Friday, October 26, 2012

Satyajit Ray - India's Master Filmmaker

Filmmaker Satyajit Ray
Regarded as a Master in World Cinema
It was the year of India's Independence from Great Britain in 1947,  when master filmmaker Satyajit Ray helped found the Calcutta Film Society.  He was born in Calcutta in 1921 into a Bengali family prominent in the world of arts and literature.  Ray came to appreciate fine art and his interest grew even stronger after the encouragement of his mother to study at the Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali Nobel Prize Laureate and author of India's National Anthem).  Years later, with Calcutta always in his heart, Ray celebrated his beloved city with the film Mahanagar (The Big City) that dealt with a rare foray of social satire in 1963 whose citizens manage to dream under the most oppressive conditions.

Ray was working as an illustrator and copywriter when he made his debut film, with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) in 1955.  It took three years to complete the film as he was able to work on it only on weekends and had to make ends meet with his regular job.  He used his own savings and the money from the sale of his wife's jewelry.  The film was finally completed thanks to the funding of the government of West Bengal after John Huston, the director of The Queen of Africa encouraged and pushed for support.  Ray was never a popular filmmaker throughout India.  The commercial success of his pictures was restricted by his use of the Bengali language, as opposed to the more widely spoken Hindi.  The indian masses were not used to reading subtitles on films nor were prepared to appreciate narrative art films that did not follow the usual Bollywood formulaic elements: which is the standard for the bulk of indian films that contain melodramatic tones, unrealistic scenarios and life situations, fantasy, glitzy and over the top out of context music and dance numbers.  

Apu in Satyajit Ray's debut film, Pather Panchali, (Song of the Little Road)1955
from the Apy Trilogy
Ray's films spoke clearly to discriminating Western cinema-goers.  His films paid serious attention to plot, storyline, dialogue, and actor performance.  This is not surprising at all as Ray learned his craft and emulated the films he most admired.  He studied closely Victorio de Sica's, The Bicycle Thief (1948), but also hundreds of American films directed by John Ford and Frank Capra.  After helping french filmmaker Jean Renoir on his film, The River (1951), Ray realized he had an opportunity to learn the craft from a master and followed the style and aesthetics that were common in the narrative films of Renoir.  At the time, Renoir's films were often cited by critics as the greatest films ever made.  Renoir travelled to India in 1949 to make his film The River.  Ray admired the way in which Renoir told the story of three young girls coming of age in India.  It was a meditation on human beings' relationship with nature.  

Ray was a lover of many art forms and he had an appreciation for writing, directing, and designing sets, but his other love was music.  He eventually composed many of the scores for his own films.  Ray revealed himself to be a director of moments.  His films spoke to the viewer with a sensuous incandescent quality, mastering one of cinema's most uncanny tricks, the illusion that the camera is somehow able to capture the light from inside a human being.  

Ray turned poverty into beauty displaying an appreciation of nature and found the simple lives of those less privileged to be just as interesting.  Most mainstream Bollywood films portray subjects of wealth and glamour and an untrue reality that only the beautiful and rich can fall in love, enjoy happiness, or dress in beautiful colors.  He became frustrated with Bollywood musical films and turned to a neo-realist style already common in Europe and the US.  The neo-realist style of filmmaking consisted of realism, serious content, natural performances from the actors, and naturalism with a special focus on the sociopolitical issues of the time.  The genre became known as art house films and were in part supported by state governments to promote an authentic art genre from an Indian film fraternity.  Ray's films invoked warm humanism often transmitted through a deceptively simple yet profoundly resonant close-up of the human face: cinema's lingua franca (a working language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue).  

Although Ray's films were successful in Western countries, in India, politicians objected when his films were cleared by the film censor (Censor Board of Film Certification).  They complained his films portrayed India in "a very negative light"; "The world will think we have only poverty."  Because of the realism portrayed in his films, cinema-goers did not want to see reality on the screen.  Ray always managed to show the real India thru his films.  During his lifetime this humble master of the cinema had to beg for money for his next film while in the 1960's mainstream Bollywood was awash in black money and undeclared cash fortunes found their way into the film industry.

