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Satyajit Ray

The maestro of Bengali Cinema


Published : 28 Nov 2019 06:50 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 05:09 PM

One of world's greatest directors, Satyajit Ray was born on May 2, 1921. He was an Indian filmmaker from Bengal, screenwriter, music composer, graphic artist, lyricist and author, widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He was born in Calcutta into a Bengali family which was prominent in the world of arts and literature.

His father, Late Sukumar Ray was an eminent poet and writer in the history of Bengali literature. In 1940, after receiving his degree in science and economics from Calcutta University, he attended Tagore's Viswa-Bharati University. Regarded as one of the greatest auteurs of the 20th century cinema, Satyajit Ray had a global fan following.

Being India's first and only Oscar-winning director, Ray started his career as a graphic artist before heading to London to realise his passion for filmmaking. He directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and telly films. He was also a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, graphic designer and film critic.

His first film, ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Little Road) (1955), won eleven international prizes, including Best Human Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award in 1992. Ray was also honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1992 by the Government of India. This film, along with ‘Aparajito’ (The Unvanquished) (1956) and ‘Apur Sansar’ (The World of Apu) (1959), form The Apu Trilogy. Ray did the scripting, casting, scoring, and editing, and designed his own credit titles and publicity material.

Along with this, ‘Jalsaghar’ (The Music Room) (1958), ‘Postmaster’ (1961), ‘Charulata’ (1964), ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’ (Days and Nights in the Forest) (1969) and ‘Pikoo’ (1980) themselves stand up as fine examples of storytelling. His films encompass a diversity of moods, techniques, and genres: comedy, satire, fantasy and tragedy. Usually he made films in a realist mode, but he also experimented with surrealism and fantasy.

But after the confident mastery of ‘Charulata’, Ray seemed for the rest of the decade to lose his sureness of touch, unable to come satisfactorily to terms either with his material or with the world around him. Films such as ‘Kapurush-o-Mahapurush’ (The Crowd and the Holy Man, 1965), ‘Nayak’ (The Hero, 1966) and ‘Chiriakhana’ (The Zoo, 1967) contain little of Ray’s personal touch. It was not until ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’ that Ray returned to form. In this accomplished work, Ray isolates and removes a group of modern young Calcuttans from their natural habitat in order to study their attitudes and reactions and to reveal aspects of their respective characters. During the late-’60s, Ray made a fairytale for adults in ‘Goopy Gyn Bagha Byne’ (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, 1968) and then went on to make ‘The City Trilogy’ (comprising of ‘Pratidwandi’ [The Adversary, 1970], ‘Seemabaddha’ [Company Limited, 1971] and ‘Jana Aranya’ [The Middleman, 1975]) but before its completion a number of other film projects intervened. Two documentaries from this period are ‘Sikkim’ (1971), a travelogue on the northern border kingdom, and ‘The Inner Eye’ (1972), a short tribute to the blind artist Binod Behari Mukherjee. Between these two documentaries, however, Ray made ‘Ashani Sanket’ (Distant Thunder, 1973), his second colour film.

In 1961 Ray had revived ‘Sandesh’, the children’s magazine founded by his grandfather and continued by his father until his premature death. From this time, alongside his movie-making he also produced a constant flow of illustrations, verses, translations and stories for the magazine. Several of his stories featured Felu Mittar, a private detective and it is one of these that he adapted for his second children’s film ‘Sonar Kella’ (The Fortress, 1974). Like all of Ray’s children’s films it was hugely successful. Wary of making films in a language in which he was not proficient, Ray resisted the idea of moving outside the restricted Bengali. However, he was persuaded to aim for a wider audience by making his first film in Hindu, ‘Shatranji Ke Kilhari’ (The Chess Players, 1977), a period piece set in Lucknow 1856. After ‘Shatranji Ke Kilhari’, Ray returned to making films for children. Ray adapted another of his short stories for ‘Joi Baba Felunath’ (The Elephant God, 1978). Ray followed this film with ‘Hirok Rajar Deshe’ (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980), a sequel to ‘Goopy and Bagha’.

In 1981 Ray was commissioned to make a film for Indian TV. The resulting film was ‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance) a 50-minute piece filmed in Hindi, which relates a story of callous exploitation and in 1984 Ray made ‘Ghare-Baire’ (The Home and the World)

Due to his medical condition which resulted from a heart attack during the making of ‘Ghare-Baire’, Satyajit Ray was told by his doctors not to do any location work and he was forced to shoot in studios. Unfortunately, this constraint of shooting does mar the last of his films as a whole. This is true of not only ‘Ganashatru’ (Enemy of the People, 1989) but also ‘Shakha Prashakha’ (Branches of the Tree, 1990) and ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger, 1991).

