“[Satyajit] Ray's magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact, will always stay with me.” ~ Martin Scorsese, Hollywood film maker, in an interview with The Washington Post (2002)
A name taken with reverence in the international film world, Satyajit Ray was a Calcutta-born filmmaker, whose array of work in the fields of cinema, music, literature, and art can be compared to very few on the planet till date.
Satyajit Ray was born a single child on the 2nd of May 1921 in Calcutta. His parents were Sukumar Ray, a distinguished comedy poet, writer and artist, and Suprabha Ray. His grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, was another famous literary personality of his time. The family also had other literary figures, like Lila Mazumdar and Sukhalata Rao (Ray’s aunts), and Subimal Ray (his uncle), all writers for children. Such an illustrious family, who played a significant role in the literary renaissance of Bengal, had its imprints on the young boy, Manik as Satyajit Ray was lovingly called by family and friends.
Childhood and Education
As a child, Satyajit Ray was adored by his family, which included grandparents and a number of aunts, uncles and cousins. So, despite him losing his father at an early age of two and a half, Ray found himself spending a lot of time in the family-owned printing press. It was here that he found his early inspirations for printing, illustrations, and writing. In addition, his mother made sure to read him stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to nurture young Manik’s minds to story-telling.
Academically, Satyajit Ray was an average student, more interested in arts. He went to school at the Ballygunge Government School, and completed his bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Presidency College, Calcutta. In his memoir, My Years with Apu: A Memoir, he describes himself as a “film fan” since school days, more into “Picturegoer” and “Photoplay” magazines than textbooks. Young Manik’s interests lay in Hollywood gossip, actress Denna Derbin, and “Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern tunes”. In college, his interest shifted from film-stars to film-makers like Frank Capra and John Ford.
Just out of college, Ray wanted to kickstart his career as an artist, as he realised he was good at drawing. His mother, however, wanted him to study further, at the Visvabharati Institute in Shantiniketan. Even though being against the idea, Ray conceded and went on to study fine arts at the institute. This experience was one of the biggest learnings he received in his career. With eminent teachers like Nandalal Bose, Ray gathered a great deal of knowledge about the “artistic and musical heritage” of India and various other art forms of the Far East, like calligraphy.
Satyajit Ray’s career beginnings were humble, as a junior visualiser at a British advertising firm. He later also worked as a cover page illustrator for a publishing house. His illustrations were in fact much liked and in demand. Some of the famous books he illustrated for were Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru and Maneaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett. It was during this time that he read (and illustrated) the Bengali novel Pather Panchali written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. This book left such an imprint in his mind that he ended up making it the subject of his first film.
The plunge into movie-making did not come to Satyajit Ray right away. Even though he was actively involved in watching and studying movies by co-founding the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with a friend, Ray’s movie aspirations were just in his mind. The first time he received encouragement for film-making was from Jean Renoir, the French director, who had come to Calcutta to scout locations for his movie The River. Ray had the “it’s time to plunge” moment, when he watched Bicycle Thief by Vittorio De Sica in London. He was there for a three-month stint for his advertising firm. An interesting fact is that in the three months he watched close to a hundred!
Satyajit Ray the Film-maker
Starting out as a film-maker was not simple for Ray, due to monetary issues. Then again, he was not ready to work with producers who wanted to change the story. Since the beginning of his film career, Ray believed in working without any strings attached. This not only made him turn down producers from India, but also later film offers from abroad. Andrew Robinson in his book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye remarks, “To work properly, Ray needs to be entirely free . . .”
Ray, even with limited means, managed to pursue his film-making dreams with gusto and passion. His films were either adapted from well known Bengali stories, or they were written by him. He also did his own title illustrations and music scores.
Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali was well received all around the world. But the real breakout movie of his career is considered to be his second film, Aparajito. It garnered accolades and awards from film festivals, like the one in Venice.
In his lifetime, Ray directed about 36 films, documentaries and short features. These include the widely acclaimed Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Apur Sansaar, Ghare Baire, Aranyer Din Ratri, Charulata, and Seemabadha. Critics laud his movies for their true-to-life imagery, poetic scenes, and ‘cinematographic technique’. Akira Kurosawa, a highly distinguished film-maker in his own right, was a huge fan of Ray’s films. In an interview he gave in Moscow in 1975, he mentions Ray thus – “Ray paints his picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How does he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence.”
Ray, along with praises from luminaries in world cinema, also won a number of awards. His movies won in film festivals across the world, including those in Berlin, Venice, London, Tehran, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Melbourne, and Moscow. His entire body of work was also recognized with honors like Lègion d'Honneur (France), Bharatratna (India), Special Golden Lion of St. Mark (Venice), Magasaysay (Manila), and even Oscar’s Lifetime Achievement (USA).
Along with Film-making
Satyajit Ray was not just a film-maker. Andrew Robinson, in his book, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, mentions that his regular income, in fact, never came from the movies he made. His earning was usually the stories he wrote for magazines and book publications, illustrations for them, and translations for the foreign audience. He is best known for children’s books like those on Feluda and Professor Shonku. Ray is in fact widely acclaimed for the illustrations and calligraphies he did for his stories and films.
The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, in an article for The New Republic in 1996, perfectly sums up Ray’s contributions to art, literature and cinema: “The work of Satyajit Ray presents a remarkably insightful understanding of the relations between cultures, and his ideas remain pertinent to the great cultural debates in the contemporary world, not least in India.”
Also on this day:
1920 – Vasantrao Deshpande, Indian singer and sitar player, was born
- Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson
- Satyajit Ray and the art of Universalism: Our Culture, Their Culture by Amartya Sen