‘I am not conscious of being a humanist’

An interview strung together from conversations Andrew Robinson had with Satyajit Ray over several years.

Published : Oct 17, 2021 06:00 IST

My first interview with Satyajit Ray took place in London in 1982, for the magazine Films and Filming. We had not met before, and I was naturally somewhat anxious, especially as he was the first person I had ever interviewed. But he proved frank and courteous, answering both informatively and informally, almost always in complete sentences, with some hearty laughter and an occasional very long pause, such as when I asked him apropos The Chess Players: “What is your overall attitude to the British heritage in India?”

During the 1980s we had many hours of recorded conversation in his flat in Calcutta in the research for my biography, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye . The following brief interview weaves together extracts from some of these conversations touching on both his personal life and its relationship to his film-making. It aims to make readers feel that they are almost in the presence of Ray.

(A much fuller interview appears as an appendix to the third edition of the biography, published in 2021.)

As a child visiting Lucknow from Calcutta in the 1920s and 1930s, were you exposed to the nawabi ethos portrayed in ‘The Chess Players’?

Well, there were no nawabs. There was my uncle, Atulprasad Sen, the most famous composer of Bengali songs after Rabindranath. We were living very near his house, and in it there used to be musicians and a great display of Urdu good manners. They were very courteous people. And the language itself of course goes with that kind of behaviour. So I was familiar with the Lucknow tradition. And later, when I went to Lucknow to fix up the singer Akhtari Bai (Begum Akhtar) for Jalsaghar and met her barrister husband he was absolute perfection in his behaviour and courtliness. So I was exposed to it, as a small boy, though not terribly conscious of it.

Did you feel anything for Wajid Ali Shah at that time?

Not as a small boy, but we knew his songs—the thumri about leaving Lucknow, for instance—because a Brahmo song in Bengali was based on that tune, so I knew the tune and later I learnt that it was by Wajid Ali Shah. I think there were two aspects to Wajid Ali Shah’s character: one which you could admire and one which you couldn’t. I was very conscious of this when I was planning to do the film.

Also read: A Century of Ray

There were several points when I decided to give up. I wrote to Shama Zaidi [Ray’s Urdu-speaking collaborator on the script] that I just cannot feel any sympathy for this stupid character. Unless I feel some sympathy I cannot make a film. And then gradually, gradually, it struck me that Wajid Ali Shah had introduced so many elements into Indian classical music, quite unusual for his time, and that later became part of Indian music.

Did you feel an attraction towards the state of mind of the two chess-playing nawabs, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali?

I could understand them. I could sympathise with them. I’ve seen times like that. In the 1940s, I got terribly engrossed in solitaire chess, where one played the international masters’ games from books. Marvellous combinations. Every day I came back from my advertising work at the office and played chess from books for about two hours.

So did you have to break the obsession, or did it just die?

It just died. I had a whole collection of books on chess which I sold during the making of Pather Panchali .

The two nawabs are oblivious to everything except what they’re addicted to. Yet the fact that they are able to realise at the end of the film… they feel sorry all this has happened without their being really aware of it, and their history has changed, and there is an element of regret in the fact that they were unable to associate themselves with such an event. That redeems them for me.

Relationships are very strong in your films.

That may be said to be a speciality of mine. It comes naturally to me, instinctively. I think I understand human psychology. I am sensitive to certain things and in the films I make this aspect of me comes to the fore very much.

Are relationships on the screen difficult to establish?

Well, everything in a film is difficult. There’s no easy solution to anything at all. It needs thought and careful observation and it needs calculation and understanding.

Did living in a joint family in your early years help this adult mental development?

I must have been observing a great deal in my childhood about people, because of being a loner, in the sense that I had no brothers or sisters, and I was alone much of the time with my thoughts and with my little preoccupations. So this process has probably been going on a long time even without my being aware of it. I was surrounded by people who were all older than me, even when we went on holiday. They were all dada s and didi s around me. I was the youngest. I must have imbibed a lot in my childhood.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

Would you consider yourself to have been a lonely child?

It’s not the word that I would use now. I was alone. Loneliness and being alone—bereft of boys and girls of your own age as friends—is not the same thing.

Would a “solitary” child be closer to the truth?


You don’t ever remember being lonely?

No, not in that sense, because I didn’t know what it was like to have brothers and sisters, you see. It’s very difficult to put yourself in a situation where you can imagine that, you see.

But I suppose that as a child one sometimes sees other children who have families and a warm relationship with brothers and sisters.

Yes, but I wasn’t envious of little boys with lots of sisters and brothers. I felt I was all right and I had a lot to do. I could keep myself busy doing various things, small things, reading, looking at books and looking at pictures and all sorts of things—sketching. I used to draw a lot as a child.

This reminds me of the young boy drawing flowers in ‘Pikoo’. Is drawing the source of your extraordinary accuracy in casting faces?

I think it’s grown out of my period of doing illustrations, which I still do a lot. You read a story, you see the characters, and then you draw them, physical types which fit certain descriptions. So when writing a screenplay I see the characters. They take certain visual forms, not just physically but also voices and gestures, and you want to find actors who fit these images and characters.

I’m very struck by the great contrast between your personal reserve and the demands of film-making. Do you have to undergo a tremendous adjustment just before you start shooting?

