Sometime during World War II, an American soldier walking down Bakul Bagan Road in Kolkata stopped in his tracks when he heard someone playing Beethoven in the neighbourhood. The tune was unmistakable, and our soldier followed the music till he arrived at its source. The connoisseur he encountered near the gramophone was anything but the stereotypical Indian male he was given to imagine. For, there stood a towering young man, 6ft, 4 inches tall, with a clipped English accent and a voice that was pure gravel. As Bidyut Sarkar’s The World Of Satyajit Ray puts it, the American expressed surprise that a Bengali should seek delight in Beethoven, before bidding his interlocutor farewell. What happened to him in the course of the war is not known, but the lover of Western music he met went on to surprise an entire generation, breaking stereotypes and earning universal acclaim in a life that remains, to this day, unparalleled.
Satyajit Ray—whose death anniversary it was this week—was heir to two different worlds. His father came from a stable of aristocrats who brushed aside palanquins and elephants in the pursuit of more modern intellectual and business concerns. He founded the Nonsense Club at Presidency College, studied in England, wrote prolifically, but died young. Ray’s mother, compelled to settle her husband’s debts, was the daughter of a less lordly household. Moving in with her brother, she taught sewing and embroidery, and earned her own income. “I was cut off from everything intellectual," Ray remembered, but not with any resentment, though perhaps there was a little exaggeration. At first, he studied economics at his father’s alma mater, but when the Rays’ friend, Rabindranath Tagore, invited him to Santiniketan, he thought he might train there to become an illustrator.
By now, the future icon had cultivated a taste for cinema. But the pressures of his circumstances consigned all artistic aspirations to the background. After two years in Santiniketan, Ray returned to Kolkata and took up an advertising job for Rs80 a month. He worked hard, moving into a house of his own with his mother. Amidst much frowning and shaking of heads, he married an older woman, his maternal half-uncle’s daughter. Work, meanwhile, progressed and he was promoted as the firm’s art director. In 1945, two years into his time there, a 1920s book landed on his table to redesign and illustrate. Its name was Pather Panchali, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, and now, as he completed the assignment, Ray began to think of incarnating it on screen. His love for cinema graduated to an obsession—when, in 1950, his bosses sent him to England, his wife and he skipped meals so they could save and watch 99 of the best available films.
Pather Panchali launched Ray onto a career that saw him sweep awards by the dozen. But the five years he toiled on his first venture were a sobering experience. Funding was invisible, and nobody trusted him. Cinema was to park a camera in front of a set as actors sang and danced, and when he suggested otherwise, he was told to stay quiet. In fits and starts, between a job and running a household, Ray began to shoot, in 1952. Gold was pawned, and savings spent. For three years, Ray and his fellow amateurs were men possessed, worrying also that their actors might not survive delays: What if the boy’s voice broke? Or worse, what if the old lady died? At last money arrived from the state—Pather Panchali was, in English, titled Song Of The Little Road, and there was some cash to spare, it turned out, in the “Road Improvement Fund". It was a double-edged sword, though, for while the movie made its director a legend, all its profits were scooped up by a government, which secretly thought Ray’s work “dull and slow moving".
The success of Pather Panchali allowed Ray to give up his job and become a full-time film-maker, though he still had loans to repay. There was much success ahead, but also an abundance of criticism. Senior politicians preferred parading exotic India on the world stage instead of the realities of life in India—he was accused of denigrating the motherland with too honest a portrayal of its people. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, however, came to Ray’s rescue. “What is wrong about showing India’s poverty?" he demanded. “Everyone knows we are a poor country. The question is: Are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it?" With Ray, Nehru declared, there was the most profound sensitivity.
Some, meanwhile, were uncomfortable for other reasons. As one critic noted, in his conception of women, Ray “demystifies the revered Hindu ideals...of mothers and wives", while, in painting men, “he reveals to us their cowardice...as they take shelter in male-dominated social institutions". Naturally, he attracted his share of conservative detractors.
But it is precisely for this that Ray should today be remembered, at a time when art must pay homage to the nation, and creativity skirt the mores of those who exercise power. Pressures such as these existed in Ray’s day too, but he found an honest way of dealing with them. When Indira Gandhi attempted to woo him, to make a film on “social welfare", or a biopic lauding Nehru, the director’s response was clear. Once, when talking of overblown Bollywood films, he declared he was “bored of villains" and wanted to make something different. Now, to the most powerful woman in the country, this Bengali director simply said, “No, because I’m not interested."
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
He tweets at @UnamPillai