Satyajit Ray at 95: The Renaissance Man still holds total sway over our lives
Ray married occidental with the oriental and transcended the borders of watertight definitions that we use to define men whose genius we cannot comprehend.
I find it difficult to describe Satyajit Ray. He resists assessment with an all-encompassing grip on Bengali consciousness, even on his 95th birth anniversary. How do you traverse fields of the subconscious?
My friend and Alipurduar College professor Somesh Roy calls him a "A creative genius whose talent found a way to manifest itself regardless of the medium. A Renaissance Man".
Evidently. Ray revolutionsed Indian cinema and is rightly celebrated for it. But his brilliance as a filmmaker often eclipses the fact that like paras pathar (philosopher's stone), he turned into gold every facet of life that he even casually touched.
While working for 13 years with British advertising agency D.J. Keymer, Ray transformed contemporary commercial art as an illustrator and graphic designer, introducing new calligraphic elements weaned from different parts of the country which he had travelled as an art student.
He was also a book jacket designer and did numerous covers for poetries, short stories, biographies, religious texts. In all of these he introduced his own calligraphic style and oriental elements, duly elevating the art form. Covers for Sondesh, the monthly children's magazine which was founded by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury of which he later became the editor, are true collectibles.
Satyajit's creative rays touched typography, an area he was extremely interested in, mostly because he was dissatisfied with the prevalent metallic typefaces. He created four Roman fonts (Ray Bizarre, Ray Roman, Holiday Script and Daphnis) and as the first and most innovative creator of Bengali typefaces, designed innumerable new fonts.
He created posters for his own films and there too, his creative genius elevated the mundane medium. He brought his calligraphic skills, broad brush strokes and motifs into play and the publicity materials became works of phenomenal art.
In his films, he was the scriptwriter, composer, costume designer and director. And with the pen in his hand, he was a writer, editor and littérateur nonpareil. And all this was done at consummate ease, almost with the freedom that one reserves for doodling in middle of a boring lecture.
None of all this, however, can even remotely capture the connect every Bengali has with Ray. It is an intensely personal relationship which undergoes several revisions as she/he grows up and with each revision the umbilical cord becomes tighter.
Most of us first habitually meet Ray through his writings which were mostly aimed at kids and young adults when Ray was trying to revive Sondesh. I gorged on Feluda, the eponymous private detective, stories of Professor Shonku, the innovator and scientist, his translation of Aurthur Conan Doyle's works and short stories and all the while, remained blissfully unaware of his genius.
If Feluda, the detective whom Ray apparently fashioned keeping Soumitra Chatterjee in mind, kept me captivated, Professor Shonku — whose diary was found while the man remained untraced under mysterious circumstances — liberated my mind through its fantastic storylines and plots that pushed the borders of science fiction. In between, Brazil er Kalo Bagh (a translation of Arthur Conan Doyle's work) thrilled me to bits, Bonkubabu'r Bondhu took me to a different world, Khagam's suspense gave me goosebumps while Tarini Khuro spooked me nice and proper.
And movies for kids. The thing about Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or Hirak Rajar Deshe is, while it provoked laughter and fun, growing up meant discovering a whole lot of subtext and it is only then that I, like many others, began to appreciate the vastness of his talent.
Stepping into adulthood initiated the next level. By this time, Ray's writings still held sway, but attention was also drawn to his body of work in celluloid. Among the cult classics including Apu Trilogy, however, the Calcutta Trilogy remains a personal favourite.
Without going into pedantic discussions about Ray as a filmmaker, suffice to say that Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976) changed the way I looked at life. Can't be said about most filmmakers.
Like my friend Somesh, I am not particularly fond of his last few works. Along with Feluda films, Apu Triplogy and treble on Calcutta, Kanchanjangha (1962), Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) have merited many revisiting. And of course Paras Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone, 1958) where Ray showed how Bengali film industry failed to harness the genius of actor Tulsi Chakrabarti.
Ray married occidental with the oriental and transcended the borders of watertight definitions that we use to define men whose genius we cannot comprehend. It is through the prism of his works that we must define him and yet, every time we attempt to do that, we are destined to fall short by many a mile.
It is bloody hard to describe Ray's sway over me, over us Bengalis.
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