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BJP ‘Appropriated’ Bengal Icons Like Netaji. Why Not Satyajit Ray?

Much of iconic filmmaker Ray’s personal philosophy, especially on religion & politics, is antithetical to the BJP’s.

Published
Opinion
7 min read
Image of the BJP symbol and filmmaker Satyajit Ray used for representational purposes.
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The BJP, through its political strategy, is often seen as ‘appropriating’ political and cultural icons outside its political heritage. Efforts to this end, by the party, seem to have redoubled in the run-up to the 2021 West Bengal assembly polls.

In order to add to the already usurped legacy of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the BJP tacitly stirred up sub-nationalistic sentiments. This added to the steady weaponisation of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's poem, ‘Vande Mataram’, (‘Bande Mataram’ in Bangla) from the novel Anandamath.

The slogan — “is desh mein rehna hoga, toh vande mataram kehna hoga” (you will have to shout ‘Vande Mataram’, if you wish to live in this country) — has been an long-time acerbic rallying call for the party and its affiliates.

It took advantage of Left-liberal discomfort with major portions of India's national song. To overcome the fiasco in May 2019 — when the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a key figure of the Bengali Renaissance, was vandalised during the then BJP president, Amit Shah's, road show — the party used new tactics to ‘appropriate’ icons revered by the people of Bengal.

How BJP Displayed a Montage of Ghatak’s Cinema, Fought With TMC Over Netaji

In 2019, the BJP selectively incorporated clips from iconic Indian filmmaker and Bengali, Ritwik Ghatak's, trilogy of partition films — Subarnarekha, Komal Gandhar, and Meghe Dhaka Tara — in a video to drum up support for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

These shots, selectively chosen, depicted the plight of millions of refugees from East Pakistan after Partition. The party appropriated Ghatak’s films despite his Communist association.

In fact, our PM’s post-pandemic long-hair and bearded look sparked off speculations of being an ‘attempt’ to put up a Tagore-like countenance.

In January 2021, the BJP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) crossed swords over Netaji's birth anniversary, with the prime minister leading the commemoration as Parakram Divas, while West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stated that her party, TMC, traditionally celebrated the day as Desh Nayak Divas.

With polls around the corner, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also made a well-publicised visit to Shantiniketan. It became controversial over the chair he sat on.

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Does BJP Perhaps ‘See’ Satyajit Ray’s Films As ‘Problematic’?

Despite not being a party to miss out on anniversaries and convert it into an event, the BJP has paradoxically not talked about the impending birth centenary of Bengal's biggest post-independence cultural icon — filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

It is an indescribable coincidence that Ray’s birth anniversary falls this year on the day when the counting of votes will take place — 2 May — when Bengal’s political future will be determined greatly.

Is the BJP's rare pass-up, in taking over a much-cherished cultural stalwart's legacy, indicative of being an ignoramus on issues outside core preoccupations, or does it have to do with Ray's films being ‘problematic’ for the party and Hindutva ideology?

This is worthy of deliberation because Ray did not endear himself with the Left in Bengal for not being politically explicit in his films’ themes — and his legacy is politically up for grabs.

From 1977, when the Left Front rule began, till 1992 when Ray passed away, Bengal was ideologically polarised between the Left and adversaries of all shades.

Ray was often positioned on the ‘other side’, in contrast to the state’s other cinematic giant and contemporary, Mrinal Sen, who did not camouflage his Left-leanings and wove it into several of his films.

Although subtler in his political expressions, at least five films of Ray accentuate his political clairvoyance by mirroring several socio-political realities of contemporary India.

Additionally, much of Ray’s personal philosophy, especially on religion and politics, is antithetical to the BJP’s.

Ironically, the most important of these films is Ghare Baire, the one the maestro made on Rabindranath Tagore's eponymous novel. In fact, not just the film, Tagore's novel too remains politically awkward, because it depicted the Hindu communal character of the swadeshi movement of 1905-1907 and its opportunistic leadership.

Tagore's novel itself had created a stir — over its sharp critique of the national movement's first mass upsurge.

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Ray’s Emphasis on Religion & Politics

The idea of ‘swadeshi resonated periodically in post-Independence India. It even occupies a central position within the prime minister-led initiative for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

In this backdrop, the portrayal of Sandip, the 'escapist' leader of the movement, as one who allows adulation to go his head, and whose primary objective is acquiring power and political leadership, has disconcerting parallels with contemporary Indian politics.

In contrast to Sandip, who does not bat an eyelid while inflaming communal passions and triggering a communal riot, Nikhil's character, although that of a landlord, is shown as a person deeply committed to social inclusivity and protecting his Muslim tenants.

Nikhil unequivocally accuses his old friend of harping on Hindu-Muslim unity despite acting contrarily. Sandip's 'cause' is bigger than social harmony, and he confesses to his 'shamelessness' while seeking support for it.

