Having grown up on a healthy dose of Satyajit Ray’s cinema, it would be really difficult for me to name one favourite Ray film. Even though I would probably go with Aparajito, in my mind I am not sure if Charulata, Pather Panchali, Aranyer Din Ratri aren’t as great as Aparijto. Then there is his city trilogy. And his ‘children’s’ film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirok Rajar Deshe which of course, brilliant political satires that continue to grow in relevance even today. And having named these, one does not even say half the names of his films which can be considered great by any cinematic standard in the world.
But I have no intention of discussing Ray’s oeuvre of work here. I want to share some thoughts over one of his films that, for me, has been pure indulgence since childhood. That film is Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress). Ray is perceived by many as a high brow auteur who had no connections with popular cinema or the masses. While Ray was a self-admitted European cinema enthusiast and also denounced much of Indian popular cinema, the popularity of his own work among Bengali audiences (and to some extent Indian audiences) goes contrary to the common perception about his aloofness. Sonar Kella alone, along with other films, bears testimony to the fact that generations of Bengali cine-goers have lived with Ray’s work in such a way that the films are part of their lives. Quoting from Ray’s work, recalling scenes from his films, paying tributes to his work in film after film – all this show that he might just be the most popular Bengali cultural icon, ahead of even Tagore.
Sonar Kella is a detective story with the sleuth Feluda and his assistants Topshe and Jatayu (who first appears in the Feluda series in this story) as the main characters. As was typical of Ray, we are aware of the crime and the criminals from the very start. The author hides nothing from the audience. It is the process of Feluda deducing the modus operandi of the crime and getting to the criminals that forms the body of the story. Having read many detective stories in my life (including the entire Feluda series), I have come to realize that the reason for the endearment with Sonar Kella (the film) cannot be ascribed only to the detective and fact finding element.
For me, Sonar Kella is a travelogue and a story of fantasy and then a detective story. At the start of the film, we see the 2 villains kidnap the wrong kid because he is a namesake of Mukul, their target. On realizing their mistake, they tell him that they have come from Baluchistan and are not conversant with the roads of Calcutta. Even though this is purely hogwash, the very name ‘Baluchistan’ at the start of the film opens up a land of fantasy in an otherwise humdrum setting of North Calcutta. This theme of ‘travel’ continues throughout the film at 2 different levels – actual travel and traveling of the mind. With a mission to rescue a clairvoyant Mukul from the clutches of 2 rogues, Feluda and Topshe set off for picture postcard Rajasthan. Their entire train journey, through Indian states of Bihar, UP etc., is shown in great detail. While traveling Feluda and Topshe meet Jatayu and their conversation not only touches upon the almost mythical dacoits of Aravalli but also allude to even the Sahara desert! The discussion between Feluda and Jatayu on the mode of punishment adopted by the Aravalli dacoits remains the strongest association of Bengalis with bandits to this day! Then, of course, there is the villain Mandar Bose (played brilliantly by Kamu Mukhopadhyay) who claims to be a globetrotter. When he talks about his (claimed) travels of Brazil, Kenya, China and numerous other places of the world we cannot help but admire even though we know that his stories are false.
When placed in the context of Ray’s body of work, we can probably trace certain continuities through this sense of travel in Sonar Kella. In his acclaimed Apu trilogy, Apu is shown as the simple village boy who comes to the big city with eyes filled with wonder. As Apu talks about his autobiographical novel in Apur Sansar, he talks about a young village boy who is blessed with a thirst for knowledge and he wants to see, feel and experience. The coming of age of Apu is characterized with a sense of wonder that accompanies discovery. Be it the iconic coming of the train scene in Pather Panchali or Apu’s coming to Calcutta in Aparajito or his discovering love with his wife in Apur Sansar, this sense of amazement is recurrent. Travel, as a theme, is also used in his last film Agantuk where Utpal Dutta’s character is a globetrotter (vagabond would be a more apt descriptor).As is the case with many an auteur, a part of their subjectivity rests with the characters they create. It wouldn’t be a mistake to say there was a part of Ray in Feluda, Manomohan (Agantuk) and even Apu even though he was a village boy in contrast to Ray’s urban, aristocratic upbringing. And this is crucial to understand the explosion of cultural abundance Bengal had seen at one point of time in history. Ray, like Feluda or Tagore or Salil Choudhary or Manomohan, was what we today call a global citizen. The expression of that cosmopolitanism wasn’t through MNCs or big brands or foreign investments. As artists (each in their own right) they interacted with the globe at the level of ideas. Ray was a student of European cinema and Feluda considered Sherlock Holmes his guru. The Ray version of Bengal (and India) was one which kept itself open to other cultures, influences and ideas. It wasn’t the inward looking, cliquey, parochial collection of communities that our country is (and was even then). This refusal to open up and interact is a sign of mediocrity that had no place in the world of Satyajit Ray. And art that bears this honesty and openness eventually finds its takers. It isn’t a surprise that Jaisal fort in Jaisalmer is now popularly known as ‘Sonar Kella’!
As Feluda says in his reply to the eccentric genius Sidhu jyatha in Sonar Kella, “Aamio moner janala gulo khulei rekhechhi.” (I, too, have kept the windows of my heart open). Travel is only a metaphor for that.