He was not a radical artist who shocked or startled audiences into his world. Satyajit Ray’s greatest achievement was his celebration of the commonplace with lyricism and humanity. The pioneer of a new wave of realistic cinema in India, he is the most recognized Indian director in the world. In 1981, film-maker Shyam Benegal, an ardent fan of Ray, directed a memorable, now rare, documentary on the Oscar-winning director. In an extended interview, Ray talked in detail about his relationship with his mother, how he became a film-maker, and why he didn’t believe in gimmicks. To commemorate the auteur’s 88th birth anniversary, we reproduce excerpts from the interview:
Man of firsts: Ray was honoured with the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992, weeks before his death. Courtesy: The Kobal Collection
What are some of the most vivid memories of growing up in Calcutta?
I was born in a place called Garpar Road in a huge building that housed a printing and block-making press, which my grandfather had started. I was born there in 1921 and I spent the first six years of my life in that place. I think the most favourite memory from that time is spending my afternoons at the press.
There used to be a compositing department where I used to walk in. They had a process camera which used to fascinate me a great deal. I would take little drawings with me, and doodles, and tell the block-making chaps to make a block of them for Sandesh, a children’s magazine which my grandfather edited. Another memory is the smell of turpentine in the press. Once, when I was in advertising, I had to go to a press, which also smelled just the same. Immediately, all the memories of Garpar came rushing back.
Were you born into a large family? You have said that you shared a very close relationship with your mother. What were her influences?
I didn’t have brothers or cousins, but there was the son of a servant. He used to fly kites every afternoon from the roof of the house. And during Vishwakarma Puja, the sky would be full of kites. I never saw my grandfather because he died five or six years before I was born. And my father (Sukumar Ray) died in 1923. He was an extraordinary writer and illustrator. He was not a professional, like my grandfather. He had an absolutely unique style of doing comic illustrations.
My mother and I stayed in this house for three more years. Then the business folded up for reasons that I never found out. Then we moved to my maternal uncle’s house in south Calcutta, in Bhawanipore. I remember my mother working and keeping herself busy. She was a hard-working woman. She would do embroidery, drawing; she also learnt leather work. In the afternoons, I would watch her, doing this and that, and I did a lot of sketching at that time. I stayed at home and my mother taught me history, geography, arithmetic, English and Bengali at that point. I was very close to my mother—this much I can remember.
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She was very particular that I should be sent to a good school. She herself took up a job in a widows’ home where she taught. We spent a long holiday in Darjeeling, I remember. She even took a job there in a school called Maharani Girls School. The first sight of Kanchenjunga there was unforgettable. At 6 in the morning, my mother woke me up and said “come and have a look” and I saw the snow-capped peaks—red, pink in the sunlight.
Your education was entirely in Calcutta. How much did you benefit from school and college?
At the age of 9, I started going to a school called the Ballygunj Government High School. It didn’t turn out to be a very good school. I was interested in games quite a bit. I was very interested in football and cricket. I was more influenced by my grandfather and father’s work rather than by school or college.
Were you musically inclined as a child?
I remember songs and singing a great deal because my mother used to sing very well. My aunt was quite a celebrated singer; she used to make records for HMV. I remember very vividly my trips to the HMV Gramophone Co. with her. Her very first recording took about 6 or 7 hours—this was before the electrical days. She would have to sing in front of a huge horn and they were all English engineers. For some mysterious reason there was some classical music in our house which nobody was really interested in. There was one of Beethoven’s violin concertos and some records of Chrysler. I cultivated an interest very early.
Visionary: Ray on the sets of Pratidwandi, one of his few overtly political films, made in 1972. Courtesy Sandip Ray
You also went to Santiniketan to study art.
Sketching, painting and drawing...I had (them) at the back of my mind while I was in college and even late school. I thought I would be a professional artist doing some kind of commercial art. When the time came for me to decide what I should specialize in, a very close friend of my father’s who was a statistician said that I should study economics because he had a statistical magazine called Sankha, where I could get a job for Rs250 a month. I wasn’t terribly interested in economics and my two years of college were wasted. Then my mother suggested, and I agreed rather readily, that I should spend some time at Santiniketan. Tagore was still alive and besides him, there were some marvellous teachers there like Nandalal Bose, Benode Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij.
I had some reservations about Indian art then—wishy-washy, kind of sentimental Victorian stuff was in vogue. But I found after spending time in Santiniketan that Indian art could also be very strong and virile.
Your first job in Calcutta was in advertising. Were you happy in advertising?
I joined as an apprentice first, a junior visualizer. I was getting Rs65 a month. We worked with limited materials—there weren’t a wide range of types in those days. I remember an ad for Paludrine (a medicine); it was a series. They were enormous ads, just in illustration—showing in great detail the interiors of houses from all classes of Bengali society. They were very filmic. But what I was getting fed up of was having to deal with the clients, you know (laughs). It was very demeaning; you have very few enlightened clients, really. I wanted to be free as an artist.
Is that why you decided to be a film-maker?
Cinema came much later. My main interest in school days was stars. I was a film fan. I used to read magazines such as Picture Goer and Photo Play. During (the) early years of college, I became interested in the directorial aspect of film-making. I became aware of the director and read up on people like John Ford and Frank Capra. I watched every John Ford movie I could.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood had very hard-edged comedies and thrillers...you know, films by Billy Wilder, like The Lost Weekend...and Capra films like It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington. My film education was from these very well-crafted, well-shot, well-written films. I got to watch American films made by European directors who had left Europe and settled in Hollywood. I saw Renoir’s The Southerner, a very American story, much before I saw his French films. In Santiniketan, I was cut off from films. Citizen Kane came and went; I regret not being in Calcutta then. But I never really thought of becoming a film-maker.
