a last straw. Problem there was that it resembled older horror movies too much and the dream was completely subsumed by its symbolism.

In Pratidwandi, the dreammaker in Ray comes of age. In Siddhartha’s dream, when the firing squad takes aim at his brother on a beach, his sister stands nearby posing as a model against the backdrop of a debacle Siddhartha had seen earlier in the day. The brother is shot, he falls. Someone runs along the beach to the succumbing man — it’s a nurse. The nurse. She looks up, but suddenly it’s not her, it’s now his sister, and suddenly it’s not her either, it’s a girl he fancies. The dream ends without further ado or explanation.

The dream is masterfully composed. It’s part symbolic as many dreams are, but it’s also, as it must be, part illogical or dream-logical.

What Ray had created with Pratidwandi is a shapeless beast, or rather one with no identifiable shape. It creates a complex fabric of reality that goes well beyond the theme of political alienation. That layer would seem only the icing on the cake if not for the rich and moist phantasmagoria beneath it. Reality in Pratidwandi feels like standing on a bridge and hearing a majestic current flow beneath you.