However, on this day, they had a disagreement. Two Bengali films had released, the latest Suchitra Sen starrer and the first film directed by a former advertising executive and illustrator. Nihar was determined to watch the Suchitra Sen film while my father was committed to watching the other one. “It’s directed by Sukumar Ray’s son," he explained. “And it’s based on one of the classics of Bengali literature. This film could be interesting."
But Nihar would not budge—he was a staunch Suchitra Sen fan. Finally, conflict unresolved, the two friends—for the only time in their decade-long cinema camaraderie—parted ways, and watched two different films, each on his own.
Decades later, my father and his cousin were still laughing about that day. Neither could remember the name of the Suchitra Sen film, but the world had refused to forget—and will never do so—the film my father had gone to watch: Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), directed by Satyajit Ray. In fact, quite by chance, my father had been one of the first few hundred people to watch a film that would be one of the greatest landmarks in Indian film history, put our cinema on the world map, and launch a filmmaking career of astonishing creativity that would inspire and open the doors of perception for several generations of film directors.
My father would never forget the experience of that evening spent in the half-empty Basusree cinema hall in Bhowanipur in Calcutta. He often recalled the sheer amazement he felt as he saw the black and white images flicker on the screen. He had never seen an Indian film like this before.
Needless to say, my father was not alone. The late Sham Lal, legendary editor of The Times of India and one of the most erudite and cultured men I have ever met, watched the film in February 1956, and was moved enough to devote almost the entire edit page of his paper to his essay on the film, perhaps the only time The Times of India has done so in its 177 years of existence. Pather Panchali, he wrote, would “rewrite the history of Indian cinema".
Sixty years later, it is almost impossible to grasp or appreciate the thrill that many of the first viewers of Pather Panchali experienced.
Just one small example. Pather Panchali was the first Indian film that showed characters actually eating, putting real food in their mouths and chewing!
The back story
Satyajit Ray was born in 1921 in a Bengali Brahmo family that boasted almost incredible amounts of talent. His grandfather Upendra Kishore Ray Chaudhuri was as much a Renaissance man as his close friend Rabindranath Tagore. Straddling the worlds of science and arts, he was a printing technologist and inventor, an extremely gifted painter and violinist, and possibly the greatest children’s writer Bengal has ever produced (the only competition comes from his son Sukumar, Satyajit’s father).
(Several of Upendra Kishore’s brothers and cousins were also wondrously talented and significant achievers, but I shall not go into that in this essay.)
For the past hundred years, there is hardly any Bengali child who has not grown up listening to or reading Upendra Kishore’s stories about the plucky little bird Tuntuni or the musicians Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne. He also launched Sandesh, perhaps the first children’s magazine in India. (Sandesh still exists, though published sporadically—it was relaunched by Satyajit in 1961.)
Upendra Kishore’s sons and daughters were all gifted writers and/or painters. The eldest son, Sukumar, was a genius by any benchmark one can set. The stories and poems he wrote for children—of all ages—are quite simply unparalleled for their humour, imagination and the spirit of absurd whimsy. There is not a single Bengali who has maintained some contact with his culture who cannot recite at least a few lines from one of Sukumar’s poems.
One of my close friends, who is a respected author, never travels without carrying a volume of Sukumar Ray’s Complete Works with him.
A brilliant science student, Sukumar studied photography and printing technology in England after his graduation (he topped the class at the Manchester School of Printing Technology), and invented a new technique of halftone block-making that even earned him a small mention in Encyclopedia Britannica. Back in India, he took charge of the printing company his father had set up, U. Ray & Sons, one of the finest presses in the country, and of Sandesh.
Sukumar died at the age of 35, in 1923. In the introduction to his father’s Complete Works, published in 1973, Satyajit wrote: “When my father passed away, I was two-and-a-half years old. So I never had any opportunity to know him the way one knows another through the bond of being related. I have known him through his writings and drawings. And from some notebooks, two issues of a hand-written magazine, and what I heard from my mother and other relatives about him."
Unfortunately, U. Ray & Sons was also going bankrupt, in spite of the best efforts of Sukumar’s brother Subinay, another gifted writer. The company changed hands, the palatial house the family used to live in was sold, and Satyajit was brought up by his mother at her brother’s home, contributing to the household expenses by teaching needlework in a widows’ home.
Satyajit studied science in college for the first two years—“barely surviving the onslaught of sines and cosines and the rude facts of physics and chemistry" (My Years With Apu, published posthumously in 1994). In his third year, following the advice of his father’s friend P.C. Mahalanobis (yes, he of the Five-Year Plans), he shifted to economics. He hated that too and could only manage a second-class honours.
After graduating from Presidency College (now Presidency University), Satyajit went to study art at Shantiniketan, because it had been his father’s wish that his son would one day be at Tagore’s institute. In 1972, Ray made the moving documentary The Inner Eye on Binode Bihari Mukherjee, his teacher at Visva Bharati, a great painter who had gone blind.
After Shantiniketan (one day, he simply upped and left; he later said that he just felt that he had learnt enough and his teachers did not demur—also it was the day the Japanese first bombed Calcutta—Ray felt an urge to be where the action was), Ray joined the creative department of the British advertising firm D.J. Keymer (which would later become Clarion, then Clarion-McCann, then Clarion again, and finally Bates India). He also worked as an illustrator for Signet Press, a publishing house that was attempting to do to Bengali literature what Penguin Books had done to English.
Ray’s cover designs and illustrations for Signet Press were revolutionary. They were a complete break from the usual Indian publishing approach of printing a depiction of a certain episode of a novel on its cover, or just some faces representing the principal characters (unfortunately, that approach still rules in most vernacular language publishing, and even, to some extent, in Indian-English publishing).
He illustrated Abanindranath Tagore’s Raj Kahini, a collection of tales about the Ranas of Chittor, in the style of traditional Rajasthani paintings. This may seem to be an obvious thing to do today, but it was not, in the mid-1940s. For a translation of Jim Corbett’s The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, he did a wraparound cover of the skin of a tiger. The front cover showed a bullet hole in the skin and the back cover the exit hole of the bullet. No one, absolutely no one in India, was working at this level of creativity at that time.
