Satyajit Ray: The legend of Indian Cinema

Satyajit Ray is known for his exquisite contribution to the field of arts and aesthetics, he is regarded as one of the greatest Indian filmmakers and screenwriters of his time. His works have been recognized and also have won critical acclaim all over the world. Apart from being an outstanding filmmaker, Ray has also written and illustrated books for children.

Being 6ft 4½in tall, Satyajit Ray was head and shoulders above his countrymen. His height was unheard of among Bengalis. With his stature, jawline and baritone voice, he might have been a Bollywood hero. Instead, he chose to tower over the world of cinema. His standing was secured with his first film, Pather Panchali, which premièred at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955. He spearheaded a new school of Indian cinema which was self-consciously artistic and realist. The acclaim was rapturous. Pather Panchali and its sequels in the Apu trilogy won top prizes at Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and now rank among the greatest movies of all time.

Ray was born in Calcutta, the second city of the British Empire, in May 4th, 1921, and was steeped in the Bengal Renaissance spawned there by the arrival of western ideas. Ray’s foremost influence was Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who in 1912 became the first non-white Nobel laureate. But Ray was the true capstone of the renaissance. Where Tagore was a traditional oriental sage, Ray made his art out of one of the greatest inventions of the West with the most far-reaching artistic potential.

The Bengal Renaissance was powered by renaissance men. Tagore was a composer, painter and playwright, too. But the talents mastered by the Ray family were more modern. They had once been Sanskrit scholars, but Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury began the family tradition of art and technology. Upendrakishore was also a writer and ran a printing press specialising in illustrations. He invented various techniques and wrote about them in scientific journals. Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray, studied printmaking and photography in London, before becoming a celebrated poet.

Growing up at the family printing press, smell of turpentine and surrounded by ink and woodblocks, left a strong impression on him. After a degree in physics and economics from Calcutta University, Ray studied modern painting, Japanese calligraphy and western classical music at Santiniketan. He got a job in advertising as an art director, as well as designing book jackets and typefaces on the side.

All the while, ideas of movies were flickering in his mind. During the war, GIs would take Ray out to watch Hollywood films at their base. when Renoir was in Bengal to shoot The River, Ray first experienced filmmaking. Having befriended the master of ‘poetic realism’ Ray scouted for locations. Then, on a business trip to London, he saw Bicycle Thieves and he decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker. Ray had been illustrating an edition of Pather Panchali, a classic Bengali coming-of-age novel about Apu, the free-spirited son of a poor village playwright who wants to get an education and, eventually, become a novelist. It’s about transitioning from a traditional rural society to a modern, industrial one. It was perfect for Ray to adapt, because for him it also reflected the artistic transition that had been generations in the making for the Rays, from village Pandits with their Sanskrit scrolls to the pinnacle of modern culture, the motion picture. He could relate with Apu. The scene that viewers never forget from the film Ray made of Pather Panchali is that of Apu running through a field of sugarcane to catch his first glimpse of a train. It’s the modern world cutting through village India, the India that would one day be swept away beneath a cloud of engine smoke. With all its forceful motion, that iconic scene could only be captured with the newly fashioned movie camera. The film’s lyrical envisioning of nature comes directly from Tagore, who once wrote a poem for the young Ray.
Over the course of his 37 films, Ray acquired the complete mastery of filmmaking of any director. Just as his father and grandfather not only he wrote their books, but also did the illustrations, typesetting, printing and binding, Ray crafted his films’ every element. He didn’t just direct, he operated the camera himself. He wrote the screenplays of his movies, often based on his own short stories and novels. He did the editing, designed all sets, costumes and posters, scouted locations, sourced props, composed scores, wrote songs, cast actors, even did the make-up of the actors. He did everything. Ray was an amateur filmmaker – non-professional, like the cast of Pather Panchali, who were new to this industry. Typically, he made more money composing scores for other films than from directing his own. He earned his living by writing novels, translating Lewis Carroll, and from publishing the children’s magazine that his father, Upendrakishore had founded.

Greater recognition came, not from India but from abroad. The President of France flew to Kolkata to present Ray with the Légion d’honneur. Oxford University gave him an honorary doctorate, the first for a filmmaker since Chaplin. Finally, Audrey Hepburn put on a saree to give Ray the Academy Award he deserved. Watching Ray give his acceptance speech for that Oscar – from his hospital bed is as moving as any scene from his movies, because we know that three weeks later, he would not be in this world anymore.

That so many, east and west, admire Ray’s films should end the age-old debate about whether non-Bengalis can appreciate them. No art form has transcended more borders, and touched more hearts, than cinema. At a time when left and right alike stress cultural boundaries, this retrospective reminds one that a truly great film ‘leaves its regional moorings and rises to a plane of universal gestures and universal emotions’. They’re Ray’s words, and he lived them.

Aritri Ghosh
Student, Amity University Kolkata

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