Ray the filmmaker extraordinaire
Satyajit Ray (May 2, 1921 - April 23, 1992) will be remembered not just as a maverick film personality and illustrator but also as the creator of some of Bengali literature’s most-loved characters. Noted filmmaker Ashoke Viswanathan delves into the legend’s life, work and achievements
There are some people who are exceptional not just because they are different but because they are never satisfied with their own achievements. Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker from West Bengal, was a towering personality in more senses than one. He was so committed to his art that anything that fell short of excellence met with his disapproval. Ray is easily one of the greatest Indian film directors of all time and among the most eminent filmmakers of the world, having been honoured with an Oscar (in 1991) for his remarkable body of work. He has won major awards at several international film festivals, including Venice and Berlin besides being honoured at Cannes in recognition for his nomination as one of the 10 best directors in the world in 1982.
Apart from his filmmaking skills, he was a screenwriter, an operative cameraman, a music composer and a designer. He was, also, an author of incredible popularity, a translator of poetry, a lyricist, a musician and an expert at typography! It is quite difficult to categorise Ray as a filmmaker as he is one director who has dealt with a variety of subjects in different styles. Belonging to a family of artistically-inclined legends, his ancestral tapestry is fascinating to say the least. His grandfather Upendrakishore Roychowdhury was a lyricist, printer, author and painter, and his father Sukumar Ray was an iconic poet with a penchant for ‘nonsense verse’. Satyajit Ray’s epoch-making film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (1968) is based on his grandfather’s nuanced story of two village nitwits turning into magnificent musicians with the help of a wish granted by bhuter raja (king of ghosts).
Ray was educated at Presidency College (present-day Presidency University), Calcutta (not Kolkata yet), and then at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, where he had the opportunity to learn painting in an environment that boasted such greats as Nandalal Bose and Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay. His journey into cinema began with writing scripts of feature films for his own pleasure until he started working on the script for Pather Panchali or Song of the Road (based on the novel of the same name by celebrated Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay) aided by the ever-curious cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who was honoured with a National Film Award in 1986.
In fact, the Apu trilogy comprising Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito or The Unvanquished (1956) and Apur Sansar or The World of Apu (1959) is replete with exquisite visual exploration, brutally-stark realism, shades of lyricism and even faintly mystic strains. Visuals of trains, rural Bengal, the majesty of the city of Benaras, the dichotomies of the developing metropolis of erstwhile Calcutta, the jatra (a form of folk- theatre popular in West Bengal) — all create a magnificent monument of contemporary art in the trilogy. Ray drew from the brilliant writings of Bandopadhyay in the Apu trilogy and, later, again in Ashani Sanket or Distant Thunder (1973). Not just Bandopadhyay’s works, Ray made engaging cinematic adaptations of Jalsaghar or The Music Room (1958) written by renowned Bengali novelist Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and Pratidwandi or The Adversary (1970) penned by popular Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay, among others. Ray’s camera, sometimes relentlessly tracking forward as in Charulata or The Lonely Wife (1964), gliding hand-held as in Jana Aranya or The Middleman (1975) or locked in near-melodramatic close-ups as in Ashani Sanket, serves nothing less than a tool for sociological analysis, probing into the milieu and making revelations regarding the zeitgeist.
Satyajit Ray has an urban quadrilogy too – Aranyer Din Ratri or Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), Pratidwandi, Seemabaddhha or Company Limited (1971) and Jana Aranya – that is also a postmodern exploration into formal narrativity and mise-en-scene. The filmmaker was able to bring out the turbulent nature of the 1970s with the restlessness of urban youth and the shadow of urban unemployment looming large. However, not all of Ray’s cinematic works were adaptations. Ray has also written several original screenplays like Kanchenjungha (1962), Nayak or The Hero (1966), Agantuk or The Stranger (1991) and Shakha Proshakha or Branches of a Tree (1990) along with books on the art of cinema, namely Bishoy Challachitra (Subject Cinema), Our Films, Their Films and Ekei Bole Shooting (This is Called Shooting).
The first of these – Kanchenjungha – deserves special mention as it uses the famous Greek cinematic construct of ‘unity of time’ to express a quasi-existential theme. Moreover, this film, quite ahead of its time, succeeds in probing the mindset of a bourgeois family while resting, often enough, on somewhat subaltern characters and some free spirits. Nayak is in the mould of noted Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) but the influence of Academy Award- winning Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini is palpable in the dreams, one of which may seem a trifle literal but visually and orally is quite breathtaking. Legendary Bengali actor Uttam Kumar plays the lead and does so quite magnificently. Ray, like Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was a true renaissance artist. Painter, author, music composer, film director, cinematographer and creator of fonts (like Ray-Roman), he never went overboard; he never allowed any one of his personae to subsume any of the others. He had a wonderful sense of humour, perhaps inherited from his father, and his dialogues have always been exemplary. Finally, if there is one quality that sets Ray apart, it is not his numerous international awards (including his back-to-back Silver Bears at Berlin in 1964 and 1965) but his music. In his cinematography and editing, his narrativity and his dialogue, there is an inherent musicality, which is close to divine!
This quality of tunefulness is quite abstract; it is a product of Ray’s meticulous organisation. Right from the design of the sequence, there is a noticeable and unique pattern that is felt even in the editing and sound applications. Consider the film Charulata, based on a story titled Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest) by Tagore. The denouement is a longish sequence comprising the following: a letter from Amal (Charu’s cousin-in-law) on a small table that establishes the epistle as an index of foreboding and forecasts Charu’s volatile propinquity to Amal; Bhupati’s (Charu’s husband) perusing of the letter and his innocent remarks about Amal’s engagements before stepping out; and Charu’s eventual reading of the letter during which she is overcome by a paroxysm of emotion and breaks down screaming out her ‘forbidden love’ for Amal. At this point, Bhupati returns, unexpectedly, having forgotten something and is horrified at the revelation of Charu’s love, and in a situation of extreme dejection and shock, wanders about in a phaeton (an open four-wheeled horse- drawn carriage). When he returns, in a scene fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity, Charu, with fear and guilt writ large on her countenance, gestures to him to come inside. Bhupati enters but Ray freezes the moment even before Charu’s and Bhupati’s hands can meet, thus symbolising “the broken nest”.
Words are insufficient to express the aesthetic pattern of this resonant mise-en-scene, just as it is near- impossible to describe the luminance of Ray’s composite oeuvre. Ray was a prolific writer as well, having created quite a few of Bengali literature’s most-loved characters – Feluda (a detective), Lal Mohan Ganguly or Jatayu (an adventure novelist and Feluda’s friend), Professor Shanku (a scientist and inventor) and Tarini Khuro (a lovable uncle with a fondness for narrating stories peppered with supernatural elements). Ray’s stories and his characters are equally popular in Bangladesh too. In fact, Ray’s ancestral house is located in the Masua village of Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district. Last year, the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), decided to initiate an international campaign for the restoration of this iconic landmark. Ray was, without a shadow of doubt, a true renaissance personality. He was multifaceted but never averse to learning something new. Plus, his meticulous eye for classical visual design made him an iconic artistic personality. In the tradition of Tagore, Ray ventured wide but never lost sight of his roots.