Ray was, without knowing it, the first “graphic designer" in India. What Milton Glaser was doing in the US, Ray was doing at Signet Press. He even designed two English typefaces: Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre.
But his mind was elsewhere. From childhood, he had had two great loves in his life—cinema and Western classical music (and, of course, the girl he would marry, Bijoya). As a schoolboy, he avidly read the magazines Picturegoer and Photoplay, and gorged on Hollywood gossip purveyed by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. He watched Hollywood films. Firm favourites, in addition to Deanna Durbin, were “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, all of whose films I saw several times just to learn the Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern tunes by heart" (My Years With Apu).
In college, he was suddenly exposed to the art and craft of the film director, as opposed to the charm of the stars, when he read two books on film theory by the great Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin, who, along with his contemporary Sergei Eisenstein, developed the technique of montage—using a series of connected images to express a powerful idea. He also chanced upon an issue of Sight & Sound, the journal published by the British Film Institute, and became a subscriber.
Western classical music had also become a passion. He had been gifted a toy gramophone on his birthday as a child and he spent all his pocket money buying records. Even in his two-and-a-half years in Shantiniketan, when he was deprived of films (but he found a few books on cinema in the library and devoured them), he made friends with a German professor, Alex Aronson, and spent almost every evening in his cottage, listening to chamber music on his record player.
By the time he returned to Calcutta, the US had entered World War II, and there were a lot of American soldiers posted in the city, in readiness for a Japanese invasion through Burma. So, Hollywood films were released in Calcutta in large quantities and almost as soon as they premiered in the US. Ray had become friends with several American soldiers and he would regularly accompany them to watch the latest films.
And like in everything else he did, he dived deep. Within a year or two, he could accurately guess who the director of the film was, and even the studio—Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and so on—which had produced it by noting the editing style of the film—how scenes were cut, intercut and mixed. This was a singular feat of code-breaking, where, perhaps, the men who edited the films themselves were not consciously aware that they were operating to a pattern or a code.
In 1947, with some film-enthusiast friends, he set up the Calcutta Film Society, the first film club of its kind in India, dedicated to watching and discussing the best of world cinema.
In 1949, French film director Jean Renoir arrived in Calcutta, to do the initial recce for his film The River. Renoir, the son of Pierre Renoir, the great Impressionist painter, was already acknowledged as a master film director. His La Grande Illusion (1937) was the first foreign-language film to be nominated for a Best Film Oscar. His 1939 film The Rules of the Game (La Regle du Jeu), with its deep-focus cinematography and moving cameras, had influenced cinematic technique as much as Citizen Kane (which Ray had missed on its first release because he was in Shantiniketan), and is today regularly cited as one of the greatest films ever made.
Ray sought him out and accompanied him on two trips to locations outside Calcutta, serving as guide, interpreter and avid student. Renoir was, after all, the first great director he was meeting. Forty years later, receiving the Legion of Honour from the then French president Francois Mitterand (he politely refused to be kissed on the cheek by the president, the traditional gesture that accompanies the award ceremony), Ray told him that he considered Renoir to be his “principal mentor".
Renoir’s influence on Ray is palpable. For instance, one of the most famous sequences in the Ray canon, the heroine sitting gaily on a swing in Charulata (1964) is obviously inspired (concept, camera positioning, the works) by a scene from Renoir’s A Day In The Country (1936). So is the brilliant montage depicting the arrival of the rains in Pather Panchali.
But when Ray finally read the script of The River, he was quite disappointed. According to Andrew Robinson, in his biography, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, he “tried, very tactfully, to make suggestions for improvements". Renoir would listen, would say neither yes nor no, but he did incorporate many of the changes the young man had suggested in his final script, including important alterations to the plot. However, according to Robinson, when Ray watched The River finally in 1967, he was not impressed.
Meanwhile, other things were happening. Ray was already recognized as a star in his profession, and was perhaps one of the highest paid creative directors in the Indian advertising industry. But his heart was elsewhere: he wanted to make films (Ray was thus the first of a long line of Indian admen who left their jobs to become film directors, from Shyam Benegal to Dibakar Banerjee, many of them inspired by Ray; Benegal, in fact, has often acknowledged Ray’s influence on him and made an authoritative documentary on the man in 1982).
At the same time, through his work with Signet Press, Ray was being exposed to the best of Bengali literature—quite surprisingly, Ray had read very little Bengali fiction till then, other than the works of his father, grandfather and uncles and aunts. A book that was given to him to design and illustrated was an abridged children’s version of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali.
Pather Panchali, published in 1929, was already acknowledged as a classic, but hardly anyone had shown any interest in filming it. It was the story of a Bengali family, specifically the son Apu, set in rural Bengal and then Varanasi when the family shifts there. There was no love interest, no scope for songs and dances, not even a discernably happy ending—why would anyone make a film out of it?
But Ray’s imagination was fired. This was the movie he wanted to make.
(To be factually accurate, the first Bengali novel he wanted to film was Tagore’s Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) and he even wrote a screenplay for it. His friend Harisadhan Dasgupta was supposed to direct. Negotiations with producers, however, fell through, and years later, Ray would say that that was extremely fortunate—he found the script that he had written melodramatic and “very Hollywoodish". Ray would finally make Ghare Baire four decades later, in 1984. It was a disappointing film, in this author’s opinion.)
In 1950, Ray’s employers sent him to London for a five-month stint at headquarters. Whatever they may have expected from Ray when he came back to Calcutta, the man who returned was someone who had chosen his destiny.
While working in London, Ray feasted on films (he finally got to watch Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu, which he rated as one of the best films ever made). And then one day, he watched the Italian film The Bicycle Thief (or Thieves; strangely enough, the film goes by both names—Ray refers to it in his writings as both Thief and Thieves) directed by Vittorio De Sica. The film changed his life.
In a 1982 lecture, he recalled his emotions. The film had “gored" him. “I came out of the theatre with my mind firmly made up. I would become a filmmaker. The prospect of giving up a job didn’t daunt me any more. I would make my film exactly as De Sica had made his: working with non-professional actors, using modest resources, and shooting on actual locations. The village which Bibhutibhushan had so lovingly described would be a living backdrop to the film, just as the outskirts of Rome were for De Sica’s film."