Ray talked about the hardships he faced in making his first film Pather Panchali in his  essays compiled in a book titled, Our Films Their Films, "When I look back on the making of Pather Panchali, I cannot be sure whether it has meant more pain to me than pleasure.  It is difficult to describe the peculiar torments of a production held up for lack of funds.  The long periods of enforced idleness produce nothing but the deepest gloom.  The very sight of the scenario is sickening, let alone thoughts of embellishing it with details, or bruising up the dialogue."

A still frame from the film Mahanagar (The Big City), 1963
directed by Satyajit Ray
There were three familiar and well trodden paths open to him.  He could make mythological films, or he could make 'devotional' ones, or he could make 'socials' preferably melodramas - which must have adornment of the latest favorite star team.  All three must have the usual concomitant of songs and dances and must not be below two and a half hours in length.  This last proviso is so rigid, and so is the exhibitor's faith in it, that a film that dares to disregard it may never see the light of day.  Needless to say, these formulas do not work every time, but they are the ones that have had the longest and most lucrative existence.  They have evolved out of the producers' deliberate and sustained playing down to a vast body of unsophisticated audience brought up on the simple tradition of the Jatra, a form of rural drama whose broad gestures, loud rhetoric and simple emotional patterns have been retained in the films to a degree unimaginable to those not familiar  with this unique form of filmmaking.  The song and over the top out of context dances are a legacy of the theatrical operatic tradition carried onto film even if all the most awkward.  

Ray assumed his position as a serious filmmaker and the results have been more than gratifying throughout his 37 films that included feature films, documentaries, and shorts.  Ray faced the challenges of contemporary reality and from them drew his subject matter for his films.  It payed to be uncompromising.  He was aware of the consequences of departing from the beaten track, but he was undeterred because he had great faith in his films.  Ray expected no quick returns he is remembered saying, "What is really important and exciting is not the immediate gain, but the ultimate vindication of the belief that I hold dearest as an artist: art wedded to truth in the end have its reward."  

Beloved Satyajit Ray's masterpiece films are a trilogy titled, The Apu Trilogy, consisting of three Bengali films: Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), completed from 1955 to 1959.  The films are now regarded as masterpieces in world cinema and have been appreciated by such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Kazan, Carlos Saura, Isao Takahata, Philip Kaufman, Wes Anderson, Dany Boyle and Akira Kurosawa.  The films went on to win many international and national awards.   

Master Filmmaker Satyajit Ray upon receiving
his Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar (1992) 
In 1992, Ray's health deteriorated due to heart complications. He was admitted to a hospital, and would never recover.  In recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world, an Academy Honorary Oscar from the Motion Picture Arts And Sciences was awarded to him weeks before his death, which he received in a gravely ill condition.  He died on the 23rd of April 1992 at the age of 70.  When a radio announcement was made in Calcutta that their ailing filmmaker had died, people poured out of their homes.  Offices closed and the government was brought to a standstill as buroucrats deserted their desks to give their final respect to the now legendary filmmaker.  

Written by Leticia Alaniz © 2012

Satyajit Ray Filmography:
Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), 1955
Aparajito (The Unvanquished), 1956
Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone), 1958
Jalsaghar (The Music Room), 1958
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), 1959
Devi (The Goddess), 1960
Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), 1961
Kanchanjungha, 1962
Abhijan (The Expedition), 1962
Mahanagar (The Big City), 1963
Charulata (The Lonely Wife), 1964
Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and The Holy Man), 1965
Nayak (The Hero), 1966
Chiriakhana (The Zoo), 1967
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), 1968
Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), 1969
Pratidwandi (The Adversary), 1970
Seemabaddha (Company Limited), 1971
Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), 1973
Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), 1974
Jana Aranya (The Middle Man), 1975
Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players), 1977
Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), 1978
Hirak Rajar Dese (The Kingdom of Diamonds), 1980
Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), 1984
Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People), 1989
Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree), 1990
Agantuk (The Stranger), 1991

