Satyajit Ray

Walking tall

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Satyajit Ray. Photo: The Hindu Archives

December 20, 1991

SATYAJIT RAY, Bengal’s contribution to cinema, is every bit as important as Rabindranath Tagore. An awesome figure with worldwide reputation. A traditionalist in approach. A classicist in control. A humanist in attitude.

Ray commands respect not only for his outstanding artistic achievements, but also for the courage of his convictions. He remains true to the goal he chose when he first set out to experiment with the fascinating new medium which blends art and technology. And four decades after his debut, one finds no compromise: his path is straight and pursuit intense. In an industry dictated by the box office, where “art cinema” shifts gears all the time, where radicals sneak into the middle-of-the-road, Ray’s untarnished aesthetics arouses admiration. At this point it is useful to look at Ray’s description of his own life and work experiences in a rare public appearance in 1982.

“A film is pictures, a film is words, a film is movement, a film is drama, a film is music, a film is a story, a film is a thousand expressive and visual details.

“Realism in films is not the naturalism of the painter who sets up his easel before his subject and proceeds to record faithfully what he sees. For a film-maker, there is no readymade reality which he can straightway capture in a film. What surrounds him is only raw material. He must at all times use this material selectively. Objects, locales, people, speech, viewpoints—everything must be carefully chosen to serve the ends of the story. In other words, creating reality is part of the creative process, where the imagination is aided by the eye and the ear....

“[In this process] the really effective language is both fresh and vivid at the same time, and the search for it is an inexhaustible one....”

Ray’s work reveals that this search for the effective, vivid and fresh language has remained as determined as it was when he began to pioneer a new trend way back in the 1950s.

Mrinal Sen exclaims: “What a stupendous experience for Indian viewers, what a great revelation to the world audience! And it was Ray, an outsider, aided by an intrepid band of young dreamers, with practically no knowledge of the techniques of cinematography, who made an aggressive infiltration with Pather Panchali. With that, Indian cinema came of age.” Foreign awards (including Best Human Document at Cannes) enhanced the prestige of the film, but could not be the sole reason for its commercial success.

Ray’s box-office records over the years are supposed to have bettered those of commercial film-makers in Bengal, considering his films’ lower production cost and longer runs through continual revivals. For example, foreign takings apart, Pather Panchali is said to have earned 20 times the amount spent on its production.

Ray proved that his first success was no flash in the pan by turning out one masterpiece after another: Aparajito and Apur Sansar to round off the famous trilogy, Paras Pathar, Teen Kanya, Abhijaan, Mahanagar and that peerless work of perfection— Charulata. Aparajito, ignored by the State for entry for the national awards, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival, and also Le Prix des Critiques and Le Prix du Cinema Noveau.

How did a bunch of newcomers create history with their very first film? Repetition does not dull the story. After some babes-in-the-wood adventures to locate a financier, Ray launched the film with loans from relatives and against his life insurance policy, and later by pawning wife Bijoya’s bangles. The story was Pather Panchali, a portion of Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji’s epic novel, long gestating in Ray’s mind. With him were art director Bansi Chandragupta and wizard lensman Subroto Mitra, who both shared the honours when they came.

The collective creative endeavour proved as exhausting as it was exhilarating. A major problem was the team getting cheated repeatedly by persons who took commissions promising to raise funds. There were also minor irritants, such as Ray’s head often hitting the roof of Calcutta buses (the group could afford no other transport). As against these was the visiting Hollywood director John Huston’s reaction to the rushes—he was “speechless”. As also was Monroe Wheeler’s (Museum of Modern Art, New York) commissioning the film, after partial viewing, for a prestigious museum screening.

The West Bengal government’s grant of Rs.2,00,000 in return for the film rights enabled Ray to complete the project. Upon viewing the footage it is said the Chief Minister misconstrued it to be a documentary on village life. “Have that family join a community development project,” was his comment. An official’s verdict was alleged to be, “ Pather Panchali is dull and slow-moving. It is the typical story of a family suffering from privation and family embarrassments but at no stage does it offer a solution or attempt to better the lot of the people and rebuild the structure of their society.”

Later, Ray was to see the long struggle as a blessing. “We learnt film-making as we went along, and since we went along for so long, it gave us that much more time to learn.”

It was one thing for young Ray to decide upon seeing Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that he was going to be a film-maker “working with nonprofessional actors, using modest resources, and shooting on actual locations exactly as De Sica had done”. But to develop the narrative techniques and stylistic elements—telling details, keen observation, and a suffused warmth of personal relationships—to realise the dream in an Indian setting required grit and tenacity besides inspiration. Stock responses had to be punctured, commercial stances spurned, and conventional anaesthesia broken.

