Satyajit Ray, or Manikmama

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A few weeks ago, I went to see “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” a riveting documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. It’s well worth your time.

On the way out, I picked up a Midtown Art film calendar that had Apu’s face on the cover. Apu as in Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy, the highly acclaimed series of films about a free-spirited Bengali boy who grows into a man of the world.

Ray was my mother’s cousin and I always knew him as Manikmama. Manik was his nickname; mama means mother’s brother.

Ray directed more than 30 films and went on to gain international fame. But he also wrote books and made movies aimed at children. I grew up with tales of Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist who spoke 69 languages.

But it was film, and specifically, “The Apu Trilogy” that catapulted Ray to international fame.

satyajit-ray-003-at-work-in-his-study-at-bishop-lefroy-road-calcutta“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon,” declared Japanese director Akira Kurusawa. That was a quote often recited in my hometown, Kolkata. Ray was such a point of pride, along with Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Bengalis hailed him as a hero for the fame he showered on his people but many shied away from his work. His films were too negative, someone once told me. They were too real.

Yes, too real for comfort in a country still struggling to lift all boats. Ray’s movies were the opposite of Bollywood and had little to offer to the masses who wanted to escape at the cinema, not see their own reality.

“Pather Panchali,” which means Song of the Path, tells the story of Apu as a boy from a poor family in rural West Bengal. “Aparajito” or “The Unvanquished” follows Apu through his formative years as the family faces crushing poverty. Finally, we see Apu as an adult who marries and faces tragedy in the last of the trilogy, “Apur Sanser,” or “The World of Apu.”

For many years, I told my Western friends to watch Ray’s films to gain a better understanding of the place I came from, for insight into what life was like in Bengal. But the film quality was always poor, especially when the only way to see these films was to rent videotapes from Blockbuster.
But now the films have been digitally restored and the subtitles are clear. If you live in Atlanta, I encourage you to go see the Ray trilogy at the Midtown Art Cinema, playing for a week starting August 14. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVDs or buy them online.
The last time I saw my uncle was in 1992 when I went to visit him at his residence on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata. He was in his usual stance — in repose on a wicker lounger with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A month later, he received an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to receive an Academy Award to date.
Audrey Hepburn presented the award to Ray, who by then had fallen gravely ill and was confined to his bed at a Kolkata hospital.
 I remember watching him on television that night, fighting tears of pride.He died shortly after, on April 23, 1992.
There are many Indians in the world of art who have now made a name for themselves outside their homeland. But Ray, like Rabindranath Tagore in the literary world, was a pioneer.
So many of my mother’s relatives were artistically inclined. They were painters, designers, poets and writers. I can’t help but feel that Ray had something to do with that. Or at least that his spirit guides me from within.

Iran’s first Oscar

Perhaps I should have gone to see “The Artist” Saturday night. After all, it won the Oscar for best picture last night. But I saw “A Separation” instead.

It was an incredibly well-acted film dealing with a broken marriage that weaves trouble through the lives of ordinary people. It is about class divisions, family relationships, the power of religion and hope in every heart for a better life.

Only this film is Iranian. Set in Tehran, Westerners got a rare glimpse into the living rooms of Iranians dealing with the same kinds of problems we find at home, save the far-reaching tentacles of the Islamic regime.

Iranians stayed up late to watch the Oscars on illegal satellite feeds, enormously proud of the first Iranian film to win an Oscar (best foreign language film).

The timing could not have been better, I thought, as director Asghar Farhadi held up his golden statue. “At a time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics,” he said.

I read this morning that even Israelis were flocking to see “A Separation.” Iranians are their arch-enemies and bellicose talk of late has led to speculation that Israel may launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran to stop its nuclear progress.

But ultimately, Israelis saw in the movie Iranians who were just like themselves. That spoke volumes for the universality of “A Separation.” People everywhere ultimately cope with the same problems — the ones that make us not American or Israeli or Iranian, but the ones that make us human.

“A Separation” is not always easy to watch. It was especially hard for me to look at the scenes of a man stricken with Alzheimer’s. I could see my own Baba.

But if you have not seen this movie, go soon to a theater near you. Ayatollahs and nuclear bombs aside, Iran has delivered a rare gem.

“A Separation” supplies no answers and is subtitled: “The Truth Divides.” But Iran is a country that remains largely unknown to Americans. Farhadi’s film, I believe, takes a few of the veils off.