The Bicycle Thief (1948) is routinely rated as a masterpiece and has booked its place in the pantheon of cinema for eternity. For me, personally, so tender and poignant is this film, that I look at it as a test of humanity. I believe that anyone who watches the film and doesn’t get at least a lump in her/his throat at the end, if not a tear or three, is devoid of certain basic human qualities and could be a potential murderer. Yes, it is that powerful a film.
As my favourite film critic, the late great Roger Ebert put it, The Bicycle Thief stands outside time.
Back in Calcutta, writing a review of the film in the journal that his Film Society published, Ray wrote: “For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not DeMille, should be his ideal."
He may as well have been describing the film he would spend three years of his life making, against all odds, and almost penuring himself: Pather Panchali. He also said many years later, still talking about The Bicycle Thief: “One quality which is sure to be found in great cinema is the revelation of great truths in small details. The world reflected in a dewdrop will serve as a metaphor for this quaility."
Anyone who has watched The Bicycle Thief will instantly understand what Ray is talking about. Anyone who has watched Pather Panchali would, of course, know.
The making of Pather Panchali
“In my mind, a modulation from a minor to a major key had already taken place. I had served an employer long enough, now I wished to be my own master, working in a different medium with different tools. I was familiar with the camera, possessing a second-hand Leica. And paying homage to a photographer I considered to be the greatest of all—Henri Cartier-Bresson—I wanted my film to look as if it was shot with available light a la Cartier-Bresson... I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would become a filmmaker, starting my career with Pather Panchali. If it didn’t work out, I would be back at my desk at Keymer’s, tail between my legs. But if it did work, there would be no stopping me." (My Years With Apu.)
Ray wrote the script and approached a few producers. He knew no one in the Bengali film industry and they were cold calls. Fortunately for him, Bibhutibhushan’s widow, Rama, was impressed by the passionate young man (his genealogy helped), and agreed to give the film rights to the novel to him, as and when he raised the money to fund the film. In fact, one rich producer whom Ray approached, reneged and contacted her, saying he would buy the rights and make the film, to be directed by the then famous Bengali director Debaki Bose, but Rama steadfastly refused. She had placed her faith on Ray for making a film that would do justice to her late husband’s greatest work.
But there was no money. After making the rounds of potential sponsors, Ray finally asked friends, who were more well-off than him, to contribute a thousand rupees each. The budget of the film had been fixed at ₹ 70,000. He collected ₹ 17,000, and started filming on 27 October 1952. The very first sequence that was shot is perhaps the most iconic of the film: Apu and his elder sister Durga running through a field of kaash flowers to see a train for the first time in their lives.
Initially, Ray’s team would travel to rural Bengal on Sundays with the cast (Sundays were holidays for all of them; they all still held regular jobs) and shoot. All of them were raw. None of them had ever worked on a film before, other than art director Bansi Chandragupta, who had been an apprentice on Renoir’s The River. But it was an amazing collection of talent.
Pandit Ravi Shankar would provide the music. Subrata Mitra, the 21-year-old cinematographer, had never operated a motion picture camera before this. But he is today acknowledged in the cinema world as one of the finest ever to operate a movie camera.
In fact, Mitra, while shooting Pather Panchali, actually invented what is now a staple in all sorts of photography and cinematography: bounce lighting—using white sheets or white umbrellas to either reduce the natural light or to enhance it. Legendary Swedish cinematographer Sven Nyqvist is often credited with this invention, but as Ray himself attested many years later, it was Mitra who did it, in 1954. This innovation was essential, because Pather Panchali was shot wholly on location, through different seasons, and the sun and the clouds obeyed no direction or diktat.
The cast was entirely amateur, except for Kanu Banerji, a theatre actor who played the role of Apu’s father, and 80-year-old Chunibala Devi, an actress in silent Bengali films, who Ray searched for and found. She plays Indir Thakrun, a character who dominates the first half of the film.
The making of Pather Panchali is a great story by itself, a story of some young men and women who defied all odds and stayed true to their dream. I will not go into it in detail, because the man himself has written about it in My Years With Apu. Ray was a great writer with tremendous power over and felicity with the two languages he knew—Bengali and English, and his recollections of those years read like a thriller.
To describe it in four paragraphs, this is what happened.
They ran out of money, and no one was willing to finance the film. Meanwhile, Ray had quit his job, spent all his savings on the film (his wife Bijoya stood by him while his mother Suprabha was extremely sceptical; widowed at a young age, she attached a lot of value to financial security). He even sold his unmatchable collection of music, and cleaned out his uncle Subimal Ray’s provident fund. But it was still not enough. In the meantime, the girl playing Durga had reached puberty and was beginning to look different.
This was Ray’s last chance. He approached West Bengal chief minister Dr B.C. Roy, who had been a friend of his father. Could the government give him some money to finish the film?
Dr Roy, a great physician and perhaps the canniest Bengali politician before Jyoti Basu, was, however, a man completely disinterested in the arts. He had probably seen about a dozen films in his entire life. But he wanted to help, because this was Sukumar’s son, and the cause seemed all right. No government agency in India had ever financed a film till then; no one had even thought of the possibility.
But the cunning Dr Roy found a way. Since the title of the half-born film was The Song of the Road, he gave Ray the money from the state’s road development fund. And Pather Panchali was done. This is possibly one of the most innovative decisions taken by an Indian politician, with a gigantic impact that he himself—or Ray—could never have imagined.
When we watch Pather Panchali today, we are inadvertent post-modernists. We may have seen the film before, or our heads are crammed with all sorts of stuff that we have read/viewed about either Pather Panchali or Ray. To some of us, it will be simply ho-hum, gimme a break, let’s move on.
I would like to cite two incidents.
One, I once watched the film on television with a little homeless girl who my parents had decided to take care of. She wept. She was transfixed by almost every frame in the film. She couldn’t perhaps understand some of the dialogue but I can fairly accurately conclude that it was the greatest cultural and human experience for her at that age.
