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Satyajit’s magical ‘Ray’ of humanistic cinema

By Sushmita Dutta | Updated: May 02, 2013, 14:15 PM IST

Sushmita Dutta

“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”- this famous quote by Akira Kurosawa is the most apt tribute to Satyajit Ray’s sheer brilliance. A great auteur, who put Indian cinema prominently on the world map, Ray is known for his humanistic approach to cinema.


This great director was born to Sukumar Ray and Suprabha Ray on 2nd May 1921. He was born to a family which already had an illustrious and literary lineage. His grandfather Upendrakishore Ray was a famous Bengali writer, illustrator, philosopher and prominent figure of the Brahmo Samaj. He had also set up a printing press which formed a crucial backdrop to Satyajit’s life. Ray, as a child, was already fascinated by half-block printing. His father, Sukumar Ray, was also a pioneering Bengali writer of nonsense rhyme and children’s literature, an illustrator and a critic. The young Ray had a tough act to follow, but he actually made his lineage proud with what he finally achieved.

At the tender age of three, Ray lost his father. The printing business also received a setback, leaving the Ray family in a financial mess. They had to let go of their huge house and move in with his maternal uncle. Till the age of eight, Satyajit was taught by his mother at home. The film bug bit him after he joined the Ballygunj Government School, where he was exposed to Hollywood magazines.


After graduating from Presidency at the age of eighteen, he decided not to pursue his education. Dduring this time, Satyajit’s interest had slowly moved from actors to celebrated directors. He wanted to take up a career as a commercial artist, but he had no formal training. He had a natural flair for drawing, which reflected later in his movies as well as the numerous stories that he had written. At the insistence of his mother, he agreed to join the Vishwabharati University at Shantiniketan to learn painting. He agreed partly also because of his regard for Rabindranath Tagore.

Shantiniketan opened up new avenues in the world of art- right from the Oriental to the West. The city bred Ray’s trips to nearby villages for the purpose of sketching and gave him a first-hand encounter of the rural life which he portrayed in his masterpiece ‘Pather Panchali’.

He also found time to pursue his interest in music at Shantiniketan. It was around this time that he fell in love with his cousin Bijoya, who eventually went on to become his wife. Though he loved watching films, the thought of becoming a filmmaker had not yet crossed his mind. He still wanted to be a commercial artist.


In 1943, he joined DJ Keymer, a British-run advertising agency. From a junior visualiser, Ray went on to become the art director there. Later, while working for the Signet Press, a new publishing house started by DK Gupta, he designed many cover designs and innovative advertising campaigns. In 1944, it was a book that Mr Gupta had given to Satyajit Ray for cover designing and illustration, that changed the fate of Ray forever. The book was titled ‘Pather Panchali’, written by the noted Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.


In 1950, when Ray finally decided to take the plunge as a director, he chose ‘Pather Panchali’, the book he had illustrated six years back, as the subject for his first movie. It was the story of a young village boy Apu, his sister Durga, and their parents. It portrayed the impoverished conditions of the family in rural West Bengal and the daily trials and tribulations of their lives. The eighty year old Chunnibala Devi was awesome in the role of the old aunt, Indira Thakrun. His meeting with the French director, Jean Renoir, and the movie ‘Bicycle Thief’ finally coaxed him into filmmaking. But the path for ‘Pather Panchali’ was not a smooth one. To begin with, he was in great trouble to gather financial resources for the movie and he did not have a crew. He could not even afford experienced ones due to economic hurdles. So he picked up a motley crew of inexperienced young men to work as technicians. But his cameraman Subrata Mitra and his art director Bansi Chandragupta, over time, became acclaimed in their fields. The cast also consisted of mostly amateur actors. After a lot of struggle, the West Bengal government decided to fund the movie. Ray even got Pt. Ravi Shankar to compose music for his first movie. After shooting for three long years, in 1955, under difficult circumstances and on a shoestring budget, Ray was ready to showcase his first movie on celluloid. Later, Ray would describe it as a miracle that in the long period of making ‘Pather Panchali’, “One, Apu’s voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indira Thakrun did not die (she was 80 years old when the film was shot)”.