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Babette's Feast - Food in Films

The relationship of food and cinema goes back since the invention of the seventh art.  Food is extremely sensual and symbolic and it's no wonder that film creators have centered their plots around food.  In Babette's Feast, as the title implies food does not fall short.  The entire plot is centered on the determination of one woman to prepare an exotic scrumptious feast.  It's a celebration of a single meal served to her less than accepting guests whom are truly in need of appreciation of life's simple little pleasure's.  

Babette's Feast is a visually stimulating Danish film released in 1987, written and directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the story of Karen Blixen also known by her pen name Isak Dinesen.  Rightfully so, the film was honored with the 1987 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  The film depicts far more than food and foodways, it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives and it portrays a story of french cuisine by lovingly detailing the many pleasures of food.     

Babette's Feast takes place in a remote seaside village in Jutland, the site of an especially strict Lutheran sect of 19th century Denmark.  The two beautiful young daughters of the founder of the sect reject suitors from the outside world whom if married, would have taken them away from their father, their religion, and their village.  Many years pass; neither sister has an opportunity to marry, so they live their lives devoted to good works and keeping their now dead father's spirit alive.  

The story flashes back several years, depicting the sisters in their youth.  Each sister is courted by handsome young men, one a worldly aristocratic army officer and the other a French opera star named Achille Papin.  

One evening some thirty five years later, on a dark rainy night, a bedraggled and visibly exhausted woman appears on the doorstep of the two sisters, who are now in late middle age.  The woman arrived with a letter written by the famous opera star whom had before courted one of the sisters: Achille Papin.  He asks the sisters to take in the woman, a refugee from the civil war that was tearing France apart in 1871.  The woman's husband and son were both brutally killed leaving her with nowhere else to turn.  Babette Hersant, played by Stephane Audran, had lost her family, her country, her language, and as it turns out, her art.  In exchange for taking her in, Babette submits herself to servitude and housekeeping for the sisters.  

The sister's live extremely isolated and simply that they hardly know what to do with a servant.  Nevertheless, they take her in and she soon becomes indispensable to them.  Babette cooks delicious food and brings pleasure to the deeply protestant religious ways of the two sisters whom had grown accustomed to the flavorless, hardly edible fare.  Once good taste is learned there is no return!  The townsfolk appreciate Babette's cooking and attention she gives to flavor and freshness that they give thanks to god for the arrival of Babette.  

The mysterious maid has been happily keeping house for them and the story turns when one day she wins the 10,000-franc French lottery and decides to spend it on one grand meal for her emotionally withholding employers and the needy inhabitants of the town.  The townsfolk had given up all worldly pleasures including the pleasure of good food, taking religious beliefs to the extreme.  As it turned out the sisters had been planning to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of their father's birth.  This celebration comes at a crucial moment: like many other sects after the loss of a charismatic founder, the disciples have fallen to squabbling and backbiting.  The sisters hope the celebration will restore the spiritual harmony of their early church.  Babette, having been very unfortunate her entire life, and now having won the lottery, requests permission from the two sisters to prepare the commemorative feast for the sisters and the community of believers, but she wants to do so on her own terms, as a "real French dinner."  She insists on paying for it and although the sisters are reluctant, they assume this will be the last meal she prepares for them before she returns to France a rich woman. 

Babette orders many of the exotic ingredients from France and they include a gleaming candelabra, silverware, elegant china, and table linens and they start arriving by boat but the greedy sneering townsfolk start "talking" about all the goods parading in the town.  The sisters, being religiously strict and deprived their entire lives, are horrified and they fear the feast will turn into a "witches Sabbath".  The sisters warn the community, begging for forgiveness and set out to meet the presence of "evil" with resignation, with their minds on heaven.  The ungrateful townsfolk decide with the sisters that the nice meal will be "sinful", so they all agree not to enjoy the meal or express anything appreciative about it.  