Ray received many major awards in his career, including 32 Indian National Film Awards, a Golden Lion, a Golden Bear, 2 Silver Bears, a number of additional awards at international film festivals and award ceremonies, and an Academy Honorary Award in 1992. The Government of India honored him with the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian award, in 1992. Ray had received many noticeable awards and gained a prestigious position over his life time.

There is perhaps no filmmaker who exercised such total control over his work as Satyajit Ray. He was responsible for scripting, casting, directing, scoring, operating the camera, working closely on art direction and editing, even designing his own credit titles and publicity material. His films come as close to complete personal expression as may be possible in cinema. Ray’s style grows out of the material itself, and from an inner compulsion to express it clearly. The thread that ties the body of his work together is its strong humanist basis. By his own admission his films are the antithesis of conventional Hollywood films, both in style and content. His characters are generally of average ability and talents. Perverted or bizarre behaviour, violence and explicit sex, rarely appear in his films. His interest lies in characters with roots in their society. What fascinates him is the struggle and corruption of the conscience-stricken person. He brought real concerns of real people to the screen. His works serve to remind us of the wholeness and sanctity of the individual. Above all, Ray’s is a cinema of thought and feeling, in which the feeling is deliberately restrained because it is so intense. Although Ray continued to experiment with subject matter and style more than most directors, he always held true to his original conviction that the finest cinema uses strong, simple themes containing hundreds of little, apparently irrelevant details, which only help to intensify the illusion of actuality better. These themes cannot come from the passing fashions of the period; they must be drawn from permanent values.

By depicting physical environments with the utmost truth and by exploring human relationships to their limits, Ray reveals many aspects of the human condition. Through particulars, he reaches universality, conveying through his cinema this co-existence. Much of his cinema’s strength lies in the total impression of its average moments, moments that can’t be picked out as necessarily striking scenes. This is because he strikes a carefully judged balance between form and content. He does not let one part override the other. He was known to reject locations because he thought them too spectacular and overpowering, stating they would upset the balance.

In the last few decades we have seen greater emphasis on form and technique in film at the expense of content. Form has come to be identified as the content of film. With formalism reigning supreme, subject matter has disappeared. Meaning has been divorced from the subject and a steady dehumanisation in cinema has resulted. What is refreshing about Satyajit Ray and his films is that they represent sanity and faith in humanity. With him, the subject comes first and with the material on hand he allows it to dictate the form.

Throughout his career, Satyajit Ray maintained that the best technique of filmmaking was the one that was not noticeable, that technique was merely a means to an end. He disliked the idea of a film that drew attention to its style rather than the contents. That is why his work touches one as a revelation of artistry. For at the same time, he reveals his attitude, his sympathies, and his overall outlook in a subtle manner, through hints and via undertones. There are no direct messages in his films. But their meanings are clear, thanks to structural coherence.

Ray makes us re-evaluate the commonplace. He has the remarkable capacity of transforming the utterly mundane into the excitement of an adventure. There is the ability to recognise the mythic in the ordinary, such as in the train sequence of ‘Pather Panchali’ where the humming telegraph poles hold Durga and Apu in a spell. In addition, he has the extraordinary capacity of evoking the unsaid. When viewing one of his films we often think we know what one of his characters is thinking and feeling, without a single word of dialogue. This ability to create a sense of intimate connection between people of vastly different cultures is Ray’s greatest achievement. More than any of his contemporaries in world cinema, he can create an awareness of the ordinary man, and he doesn’t do it in the abstract, but by using the simplest, most common and concrete details such as a gesture or a glance.

What is also distinctive in Ray’s work is that the rhythm in his films seems almost meditative. There is a contemplative quality in the magnificent flow of images and sounds that evokes an attitude of acceptance and detachment, which is profoundly Indian. His compassionate work arises from a philosophical tradition that brings detachment and freedom from fear, celebrates joy in birth and life and accepts death with grace. This perspective attempts to create the whole out of a fineness of detail. Ray succeeded in making Indian cinema, for the first time in its history, something to be taken seriously, and in so doing, created a body of work of distinct range and richness.


Ray died on April 23, 1992.