(Anyway, in Ray’s films, till 1983, the use of silences and music is outstanding. I remember walking by an open-air theatre some 30 years ago, where they were doing a special screening of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, the musical. All I heard was silence! A musical, where 70% of it was silence?)
But I have digressed. When I watched this little girl react to Pather Panchali, I realized that Ray had cracked something, without perhaps consciously aiming to do so. He had cracked “pure communication". He had made a film where every image was so universal that anyone in the world—from Senegal to Sweden—would be willing to live and die with Apu and Durga.
The second incident.
This is in 1995. Ray had passed away three years ago. I was at a party. Among the people attending was a Bengali journalist, a famous editor. And a good Punjabi gentleman, then in advertising, now the marketing chief of one of India’s biggest media houses. The conversation drifted to Ray, and the editor said that he thought Ray was a pretty mediocre filmmaker, and Manmohan Desai was better. When he had watched Pather Panchali in London, while working on his doctorate at Oxford, he had been completely unmoved.
I argued, and it almost came down to fisticuffs. Then this good Punjabi gentleman, who had been listening to our exchange quietly, intervened. This is the sum and substance of what he said. That he had only heard of Ray and never seen any of his films. But after Ray’s death, Doordarshan decided to air all his films, one per day, late at night. So, the first night—Doordarshan would show his films sequentially, from the first to the last—he and his wife stayed up to watch Pather Panchali.
The next day, overwhelmed by the experience, he bought 30 blank VHS cassettes so that he could record every film of Ray’s as Doordarshan showed them. He told us this, with diffidence and humility—after all, these were two Bengali journalists arguing, and Bengalis are supposed to be terminally intellectual, and Ray was Bengali, etc., etc.—and rested his case.
The editor I had been arguing with got very angry and left within the next few minutes.
Pather Panchali slowly gained a reputation, as something different, something new. To the extent that prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira requested a private screening. Indira was enchanted. (Whatever crimes she committed against Indian democracy, one cannot help but acknowledge her aesthetic sensibility. She got two forgotten—and huge—sculptures by the late great sculptor Ramkinkar Baij out of some warehouse in Shantiniketan and placed them on two sides of the grand entrance to the Reserve Bank of India in New Delhi. The sculptures are of a yaksha and yakshini, the mythical protectors of wealth in Indic culture.)
So, Pather Panchali went to the Cannes Film Festival. No one was interested. It was exhibited late at night at a small theatre. Possibly a dozen people attended the screening. One of them, Francois Truffaut, then a critic with the radical French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, and who would go one to become a great film director, left the hall within 10 minutes, bored by the slow pace of the film. Truffaut later apologized publicly and several times, and Ray and he became good friends.
One lady was not satisfied. Lotte Eisner, who would go on to become the chief curator of the Cinematheque Francaise, decided that the film deserved a second screening. She lobbied for it, campaigned for it, and there was a second show, which was much better attended.
This time, people watched and, more importantly, saw. Pather Panchali won the special jury prize for the “Best Human Document".
Ray could now become a full-time film director. He started work on Pather Panchali’s sequel Aparajito (The Unvanquished), which is the finest—and most heart-rending—film of the Apu trilogy.
Aparajito principally deals with Apu’s teenage years. In the mid-1980s, when I was living in an extremely cosmopolitan multilingual college hostel, Doordarshan showed the film, sub-titled superbly by Ray himself. I had watched the film before, but was willing to see it once again.
The common room of the hostel, which had the carrom board and the table tennis set-up and the TV, was surprisingly crowded that night. We sat on the floor and watched the film.
We were teenagers, trying to find our own personalities and our own priorities and voices. In that hall, many of my friends wept as they watched. In Aparajito, Apu is now in college in Calcutta, while his mother (his father has passed away) still lives in the village. Apu’s world has expanded, and he thinks of himself as a knowledgeable adult, while to his mother, he remains her precious and lovely child.
The conversations between mother and son in Aparajito when Apu comes to visit his mother in the village during his holidays: several of my college mates told me that night that they had had the exact same conversations with their mothers when they went home. They all wept.
I know and have read the works of many film critics, though the only ones I admire wholeheartedly are two dead Americans—Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. The reason is simple: They wrote with passion and feeling; they loved cinema and reacted to films like any average person does, with tears and laughter.
Cinema is one art form that cannot by definition be separated from emotions. Paintings can hardly ever make you weep. Music, maybe. Books, yes. But cinema, shorn of its intellectual baggage, exists only to engage your emotions. Your pondering over the meaning and message of a Bergman or a Tarkovsky film comes later. If the film that you watched does not grip you emotionally, you won’t even think much about it when you reach home. And that is what separates a great film director from a good one.
If Chaplin can’t make you laugh, he has failed. If Chaplin can’t make you feel, he has failed. It’s simple. And you have failed as a film critic if you notice only the craft.
I know a number of India’s top film critics who have, strangely enough, told me that they feel nothing when they watch movies. They are clinical. They are doing their job. But are they?
Cinema, many would argue, is not a pure art form. It borrows—and borrows heartily—from literature, art and theatre. It also costs a lot of money to make a film, infinitely more than what it takes to write a book or paint a picture or click a striking photograph. Ray, having worked in the commercial world, was acutely aware of this. Throughout his filmmaking career, he—unlike many reputed directors across the world—had total clarity about the money: there had to be a big enough audience, and the people who were financing his film had to get their money back and make a profit.
This knowledge, in no way, compromised his artistic freedom. He was a realist, and he knew. But he went where his mind took him.
In 1982, delivering the Amal Bhattacharji lecture, one of the rare occasions when he spoke about his work, he said: “(There is) a special problem that faces one who must talk about films. Lectures on art should ideally be illustrated. One who talks on paintings usually comes armed with slides and a projector. This solves the difficulty of having to describe in words, what must be seen with the eyes. The lecturer on music must bless the silicon revolution, which enables him to cram all his examples into a cassette no bigger than a small bar of chocolate. But the lecturer on cinema has no such advantage—at least not in the present state of technology in our country. If he wishes to cite an example, he can do no more than give a barely adequate description in words, of what is usually perceived with all one’s senses. A film is pictures, a film is words, a film is movement, a film is drama, a film is music, a film is a story, a film is a thousand expressive aural and visual details. These days one must also add that film is colour. Even a segment of film that lasts barely a minute can display all these aspects simultaneously. You will realize what a hopeless task it is to describe a scene from a film in words. They can’t even begin to do justice to a language which is so complex."