In today’s India, not much effort is required to identify mirror images of Tagore and Ray’s Sandip, the mass leader.

Ray said, in a much-cited interview to veteran journalist Sumit Mitra, that this film was, above all, a love story.

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Ray’s ‘Ganashatru’ Is Still Relevant — Here’s Why

In contemporary India however, Bimala's character can be interpreted as the metaphorical 'terrain' over which two individuals in public life with conflicting political viewpoints clash; one wishing to seduce her, and the other believing that she should be provided with opportunities to make an informed choice.

Besides Ghare Baire, which questions motivations of populist politicians and their disruptive traits, Ganashatru, made in 1989, could be situated in any temple town in contemporary India.

With obscurantism rearing its head in post-pandemic India and the latest COVID spike being matched only by the rush to the Kumbh Mela, Ray’s masterful adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’, couldn’t have more poignant parallels.

The doctor's plea in the film to shut the temple and raise the scientific temper of people was echoed in multiple ways by innumerable subject experts and commentators in the past year.

Ray does not disguise the web of intrigue that prevents the doctor from publicising that the temple's 'holy water' carries the infectious germ which is felling people.

Like in India today, the city's executive head, the municipality chairman, promotes a crony who promotes the hospital where the protagonist, the doctor (‘Ganashatru’ for those suppressing truth) works, and from where he is sacked for trying to publicise the truth.

‘Ganashatru’ was not merely conspiratorial but intensely political, showing emergence of the nexus between Hindu obscurantism, political leadership and vested interest groups.
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Ray’s Stance On Organised Religion

One cannot but wonder if it was a mere coincidence that Ganashatru was made when the Ayodhya agitation catapulted the BJP from a marginal political player to a 'government in waiting'.

Ganashatru ended optimistically with the city's youth rallying behind the doctor. But would the maestro have concluded the film on this note if he was alive in today's India?

In Agantuk, Ray's last film, the visitor to an idyllic middle class home, the protagonist is said to be the director personified.

The claim is not wrong, in the 1983 interview referred previously, Ray talks of a “cosmic design somewhere which we don’t know... for instance, the apparent sizes of the moon and the sun. They’re exactly the same. At the time of total eclipse, the moon covers the sun edge to edge. Is that a coincidence?”

These words are repeated almost verbatim by the ‘Agantuk’, Manmohan Mitra, to the little boy, his grandson.

The old man repeats Ray’s 1983 words, against religion, especially organised religion, because it pits people against others.

He asks a politically loaded question too: who is more barbaric, those labelled by the majority, or the powerful ones who push numerous people towards extermination using brute power?

In any country where dissent is criminalised, ruling elites will be revolted by Pratidwandi, the first film in Ray's Calcutta trilogy, if only for the interview scene when the unemployed protagonist appears for an interview.

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Satyajit Ray’s ‘Foresight’

To the question on the British prime minister’s name at Independence, he retorts, ‘whose independence?’ — a reply which questions the notion of freedom.

Duly, he defends asserting that the war in Vietnam was the most outstanding and significant event of the past decade (the film was made in 1970). Not the man landing on the moon? His response would be a strict no-no in India now: "...the moon landing...we weren't entirely unprepared...it had to come sometime, we knew about the space flights, great advances...had to happen... But what (the Vietnam war) revealed about the Vietnamese people, about their extraordinary power of resistance. Ordinary people, peasants and no one knew they had it in them. I mean this isn't a matter of technology, it's just plain human courage. And it takes your breath away."

Ray’s intuition and knack to foresee the future is mesmerising in the superficially satirical, but deeply political Hirak Raja’r Deshe, a parabolic voyage through a despotic king’s kingdom.

The emperor uses a machine, fabricated by his imperial scientist, for ‘magaz dhulai’ (brain-washing) — that is, brainwashing political heretics and dissidents.

The king shuts down schools because "he who studies more, knows more, and the one who knows more, obeys less."

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Ray’s Portrayal of Despotic Leaderships

Tales abound in India when streets were cleared and slums concealed, even during former US President, Donald Trump's Ahmedabad visit in February 2020. The autocrat of Hirak’s kingdom too does this routinely during State ceremonials, while displaying a megalomaniacal liking for raising giant statues of his own.

But, in this film too (made after the Emergency which he did not support), Ray portrayed absolutist power as short-lived; ordinary people bring down the king's statue, like that of numerous despots in history.

Embracing icons who are not our own, is tricky. There is no knowing when the put-on becomes obvious; in a State — Bengal — where innumerable women characters from books and films abound and remain loved — from Banalata Sen to Charulata — only one woman's name however, resonates incessantly in the electoral arena, but with a ‘catcall’ — ‘Didi-O-Didi!

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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