One of the best known and beloved Indian artists of the 20th century was film director Satyajit Ray, whose creativity knew few limits. The son of artistic parents, he wrote poetry at an early age and developed an abiding interest in illustration and music. He would eventually attend Visva-Bharati University, a college founded by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel prizewinning poet, writer and social reformer. Ray would eventually make films based on Tagore’s stories.
Born in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the Eastern state of West Bengal, Ray’s first job was as a commercial artist for an advertising firm. In his spare time, he studied music, calligraphy and film while continuing to write poetry and stories; he’d later edit a children’s magazine. When French director Jean Renoir came to Kolkata to film The River (1951), Ray arranged to meet him. That encounter, plus a 1950 trip to work in England, convinced Ray that he wanted to direct films. He later named Italian neorealism as a key influence, and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) in particular. Critic Raymond Durgnat would describe Ray as a direct disciple of the neorealists De Sica and Luchino Visconti.
Satyajit Ray’s vision departed from the norm of Indian cinema of the day. To appeal to a wide audience across several regions, languages and religions, most Indian films strove to be as generic as possible, avoiding the rituals and customs of everyday life. Ray wanted to avoid artifice and instead capture life as it was lived. He envisioned a specifically Bengalese cinema depicting the ethnic and cultural essence of his home region. It was a risky commercial proposition.
Ray’s first film Pather Panchali (1955) took years to finish. It attracted wide attention in India and found even greater success abroad, winning a special jury prize at Cannes. Access to an international market made all the difference; Ray openly admitted that he would not have been able to continue as a filmmaker in India alone. At one point, Pakistan banned Indian films altogether, cutting Ray’s potential audience in half. Yet, he insisted on writing films to be performed in his native language Bengali. In his entire career of 37 features, only one was in a different language.
Only a little more than an hour in duration, Ray’s The Holy Man (Mahapurush, 1965) was produced to serve as the second half of a double feature with his film Kapurush (The Coward), also from 1965, a morality tale about a man who tries to induce a former lover to leave her husband. When listed together, the double-bill title alternately translates as The Good Man - The Bad Man. Ray adapted many of his own stories for his films but took The Holy Man from the story Birinchibaba by the popular author Rajshekhar ‘Parashuram’ Basu.
The Holy Man is comic farce about a serious subject. Although it satirizes social eccentricities, it contains nothing to conflict with Ray’s neorealist precepts. After losing his wife, the retired attorney Gurupada Mitter (Prasad Mukherjee) is in low spirits. He and his daughter Buchki (Gitali Roy) are returning by train from a pilgrimage when Mitter witnesses the self-styled guru Birinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh) waving goodbye to his solemn devotees. Birinchi has a cherubic face and a quick way with words. Seeing that Mitter is well-to-do, Birinchi launches into a long speech about his spiritual accomplishments. Mitter is immediately taken in and accepts Birinchi as a genuine holy man, not realizing that Birinchi and his fawning attendant (Rabi Ghosh) are complete frauds running a confidence game on his gullible followers.
Much of the comedic content revolves around Birinchi Baba’s endless self-aggrandizing speeches. He claims to be an ageless exalted spirit: he name-drops Leonardo da Vinci and says that he gave Albert Einstein the theory of relativity. He claims to pull electrical energy from the sky, to give to his followers. He has also met both Buddha and the Christ. He witnessed the crucifixion personally: speaking in English, Birinchi assures his devotees that his story is not ‘cruci- fiction,’ but ‘cruci- fact.’
With the guru’s comic dialogue and the amusing romantic problems of the ‘inspired’ Buchki and her clownish boyfriend Satya, The Holy Man is firmly comedic in form. Yet the absurdities we see could happen with any cult built around a charismatic, self-made guru. That first scene at the train stop demonstrates Birinchi’s influence. He allows his disciples to kiss his foot. The railroad conductor waits for Birinchi’s okay to let the train proceed.
It makes no difference that Mitter is an educated professional, as intelligence is no shield against charlatans like Birinchi. The lesson of The Holy Man of course applies to politics and mob psychology. Despots and populists create their own self-serving reality, and encourage their followers to accept it without question. The guru may be a phony but his disciples are sincere. Ray’s film targets lying frauds, not faith itself.
Instead of a moral sermon, all of this is served up with comedy touches. Satya’s friends lounge about in rooms stacked with books and make jokes about Birinchi’s ridiculous claims: if the guru is really immortal, he’d be a great candidate for a life insurance policy. Birinchi teaches his followers to meditate while rotating their pointed fingers “Clockwise, and anti-clockwise.” Fools concentrating on finger motions are less likely to question the Big Picture.
Sometimes Birinchi Baba’s assistant dons a pair of dummy arms, and appears as a shadow behind the guru, as if a god has been summoned. Each session ends with Birinchi swooning into a cataleptic trance, requiring that he be carried unconscious back to his room. It’s a gag favored by witch doctors and mediums, even Peter Finch’s news anchor Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). The dramatic ritual lets Birinchi Baba evade inconvenient questions, but also provides Satya’s friends with a clever means to expose him as a fraud.
Satyajit Ray uses few establishing shots. His creative direction enlivens conversation scenes with unobtrusive camera moves. In the guru’s teaching sessions, the lighting makes the costumed, painted Birinchi look like a holy statue, striking poses, smiling beatifically and rolling his eyes as he speaks. He’s truly grotesque.
The Holy Man has a great deal of dialogue. An elegant flashback structure introduces dialogue passages in which characters describe their encounters with the guru. At one point Ray breaks format to explain Birinchi’s chain of influence. An animated diagram connects images of various players. It is the kind of ‘visual aid’ that an ex-advertising art director might invent.
The film wasn’t as popular in export as Satyajit Ray’s more serious dramas and domestic tragedies. Western reviewers didn’t always understand the warm, earthy Bengali humor that mixes clownish behavior with sophisticated verbal wit. The preeminent Indian film director known worldwide produced a range of films wider than just the famed Apu trilogy. In all of his work, Ray remained ‘the great cinematic humanist,’ insisting that the human spirit shines through no matter the circumstance.