The dinner brings an unexpected guest, the army officer and suitor of Martine from years before.  As the dinner progresses the officer realizes that the dinner he is enjoying could have only been prepared by the chef of the renowned Café Anglais in Paris.  In the course of the dinner he recounts the story of the extraordinary chef of the superb restaurant who "quite exceptionally" was a woman.  The incomparable chef had the gift of transforming a dinner into a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.

When the guests leave the two sisters, Philippa and Martine come into the kitchen to compliment Babette on the meal and to prepare to say good-bye, but Babette stuns her employers that she will not be returning to France - ever.  There is no place for her there and she has no money.  

Of course, the chef at Café Anglais was Babette, but this is the first time she has had an opportunity to so lovingly prove her culinary artistry, expecting nothing in return form the ungrateful congregation.  She had spent all the money from the lottery winning on the feast that in her mind will redeem the townsfolk from their heartless and cold ways.  Babette will reap one final reward, for the first time, Philippa embraces her servant in an act of love that at once acknowledges the right of the artist to sacrifice.  The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice.  She has proven her skill and art, but most importantly, she has taught the sisters and the congregation the gift of love.  Babette has had a last chance to give of her very best. The power of the culinary art transformed the feasters, even if their expression was silent, their eloquent testimony in their facial expression was captured thru the magic of film and Babette's skill was proof enough that words were not what she needed.  Her satisfaction was the humble and simple opportunity to cook like in the days when she was the star chef and artist at the Café Anglais of her beloved Paris.  

The Menu:

Babette's  scrumptious feast begins with a glass of amontillado, a variety of sherry from the Montilla region of Spain.  Next a bowl of ""Potage à la Tortue" (turtle soup), followed by "Blinis Demidoff au Caviar" (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream).  For the main course Babette prepared elegant "Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine" (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); a salad featuring Belgian chicory and walnuts in a vinaigrette followed by "Les Fromages" featuring blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes, pineapple, and pomegranate.  The grand finale dessert is a sweet "Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruits Glacées" (rum sponge cake with figs and glazed fruits).  Numerous rare wines, including an 1845 Clos de Vouget, along with an 1860 Veuve Clicqot champagne and spirits, complete the menu. Babette's purchase of the finest china, crystal and linen with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette.

To Bring the Feast to your table:

Babette's Cailles en Sarcophage (quail in puff pastry shell)
  • 1 pound frozen puff pastry, defrosted 20 minutes at room temperature
  • 4 quails, boned
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces foie gras, of which is cut across in 8 slices, the rest cut into 2/3- inch cubes
  • 1 1-ounce black truffle, sliced as thinly as possible, at least 12 slices
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup demi-glace (see note)
  • 16 black figs, quartered
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut 4 5-inch rounds from the pastry. Make a 3-inch circle in the center of each round, being careful not to cut to the bottom of the dough. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 22 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Carefully lift out the 3-inch round from the center to create a nest with a top. Set aside to cool.
Raise the oven to 450 degrees. Season the inside of the quails with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Lay 1 slice of foie gras in each quail cavity followed by 3 truffle slices and top with the remaining foie gras. Truss the quails. Season the outsides with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet over high heat. Sear the quails, 20 to 30 seconds per side. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Turn the quails and roast for 5 minutes more. Remove and keep warm in a covered dish.
Place the skillet over high heat on top of the stove. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 1 minute. Pour in the stock and demi-glace and simmer for 3 minutes. Stir in the figs and simmer for 1 minute. Stir in the 1/4- inch cubes of foie gras and simmer, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the sauce is reduced to 2/3 cup. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, put each quail in a pastry nest. Drizzle with sauce, top with the pastry round and surround with the figs.
4 servings