Ray thought of cinema, not as an art form, but a language. “Cinema is images and sound," he said. Writing as early as 1959 (Speaking Of Films, a collection of Bengali essays on film translated by Gopa Majumdar), he was saying: “Those who are not prepared to give (cinema) that status (of a form of art) claim that cinema has no soul of its own; it is a weird mixture of components taken from literature and forms of art."
“The problem," he wrote, “was over the word ‘art’. If the word ‘language’ was used instead, I think the true nature of cinema will become clearer and there will be no need for debate." Cinema was a language defined by fade-ins, fade-outs, quick cuts, camera angles, editing styles, and for him—always—Western classical music.
After his first five films, Ray took over the job of music composer too, in addition to being director, script writer, and to a very large extent, cinematographer and editor. He gave his own reasons for that.
“How interesting to know… that film and music had so much in common!" he wrote (Speaking of Films). “Both unfold over a period of time; both are concerned with pace and rhythm and contrast; both can be described in terms of mood—sad, cheerful, pensive, boisterous, tragic, jubilant. But this resemblance applies only to Western classical music. Since our (Indian) music is improvised, its pattern and duration are flexible. One can hear a complete raga in a three-minute version on old gramophone records and we know that a raga can be stretched to well over two hours.
“Also, the structure of Indian music is decorative, not dramatic. It builds up from a slow beginning to a fast conclusion, becoming more and more intricate and ornamental in the process… What the musician aims at is to give the ideal form to the concept implicit in a particular combination of notes.
“… In the process of execution, the musician can achieve beauty, he can achieve tension and excitement, and he can achieve sublimity. But he cannot achieve drama, because there is no conflict in the music.
“Unlike Indian music, Western music can depart from the tonic or Sa, and much of the drama arises from this modulation of basic melodies from key to key. This can be likened to the vicissitudes experienced by characters in a story. At the end, the music has to return to the tonic or Sa, which again is like the resolution of a conflict, where one feels that there is nothing more to be said, as the drama has come to an end."
This is an extremely important feature of many of the films that Ray made. He structured them as symphonies (especially Beethoven’s). There is a beginning, a rise that may continue for quite a bit of time, and then a quiet end that completes the circle.
Of course, he did as the situation demanded. The last scene of Apur Sansar, the third part of the Apu Trilogy, is one of the most heartwarming scenes in the history of cinema, as good or better than Chaplin shambling off into the sunset with his lady love. Here, Ray made a distinct and conscious departure from Bibhutibhushan’s novel, and gave the world an ending to Apu’s story that makes you want to get up from your seat and cheer and wolf whistle, if you can do that.
Apu, now in his 30s, widower and vagabond, walks off into the dawn (not sunset) with his little son Kajal on his shoulders. It is the most satisfying end to a trilogy—which is mostly tragic, yet imbued with a sense of hope that is quite astonishing—that I have ever seen. Every time I watch that last scene, I want to whoop with joy and weep with happiness.
Which brings us to Ray’s humanism.
Morality and art
‘Morality’ and ‘art’ are two words that usually don’t go together. Most of the great artists we know of have not been distinguished by a quiet conformance to socially defined morality. Picasso had a libido that would have sufficed for a dozen average men, and was, by all accounts, almost superhumanly promiscuous and rather careless of the feelings of the women he bedded—including several whom he married and others who were steady long-term mistresses.
The same goes for many great painters, writers and film directors. One can even argue with some validity that their rebellion against—or sheer incomprehension of—social mores contributed significantly to their priceless output.
Ray’s films are strait-laced. Even where there is sex to be done, like in Devi (1960), it’s inside a dark bedroom, inside a mosquito net, and you get the message without actually seeing anything. In Apur Sansar, the audience gets a sense of the sexual bliss that Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee, who would almost become Ray’s alter ego in the years to come) and his wife Aparna (Sharmila Tagore in her first film role, who was expelled from her convent school for appearing in a film) enjoy from little sequences like Apu waking up in the morning, looking happy, and opening his packet of cigarettes and finding a note by Aparna inside, asking him not to smoke too much.
There is a streak of pure humanism that runs through almost all of Ray’s films that is thoroughly consistent and thought-provoking. Almost every woman in his films is imbued with courage and dignity. Even when they have flaws, like Apu’s mother Sarbajaya in Pather Panchali, in the way she treats her husband’s distant cousin Indir Thakrun, you disapprove and are perhaps even shocked, but you cannot hate.
The most cynical film he ever made was Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975)—and Ray was the only film director who could get away with showing a corrupt bureaucrat with a framed photo of then prime minister Indira Gandhi on his wall; the film was released during the Emergency. But even in Jana Aranya, as the protagonist goes around trying to find a sex worker he can supply to a rich businessman to get a contract, the women are treated with a respect and sophistication that is almost unmatched in world cinema.
The climax—when the protagonist finally finds a sex worker and sends her in to his prospective client’s hotel room, and certain secrets are revealed, is gut-wrenching, but amazing in its power and execution (the climax differs in a very crucial manner from the novel on which the film was based).
The Ray canon, almost all of it, is distinguished by a rare sympathy and compassion for human beings and the human condition (I will explain why I used the phrase “almost all of it" later). In Charulata (which Ray considered his best film, and said that if he had a chance, he would change just one scene, but characteristically, never revealed which scene he was talking about), the man siphoning off money from Bhupati, Charulata’s husband, is also a loving husband. In his book Our Films, Their Films, Ray said famously: “Villains bore me."
All the characters in almost all of Ray’s films are real human beings, with their natural flaws and proclivity to sin. From Narsingh, the cuckolded alcoholic taxi driver in Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962) to the enraged but impotent Siddhartha in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) to the weak-hearted lover in Kapurush (The Coward, 1965), you can disapprove, but can’t dislike any of them. Because Ray invariably explains (or hints at) what their weaknesses or circumstances are.
