Better than Bollywood

It's a hot summer for India's film industry, but Salil Tripathi prefers a film-maker who favours rea

Bollywood is enveloping our senses, through the resplendent shop windows of Selfridges in Oxford Street, the large-sized posters of Nargis in Mother India, and the advertisements for Bombay Dreams on buses, creating the image of a glitzy, kitsch-laden, glamorous India, as defined by its cinema. This reflects growing interest in Bollywood fuelled by films such as Lagaan (Tax), which was an Academy Award nominee in March for Best Foreign- Language Film, and Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair's Altman-esque take (but with a plot) on an Indian wedding home video.

As an industry, Bollywood is arguably as old as the real thing, but it is only now that its films are emerging from the ghettos of Little Indias around the world, from where they successfully market nostalgia to the Indian diaspora. To the outsider, Bollywood films constitute an important element of the resurgent, assertive, aggressive and prospering mosaic that is India. This is the India of a large middle class and nuclear weapons, of software engineers and diamond merchants. Crowning Bollywood's glory internationally, the official Indian screening at Cannes was not an art-house film, but, for the first time, an offering from Bollywood (Devdas).

The screening of a film such as Devdas at Cannes may appear to signal a triumph of sorts for Bollywood, settling the 20-year-old argument about who depicts Indian reality accurately: the boisterous, brazen film-makers of Bollywood, or the art film-makers, with their quieter, more nuanced world. For the critics and serious film-goers, there was no contest; the art film-makers always won that debate. Respected juries at international film festivals routinely handed out their Golden Palms and Golden Bears to India's art-house directors. The greatest of them all, Satyajit Ray, gained international recognition at Cannes in 1956 when his debut film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), won a special award as the Best Human Document.

Bollywood, flush with funds - of late from dubious sources - resented Ray's success then and later. It could not fathom why grainy, black-and-white films made on a limited budget were more popular than its lavishly produced, star-studded musical marathons. Ray's critical acclaim continued to mock Bollywood, as Berlin, Venice, Karlovy Vary and other festivals honoured his cinema, right up to 1992, when, lying in a Calcutta nursing home, he accepted an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement less than a month before his death. A decade earlier, Nargis (real name Fatima Dutt), the star of Mother India and for some time a member of the Rajya Sabha, the Indian parliament's upper house, had assailed Ray for selling Indian poverty abroad to win awards.

But the world Ray created was one of riches. He showed us the determined optimism of the poor in the face of insurmountable odds, revealing a kind of lyrical humanism that was quintessentially Indian. Ray took the lens off the camera and let life in, rolling along right in front of our eyes. It is therefore more than appropriate that the National Film Theatre will be running a retrospective of his films this summer, just at a time when the billboards will be oozing with Bollywood schmaltz.

The reality that Ray brought to the screen was something Bollywood would never depict, because India's commercial film industry is geared to helping Indians escape that reality. In Bollywood, a slum dweller overcomes the odds, beats up the baddies and marries the beauty who lives in a skyscraper; in Ray's India, the slum dweller does not blame anyone, but works tirelessly to bring happiness to his family.

Ray was inspired by the Italian neo-realists, and he was a serious student of Hollywood directors such as Billy Wilder, John Ford, Frank Capra and William Wyler, as well as European directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Jean Renoir. He spent a long time studying the Renoir film The River, which is set in India. The son of a talented writer of nonsense verse, Ray combined his acquired western sensibility for detachment and understatement with an eastern empathy for human beings and the drama of life.

In many ways, Ray was the first true auteur of Indian cinema. Gathering around himself a bunch of talented people - the editor Dulal Dutta, the cinematographers Subrata Mitra and Soumendu Roy, the art director Bansi Chandragupta and, in his early years, Ravi Shankar as composer - Ray himself did far more than write the screenplay and direct the film. Not only would he draw sketches of each scene, but he often shot the scene looking through the lens. Later, he would sit with the editor at the Moviola, cutting the film. He composed music as well, and would even design the posters (his early training came from the Bengali painter Nandalal Bose).

Ray's genius lay in understanding one crucial aspect of the Indian ethos - of accepting misfortune and trying to make the best of it, what an American might call making a lemonade out of lemons. This trait has given the semblance of stability to a multi-everything country, and partly explains why India has not turned into a revolutionary society, why it is not torn apart when rising expectations are not met and the quantity of food in the thali continues to shrink. He made heroes of marginal men facing intractable dilemmas, but who saved themselves from going round the bend by learning to make do, expecting little and getting less, but still remaining optimistic - a farm labourer in Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981); a school teacher in Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973); a salesman in Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975); a graduate unable to find work in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970). And, towards the end of his life, Ray made heroes of iconoclastic older men taking on conventional wisdom, in Ganashatru (based on Ibsen's Enemy of the People; 1989) and Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991).

Bollywood stars like Nargis were not the only ones to criticise Ray. Younger, more radical film-makers who were politically committed to progressive causes felt that Ray described problems but did not offer solutions. Their idols were Ray's contemporaries Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Ghatak was tormented by the partitioning of Bengal, and most of his output was an anguished cry about that period. Sen focused his attention on inequality in post-independent India and, during the late 1960s, made overtly political films. He challenged Ray for shunning contemporary issues and hiding behind period pieces. Ray responded in the 1970s with three searing indictments of urban Calcutta, Pratidwandi, Jana Aranya and Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). In revealing the distaste of the bhadralok (the Bengali gentry) for violence, and expressing frustration at the anarchy taking over the city, these films showed despair without being nihilistic. His characters tried to preserve the parts of their lives they could control, even while a bigger drama seized the streets.

Sen's later work became more unequivocally political, and deteriorated cinematically before he, too, returned to making more restrained films. For younger film-makers, the revolutionary messages of Ghatak, and to some extent Sen, were mesmerising; Ray's upper-middle-class bearing, aristocratic manners and refusal to make political points seemed boring. But the films they made were as forgettable as the eastern-bloc cinema propaganda of the cold war.

Although Ray shunned didacticism, it was not because he had no political views: Agantuk showed his commitment to science and rationalism over prevailing orthodoxy; Ganashatru showed his abhorrence for Hindu fundamentalism; Sadgati showed his concern for the downtrodden; Seemabaddha demonstrated his refusal to accept corruption; and Jana Aranya is one of the finest films about the debasement of the human soul brought about by the mercantilist obsession with business, on a par with Death of a Salesman. Ray's ultimate triumph was that he understood that India was not a revolutionary kind of place. First-time visitors to India often wonder how many of the poor seem happy in the face of such adversity. Satyajit Ray's films perhaps provide the answer.

In the end, Ray was closer to the Indian reality than his contemporaries, and he was a more genuinely Indian film-maker than either the fantasy-weavers of Bollywood - the Kapoors, the Chopras and the Anands - or the more committed cineastes who made didactic, revolutionary films, and whose anger was expected to foment a violent revolution that never happened.

For such a revolution would not have been Indian, and Ray understood that.

The Satyajit Ray retrospective is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, in July and August. Details can be found on www.bfi.org.uk - or call the box office on 020 7928 3232

Salil Tripathi is working on a novel set in south-east Asia