Nothing like it had been attempted in India, and nothing abroad could be a model for lifeless imitation. Ray had to forge his own tools, plot his course and carve the available material to suit his purpose. “For instance [no manual] tells you how to handle an actor who has never seen a camera before. You had to devise your own method. You had to find out yourself how to catch the hushed stillness of dusk in a Bengal village...” where blinking torchlights waved about in the dark by men in black loinclothes could become fireflies!

Associate Bansi Chandragupta joked later, “Satyajit didn’t know what to say [by way of instructions] during the making of Pather Panchali. “He couldn’t say ‘Sound’ or ‘Action’ or ‘Cut’ until his third film.” But with the unfolding of Apu’s life a new cinematic approach developed, in which the director reigned supreme as the choreographer of each detail, every movement of the cast and the crew. The actor found new ways of effective expression neither mundane nor theatrical. Location shooting came into its own. The importance of lighting and sets to evoke complementary moods was revealed. Luck, intuition, thought and sweat combined to make  everything from casting to camera work absolutely original.

Ray belonged to the Brahmo community—the first to relate Westernisation to Indian tradition, which redefined Hinduism as a socially progressive national entity where the individual had the independence to interpret life through a system of values. “With this heritage from family and education at Tagore’s academy, Santiniketan, he was all ready to break away from the traditional, historical and mythological moulds of Indian cinema,” says Bandopadhyay, adding the little-known fact of a precursor, Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamol (1952) which “touched poverty and human suffering in the raw and without which Pather Panchali might not have been made the way it was.”

Ray often averred that what he had learnt from the Bengali cinematic tradition was how not to make films. As for Hollywood, “Even if we did have the money... we would not have the... knowhow to compete with Hollywood. That is why—and not because we do not have the predilection—we have chosen for ourselves the field of intimate cinema. The cinema of mood and atmosphere rather than of grandeur and spectacle.” This would explain why Ray did not attempt pageantry (except somewhat in Shatranj ke Khilari, made in Hindi for a national audience). Or those vast panoramas of war and peace. Nor has he been effective in strong direct action such as in a fight, mass violence or sexual indulgence. Financial constraints, squeamishness and prudery have been the suspected causes. But it could be that here, as elsewhere, he relied on the suggestive mode, suited to his temperament and style, rather than on overt statements, perhaps as an unconscious inheritor of the ancient Indian aesthetic tradition.

“What Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium... (and) a drastic simplification of style and content...”, mused Ray.



Lyricism and nuanced character depiction, the hallmarks of Ray’s films, are enhanced by his choice of literary material. In his adaptation of a literary work to the new medium, he reigns supreme. Before him “either the story was distorted to conform to the Hollywood formula or produced with such faithfulness to the original” as to defeat its purpose. Ray found new ways of handling old masters such as Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji (Apu trilogy), Tarasankar Banerji ( Abhijan, Jalsaghar) and Rabindranath Tagore ( Teen Kanya, Charulata) as also contemporary novelists such as Parasuram ( Paras Pathar), Premendra Mitra ( Kapurush) and Narendranath Mitra ( Mahanagar). His scripts, including those for his children's films (with Hirak Rajar Dese in rhymed verse), have been greatly admired for the literary flavour of the dialogues.

Ray has mostly preserved the inner logic and structural sanctity of the classics. Later, as he mastered the cinematic idiom, his departures were bolder. Contemporary works became raw material to be twisted and played about with freedom.

Today, with some 36 productions—feature films, telefilms, documentaries (with acknowledged classics in the genre as those on Rabindranath Tagore and painter Binode Bihari Mukherji)—Ray has traversed a greater range of subjects than any other Indian filmmaker. He combines skills in every department—costume, set design, script-writing, composing music, editing, rehearsing, operating the camera, designing the posters.... Nothing is beyond his direct involvement.

Ray has lived to see himself as a long-reigning monarch of Indian cinema. There are those like Prabodh Maitra (of Nandan, the West Bengal film centre) who believe the mantle of Tagore has fallen on Ray. A more conservative estimate accepts him as undoubtedly the best film-maker India has produced. But since cinema, even at its best, is only the highest form of commercial art, it cannot impact on the culture of a people though it can find its place in it.

Gautam Ghosh sums up: “Ray’s discipline, order and premeditated planning create marvels on a small budget against indescribable odds. This conscious, complete artist knows clearly what he is doing at every step of the way, for whom he is composing or creating. He refuses to follow shortcuts. Nineteenth century renaissance, the Tagorean world, experience of Western and Indian art including cinema, cosmopolitan exposure, innate aesthetic sense, have all gone into the making of Satyajit Ray. His total sensibility continues to fascinate.”

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