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Satyajit Ray:

The inner eye and the great Apu trilogy

Long before Sachin Tendulkar who is now called 'god' was even born there was another Indian extremely rare and gifted who was also called 'god'. But as different to the 'God of Cricket' that Tendulkar was, the latter was called the 'God of Films' and it was mainly the people of Bengal who referred to him with veneration as a god in their midst.

Satyajit Ray was his name and he was in a more earthly way giant both in mind and body, all six foot four inches of him. Both Ray and Tendulkar have left their imprint on the sands of time and their deeds will be talked of for possibly 100 years to come.


Satyajit Ray

In this essay I hope to give the factors that led to the development of Ray, his unique inner eye and the making of the trilogy of films he produced that has been hailed universally as great cinema.

The beginnings

Satyajit Ray was born in Calcutta on May 2, 1921. His ancestors had distinguished themselves in literature and the arts. The Rays were indeed a notable Bengali family.

Talking of Upendra Kishore Ray, his grandfather (who had died before Satyajit was born ) he says that Upendra was a rare combination of East and West. Ray too was to this writers' mind of a similar make-up.

An only child he came under the influence of a closely knit family. Many of them had a literary and scholarly orientation.

Printing and publication was the vocation for two generations of the Ray family. Inevitably Satyajit too was drawn into the world of printing. From his early youth our hero was an avid reader. His favourite book then was the Book of Knowledge. Later it was the Romance of famous lives.

It was in the second named book that he came across Ludwig Von Beethovan which aroused his interest in Western classical music. Similarly, he developed a love for painting and his interest stretched from Renaissance to the era of Impressionism.

Education

Ray's early education was in the Presidency College widely recognised as the best educational institution in Calcutta.

In his autobiography Ray says that he was not a bright student nor did he gain much from his school life except insights into the quirks and idiosyncrasies of some of his teachers.

The memories of the peculiar people did come into play in the portrayal of professors featured in the second of his trilogy Aparajito. Ray later studied at Shanthiniketan founded by Rabindranath Tagore. He was a student at Shanthiniketan from 1940 to 1942 and according to Ray it had a profound influence on his life.

One aspect of the influence of Shanthiniketan in due course helped him to utilise outdoor, open spaces in his films. This Institution located away from the hustle and bustle of Calcutta left a lasting imprint on Rays formative years. It was in vivid contrast to the teeming city which Ray as a youth was familiar with.

But his artistic skills were honed in when he began working in the British advertising firm D. J. Kaymers. His first job was that of a commercial artist. This was in the days when Britain ruled India and Calcutta was the imperial capital of British. India. During his years at the advertising firm Ray developed a flair for graphic design.

He did some work for the Signet press also Calcutta based which published Indian novels. The owner of the press asked Satyajit to design covers for books which he did with relish.

It was in the course of doing cover designs that he read the book Pather Panchali which filled him with admiration. To transmit Rays own words - 'Pather Panchali' plainly was a masterpiece and a sort of an encyclopedia of life in rural Bengal.

He and A.K. Gupta the publisher of Signet books developed a close relationship. But it was not without hiccups leading to disagreement over the latter's treatment of some Bengali novels which Signet published.

Such disputes related to Gupta's attempts to commercialise book publications so as to make them more saleable a ploy common to some publishers. Nevertheless he was to gain wide experience in working with Signet especially on book production which included painting and typography.

As his career progressed he developed a liking for films and film making besides the film culture then prevalent. Both Russian and Hollywood films interested him. In addition he was particularly drawn towards an early film by the French Master of "avante garde" Jeane Renior, named the Southerner. In point of fact Ray later established ties with Renior when he came over to Calcutta to film the River.

Marriage

In 1948 Ray married a cousin of his who had a fleeting experience with Hindi films in Bombay. It had however been an unhappy experience.

Whilst on a rather long stay in London after marriage, Ray and his wife had considerable exposure to the cultural life of Britain. They had occasion to attend concerts, plays and exhibitions. He also saw more than 100 films during his six months in Britain. But only two films of this large number had a decisive impact on him. They were both non-conventional cinema. One was, Vittorio de Sica's. The Bicycle Thieves which was considered a film of exceptional quality in the 1950s. The other was Renior's Rules of the game.

The first named film impressed him so much that he decided to take on a career directing films. It was a landmark decision. The bicycle thieves helped to bring about a transformation in Ray’s mind on film making.

Up to the time he saw this film Ray’s thinking on films was somewhat based on what Hollywood produced. But de Sica left a deep understanding of humanity and of life’s continuity through a chain of events.


A scene from Pather Panchali

It was the beginning of the inner of the eye that he was to utilise through his exceptional insights into life, like De Sica Ray thus began to cultivate thoughts on realism and the making of films devoid of artificiality.

