Byron Hopper was one of Satyajit Ray’s childhood heroes. Hopper, a consummate musician, played the cinema organ — the Wurlitzer — to set the mood to the silent films that were screened at Madan cinema (later known as Elite). In Jokhon Chhoto Chhilam, a book in which Ray looks back at his childhood, he wrote about his early fascination with Hopper’s skills. What is apparent from the passage is that the notes of the Wurlitzer or the film visuals did not stoke Ray’s interest individually. It was the harmony between the music and the soundless images that captivated Ray. Later, as a film-maker, Ray experimented with this tenuous relationship between sound and silence, most notably in Charulata.
The symmetry that Ray achieves in the opening sequence of the film works at many levels. Ray broke new ground by combining two different schools of music to give the film its musical structure — Rabindrasangeet and the Western classical. Charulata opens with an orchestrated rendition of “Mamo Chitte Niti Nritye” played by both Indian and Western instruments in their own styles. Then, there is the harmony between sound and silence. As the background music ebbs, Charu, whose hands are seen embroidering a handkerchief, leaves the room and instructs Brojo — the servant, who, on account of his ear, is impervious to noise, including Charu’s remonstrations — to take the evening tea to the “office”. Next, we hear a series of background noises in the following order: the cawing of a crow; a kulfi-seller’s calls, the rhythmic sound made by the instrument played by the monkey-man, and, finally, the sing-song voices of the palki-bearers.
What must be noted here is that these sounds come up from the street — a realm that is meant to symbolize the world outside that remains out of Charu’s reach. The inner chambers that Charu inhabits are filled with a stifling silence that is occasionally broken with such mundane sounds as the opening of window shutters, the shutting of a drawer (from which she fishes out a pair of binoculars) or of the door of a book case.
Silence and sound are usually imagined to be in opposition to each other. In Charulata, Ray fuses the two media to reveal two vastly different worlds to build on the theme of Charu’s exclusion. The street sounds amplify the silence of the private chambers; the silence, in turn, represents metaphorically the heroine’s desolation and loneliness.
Ray’s complementary treatment of sound and silence may have been brought about by his fidelity to Tagore’s short story from which the film is adapted. But by choosing to opt for an equitable treatment of the two, Ray was hinting at a dissonant trait within film-making. The developments in technology — the inception of the talkies, for instance — had led to the creation of a cinematic culture that accorded primacy to sound over silence in order to heighten the element of drama.
The subtle use of silence in the opening sequence in Charulata may not have been intended to convey this ingrained anomaly. But the significance of the recognition of this imbalance is made apparent in an essay on silent films that Ray wrote in the book, Our Films, Their Films, in 1970 — six years after he had made Charulata. In it, Ray welcomed the revival in collective interest in the existing archives of silent films because such a resurrection had the potential to reveal unsavoury truths. In a telling indictment of the verbose quality of the cinema of the time, Ray wrote, “Today, one can actually question whether the introduction of words into films was not in fact an introduction of an impurity undermining the direct visual impact of the medium.” Significantly, Ray’s anxiety concerned words and not music. For he adds, later, “The silent film was never meant to be viewed in silence, but with the accompaniment of music.” The economy of dialogue is a notable feature of all Ray films, including Charulata.
Ray’s observation remains relevant in the context of the overtly verbose quality of commercial cinema. The “impurity” that Ray refers to, of images having to depend on words — as opposed to music — as crutches to be meaningful, is no longer limited to a debate about the disparate usage of the two media in films. (Ray — an accomplished script-writer — was not derisive of words. In the same essay, he acknowledges that “Words, too, have a valid function to perform.”) The idea of impurity can be expanded to hint at a deeper crisis: the contamination of the ethics of film-making. While attempting to emulate the stylization of the Musicals, commercial cinema has remained unwilling to acknowledge its pilfering and distortion of India’s vast and rich subaltern musical traditions.
Equally disappointing is the contemporary Indian filmmakers’ inclination to appreciate silent films for their archival value only. Even talented directors remain reluctant to experiment with silence.This aversion cannot be attributed to rudimentary technology any longer. Cumbersome apparatus had made the task of making silent films a daunting physical challenge. The other argument — creative directors remain burdened by the inconsiderate demands of producers — is as specious. Niche films are receiving far more support from financiers than earlier, enabling directors to experiment considerably in terms of plot and technique. Does cinema’s diffidence towards silence reflect a broader societal nervousness about the absence of sound?
A personal experience would perhaps indicate that such a proposition is not entirely implausible. Some years ago, in Shillong, I had stepped into an empty chapel on a gloomy evening. After a while, a group of tourists ambled in but having quickly lost interest in the unremarkable frescoes and an ancient piano, they started to talk among themselves in hushed tones. Their conversation died out soon after, and we were bound by a stillness that seemed to make them edgy. They started fidgeting and left in a hurry. Is silence now feared, neither enjoyed nor revered, in a society that has fetishized sound?
But the world of sound, too, is layered unevenly between melody and noise. Ray’s accomplishments with music are legendary. The Apu trilogy, Jalsaghar, Devi, Charulata, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, to name a few films, provide ample evidence of his knowledge of music. But Ray’s treatment of street noises is as inimitable. Two relevant examples would be those of the din of the crowd that is audible to Siddhartha as he stands on the terrace of a tall building in Pratidwandi or the chaotic, everyday noises that greet Somnath as he makes his way through Burrabazar’s alleys in Jana Aranya. While we remember Ray’s music, what is it that makes us forget the other sounds that have breathed life into his creations?