Satyajit Ray is perhaps the most well known Indian filmmaker to the Western World and inarguably among the dozen or so great masters of world cinema. He made his films in Bengali, and yet, his films are of universal interest. They are about details that make up the human race – relationships, emotions, struggle, conflicts, joys and sorrows. His films demonstrate a remarkable humanism, elaborate observation and subtle handling of characters and situations. To add to that, he was one Indian filmmaker who was technically sound in all departments of filmmaking.
Ray was born on May 2nd, 1921 in Calcutta in a distinguished family of Bengal. His grandfather, Upendra Kishore Ray, was a scientist, amateur astronomer, illustrator, musician, writer of children’s stories and a publisher! His father, Sukumar Ray, was a brilliant writer and his mother, an exceptional singer. After graduating from Calcutta’s Presidency College, Ray went to Shantiniketan, the open air university founded by Rabindranath Tagore. There Ray read widely, observed nature, and became interested in graphic design while studying fine art.
Ray returned to Calcutta in 1943 and worked with a British owned advertising agency, DJ Keymer as a visualiser. In 1949 he met the great French director Jean Renoir who visited Calcutta to scout locations for The River (1950). Renoir encouraged Ray to make films. When Keymer sent him to work in their head office in London, he took the opportunity to see as many films as he could and it was Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) that inspired him to start work on Pather Panchali.
Pather Panchali was three years in the making – years of unceasing finance struggle. It was ultimately completed with the help of the West Bengal Government. The film, the first in the Apu trilogy views life in a village in Bengal through the eyes of two young children of an impoverished Brahmin priest – Apu and Durga. In the film, basedon a widely read novel by Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee, Ray turns seemingly mundane events into momentous experience as Apu and Durga spellbound by an approaching train or the sequence of Durga dancing in the rain while Apu watches admiringly. The use of music when the father is told of Durga’s death is an unforgettable experience. The film won a special prize at Cannes for the ‘Best Human Document’ and even had a run of 13 weeks in Calcutta.
The two following films Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) completing the Apu trilogy following Apu into adulthood and marriage while having their many memorable moments and in spite of much tighter construction and more polished filmmaking, lacked the simplicity and poetic quality of Pather Panchali. But still the trilogy as a whole has the rhythm and flow of life and Aparajito did win the ‘Lionne d’Ore’ at Venice in a jury presided by Rene Clair. Apur Sansar also began Ray’s long time association with actor Soumitra Chatterjee. In between Aparajito and Apur Sansar, Ray, after the box-office failure of Aparajito, took a break from his beloved Apu and made two completely different films –Paras Pathar (1957) and Jalsaghar (1958) – before returning to the concluding part of his trilogy.
Though a profilic period of interesting and yes, even great filmmaking followed for Ray (Devi (1960), Teen Kanya (1961), Abhijan (1962), Kanchenjungha (1962) – his first film in colour, Mahanagar (1963)), perhaps his next most perfectly crafted film was Charulata (1964).
Charulata is set in the Calcutta of 1879, the period of the Bengal Renaissance. The period is meticulously created – the costumes, the heavy Victorian furniture, the wallpaper, the typography of Charu’s husband’s journal- showing Ray’s great eye for detail. The opening sequence establishing Charu’s boredom and loneliness as she wanders aimlessly in the house has just one line of dialogue in seven minutes but is so beautifully handled that dialogue is never missed. The music sets the tone of the film with reamarkable use of musical motifs and the film is carried by a brilliant performance by Madhabi Mukherjee in the title role.
With Nayak (1966), Ray created the lead role of actor Arindam Mukherjee keeping Uttam Kumar in mind. Many people feel the film is autobiographical to Uttam Kumar’s own life – the sense of anxiety and restlessness of the superstar mirrored Uttam’s insecurities about his phenomenal success and abiding fear that his superstardom might not last. Uttam made the role of Arindam his own and Ray later confessed that if Uttam had refused the film, he would have abandoned the film. Uttam worked with Ray again the following year in Chidiakhana (1967).
Ray worked in no fixed genre unlike many of his contemporaries and made a variety of films – a song and dance children’s fantasy film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), a modern urban trilogy with the common thematic thread of corruption uniting the three films, Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1975), detective crime fiction, Sonar Kella (1974) and Jai Baba Felunath (1978) and a historical, Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977), also his first film in Hindi.
In 1978, the organising committee of the Berlin Film Festival ranked him as one of the three all-time best directors.
In the 1980s, following Ghare Baire (1984), Ray had to stop making films for close to five years due to ill-health but late in 1988, his doctors permitted him to work provided he restricted himself to indoor studio shooting. The result was Shakha Proshaka (1989), but sadly, the film was nowhere near the high standards of the maestro.
Of his last films, perhaps the only one which saw him return to form somewhat was in fact his last film, Agantuk (1991). The film deals with a long lost uncle who unexpectedly lands up and disturbs the life of a young couple. They suspect his claim to being the wife’s uncle because they think he is after their ancestral property while their son is fascinated with his adventures and travels. He departs in the end having exposed the pettiness of the couple. Though not well received in India, in Paris, the film figured in the top ten box-office grossers.
Finally in 1992, Satyajit Ray received the honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of… “his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.” However, by now he was gravely ill and he passed away on April 23rd, 1992. India had lost one its finest filmmakers.
Besides numerous National Awards and International Awards at film festivals the world over, other honours bestowed upon Ray include the ‘Legion d’Honneur’ from France, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian cinema, and the Bharat Ratna’ (Jewel of India), India’s highest civilian award. To quote the great film director Akira Kurosawa of Japan, “Not to have seen the Cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” And Martin Scorsese,“Ray’s magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact will always stay with me.”
Ray wrote his autobiography encompassing his childhood years, Jakhtan Choto Chilam (1982). He also wrote essays on film: Our Films, Their Films (1976), Bosoy Chalachchitra (1976) and Ekei Bole Shooting (1979). Most of his novels and stories have been published as books by Ananda Publishing, Calcutta and most of his screenplays, which were often adaptations, are published in Bengali in the Eksan Journal. Among his fiction writing, the detective stories of private investigator, Feluda, are extremely popular.
Ray is also the subject of documentaries, including one by Shyam Benegal and one by K Bikram Singh and a number of biographies – by Marie Seaton (1971), Das Gupta (1980) and Andrew Robinson (1989).