The trilogy

The trilogy of films which Ray first produced which signalled to the world of cinema of the arrival of a new master of film-making were Pather Panchali or the Song of the little road first shown in 1955, Aparajito or the Unvanquished (1956) and Apu Sansar or the World of Apu (1959). The first two names were based on the novel of the leading Bengali novelist of the 1920’s, Bibhutibhusan Banerji who incidentally had through his novels portrayed singular ability to depict nature and human life.

Pather Panchali was a classic in Bengali literature and was a school text too.

The original Pather Panchali had some 300 characters. In compressing the tragic and poignant tale of the early life of Apu the main character in the film, Ray brought that figure down to 30.

Ray in this first classic of his captured the factual rural life in Bengal and again through his rare insights portrayed to cite one example the quiet serenity of dusk of a village together with natural occurrences. Such portrayal captivated discerning audiences in the film capitals of the world.

Ray had been subject to a journey of intense suffering in the making of Pather Panchali.

Throughout he had difficulty in finding funds and this resulted in stoppages and gaps in the process of making the film. Fortunately, he had a dedicated staff and his actors were all amateurs, who were not distracted by material comforts or needs.

The difficulties in funding, became so critical that at one time Ray had no money to buy lunch for the crew. The chain of disenchantment in the making of the film reached its nadir when there was no money to complete the film. The filming of the picture was done outdoors in its entirety and completely under natural settings.

When Pather Panchali was first released in the mid 1950’s it had only a lukewarm response from critics in Calcutta. But there was however a segment who marveled at its authenticity of rural life as much as its beauty and lyricism. The portrayal of death, poverty and deprivation were central to the film and they were in fact the truth of life. Some were driven to tears on seeing the film.

The music of Pather Panchali which accumulated the nuances of the film was composed by Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. The music positively uplifted its quality.

However, Pather Panchali fared poorly in Calcutta and other Indian cities at the box office. May be the Indian filmgoer was of different orientation. He was more attuned to escapist cinema and more entertainment prone, fed he was by commercial films produced in Bombay and other centres of film production in India.

Contrary to the initial response in its own county which was rather discouraging, in an overall sense, the reaction in the Western film capitals to Pather Panchali was in many ways overwhelming.

But the earliest reviews of the film particularly in New York evoked a degree of criticism too for its slow movement. Even when shown at the prestigious Cannes film festival despite rave reviews it did not win the most important “Golden Palm” but a lesser award. Several critics felt the Golden Palm should indeed have been awarded to Pather Panchali.

But Pather Panchali in due course was considered the most lifelike in the history of films and earned for Ray immortality as a filmmaker.

Two decades after Pather Panchali was shown Akira Kurosowa the great Japanese cinematic creator of of “Rashoman’ and the “Seven Samurai” had this to say “I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it. I have had several opportunities more to see the film and each time I feel more over whelmed. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.

“People are born, live out their lives and accept their deaths and without any sudden jerks. Ray paints his picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How did he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence”.

It was in New York that Pather Panchali earned its greatest tributes and also silenced its critics. Among its critics were Salman Rushdi the Booker prize-winning Indian born novelist. In his first criticism had identified, Harihar one of the main players in the film and Apu’s father as a peasant. But he was not a peasant. Harihar portrayed a Brahmin, a priest and a scholar all wrapped up in one.

Aparajito

Ray never thought of a trilogy leave alone producing Aparajito his second classic. But the appreciation he received in the worlds cultural capitals emboldened him. Critics say Aparajito which centres on the growth of Apu in to adulthood and his relationship with his mother, Sarabaya is not as great a film as Pather Panchali. This film too was intensely sensitive. Though Aparajito is not lyrical as Pather Panchali it does delve into the vicissitudes of life.

Aparajito too was enwrapped in poverty and death, the first being that of Harihar, Apu’s father. The scenes that portray Harihar’s death following the strain of climbing the steps of the ghats of Benares and his collapse revealed the brilliance of Ray and his ‘inner eye’.

The beauty of Aparajito lies in its sincerity, like for example the scene that depicts Apu’s return from the big city – the obvious gap that had developed between the mother and the son over the period he was away. In one particularly poignant scene Ray reveals the mother attempting to communicate with Apu so as to ask him to send some money he earns as an employee in Culcutta. But Apu had fallen asleep and does not hear his mother’s appeal.

This scene is highly charged with emotion. Such emotion is enhanced by the musical interludes which seemed to fit in perfectly with the mood of that sad scene. This is yet another example of greatness of Ray and his mastery over filmmaking.

Hollywood honoured him just before his death awarding him an “Oscar” for lifetimes achievement in films and India its greatest national honour the “Bharat Ratna”. The French not to be outdone awarded him the “Legion d’ honneur the country’s highest civilian award. But Ray was unable to travel to France to receive that award since he was too ill.

In a remarkably rare gesture that itself was worthy of the highest recognition the President of France Francois Mitterand travelled to India to personally hand over the award at a special ceremony in Calcutta.

The inscription on the award said “To the greatest artiste in this century of cinema”

e-mail - [email protected].

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