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The Filmmaker

A complex and contradictory figure, filmmaker Satyajit Ray had an uncanny ability to engage with the inner lives of many different types of people and to find the right expression for them. He has emerged as one of cinema’s most universally appealing directors

By Jai Arjun Singh

The tall man is moving about a cluttered room, monitoring elements of set design while his film crew get their equipment in place. He asks an actor to try a rehearsal without his false moustache, and continues to joke and banter for a few seconds. Whether speaking English or Bengali, his mother tongue, the man’s delivery remains casually fluid. Quickly, he shifts back into the meter of the sombre professional, the father figure keeping a close watch on things. He sits on the floor at an uncomfortable, slanted angle and looks through the viewfinder of the bulky camera, placing a cloth over his head to shut out peripheral light. This scene from Shyam Benegal’s 1985 documentary about Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s life and career is memorable and absurd: Ray is so unusually tall that, crouched on the floor with his equipment, surrounded by assistants, he resembles Santa Claus examining the underside of his sleigh, circled by his elves.

Satyajit Ray was an auteur in the most precise sense of that often-overused word. Apart from directing, he wrote most of the screenplays of his movies—some adapted from existing literary works, others from his own stories. He also composed music, drew detailed, artistic storyboards for sequences, designed costumes and promotional posters, and occasionally wielded the camera. Above all, he brought his gently intelligent sensibility and a deep-rooted interest in people to nearly everything he did. He was, to take recourse to a cliché with much truth in it, a culmination of what has become known as the Bengali intellectual Renaissance. 

The tall man is moving about a cluttered room, monitoring elements of set design while his film crew get their equipment in place. He asks an actor to try a rehearsal without his false moustache, and continues to joke and banter for a few seconds. Whether speaking English or Bengali, his mother tongue, the man’s delivery remains casually fluid. Quickly, he shifts back into the meter of the sombre professional, the father figure keeping a close watch on things. He sits on the floor at an uncomfortable, slanted angle and looks through the viewfinder of the bulky camera, placing a cloth over his head to shut out peripheral light. This scene from Shyam Benegal’s 1985 documentary about Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s life and career is memorable and absurd: Ray is so unusually tall that, crouched on the floor with his equipment, surrounded by assistants, he resembles Santa Claus examining the underside of his sleigh, circled by his elves.

Satyajit Ray was an auteur in the most precise sense of that often-overused word. Apart from directing, he wrote most of the screenplays of his movies—some adapted from existing literary works, others from his own stories. He also composed music, drew detailed, artistic storyboards for sequences, designed costumes and promotional posters, and occasionally wielded the camera. Above all, he brought his gently intelligent sensibility and a deep-rooted interest in people to nearly everything he did. He was, to take recourse to a cliché with much truth in it, a culmination of what has become known as the Bengali intellectual Renaissance.

The Indian state of West Bengal, from which Ray hailed, has long been associated with capacious scholarship and a well-rounded cultural education. The towering figure in modern Bengali history—certainly the one most well-known outside India—was the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a multitalented writer, artist and song composer; as a young man in the early 1940s, Ray studied art at Shantiniketan, the pastoral university established by Tagore, but this was just one episode in his cultural flowering. Ray was born in 1921 into a family well-steeped in the intellectual life: his grandfather, Upendrakishore (a contemporary and friend of Tagore), was a leading writer, printer, composer and a pioneer of modern block-making; his father, Sukumar Ray, was a renowned illustrator and practitioner of nonsense verse whose work has delighted generations of young Bengalis (and now, increasingly through translation, young Indians across the country).

From this fecund soil emerged a sensibility so broad that it defies categorisation. If cinema had not struck the young Satyajit’s fancy—he was an enthusiast of Hollywood movies, interested initially in the stars and later in the directors—he might have made an honourable career in many other disciplines. He worked as a visualiser in an advertising agency and as a book cover designer before embarking on his film career, and even today people who are familiar only with one aspect of his creative life are astonished to discover his many other talents. And for this reason, a useful way of looking at Ray is through the prism of the narrow perceptions that have sometimes been used to define or pigeonhole him. These usually come from those who are only familiar with his work in fragments: viewers from outside India, as well as non-Bengali Indians who may have seen only a few of his films.

Apart from directing, he wrote most of the screenplays of his movies—some adapted from existing literary works, others from his own stories. He also composed music, drew detailed, artistic storyboards for sequences, designed costumes and promotional posters, and occasionally wielded the camera.