I’m equally at home in both situations. I can sit and not talk for hours on end and keep working, sometimes for seventeen or eighteen hours at a stretch. Then on the set, working with twenty or twenty-five people, I think I’m a very different person. I can be both. My shooting is extremely energetic work because we work very fast and everybody is on their toes.

What is your moral attitude as a film-maker?

I don’t like to be too articulate about it because it’s all there in the films. One has to see the films and read them. I don’t begin by formulating a moral attitude and then making a film. I think it’s the business of the critic to form his own conclusions. I don’t want to add footnotes to it. I’m very unwilling to do that.

But have your moral attitudes to people and society changed since you completed ‘Pather Panchali’ in 1955? Have you become more cynical?

Well not necessarily. I have become more aware of my surroundings. I was probably a little isolated from things in the early days, being so immersed in my various pursuits. I can imagine other young people being more aware of, say, politics. I was not. I gave more time to my intellectual pursuits. I was developing myself as an artist. And I had so many interests right from the beginning that I felt I couldn’t take on any more. I was busy sharpening my sensibilities.

Also read: ‘He lived life cinema’

If one has strong artistic gifts, do you think politics is almost irrelevant?

If you are a film-maker of course your surroundings, politics and whatnot make up the social milieu—that becomes relevant. From 1960 onwards, not before that, I was becoming more aware of my surroundings and introducing more of such elements into my films, apart from what is contained in the plotline itself—embellishing the film. Company Limited need not have had a reference to politics, but there are bombs being heard at the cocktail party and people make comments about that. Just as the element of load-shedding [power cuts] is there: the broken lift and all that. That film was not about mechanical gadgets failing, but they enriched the story.

Would you ever call yourself a humanist?

Not really. I can’t think of being anything else but what is represented by my films. I am not conscious of being a humanist. It’s simply that I am interested in human beings. I would imagine that anyone who makes a film is to some extent interested in human beings. I’m slightly irritated [laughs] by this constant reference to humanism in my work—I feel that there are other elements also. It’s not just about human beings. It’s also a structure, a form, a rhythm, a face, a temple, a feeling for light and shade, composition, and a way of telling a story.

I know you’ve said that you have never consciously analysed whether you are part of a tradition or not. That surprises me.

No, I have not. Does one have to? I don’t know. I mean, you do your work. You imbibe certain things. You use them with your knowledge and draw your own conclusions. I was creative from very early on, soon after college. I came to do things which gave me the name of an artist. So my life has been pretty busy and too full from that time onwards for me to give time for reflection on other things.

But you reflect on so many things?

Well, on specific things, like the work I am supposed to be doing and the process of doing it—whether it’s a film, or a story or a piece of music or a drawing. I have to concentrate. That is the thing that engages my attention. But I have not really analysed myself as part of a tradition.

What about attitudes in common between you and the work of your father Sukumar and your grandfather Upendrakishore?

I have avoided repeating what they have done. I have never been a process engraver. I’ve never learnt about printing or technology. I have written stories, of course, but my stories are completely different from my father’s and my grandfather’s. I have constantly avoided repeating what my father did: nonsense rhymes, that sort of thing…. Now I am writing fairy stories which bring me close to my grandfather very much. For the first time I feel how he must have felt writing those stories. It’s happening now, but never before. In translating Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, I have felt what my father must have felt. The mad gardener’s song, for instance. I’ve translated that and it’s a completely Bengali version of it, because the images are quite different.

If you had to choose one of Carroll or Lear for a desert island, which would it be?

I think Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass : they’re perennial; you find discoveries in them all the time. Not Lear to the same extent.

Also read: Vision of a land: Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's Bengal in Satyajit Ray's cinema

Many of your films criticise or poke fun at the pursuit of wealth and at rich people, for example, ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, ‘The Music Room’, ‘Kanchenjungha’, ‘The Hero’, ‘Company Limited’, ‘The Chess Players’, ‘The Kingdom of Diamonds’ and ‘An Enemy of the People’. Have you ever wanted at any time to be rich?

I’m pretty rich, I think [laughs]. I mean I have no money worries as such—thanks to my writing, not from films really. My books bring in a steady flow of income. I’m certainly not as rich as Bombay actors, by no means, but I can live comfortably. That’s all I need. I can buy the books and records I want.

What about the trappings of being a film director? The cult of personality?

Oh that’s a bit of a bother at times. I mean almost every other day you get a call from some organisation asking whether I’d be the chief guest at some function or other. Now it’s easy for me, because for medical reasons I can’t. I hate the public figure syndrome, I absolutely hate that. I would sooner not be bothered by such things. Opening exhibitions and that sort of thing I really detest, because you say all the cliches. You have to make a speech. It’s the speech that worries me. Now what I have to do is to write out a few lines of good wishes. It doesn’t affect me at all. I know exactly what to write in the circumstances. I don’t mean what I say, but this is one hypocrisy I have to do.

Have you been like this ever since prize day at school?

Yes. I never imagined that I’d become a film director, in command of situations, actually guiding people to do things this way or that. I was very reticent and shy as a schoolboy and I think it persisted through college. Even the fact of having to accept a prize gave me goose-pimples and things. But from the time of Pather Panchali I realised I had it in me to take control of situations and exert my personality over other people, etcetera—then it became a fairly quick process. Film after film, I got more and more confident. Even public speaking: I can face a crowd. I’m not bothered at all—but only when I am in command and I’m talking about things that I know.

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