This extended to his personal life, which I had a little window to glimpse when I was seven years old. I was a subscriber of Sandesh, which his grandfather had launched, and which Ray had revived in 1961, with the help of poet Subhash Mukhopdhyaya, who would one day win the Jnanpith Award.
Ray’s Sandesh, I can say with a degree of confidence, was possibly the best Indian children’s magazine ever published. As a Bengali child growing up in Calcutta, I subscribed to various magazines. But Sandesh was the one I truly loved. While other magazines were carrying translations of Tarzan novels, and stories with a remarkable amount of violence and cruelty, Sandesh was gentle, fun, and—in hindsight, because I didn’t even know the word then—sophisticated.
And it had a stated philosophy that it would never carry anything that exposed its readers—children—to violence or brutality.
The demands of a monthly magazine made Ray a writer, writing science fiction, detective stories and supernatural tales that would keep a lot of Bengali children up at night. (All his detective stories, featuring Feluda, or Pradosh Kumar Mitter, are available in English translation.)
He was joined by his aunt Lila Majumdar, who I rank as one of the best children’s writers ever (better than Ray) but is sadly not available in translation as far as I know, and his cousin Nalini Das, whose home in south Calcutta served as the office of Sandesh. Das wrote wonderful adventure stories featuring four girls, collectivly known as Gandalu, the Bengali equivalent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
Ray designed the covers, and also did most of the illustrations, which were very cinematic, using a variety of styles, and which were again, like his Signet Press days, quite path-breaking. He also looked after the puzzles section. Looking back, I find it difficult to believe that a man, who was also directing a film every year or so, would be able to illustrate nearly an entire magazine every month. But he did it, and set a new benchmark for illustrations.
Sandesh also encouraged its young readers to write and had a special section that carried their stuff. And as a seven-year-old, I had sent in something.
Since I used to live nearby, I would go (that is, my father would take me) to the Sandesh office every month to collect my copy. Sometime in 1970, I went to the apartment in the evening, like I did every month.
When I timidly knocked on the door, it was opened by the tallest man I had ever seen, with the best baritone voice I have ever heard. It was Ray, and he was visiting. He welcomed me graciously, gave me a copy of the latest issue. Prodded by my father, I stammeringly said that I had written something for Sandesh a few months back and it had not been published yet. He asked me the title of the piece (it was merely a translation of an English fairy tale), and said he would look into it.
It was published in the next month’s issue. Even today, 45 years later, I cannot forget that a man of his stature and certainly with many things on his mind (he was there in the apartment for a dinner party to celebrate Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne winning the President’s gold medal for Best Film) would remember the stutters of a child, take the pains to find the little article he had written, and have it printed.
His deep humanism extended beyond his films.
So, I am a bit of a biased person when I write about Ray.
Thinking about cinema
The opening seven-minute sequence of Charulata, with almost no dialogue, is one of the most fascinating and intricate sequences ever filmed. It ranks with the Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (which has been copied by numerous movies from Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables to our home-grown Tezaab).
But the Charulata sequence, quite simply, cannot be copied. It is so special, so specific to the heroine’s situation, and explains her thought processes with such precision that it is entirely unique.
To give a bit of background, Ray made Charulata based on a Tagore novella called Nashtaneer, whose literal translation is The Ruined Nest (or home), and the film’s English title is The Lonely Wife. Charu is married to Bhupati, a rich and loving but distant husband, who is wholly immersed in his intellectual pursuits and pays little attention to his wife, who possesses a lively intelligence and whose literary talents are possibly greater than her husband’s. The film is set in the early 1900s.
Charu lives in an enormous house, and other than the domestic help, there are just two of them, her husband and she. She is lonely and bored. There seems to be no sexual relationship between the couple.
Then Bhupati’s young cousin Amal arrives to stay with them for some time, while he figures out what he wants to do in life. His arrival in the midst of an approaching thunderstorm, is spectacular, and churns up Charu’s life. As he enters the house and meets her, he shouts, “Hare murare, madhu kaitabhare", the first line of a Sanskrit shloka in praise of Krishna, that was popularized as a slogan of rebellion by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in his revolutionary work Anandamath, which also gave us Vande Mataram.
Charu and Amal are drawn to each other—the lonely wife with a mind and yearnings of her own, and the free-spirited young man. One should mention here that Bhupati, the husband, is consistently portrayed as a good man who loves his wife and is in fact glad that Amal is there to give her company because he himself is so busy and can’t spend much time with her.
The film has an ambiguous ending. Amal, in love with Charu, decides to go away forever, rather than continue with what he thinks is an illicit relationship. Charu returns to her lonely existence. Her husband finds out that she had loved Amal, is shocked and hurt, and we are never told by Ray if he forgives her, if she loves him again, and they have a happy life together.
Charulata is a masterpiece by any standards.
Alfred Hitchcock, a director of directors, talking about his film Vertigo, which is regularly rated in various polls as a great film, said that this was one film he made that he had complete control over. Every detail in the film was dictated by him. “If you see a yellow Volkswagen passing by on the road outside the room where my characters are meeting, then you should know that I chose a Volkswagen, and it is yellow because I chose that colour," he once said.
Ray had creative control over almost all his films—he demanded and insisted on it—but the first sequence of Charulata is one of the most extraordinary feats of filmmaking ever—by itself, and because it sets up what is going to come to you over the next 110 minutes. It is pure cinema that cannot be reproduced in any other art form.
Can you imagine seven minutes of near silence—no dialogue—to begin your film? The closest one can think of is the stunning opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that spanned many thousand years in a few minutes, but it had Strauss’ majestic Thus Spake Zarathuthra sweeping over the audience.
In Ray’s own words, this was what the seven minutes were about (from Speaking Of Films): “I shall (describe a scene) from one of my own films, which attempts to use a language entirely free from literary and theatrical influences. Except for one line of dialogue in its seven minutes, the scene says what it has to say in terms that speak to the eye and the ear. The scene will also introduce an important element I haven’t spoken of so far. This is the recurring motif. Appearing at several points in a film, often in different contexts, these motifs serve as unifying elements.