Simplistic labels have been imposed on him ever since his debut feature Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955) came to international attention at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival where it was awarded a special mention. Based on a celebrated 19th century novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya, this subtle, deeply moving film is about a family of impoverished villagers, including a little boy named Apu, who would become the protagonist of the celebrated Apu Trilogy – travelling to Calcutta as an adolescent in Ray’s next film Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and finally coming of age in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). Though Pather Panchali is rightly regarded a milestone in the history of Indian cinema, it was also the subject of misunderstandings among those who were not yet accustomed to dealing with directors and movies from India. In a perceptive essay about a later Ray film Devi (The Goddess, 1960), the American critic Pauline Kael (of The New Yorker fame) noted that some early Western reviewers had mistakenly believed Ray was a “primitive artist” and that Apu’s progress over the three films in some way represented the director’s own journey from rural to city life. Indeed, the critic Dwight Macdonald wrote of Apur Sansar that while Ray handled village life well enough, he was “not up to” telling the story of a young writer in a city, which is “a more complex theme” —the implication being that rural stories were somehow truer both to Ray’s own life experience and to the Indian condition in general.

If so, this is a laughable idea. Ray was very much the product of a cosmopolitan setting and way of life: he lived in a big city, travelled abroad extensively before becoming a filmmaker, and spoke English with a clipped accent that contained traces of the British colonial influence. In choosing to film Bandopadhyaya’s novel with its village setting, he had stepped out of his personal comfort zone. The worlds he chronicled in later, urban films, such as Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) and the Calcutta Trilogy of the 1970s were more intimately familiar to him than the world of Apu’s penurious family was. These “city films” are diverse in their themes and subject matter, but they were particularly insightful depictions of restive middle-class youngsters in a soft-socialist society increasingly besotted by the go-getting, capitalist way of life—a milieu that was conservative in some ways but forward-looking in other ways—and how an individual might gradually get corrupted by a system.

However, there is a related point to be made here. If one is seeking a “quintessential Indian filmmaker” —meaning a director whose work represents the movie-going experience for a majority of Indians—Satyajit Ray was not that man. His films had a cool, formal polish, an organic consistency, which was far removed from the episodic structures and exaggerated flourishes of commercial Indian cinema. He was influenced not by local moviemakers but by foreign directors such as Jean Renoir, Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa. He had a sensibility rooted in classical Western and Bengali literature, which sometimes manifested itself in hidebound snobbery towards films that indulged “style” at the expense of “substance”, or theatrical melodrama over “realism”. In 1947, Ray and some of his friends co-founded Calcutta’s first film society. “We were critical of most Indian cinema of the time,” he says in Benegal’s documentary. “We found most of our stuff shoddy, theatrical, commercial in a bad way.”

This may also be the time for a personal aside: the cinema of Ray was not the cinema of my childhood. Growing up in a Punjabi household in north India, I mainly watched the escapist product of the Bombay film industry, latterly known as “Bollywood”—movies that mixed disparate tones and genres and contained narrative-disrupting song-and-dance sequences. It was only in my teens, in the early 1990s—around the time a feeble Ray, lying on his deathbed, gave his halting acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar—that I entered his world. I had become interested in what we called “world cinema”—beginning with classic Hollywood, then the French, Italian and Japanese movie movements—and I saw Ray’s films as part of a tradition defined by exclusion: everything that was not mainstream Hindi cinema. I grew to love his work, but even today I feel a little lost when faced with specific Bengali references in his films, by virtue of not understanding the language or having been born in that cultural tradition. (It doesn’t help that the subtitles on most Indian DVDs are execrable.) I also feel ambivalent about his condescension towards commercial Hindi cinema.

But given the cultural disconnect between my world and his, it is remarkable how accessible Ray’s films were in most ways that mattered. This may be because, as the critic-academic Robin Wood put it, “Ray’s films usually deal with human fundamentals that undercut all cultural distinctions”. His best work hinges on instantly recognisable aspects of the human condition: from the loneliness of a bored housewife, dangerously drawn to her younger brother-in-law, in Charulata (1964)—one of Ray’s most accomplished films, based on a famous Tagore story—to four restless men making a languid, not properly thought out attempt to escape city life in Aranyer Dinratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970). In his capacity to engage with the inner lives of many different types of people and to find the right expression for them, he is one of the most universally appealing of directors.

In the memoirs of Ray’s wife Bijoya, recently published in English translation as Manik & I (2012), there is a glimpse of the director as a privileged and mollycoddled man. One anecdote has Ray being startled that Bijoya knew how to replace a fused light-bulb herself, without having to call an electrician. In the no-nonsense style of the spouse who can deconstruct the myth around a great man, she writes: “He never once touched the air conditioner in our room. If he entered the room for a rest and couldn’t see me anywhere, he’d shout out, ‘Where are you? Please switch the AC on for me.’ Such was my husband.”

