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Wednesday June 29, 2022

The Supernormal World of Satyajit Ray

supernormal supernatural and satyajit ray

“I don’t think everything can be explained by science at this stage, but a lot of things will come under science eventually.’’ Sometime in the 80s, when Andrew Robinson, a biographer of Satyajit Ray, asked the maestro whether he tended more to agnostic beliefs, that was how Satyajit phrased his response. In 1992, ‘Brick’, a literary journal from the UK published an excerpt of a series of conversations between Robinson and Ray (recorded over a span of seven years, from 1982 to 1988). The interview, somewhat provocatively, opened with the above lines. As the readers start delving deeper into the piece, more provocations await them. The whole business of idea generation, Satyajit believed, could not be explained by science. Referring to his grandfather’s grandfather, who was a Tantric, Satyajit further suggested that ‘some streak of mysticism or spiritualism’ was in his blood. Now one might naturally wonder whether such comments were made at simple jest, but a deeper look at his work would reveal that a supernormal world of Satyajit Ray did exist alongside his strong belief in scientific knowledge.  

In his memoir ‘Mehfil’, Kumarprasad Mukherji, famous musicologist and a friend of Satyajit, recollects that Satyajit was a passionate reader of macabre fiction. While his films and literary fictions are mostly devoid of blood and gore, one may find ample preternatural elements in his body of work. His short stories, essentially written for a young adult audience, would be a good starting point for such explorations. These stories share many common themes. One such prevalent theme was the existence of extrasensory perception. A sense of either a looming tragedy or a hidden grim past. A doppelgänger acting as a harbinger of a personal tragedy (Ratan babu and that man), an antique collector suffering from a cursed retro cognitive ability (Batik babu), a paranormal investigator sensing an impending ‘success’ (Anath babu’s terror), many protagonists from Satyajit’s early fictions lived anxious lives because of their prescience experiences. From dead ringers to clairvoyants, the influence of western horror fiction was clearly visible in Satyajit’s earlier works. And yet, one might wonder whether a tragedy closer home, in fact at home, had laid the supernatural foundations of these short stories. 

Satyajit Ray
Illustration: Samyantak Chatterjee

In the same conversations with Andrew Robinson, Satyajit hinted that Sukumar Roy, another literary star of Bengal who happened to be the father of Satyajit, had a premonition about his own death. Satyajit refused to discuss the details but did suggest that he would certainly believe his father’s experience as described in a long letter written to a close friend of Sukumar. Whatever causality we assume, the fact of the matter is these early short stories of Ray were outstandingly spooky. The crisp and almost mystery fiction-ish structure that he adapted to these stories additionally resulted in a cinematic effect which was rarely achieved by the contemporary Indian writers of the horror genre. Later in his writing career such nuances would be sadly lost.

In 1961, to celebrate the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate Bengali poet, Satyajit made a documentary film. For three years Satyajit worked on the film, and in the process, he was given access to every possible document related to Tagore. This was the first time Satyajit came across documents recording Tagore’s experiences with seances.  Satyajit was aware of the rumour that Tagore had a séance with Sukumar too. At Santiniketan, Tagore’s abode, Satyajit discovered an official record of the session. The conversations as per the record went as follows,

Rabindranath: Do you know that I have started painting?

Sukumar: Yes, I am aware of everything that you do.

Rabindranath: Will my painting be appreciated?

Sukumar: Abroad at first.

Etc.

Satyajit did not explicitly mention whether he believed in seances, but he did not forget to remind Robinson that Tagore’s first accolades for his paintings were received in Paris, a year after the supposed paranormal meeting Tagore had with Sukumar. 

In two of his Feluda stories (Trouble in Gangtok and Peril in Paradise), Satyajit had introduced seances. While investigating a murder mystery in Kashmir, Feluda provided the following clarification about seances, ‘‘I have an open mind on the subject. I have read a lot on planchette and spiritualism. Plenty of well-known and learned people have said it is possible to contact the dead. So, I see no reason to scoff at the whole idea without examining it thoroughly. However, I am fully aware of the fraud and deception that often takes place in this particular area. It all depends on the genuineness of the medium, isn’t it?’’ There is hardly any doubt that the character was merely reflecting his creator’s views.  The keen Feludaphiles may also remember that Satyajit received some flak, especially from the left leaning cinema critics, for portraying reincarnation and hypnosis in another of his Feluda adventures ‘The Golden Fortress’. But Satyajit indeed had an open mind on the subject.

Sonar Kella The Golden Fortress book cover Satyajit Ray
Ray portrays reincarnation and hypnosis in 'The Golden Fortress'

Seances or reincarnations, for him, were not necessarily beyond the realm of rational decidability. His unyielding faith in science and scientific knowledge made him believe that there would eventually be a science of precognition. The subject of reincarnation was introduced in a Feluda adventure only when he found that some of the most reputed western universities had undertaken research projects related to parapsychology. One cannot help but notice that true to his creator’s spirit, Professor Shonku, another of Satyajit’s immortal fictional characters, suggests, ‘‘Ghosts, planchette, telepathy, clairvoyance, everything would eventually be within the realm of science, this is my long-held belief’’ (Professor Shonku and the ghost). 

While investigating a murder mystery in Kashmir, Feluda provided the following clarification about seances, ‘‘I have an open mind on the subject. I have read a lot on planchette and spiritualism. Plenty of well-known and learned people have said it is possible to contact the dead."

In later years Satyajit’s horror stories had more explicit references to ghosts. The extra-perceptory world was replaced by a phantasmic environment. But the transformation happened in a few  stages, it was a gradual process. First, the inanimate objects suddenly came alive. Not as much alive as Chucky the doll perhaps, but they were scary in their own way. A swiss doll coming back to life from the grave (Fritz), wooden sculptures attacking unsuspecting humans (Kutum Katam), a scarecrow transcending the boundaries between dream and reality (Kagtarua), all these quick summaries may remind us of evil spirits a la ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Poltergeist’, but in the phantasmic world of Satyajit Ray they are as humane as Buzz Lightyear. Time and again, Satyajit borrowed the suspense elements of macabre fiction, but very cautiously avoided the violence as much as he could. He indeed had a responsibility towards his teenage audience, but at the same time his artist’s persona found the violence a mere liability. 

Violence however has the power to salvage horror fictions, especially when the genre boils down to simple ghost stories. Satyajit in his last years was not at his productive best, and yet he had to write a few stories to fulfil the demand of thousands of teenage readers. The stories, written in these years, were underwhelming to say the least. Not only were there real ghosts, revelling in their new-found nothingness, but they were gentle enough to have long conversations with the living beings either over phone (Telephone), or via a medium (The Bungalow of Mr. Norris), or from the courtyard (Abhiram). Since every other literary trick fell flat, a little blood and gore could have saved the day. 

Satyajit’s literary genius excelled in supernormal vagueness, he weaved the best stories at the interface between science and prescience. Yes, there were a few flops but the only real problem that we have is we would never have enough of Satyajit. If only we could have a few séances to change that fate! 

Images curtesy: Samyantak Chatterjee, Debasis Deb, Wikipedia

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