Initially, cine-goers received the movie with apprehension, but in a few weeks’ time, everything changed. Ray had hit the right chord with the movie. A stalwart had emerged not only in Indian cinema, but was ready to leave an inedible effect on world cinema as well. It moved Pt. Nehru so much that ‘Panther Panchali’ earned him an entry to the Cannes in 1956. The world was awestruck with what they saw. The train sequence with ‘Durga’ and ‘Apu’ running through the paddy fields to see a train for the first time in their lives, became the landmark shot for years to come. It won the Special Jury Award at Cannes for “the best Human Document”.

Thus began Satyajit Ray’s long and illustrious career. He took his brilliance a step further when he made the sequel, ‘Aparojito’, which by many filmmakers, is considered to be his best work till date, even better than ‘Pather Panchali’. Although he did not plan it, he finally went on to make a third film and a complete the trilogy with ‘Apur Sansar’. He also introduced his two most favourite actors, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, with this movie.

In between, though he made a few unsuccessful films, Apu’s Trilogy stamped the genius of Satyajit Ray. After that, almost every year, Ray made full length feature films. In addition to these, he made movies like ‘Jalsaghar’ and ‘Devi’. In 1962, he directed and wrote ‘Kanchenjunga’, his first own screenplay. In 1964, he made a movie which was well ahead of its time, ‘Charulata’. It is the story of a lonely wife in the 19th century and her feelings for her brother-in-law. Many consider it Ray’s Mozartian masterpiece.

Post ‘Charulata’, Ray forayed into diverse kinds of movie-making. He travelled from fantasy to science fiction to detective stories to historical dramas. With ‘Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne’ in 1969 and ‘Hirok Rajar Deshe’ in 1980, he touched the tender hearts of children. A fantasy tale about two friends, a drummer and a singer, made an immediate connect with kids. In the 70s Satyajit made his famous Feluda series, which he wrote as stories, into two movies. One was ‘Sonar Kella’ and the other ‘Joi Baba Felunath’. Ray’s first venture outside Bangla films was ‘Shatraj Ke Khiladi’, which had stalwarts of Hindi films like Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Amjad Khan, Shabana Azmi and Richard Attenborough acting in it.


In his last stint, a lot of critics say that Ray had lost his touch. But it was mostly due to his failing health. The few movies that he directed during this period were ‘Ghare Baire’, ‘Ganashatru’ and ‘Shakha Proshaka’. His last film that had a glint of the genius of Ray was ‘Agantuk’. The film also ended the long association of Ray with renowned actor Utpal Dutta.

Right after this, Ray’s health deteriorated rapidly and he passed away on 23rd April 1992. But just before that, Satyajit Ray’s journey had come full circle, with the Academy Awards honouring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He gave his acceptance speech from his hospital bed in Kolkata. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna as well.

Ray’s thirty seven films are an authentication of his varied and multi-faceted creativity. The master storyteller that he was has left behind an unmatched cinematic heritage. Ray, in addition to being a first grade filmmaker, was also a composer, writer and a graphic designer. In 1961, he revived the Bengali children’s magazine ‘Sandesh’, started once by his grandfather. His short stories, his detective character ‘Feluda’, who was created along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, his sci-fi stories of ‘Professor Shonku’ are all highly popular in Bengal. He himself illustrated all his books. Even Spielberg’s ‘ET’ has faint outlines of a short story written by Ray.

The cinema of Satyajit Ray is a rare mixture of emotions and intellect. He touched his audiences without going over the top. He believed, “The best technique is the one that’s not noticeable”.

Ray controlled many aspects of film making. On the one side he wrote all the screenplays for his films, and on the other, he also designed costumes and composed scores for them.

Satyajit Ray is an icon of cultural legacy of India. His influence has been deep and pervasive in Bengali cinema. The celebrated director Martin Scorsese once remarked, "Ray`s magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact, will always stay with me."

In fact, when Bollywood decided to pay its respect to 100 years of Indian Cinema this year with the movie ‘Bombay Talkies’, Dibakar Banerjee adapted a short story by Ray, ‘Patolbabu Filmstar’ for his segment of the film. In its 100 years, Indian cinema has definitely been enriched by the touch of Satyajit Ray and he will continue to inspire every generation with his genius.