“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”- Akira Kurosawa.
Growing up in a Bengali household I was introduced to the world of art, music and cinema at a very early age. My love for cinema started when I watched Sonar Kella, a film by Satyajit Ray. At that point in time I didn’t even know what direction was or how a movie was made, but somehow I understood that it would be nice to be able to make something like this! Like music in Bengal is tantamount to Rabindra Sangeet (ie. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of songs), intellectual cinema in the state is defined by the artistic excellence of Satyajit Ray. For those of you who do not know who Ray is, I’ll try my best to put down words that might help you to understand him—albeit I am certain that those words will never be able to do justice to this ‘Kohinoor’ among film directors.
Ray was born in the year 1921 and was present when landslide changes that still affect Indian lives were afoot in the country. Now, cinema before Ray was mostly based on Indian literature. As flourished and as distinct our literature was, Indian cinema was yet to find its distinct voice. We didn’t have a lot of stories to tell, or more precisely, nobody really knew how to talk about their time. Until, of course, Ray’s film Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road) came along and changed Indian cinema forever.
Pather Panchali was based on a book of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee. Although highly underrated initially, Bannerjee was later considered to be one of the most iconic writers of modern Bengali literature and also one of the most prominent writers in the post-Tagore era. Of course, there were literary works which beautifully expressed the scenario of India but none of those were as brilliant and as true as Bannerjee’s Pather Panchali. When Bannerjee thought of publishing the novel, he was rejected by most of the publishing houses on the pretext that his story was too long and too upsetting. That used to be the predicament of any artist seeking to depict truth via any medium (that is what it still is).
Anyway, after a long time of rejection, at last a small-time publishing house named ‘Ranjan Prakashalay’ (Ranjan Publishers) agreed to publish the book. Without the book there wouldn’t have been a young Satyajit Ray coming out of a movie theatre in London after watching The Bicycle Thief and thinking “This is what I want to be able to tell, the truth”. Ray decided to turn Bannerjee’s book into a film around 1946-47. Why? To quote Ray, it was because of the certain qualities that “made it a great book: its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth”. It took a tremendous effort to turn this novel into a film, especially when each member of the crew was new to this. A bigger difficulty was funding the film, no producer was willing to finance the film, it lacked stars, songs and it wasn’t entertaining either. It took the film almost 2 years to complete, as the team faced financial crisis more than once. At last, in 1955, the film was released. A completely unorthodox film in Bengali cinema, very few people had any interest in seeing a film based on a village of West Bengal, but those that did see the film were mesmerised by its sheer simplicity. They understood that this new director named Satyajit Ray was something else altogether. The film later became one of the most significant works of art all over the world, winning numerous accolades in film festivals across the world. Pather Panchali was followed by two more films named Aparajito (The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Together they are known as ‘The Apu Trilogy’.
One significant feature of Ray’s films was the city of Kolkata. Due to the partition of India, the Bangladesh Liberation War and bad infrastructure, Kolkata became overly-crowded in the 70’s—which was also a period of nihilistic delusion for the youth of the city. The Naxalite period had just ended, and there was madness and frustration all around. Many people were without jobs, food, or a place to live. ‘The Kolkata Trilogy’ by Ray tells these stories of Kolkata. The trilogy contains the following films: Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman). Ray depicted the stories of three different men from three different social classes in these films, showing how the once-loved city became a nightmare for them, and how it showed them a ‘ray’ of hope as well!
However, instead of merely focussing his attention on the lives of the downtrodden or grasping the frenzy of the times plainly, the maverick filmmaker’s Neo-Realism led him to weave his stories into profound human and social documentaries. Watching Ray’s Kolkata Trilogy is still the best way of understanding Kolkata and its history. That apart, the city played a huge part in his movies like Charulata (The Lonely Wife) and Mahanagar (The Big City). Both movies exhibit the richness of Ray’s thoughts and his genial ability to transport his audience to an adventurous yet real plethora of emotions. The problems described in Ray’s films are unfortunately still present in Indian society. Be it class struggle, the oppression of women, middle class identity crisis, religion or anything, we are still very much suffering from them. In the end, we might cherish this man’s existence in our society but we couldn’t learn anything from his films. This man had the courage to talk about the problems of his time in his own way and we all know how difficult it is to talk about the truth through any art. We are becoming more and more stereotypical day-by-day, we are becoming too sensitive to hear and tell the truth each day.
It won’t be fair to talk about Ray and not mention his love for children, his constant enthusiasm towards creating a different world for children, a world each and every kid in Bengal has been a part of while growing up. If you ever check his work you will see the huge amount of work he has done for children. A lot of it comes from his father, Sukumar Ray, who was a critically-acclaimed poet and writer and probably the first person to write nonsensical comedy for children in Bengali—a thing which is missing from today’s ‘woke’ generation!
Many directors can tell really serious stories through their work but they cannot and have not made a film for the children. Now, why I’m saying this is because I truly believe that making children happy and showing them something which can inspire them through generations is the most beautiful thing that you can achieve as a filmmaker. Ray has done innumerable things for children; he made films, he wrote stories, he created the first children’s magazine in Bengali, and he created and gifted us our very own Bengali detective named ‘Feluda’.
Satyajit Ray single-handedly created such an impact that it inspires generation after generation. Even today, when we watch a film by Satyajit Ray, we are drawn in. Technology was not as developed as today, resources to make a film were not readily available, yet by sheer willpower, talent and his love for the art, Ray created one masterpiece after the other. It won’t be fair to name just a couple of famous filmmakers who have been inspired greatly by Ray, as glimpses of his impact can be seen in every artist. Yesterday, ie. May 2, 2020 was our very own Manikda’s (Ray’s nickname) 99th birthday. I do not know if this article, in any way, does justice to this great human being, but I will always be thankful to Ray for showing me and our generation the truth of life, how can we learn things from our imagination and how to never stop doing what you love.
Belated Happy Birthday Manikda. May you always show us the ray of hope!
Satyaki Paul is a film enthusiast trying to explore the unseen in cinema everyday.
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