“The seven minutes refer to the opening scene of Charulata… This scene establishes visually the approximate period of the story, the upper-class ambience in which the story unfolds, the central character of Charu, and a crucial aspect of her relationship with her husband. In other words, it sets the stage for the drama that follows. I should point out that no such scene as this occurs in Nahstaneer, the Rabindranath story on which the film is based, and that there are elements in it which have been invented for the purpose of the film.
“But this is inevitable in any adaptation of a literary work for the screen. It is also justifiable if what has been introduced serves to articulate the author’s theme, and illuminates the characters conceived by him.
“The film opens with the letter ‘B’ being embroidered on a handkerchief by Charu. This will prove to be a major motif in the film. We will learn later that the handkerchief is meant for Charu’s husband Bhupati. It will trigger off the conversation which will make Bhupati aware of Charu’s loneliness. Towards the end of the film, after Bhupati’s traumatic discovery of Charu’s feelings towards Amal, Bhupati will use the handkerchief to wipe his tears, and will notice the embroidery before he returns to his wife.
“As Charu finishes her needlework, we hear the grandfather clock in the verandah strike four. The clock is heard chiming the hour at several points in the film, and may be said to be the second motif.
“But what is special about four o’clock? We learn in a few moments when Charu puts down the embroidery, goes out of the bedroom and down the verandah to the top of the backstairs, calls out to the servant and asks him to take tea to the master in his office. Her duty done, Charu comes back to the bedroom. We thus know that Bhupati’s place of work is in the house itself.
“Her duty done, Charu comes back to the bedroom. For a few moments she is undecided what to do. This, of course, is an inevitable aspect of boredom. One has time on one’s hand, but is frequently at a loss to know how to use it. Charu briefly admires her handiwork, then picks up a book from the bed, riffles through the pages and puts it down.
“She now comes out of the bedroom, and once again proceeds down the verandah towards the outer apartments. Apart from the obvious fact of Charu’s restlessness, these movements in and out of rooms help to establish the plan of the first floor of Bhupati’s house where most of the action would take place.
“In a story like Charulata, the setting itself is a character. And must be established carefully in all its details as any human participant in the story.
“Charu now comes into the drawing room and picks out from a bookcase a novel by Bankimchandra. This is the third motif: Bankim will prove to be a common link between Charu and Amal.
“Charu has already reacted to a monkey man’s drumming which is heard from somewhere in the neighbourhood. Idly turning the pages of the novel, she makes her way to her husband’s study which lies in the direction of the sound of drumming. She goes to the window in the room, raises the shutters and peers out—and there is the monkey man in the house next door.
“This gives Charu an idea. She scurries out of the room, comes back to the bedroom and takes a lorgnette from a drawer. The lorgnette is the fourth motif, and will feature in a crucial scene with Amal later.
“As she hurries back to her husband’s study, swinging the lorgnette in her hand, the camera follows the object through the verandah railings. Precisely the same viewpoint will recur in a different context when a triumphant Charu will make a headlong dash for Amal’s room, this time swinging in her hand the magazine which has published her article.
“The monkey man is now brought up close as Charu observes him through the lorgnette. But the man goes away and Charu now turns to another window. This one gives on the street. This time Charu has a glimpse of a palki, which is followed by a fat man who carries a pot of sweetmeats dangling at the ends of a string. The man goes out of view, but Charu, anxious to stay with this amusing character a little longer, rushes to the drawing room and follows him through three successive windows until the man turns the corner and is lost to sight.
“It is important to stress this playful aspect of Charu because this is where she is farthest from her staid husband and closest to the youthful, exuberant Amal.
“Charu has now reached a point where she is once again uncertain what to do.
“The first musical motif is introduced here: a line of melody which will be associated with Charu, and which now unfolds as Charu makes her way pensively to the piano. She lifts the lids and casually strikes a note. But she is immediately distracted by the sound of booted footsteps from the verandah.
“We now see Bhupati in his shirtsleeves, stomping busily down the verandah towards the bedroom.
“Charu comes out of the drawing room and stands by the door, looking the way her husband has gone, her chin resting on the hand holding the lorgnette. She knows her husband will return, and sure enough he does, this time with a fat book in his hand, his eyes glued to an open page.
“He stops by Charu for a moment to turn a page, then walks on without noticing her. Charu keeps looking at the receding figure. Then, in a playful gesture, she brings the lorgnette up to her eyes. For a brief moment Bhupati is brought up close before he goes put of sight down the staircase.
“Charu removes the lorgnette from her eyes and keeps looking for a few more seconds towards the door through which her husband has just gone out.
“Then her hand with the lorgnette flops down.
“We now know that Charu is resigned to her state of loneliness. And this brings the scene to a close."
One thousand one hundred and thirty-seven words to describe a seven-minute sequence, which has only one piece of dialogue. One cannot even imagine the amount of thought that had gone into it—from shaping the character in deep detail, to portraying her situation and her circumstances in muted and wonderfully aesthetic sophistication, to setting up everything that will come afterwards. I am not even getting into the camera angles, the cuts between scenes, the way every second of the sequence has been visually presented.
I also cannot recall a more loving portrayal of a woman on film as Ray achieved in Charulata. Madhabi Mukherjee was an outstanding actor, possibly better than anyone who has graced the Indian screen, but no camera in any film that I have seen has been able to capture the slightest muscle movements on a woman’s face, the most subtle change in the light in the pupil of her eye, than Charulata. I cannot say that I know much about love, but I also cannot imagine that any film director could have achieved this without being deeply in love with both the actor and her role, and knowing every mood of her intimately.
Over about four decades—counting from the day he started shooting Pather Panchali to the release of his last film, Agantuk, Ray directed 28 feature films, plus several documentaries (including Sikkim, sponsored by the king of Sikkim, when it was still an independent country; the film was banned in India by Indira Gandhi and remains banned till date) and short films, and one telefilm.
The films cover a huge range. Several are based on classic Bengali literary works, and two—Shatranj Ke Khilari and the telefilm Sadgati—on stories written by Munshi Premchand. Many are based on contemporary novels and short stories, and some, like Kanchanjungha (1962) and Nayak (The Hero, 1966) are original scripts written by Ray. One of his last films, Ganashatru (1990) was a rendition of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy Of The People.
