My first brush with Ray was in Kolkata while I was a college student at Hyderabad’s Osmania University. There was an inter-university swimming competition in Kolkata and I represented my university.
Kolkata was not an unfamiliar city for me because I had an uncle who lived there. He was a commercial artist who did publicity for theatres in central Kolkata.
The chronicler: On 25 April, Benegal spoke at a symposium on Ray in Columbia University, New York. Satish Bate / Hindustan Times
By that time I knew I was going to be a film-maker. It was the beginning of 1956, I was about 21 years old.
My uncle suggested I watch a new film that had just opened in the theatres in Kolkata. It was Pather Panchali. I went for the 3.30pm show, hoping to come back and train for my swimming races the next day. But the experience was like an explosion in my head. This was cinema as I had not known cinema before. I had seen some Neo-Realist cinema from Italy and Akira Kurosawa’s films, which were similar, but this was a film I could relate to. It was a Bengal village and a story that touched me. The style of shooting seemed like you were living through the film. I watched three shows back-to-back. I have watched Pather Panchali 26 times, so far. From that day, I became an acolyte of Ray, and followed his work with enthusiasm and devotion. I also started a correspondence soon after.
After a decade or so, I got the opportunity to meet Ray. Through a friend, who happened to be his niece, I went to the sets of Nayak, where he was directing Bengal’s superstar of that time, Uttam Kumar. After the shoot, he invited me to his house, where we talked for about three-and-a-half hours. I was already doing documentaries and advertising films by then. He saw some of my documentaries and also liked them perhaps, because he recommended me for a Homi Bhabha fellowship. That allowed me to quit advertising and pursue film-making full-time.
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He was the first person to see my first film, Ankur.
In 1981, while shooting for Arohan, the Film Society of India got in touch with me to make this documentary because apparently although many directors were considered for this job, Ray himself wanted me to direct it. I was quite puffed up, and readily agreed, although I didn’t quite understand why. Then he opened up to me. The original length was supposed to be 20 minutes and it ended up being more than 2 hours.
Sometimes he was forthcoming, sometimes he was not. As a man, he was very reserved, he would reveal only what he wanted to reveal. And I never wanted to push him. He was very affectionate, but not in a very expressive, overt way.
What emerged after following his work for so long and then making this documentary over two years was that Ray was the last shining example of Bengal’s renaissance. He represented the best of the intellectual bhadralok with liberal, secular values.
The birth of the Film and Television Institute of India, which pioneered a new wave of film-making, was because of Ray. Indira Gandhi, who was the information and broadcasting minister during the institute’s initial years, was a lover of world cinema and was very interested in Ray’s works. She was the raison d’etre of the institute and employed Ritwik Ghatak, a film-maker who had a love-hate relationship with Ray.
Ray was not an innovator. He was a classicist, but with an entirely new approach to photography, lighting and directing actors. He appreciated silence, and used sound only when necessary, which was path-breaking at that time. He was a watershed. You could say there are Indian film-makers before and after him, and not just in Bengal. Film-makers may not want to acknowledge this or perhaps don’t need to acknowledge it because his style has become, in a way, part of our fabric.
Shyam Benegal, winner of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, has directed many award-winning films, including Ankur and Manthan, and most recently, Welcome to Sajjanpur.
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