Opinion: 100 cheers for Satyajit Ray

Written By: Monojit Lahiri
Kolkata Published: May 02, 2021, 04:03 PM(IST)

Satyajit Ray at work. Photograph:( DNA )

Story highlights

The nobility of man lies in the cinematic effort itself. The knowledge gives it a serenity denied to those who believe they are life-changers. This philosophical outlook is both Indian and traditional. It finds joy in the flotsam and jetsam of the human condition. It accepts everything with grace

To see Pather Panchali again today is still (as the great Lindsay Anderson once famously said) to go down on one’s knees in the dust, into the heart of the Indian reality and human condition. In the grinding poverty of the Indian village, Pather Panchali sees not the dismal ant heaps of Louis Malle but the individual human being, unique as much in his joy in love & nature & childhood as in the wrenching sorrow of death and in the endless struggle to live.

It is the human face of rural poverty and not its statistical horrors that makes us see Apu or Durga, Sarbajaya or Harihar as one of us. They become a part of our collective memory & being and forever change a part of us & our views on humanity.

Critics are of the opinion that unlike any other Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray is a classicist, an inheritor of a traditional Indian approach to art in which beauty is inseparable from truth and goodness. Despite his astonishing understanding of a wide range of western culture, it is his innate & rooted Indianness which gives him his very special place in India...and world cinema. 

Astute Ray-watchers have always commented on his unstinted affirmation of faith in human beings. There are no villains in Ray’s films. The oppressor and oppressed are both victims. Hence no matter what his role, he is in need of empathy and compassion – not anger or revenge. 

At his best, Ray’s work has a sense of detachment, a distance from the event, an element of Indian fatalism.  It is imbued with a sense that no man chooses the time or place of his birth or the circumstances that surround it. It is within the circle, pre-determined by these that he struggles to exist to make something of his opportunities.  

Also Read | Remembering Satyajit Ray: How the filmmaker taught the world about futility of war through a children's film

The nobility of man lies in the effort itself. The knowledge gives it a serenity denied to those who believe they are life-changers. This philosophical outlook is both Indian and traditional. It finds joy in the flotsam and jetsam of the human condition. It accepts everything with grace. The distance combined with compassion, makes it possible for Ray the artist to see a wider arc of reality and to combine the largeness of canvas with fineness of detail.  

The truth is: while Ray’s material happens to be Indian, his statements are about humanity. It transcends national boundaries and become both chronicler & document of life.

His ground-breaking Pather Panchali – the first of his magical Apu trilogy – has an interesting back story. De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (which he saw in London) totally mesmerised him with its powerful neo-realism and he decided then & there to translate Bibhuti Bhusan’s classic to the screen. This was 1950.

Upon his return to Kolkata, he worked on his first treatment and took it around to several producers, all of whom summarily vetoed it. His scenario, accompanied by over 500 sketches didn’t help. All of them found it too weird, unconventional (hero, heroine, villain, comedian, music, romance, melodrama, happy ending) and way out, including new theatres who had bank-rolled many quality films in the thirties.  

After a point, when Ray realised that no producer would help him, he decided to make the film at any cost by financing it himself. 

His books, records, mother’s and wife’s jewellery...all went into the making of the first cut, soundless, of around forty minutes. This would suffice for anyone open to see it objectively and understand that a film could be made without great locales, established actors and on a shoestring budget...but to locate that open-minded 'anyone’ was the biggest task/challenge! When hope – and resources – were running out at break-neck speed, serendipity entered the scene.  

Ray’s mother arranged a meeting with the erstwhile CM of West Bengal, Dr BC Roy. He saw the film’s first cut, liked it and arranged a subsidy [through the Road & Public Works department] to complete it. One of Ray’s employers too, after seeing a few sequences, liked Pather Panchali so much that he granted Ray long leave of absence and even put money into the production.  

After seven months of struggle when the film was finally complete, the government, who were the producers, saw the film, found it too depressing & pessimistic and suggested Ray insert some sequences showing the development of the countryside outside of Bengal. Ray flatly refused, saying it would go against the spirit of the story and distort the great author’s narrative. They reluctantly agreed to retain the original version and authorised the first showing in 1955.

Contrary to the thinking of many people that Pather Panchali made waves in Kolkata and India only AFTER it received international recognition, Cannes heading the list, let’s hear it from the maestro himself. 

“We got a first run showing for 6 weeks in a large cinema theatre in Calcutta. At first the film hardly did any business but after the third week, the box office jumped sharply and people queued up for tickets. The manager of the hall was willing to continue the showings, but he had already signed a contract for a blockbuster spectacle from the South produced by the tycoon SS Vasan, who refused to delay his opening.  

Vasan subsequently came to see me in my house to tell me how much he loved Pather Panchali and would have definitely postponed his release if he had any knowledge of my film. Pather Panchali was taken up by another theatre where it ran for 7 weeks. The film was successful in all of Bengal before journeying out to other Indian cities. The government found itself generously re-paid for its investment.  

As for me, I understood at once that I could henceforth, devote myself to cinema full-time and so left my advertising agency job. This was in 1955.  

Cannes award – Prix du Document Humain – happened in 1956. Incidentally, Pather Panchali was the first of many national & international awards bestowed on the master, revered and celebrated by the best of the best – critics, directors, actors – across the globe.  

These include prestigious film critic Pauline Kael, Elia Kazan, Time magazine, Keanu Reeves, Richard Attenborough, Akira Kurasawa, Marlon Brando, Christopher Nolan, Robert de Nero, Alexander Payne, Richard Gere 

While much will be written about Satyajit Ray’s spectacular sweep, covering varied genres, themes, plot lines & subjects across the three and a half decades that his work graced the screen including the tone & tenor, scale, scope & canvas, what better way to conclude this homage than explaining the essence of his material.  

Fact is, everything considered, the realism of his films is determined by an ethical, liberal and philosophical overview powered by a naturalistic style.  

This is marked by complexity & ambiguity through concern for character over action and imagery over symbolism.  Our perception is thus enlarged by his amazing insight and this is his unique & magical touchstone, the ultimate measure of the universality & enduring quality of his art; local roots with global embrace that neither age can chill nor rivals steal.  

That was Ray. When comes such another?

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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