Happy B'day, Satyajit Ray - still Indian cinema's banyan tree

Satyajit Ray would have been 91 today.

I never met the man but because his son and I share the same name, I was once mistaken for the son. At an NRI reception in California for Sandip Ray, an older man spotted my name tag and came up to me and said “I met your father once on a bridge.”

My father was an engineer who built bridges among other things and for a moment I thought that was how he knew him. When the man started talking excitedly about camera angles, I realised he had buttonholed the wrong Sandip.

Almost every Bengali who grew up in the last half of the 20th century has a Ray story. Even though the man died in 1992, he’s still very much alive in the popular imagination. Sujoy Ghosh paid tribute to him in his hit Kahaani, that running hot water gag borrowed from Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath. The latest Bengali indie hit, Bhooter Bhabishyat, about the future of ghosts is liberal in its nods to the master.

When I asked him if Bengali filmmakers were unable to come out from under Ray’s shadow, director Rituparno Ghosh  retorted “If Satyajit’s influence helps us to make good films, then what is the need to come out from under that influence?”

In his father's footsteps. Satyajit Ray told his son, Sandip, there are only good films and bad films. And that that was a film’s final test. Reuters

On his 91st birthday here is the undying “influence” of Ray as seen by Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen, two of the women he launched to fame and Sandip Ray, the man who is carrying on the family business.

Sharmila Tagore

Sharmila Tagore was discovered by Ray as a thirteen year old when he was scouting around for someone to play the child bride in Apur Sansar. “I was quite blasé,” she confessed about that historic role. “I just did whatever everyone told me to do. There was no special enjoyment, no special tension.” She said she knows now that he had to work hard to convince audiences she was a shy village girl, not a sophisticated Kolkata teenager. There was a scene where she is supposed to hit her co-star Soumitra Chatterjee after spouting a lot of dialogue. “ I said it all and Manik-da (Ray) said, ‘Excellent.’ Then he said, ‘Do something. You don’t need to say anything. Just smack him and go.’ He just cut it all out.”

Tagore went on to star in four other Ray films including Devi where she plays the bahu of an obsessed zamindar who thinks she is the goddess incarnate. “I understood the romance of Apur Sansar, but the complications of a woman’s body in Devi were so much more tragic. I had no idea what I was doing till I was in my 30s. The face of that girl still haunts me. You know that film was just close-up after close-up.”

Tagore felt Ray “peaked” with Charulata, Mahanagar and Aranyer Din Ratri but she said he never lost a “certain innocence and simplicity” in telling a story even in his most stiflingly studio-bound films of his last years.

Yet despite the prestige of being a Ray heroine, Tagore to the horror of Bengali bhadralok headed off to Bollywood – to a world of bouffants, bikinis and butterfly knot blouses. “My naak unchoo (snooty) friends were disappointed but I needed to stand on my own feet,” she recalled. “Working with Manik-da was wonderful but there was no money in it.”

But after decades in Bollywood, playing all kinds of roles from Shammi Kapoor’s Kashmir ki Kali to Aamir Khan’s grandmother, Tagore said she often cringed watching herself onscreen.

“I didn’t feel like that about Aparna in Apur Sansar.” Then without missing a beat she recited her lines from that 1959 film.

Tomaar chokhey ki aachhey bolo. (What’s in your eyes, tell me). Kajol. To my wife. Wife maaney jaani (I know the meaning of wife).” She smiled and shook her head. “Beautiful.”

Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen was meant to be the Aparna in Apur Sansar. Her father and Ray were friends from their teenaged years and worked together in advertising. But Ray decided she looked too young. He cast Sharmila Tagore. When he was making Samapti, the last part of Teen Kanya, his wife remembered Aparna.

Again here was a sophisticated young woman playing a simple village girl who wore a thin cotton sari without a blouse. She remembered he packed up shooting because she was embarrassed the sari was too thin. “Next day I got a thicker sari,” she said. “I was mortified. All he would keep telling me was, ‘No one is looking at you. No one is here,’ because I kept covering myself."

As for her pronunciation, he just shrugged it off. He said “Oh these girls who study in English medium schools are a bit like that.”

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Over time Sen said she mustered up the courage to both engage with him and even contradict him. He said she had a hard time crying in a scene in his short film Pikoo’s Diary. “I didn’t feel the tears were justified,” she said. “In Pikoo I found it a bit difficult because I felt Satyajit had been very unsympathetic to the mother and the lover.” Sen was supposed to have played the coveted role of Bimala in Ghare Bairey. Ray once scolded her for cutting her hair ultra short saying she couldn’t play Bimala if she had her hair cut like a bidhoba pishima (widowed aunt). In the end that coveted role went to theatre actress Swatilekha Chatterjee. “I didn’t say anything. I think I would have done it better though,” Sen said.

Now that Sen is a director herself, she said it is “difficult not to be influenced by him in the same way that writers were influenced by Tagore. He was like a huge banyan tree.” He was the one who told her to make a film out of a script she had written and suggested Shashi Kapoor as the producer. That film was 36 Chowringhee Lane. If there is one lesson she took from him, she said it was his attention to detail, the repetition of motifs. “I have done it too, like the tree in Paroma, the gramophone and Sir Toby, the cat in 36 (Chowringhee Lane).”

Sandip Ray

When Ray received his Oscar from his hospital bed in Kolkata, he said foreign audiences had kept him going. His son Sandip Ray said that even on his last day he had seen a Hollywood film on the video. But he added what many people do not realise is very few of his films were complete box office failures. “It was hard for someone like him to make films that would work in the mofussil areas and in the cities. So having a market abroad did help him get producers,”  said Sandip.

But even then when he tried to break from his own path he faced problems, for example, when he made Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, the singing dancing fantasy film about ghosts and musicians based on his grandfather’s story for children. "Everyone said 'A children's film, yet there are no children!'" recalled Sandip. “In those days it was also an expensive film – about six or seven lakhs. But that film was a hit in cities and in the mofussil area.”

Sandip said his father always claimed he did not make films for children but for “young adults.” “He was thrilled writing the songs and doing the music for Goopy Gyne,” he said. “He was really delighted.” After the success of that film, he filmed two of his own Feluda detective stories. “In his mind these were the fun films,” said Sandip who has continued the Feluda franchise on his own. “They were fun to make and fun to watch. You got instant feedback. He would go to the cinema hall regularly – stand on the stairs and watch the audience watch the film.”

Sandip said that his father was keen to spread his wings outside Bengal. He knew there was a bigger talent pool in Mumbai. “But he was very unhappy with the release of Shatranj ke Khiladi. Because of all the distribution troubles he never made another Hindi film.”

Sandip has gone on to make more Feluda films than his father did. Now there is talk that he will bring his father’s absent minded inventor character, the scientist Professor Shanku to the screen as well. His latest Feluda film Royal Bengal Rahasya has done well at the box office. But when I spoke to him all that was in the future. There was still a lot of talk about art films and commercial films and Ray was seen as very clearly the towering giant of the former.

“See, all films are commercial,” Sandip said. “You need money to make films. People pay money to watch them. My father said there are only two kinds of films – good films and bad films. Byas– that is a film’s final test.”

 These interviews are excerpted from interviews conducted over several years for India Currents magazine

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