A few of his films are light entertainment, like Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), and the two Feluda detective novels of his which he made into film—Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979). Generations of children have enjoyed his two Goopy-Bagha films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980), but under the guise of musicals meant for kids, they are films with very profound messages.
But Ray’s messages are all spoken in a soft voice, in the first 30 years of his film career. You could miss them yet happily enjoy his films. In fact, it is a tragedy that in the last 10 years of his filmmaking life, his style changed, and his films became almost preachy. However, that does not take anything away for the great films that he gifted us, from 1955 to 1980. He passed away in 1992.
As Bengal veered towards communism, beginning in the mid-1960s, there were increasingly loud accusations that Ray lived in an ivory tower. His films were too aesthetic. Bengal was going through the convulsions of the Naxalite movement. “Revolutionary" violence was an everyday phenomenon, yet Ray’s films reflected nothing of the tectonic shifts that would change a state and a race for ever.
Ray responded with three films, which are sometimes referred to as his Calcutta Trilogy: Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1971), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976). All three films are very different from one another, in both subject matter and cinematic technique.
The situation was somewhat similar to what Tagore faced in Bengali literature in the 1920s when a bunch of young writers and poets, bred on Freud and European literature, broke from tradition and wrote modern prose—almost invented a new language to express themselves—on topics untouched by writers since then, whose concerns had always been firmly upper middle class. This new group of writers wrote about prostitutes, thieves and mine workers, exploring sexuality and the subconscious boldly—and for some readers, shockingly.
One of them, Achintya Kumar Sengupta, in fact, wrote a poem titled Path Chhere Shorey Darao Rabindra Thakur (Move away, don’t block our path, Rabindranath). To these men, Tagore had reached such a venerable status that he was stifling spontaneous creativity and modernism.
Tagore shut them all up with a 1928 novel, Shesher Kabita (The Last Poem), which, in the beauty of its thoroughly modern language, and the sheer “coolness" of its theme, outdid all that the young Bengali writers were trying to do (Tagore was then 67 years old).
Pratidwandi is about a sensitive and ill-fated young man with the imagination to rebel but not the courage, trying desperately to get a job as Bengal goes into recession. In cinema terms, it is extraordinarily inventive in the use of negative film, dream sequences, and imagery that shifts seamlessly and often between reality and delusion.
Seemabaddha, based on a novel by Bengal’s biggest-selling author Sankar (Manishankar Mukerjee) is quite possibly the first Indian film made on big business and the corporate life. It paints a dark picture of ambition and corruption as men race one another to reach the top of the company ladder. It is a slightly superficial film, but certainly educative.
Jana Aranya, also based on a Sankar novel, is perhaps Ray’s most cynical film. It is shot in a style that is as un-Ray-like that one can imagine. There are no beautifully planned shots and camera angles. It runs like a hard cold documentary as it follows its young protagonist from innocence to moral degeneration while he tries to make a living. But, as the film reaches its climax, Ray uses a little known Tagore song as the audio background as he sharply intercuts to show all the major characters of the film, and create an extraordinarily affecting and haunted atmosphere while his hero travels to his greatest moral compromise. It is as near-perfect a use of lyrics and music as anyone has got to in the history of film.
The last years
Ray had a heart attack in the early 1980s, and his work was never the same. In 1984, he made the first film he had ever wanted to make, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), based on a Tagore novel, years before he started working on Pather Panchali. Though visually enchanting, it is a strangely disappointing film. A political novel was turned into what Ray described as a “Greek tragedy", a love triangle with a rather unattractive actor playing the woman in the middle.
All the characters were drawn with a fairly broad brush. In the 1960s, Ray had written: “Villains bore me." But this was a new Ray. In Ghare Baire, the character Sandip is the bad guy from Scene 1, with a certain unscrupulous air, palpable lust, and a strange glint in his eyes.
And in every film Ray made after that, there are very clearly demarcated good people and bad people. Sometimes, the films have long scenes of arguments between the good men and the bad men, a descent into rhetoric and polemic that lacked the subtlety and the muted tone that had been the hallmarks of his earlier films.
(There is also another small but interesting difference between the pre-heart attack and post-heart attack films. In most of the pre-heart attack films, all the men smoked constantly, at an alarming rate. Even Feluda, the hugely popular detective Ray created for a young audience, was a chain smoker of Charminar, a fairly lethal unfiltered cigarette. In the post-heart attack films, only the “bad guys" smoke.)
The last three films he made, Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People, 1990), Shakha Proshakha (The Branches of A Tree, 1992) and Agantuk (The Stranger, 1992)—one could almost say that they were not worthy of him. His poor health had curtailed his freedom of movement, so he had to mostly shoot indoors, or in a studio. Whatever little outdoor shooting had to be done was left to his son, Sandip. This definitely affected the quality of his output, but is not by any means a full explanation of the drop.
But let that be. Satyajit Ray woke India up to what cinema could be. And he made films without the dry intellectualism that one finds in so many of the works of so many so-called great film directors. Even at his worst, he never failed to move the audience, and his craft remained at a level that has been reached by very few.
Chiriyakhana (The Zoo, 1967) is a film that he did not want to make and ended up directing quite by accident, to help out some of his assistants. It is a whodunit featuring Byomkesh Bakshi, lately made nationally famous by Dibakar Banerjee. Even though it is a film that is made almost carelessly, it has two murder sequences that should find a place in every cinema textbook, with their spellbinding editing and use of music.
Even at his most uninspired, he was better than almost anyone else at their best.
And if he had not decided to leave his cushy advertising job and make films, the history of Indian cinema would have been very, very different. Today, we have a rich cinematic tradition, and we owe it all to this one man. Nearly every one of the dozens of highly talented film directors we have had over the past half-century owe him—and readily acknowledge their debt. Their dreams and aspirations have all been directly triggered by Ray.
He was a ray of light. It illuminated and showed the way and the possibilities.
Sandipan Deb is editorial director of Swarajyamag.com.
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