So how did Pather Panchali happen?
Films were something to enjoy, not make myself—there was no question of that at all. Even when some of us were running the Calcutta Film Society, we were anxious to study and understand them better. The first time I got involved in film was as a scriptwriter. And at one point, I was supposed to be the art director for an adaptation of Tagore’s Ghare Baire.
But after reading Pather Panchali, the book by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay which I illustrated, the idea of turning that into a film and directing (it) myself occurred to me. So that was that. It was a subject which I knew best and I wanted to handle children—I had it in me to do so. And this business of showing the rural countryside, which I knew quite well because my art director and friend Bansi and I used to go to villages on weekends. We would take the train and go away to the countryside.
When you started making films, did you have a view of the state of films in India?
Well, I was certainly very strongly critical of Bengali films of that period. At the Film Society we were studying world cinema. Most Bengali films of those days were unrealistic, shoddy, commercial in a bad way and very theatrical.
One might say there’s a Satyajit Ray style of film-making. But in some of your earlier films, there’s a certain arbitrariness, in the use of lenses for instance.
Oh, certainly. That’s one of the hardest things to learn. We had to work with three different cameras; whatever was available for hire we would use.
What about pacing? How do you control the pacing if you don’t have a detailed script?
Well, if it’s clear in your head, I suppose, that’s enough! You shoot what’s in your head rather than what’s on paper (laughs). At that time, since we shot only four to five days a month, sometimes there was a gap of six months because there was no money. There was no compulsion to write a script. We had all the time in the world to shoot Pather Panchali. In fact, all of us, including my cameraman and other members of the crew, learnt film-making through the process of shooting it.
Are there autobiographical resonances in the Apu Trilogy?
Well, not in Pather Panchali. I knew nothing about village life. I was born and bred a city person and didn’t know the village till the age of 25 or 30. But the second part—Apu’s adolescence, his mother being a widow and the mother and son relationship—has autobiographical elements. When you deal with a character through three films, right from childhood to adulthood, one has to identify. Otherwise there’s no getting around the skin of the character.
You set a kind of photographic style when you made your first film because Indian films till then used to rely a great deal on a manufactured kind of look to make the actors look good. Was that conscious?
It was very conscious. It was something that I discussed with my cameraman right in the beginning. We were both admirers of Henri Cartier Bresson and we believed in available natural light. Before we would start shooting, many film people would say “no, you can’t shoot on a dull day; you can’t do this, you can’t do that”. So we experimented, shooting in all kinds of light, and found that everything worked (laughs).
You have also done a great deal in the use of music. Have you thought of how you have evolved musically?
Well, in the beginning, I worked with composers like Ravi Shankar. But I always knew where the music would come in a story and I had to tell the composers beforehand. That, of course, led to some difficulties. I was getting musical ideas of my own at that time and it was difficult to dictate so much to professionals and virtuosos. Then I took over composing myself.
I have a piano, and I hum and whistle a great deal. But now I have come to the point where I use less and less music. After a point, music is dispensable. I use music keeping the public in mind. And there’s another reason why I began composing myself—most of the composers have come to Bombay (Mumbai) now, so we have to do with second-rate players. We have to be inventive and use simpler things.
I developed the habit of listening to Western classical with a miniature score. That used to be my bedside reading. I would listen to a piece and then go to bed with the notations and while going through it after the music is stopped, it would all come back to me.
What about form? Are you conscious of it when you’re writing or filming?
I would say that I am not interested in form to begin with. I’m interested in the subject, and density. How telling can you make your images and how much can you pack into a film without using gimmicks, or whatever you call them— unconventional photography and editing.
You’ve always been an observer of reality, but whatever statements you’ve had to make have been oblique.
By temperament, I think I like to be oblique.
Your status in the Indian film world has been one of splendid isolation. Has that affected you because there hasn’t been enough of a bouncing board?
Well, this is not something of my own creation. One would have liked to start a whole new trend or something. But we have had directors here in Bengal—a couple of directors who have been working almost simultaneously, like Ritwik (Ghatak) and Mrinal (Sen). Not Ritwik so much, but Mrinal worked fairly regularly. Ritwik’s films are very different from mine, but very powerful I think. Film-making has so many hassles here that while making them you’re oblivious to whether you’re creating a school or whether anyone’s following in your footsteps. You just keep working because after all it’s also a living.
Do you feel the need of a stimulus outside of the one that you generate for yourself?
What stimulus are you talking about? By and large, most of my films have been received well— sometimes here, sometimes abroad. More or less, the feeling has been a happy one. The difficult part has been the making.
In your work you have chosen irony over anger.
I think there’s anger when anger is needed, when it’s called for—I’ve tried to convert it into irony. There’s a remark that my professor in Santiniketan Nandalal Bose made. He said, apropos what I've forgotten: There are two kinds of people. One, very angry people who can give vent to their anger but the stronger person is the angry man who can control his anger. That struck me. Irony, of course, has appealed to me all along. Why, I can’t say; perhaps because life itself is ironic when you juxtapose it with death.
DVD courtesy National Film Development Corporation