Bengalis tend to take their “kalchaaar” very seriously and there are few personalities that we hold in higher regard than Satyajit Ray.
A writer, filmmaker, illustrator and even music composer par excellence, there are a few hats that he did not wear, and wear them with élan.
Born into an illustrious and artistically inclined family on May 2 1921, Satyajit Ray was preceded by generations of authors, philosophers, artists and poets. Ray’s grandfather was Upendrakishore Roy Chaudhury, a well-known writer and leader with Brahmo Samaj and his father was Sukumar Roy, a beloved writer of Bengali limericks and nonsensical poems.
Satyajit Ray studied Economics at Presidency College and later enrolled himself in Vishwa Bharti University on his mother’s insistence to study fine arts. His initial reluctance soon gave away and he trained under stalwarts like Nandalal Bose and Binod Behari Mukherjee. Perhaps fortuitously, as a part of his first job as a visual designer, Ray illustrated a children’s version of Pather Panchali. The famed Bengali bildungsroman would go on to form the basis of his feature film.
As an aftermath of World War II, Calcutta of the 1940s was filled with American soldiers. Ray befriended a number of them and was exposed to a lot of Hollywood and foreign films. He partnered with Chidananda Dasgupta, a famous filmmaker of that time, to set up the Calcutta film society in 1947. The exposure to the best of world cinema and his meeting with the iconic filmmakers such as Jean Renior, influenced Ray deeply.
Vittoria De Sica and his pièce de résistance Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) also had a deep impact on Ray, which is visible in how Ray’s cinema is often hued with the same neo-realism that De Sicca is so acclaimed for.
Ray started filming for Pather Panchali in late 1952. It is a wonder that the film got made at all, going by the enormous odds that were stacked against it.
Armed with an inexperienced crew, meagre personal savings, and unknown actors, Ray got off to a rocky start. Lack of funds meant that the shooting of the film was spread out over a period of five years. Ray was faced with some very real fears like the possibility of the child-actors shooting up and ageing actress Chunibala Devi suddenly dying.
Benefactors like the then chief minister of West Bengal, Bidhan Chandra Roy, stepped in, although not for reasons one would imagine. The West Bengal government misunderstood the subject and the loan was eventually granted for “roads improvement”, a misconstrued interpretation of the name of the film.
One of the best examples of Ray’s sheer genius is the memorable scene of Apu and Durga running through kash fields to catch a sight of a train, which was to them a magical, elusive wondrous creation. This scene finds mention among the most iconic moments of world cinema.
Pather Pancahli was the first Indian film made in independent India which was taken seriously internationally. After a less than enthusiastic initial reaction, the film went on to garner immense critical acclaim and still finds mention among the best films ever made.
Growing up as a Bengali, it was hard not to be influenced by Satyajit Ray’s work and art. The iconic sleuth of his creation was as much a part of my growing up years as were Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The fact that he went by the moniker Feluda and smoked Charminar cigarettes rather than a pipe only made him that much more relatable.
Accompanied by personal Watson, his cousin Topshe, Feluda solved a number of crimes ranging from grisly murders and missing artefacts of national importance. The duo was often joined by the bumbling and affable writer of popular Bengali crime fiction, Lalmohan “Jatayu” Ganguly. Perhaps mindful of his audience, which comprised significantly of children and young adults, Ray steered away from explicit references to sex, violence and graphic details-some familiar tropes of the crime fiction genre.
Ray had an impressive run as a director. His films spanned across a number of genres and spoke to a number of audiences. Ray effortlessly adapted a number of literary greats for the big screen.
He handled a variety of themes, with rare sensitivity and subtlety. The variety of the genres he touched upon is astounding. While Charulata (The Lonely Wife) was about the love of a woman for her brother in law, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe were rip-roaring movies for children. Where Asani Sanket addressed the disastrous effects of famine, Mahanagar examined modernization and its resultant changes.
While Teen Kanya was a masterpiece in poignancy, Parash Pathar showed his penchant for satire. No matter what subject, a beautiful sense of subtlety, sensitivity and his trademark attention to detail and aesthetic sense are unmissable in his works.
The only thing which was perhaps typically filmy about Satyajit Ray, tellingly was connected not with his films but with his personal life. Satyajit Ray married his long-time sweetheart Bijoya in a small secret ceremony in 1949. Fairly regular, one might say, except the fact that Bijoya was his first cousin and older than him. An exercise in persuading Ray’s mother followed, after which the two got married “again” in Bengali rituals.
Satyajit Ray would have been 96 today. A career which spanned close to five decades and a repertoire which includes novels, films, poems, horror stories, illustrations and documentaries earned him a number accolades, including several national and international film awards and a Bharat Ratna in 1992.
The influence of his work can perhaps be best summed up in the felicitation which accompanied the honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, which he was awarded in 1992 (but was too unwell to receive in person): “to Satyajit Ray, in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”
The writer is a Research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in New Delhi.
Updated Date: May 02, 2017 16:32 PM