Apart from directing, he wrote most of the screenplays of his movies—some adapted from existing literary works, others from his own stories. He also composed music, drew detailed, artistic storyboards for sequences, designed costumes and promotional posters, and occasionally wielded the camera.

Amusing and revealing as these stories are, they should also guard us against making facile connections between an artist’s work and his life; they take nothing away from Ray’s empathy for those who were much less privileged, people who did not share his background or personal concerns. In fact, “humanist” is a word that has often been used to describe Ray’s film work—so often that it has become a closed term, sufficient in itself. Roughly speaking, it can be taken to mean that he cared deeply about people and their circumstances, and that he chose empathy over judgement; his best films lack villain figures who can serve as easy explanations for why bad things happen. But I would argue that to understand this quality in Ray’s cinema, one must recognise how complex and apparently contradictory he could be as an artist.

Consider, for instance, that the man who could be narrow-minded about genre films (in a book review, he airily dismissed Francois Truffaut’s efforts to present Alfred Hitchcock as a serious artist) was the same man who admitted in an essay that if he could take only one film to a desert island, it would be a Marx Brothers movie. Although known for his literariness and economy of expression, Ray also displayed a light, absurdist sense of humour and wrote many delightful stories in such commercially popular genres as science-fiction, detective fiction and horror.

Many of the perceptions of Ray swim around a basic idea: Satyajit Ray was a “serious” filmmaker. Now this statement is not in doubt if the word is used in its broad sense, to describe any rigorous artist who has achieved at a high level. But in a developing country like India, where cinema is often seen as having an overt social responsibility, very sharp lines tend to get drawn between “escapist” films and “meaningful” films; and the word “serious” is sometimes used as an approving synonym for pedantry, humourlessness, absence of style or lack of interest in things that are not self-evidently a part of the “real” world. However, none of these qualities apply to Ray. There was nothing pedantic about his major work. His narratives are so fluid, it is possible to get so absorbed in his people’s lives, that one is scarcely conscious of watching an “art” film. And the identifiably weaker moments in his oeuvre are the laboured or self-conscious ones. For most of its running time, his 1971 film Seemabaddha (Company Limited) is an absorbing narrative about an upwardly mobile executive slowly being drawn into compromise and amorality. But the very last shot—where a key character literally vanishes into thin air, thereby identifying her as a symbol for the protagonist’s conscience—is one of the notable missteps in Ray’s career, a classic example of a filmmaker spoon-feeding an idea to his audience at the last moment, rather than letting the accumulation of events in the film speak for themselves (as they have been doing).

An offshoot of the “serious” tag is the idea that Ray was concerned only with content, not with form. But watch the films themselves and this notion quickly dissolves. Even Pather Panchali, his sparsest film on the surface—made when he was a young director with an inexperienced crew, learning on the job—is anything but a bland documentary account of life in an Indian village. It is full of beautifully realised, carefully composed sequences (many of which derive directly from Ray’s delicate storyboard drawings) and thoughtful use of sound and music.

There is clearer evidence of Ray the stylist in such films as his 1958 classic Jalsaghar (The Music Room), about a once-rich landlord now become a relic of a forgotten world. It is obvious right from the opening shot that Ray intended this to be a film of visual flourishes. (In an essay in his book Our Films, Their Films, he admitted that having won an award at Cannes shortly before making Jalsaghar, he had become a little self-conscious and allowed himself the indulgence of a crane for overhead shots.) There are carefully composed shots which draw attention to themselves—a chandelier reflected in a drinking glass, an unsettling zoom in to a spider scuttling across a portrait, a view of a stormy sky seen through the windows of the music room—as well as sequences that stress the contrast between the zamindar’s past glory and the delusions that now crowd his mind. One constantly gets the impression of a director trying to use the camera in inventive ways, as one does in other movies such as the 1966 Nayak (The Actor), which makes stylistic nods to scenes from Federico Fellini’s Eight and a Half, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and other international films, and the 1970 Pratidwandi (The Adversary), which makes effective, ghostly use of negative film at key moments.

But for the most pronounced sense of Ray’s creative flair and versatility, one should consider a film that has long been among his most beloved and well-known works in Bengal, and at the same time among his most neglected, least-seen films outside India: the 1968 adventure classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha). Based on a story by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore about two lovable adventurer-musicians who foil a wicked magician’s plans in the fictitious land of Shundi, this film (along with its 1980 sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe) is an important pointer to Ray’s strong fabulist streak, and a conundrum for those who would construct pat narratives about him being the solemn antidote to Bollywood escapism—as a man who only told stark, grounded stories about the “real India”.

To watch Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is to marvel at how playful and experimental Ray could be. One of his grandest achievements as a filmmaker was this film’s mesmerising, six-minute-long ghost dance, featuring four varieties of ghosts representing archetypes from India’s colonial past—a scene that is immediately followed by a darkly poetic sequence where the King of Ghosts (speaking in rhyme, and in Ray’s own synthesiser-distorted voice) grants the two heroes a series of boons. However, this wonderful adventure story also has a serious undercurrent of pacifism, which finds expression in an uplifting climactic scene where hungry soldiers lay down their weapons and make a beeline for pots of sweets that Goopy and Bagha have conjured for them. Ray doesn’t underline the anti-war theme, but it is there for anyone to see.

The fantasy genre allowed him to display his warmth in its rawest, least guarded form, and this gentle, unselfconscious erudition is on view throughout his writings too. He wrote dozens of short stories for younger readers, most of them initially published in the popular children’s magazine Sandesh (founded by his grandfather in 1913, revived by Ray himself in the early 1960s) —but many non-Bengalis I know have experienced them for the first time as an adult, and attest that their sharp characterisations, expert pacing, and eye for detail make nonsense of the idea that they are meant only for children. These stories often broaden the reader’s horizons, supplying a wealth of information about places and histories; but they invariably do this by embedding the information in the fabric of a well-paced narrative rather than presenting it in a professorial manner.

Along with tales about ghosts and monsters, there are some subtle but moving stories about people caught in a life-altering moment. In one of my favourite stories ‘The Class Friend’, a well-to-do middle-aged man, Mohit Sarkar, is unexpectedly visited by a former school friend named Joy, whom he has not seen in 30 years. Joy has had a hard life and has aged beyond recognition, though the anecdotes he relates seem to confirm his identity. However, when it becomes clear that he has come seeking financial assistance, the preoccupied and wary Mohit manages to rationalise that the man before him is an imposter; or even if it really is his old friend, the gap between them is now so great that he wants nothing to do with him.

By this time the reader—accustomed to little subterfuges in Ray’s stories—doesn’t quite know what to expect, but the tale ends with an understated version of the more pronounced twists in Ray’s supernatural work: after being rebuffed once, Joy sends his 14-year-old son to Mohit’s house to collect the money; Mohit looks at the boy and at last recognises the face of the friend he had known in a much more innocent time. This personal epiphany closes an ostensibly “simple” story that is really quite complex and mature in its cognisance of the self-deception of human beings and the cleansing power of memory. Importantly, it conveys all this with Ray’s characteristic lightness of touch.

It is also, in a strange and moving way, a story about the importance of maintaining faith, which is perhaps a peculiar observation to make about a man who was himself a firm rationalist. One of Ray’s greatest films, Devi, his 1960 work about a childlike old man who believes his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of a goddess, is as sharp an attack on the perniciousness of organised religion and the follies of those who unquestioningly fall under its sway as any Indian filmmaker has ever dared to make. In a fiery tribute to Ray shortly after his death in 1992, the actor-playwright Utpal Dutt held this film up as a shining rebuke to the maudlin religious movies and TV serials regularly made in India. And by all accounts, Ray lived his life by the precepts of the questioning spirit. But at the same time he recognised the human need—especially the child’s need—for the regenerating power of fantasy and imagination. He was sceptical of charlatans posing as mystics, feeding off the vulnerabilities of insecure people—a common phenomenon in India—but he was also open to the idea that there are things that lie beyond our understanding, things that current science has not yet been able to reveal.

Hence the paranormal elements in his stories, as in ‘Two Magicians’ which is, among other things, an elegy for an old-world mysticism buried by the trickery of modern-day conjurors. In his story ‘The Maths Teacher, Mr Pink and Tipu’, one might expect Ray to be on the side of a mathematics teacher who forbids a child from reading fairy-tales “that sow the seeds of superstition in a young mind”, but the teacher, for the purposes of the story, is an antagonist: our sympathies are with the little boy, Tipu, who is being denied the opportunity to immerse himself in the magical (in more than one sense) world of storytelling. A brush with the supernatural eventually brings the story the resolution we are hoping for.

It would be easy to overlook these works, or to clearly demarcate them from the rest of Ray’s achievements, as if they constituted a brand of self-indulgent escapism that did not belong in the same moral universe as his more grounded work. But I think that would be a mistake. To appreciate the wholeness of his vision, one has to look at each film and story as a vital part of an organic career, rather than resort to distinctions such as “for mature viewers” and “for children”. The wide-eyed sense of wonder, the surrealism and nonsense verse of Goopy Gyne, are as much a part of his legacy—and his artistic achievement—as the clear-sighted rationalism of Devi, or the stark realism of the Apu Trilogy. The apparent paradoxes in his work are not paradoxes at all but indicative of a well-rounded, inclusive understanding of the frailties, needs and potentials of human beings—and ultimately, perhaps, this is what “humanist” really means.

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