This year we celebrate the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, regarded by many critics and cinema lovers as the greatest Indian filmmaker to date. Whether such a passionate opinion is rationally founded or not is a matter of debate, but it can safely and dispassionately be said that Ray is among the most important of India’s filmmakers.
Satyajit Ray, besides being a film director of global eminence, was also a wonderful scriptwriter, a fairly competent and extremely popular author in the Bengali literature, a lyricist and composer of music, a magazine editor, and an illustrator and calligrapher. In fact, Ray wrote the screenplay of all the films he made, and composed music for 29 of them. This polymath, born on 2nd May 1921, arrived on the Indian film scene in 1955, with his first directorial venture, Pather Panchali.
Iconic filmmakers like Jean Renoir, Vittorio De Sica and a few old-school Hollywood directors like John Ford, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch were among his chief influences. Among them perhaps Jean Renoir, regarded by many as one of the greatest filmmakers the world has seen, influenced him the most.
Pather Panchali, whose making was delayed because of severe financial constraints, quickly and justifiably won him global acclaim. The beautifully simple and wonderfully powerful moving images of his maiden directorial venture induced the world of cinema to sit up and take note of his arrival. Pather Panchali went on to garner 11 international awards, including the inaugural Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
Ray went on to direct 36 films in all — 29 feature films, five documentaries and two short films — during his filmmaking career of 36 years. We can very easily see that besides being brilliant he was also extremely prolific, which is quite surprising in a person who delivered such quality works.
Ray’s passionate but rather systematic journey in filmmaking was studded with 36 Indian National Film Awards and many prestigious awards at several international film festivals (for example, a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival). He was even bestowed with an Academy Honorary Award in 1992, when he was unfortunately inching towards his untimely demise.
Over the decades, many filmmakers and film critics have spoken and written about the contributions of Satyajit Ray to cinema. In my modest opinion, his main contribution to Indian cinema lies in his presentation of dialogue and visuals in a complementary manner. He was perhaps the first director in Indian cinema history to show that dialogue and visuals can be complementary and not merely reflect each other.
In most of his films, therefore, we find that there is no more room given to dialogue than is absolutely necessary. Many a time, Ray’s frames convey a wonderful array of emotions entirely without the support of dialogue.
In most of his films, there is no more room for dialogues than what is absolutely necessary. Many a time, Ray’s frames have conveyed a wonderful array of emotions without the support of dialogue.
Some cases in point are the climactic scene of Kanchenjungha (1962), where a perplexed Indranath (brilliantly played by Chhabi Biswas; the way he changed his usual dramatic style of acting to suit Satyajit’s realistic cinematic sensibilities deserves high admiration) in the backdrop of a suddenly sunny Kanchenjungha (a major peak in the Himalayan range) realises a sudden truth regarding the failed relationship between his daughter and her supposed would-be husband; Indir Thakuran’s hungry eyes and her slow moving away from Sarvojaya’s hearth, without getting any food from her; Apu’s throwing away the stolen necklace in the depths of ditch water (Pather Panchali); the frantic take-off of pigeons to symbolise Harihar’s death (Aparajito, 1956); Bijoya being transformed to her widowhood (Ghara Baire, 1984)… One could go on and on. Time and again, Ray has shown that visuals are an independent part of the film’s script; they do not need the crutch of dialogue to move you.
“It is important to note how much information Ray packed into a single frame. This is the secret of his fabled economy. Ray used as little dialogue as possible. This he did consciously and deliberately. In a feature film, one is basically telling a story through images. So, images are of the utmost importance,” points out Aparna Sen, the globally renowned filmmaker and successful actor in Bengali cinema.
“Precision and a sense of balance and proportion are the hallmarks of Satyajit Ray’s cinema,” says Satarupa Sanyal. Sanyal is a noted filmmaker from Bengal whose maiden feature film Anu (1998) earned her the BFJA Film Award for Best Film in 1999.
According to the great filmmaker Shyam Benegal, Ray was the first to infuse modern thinking in Indian cinema in a comprehensive manner. Conventional Indian cinema, he says, just assimilated India’s classical theatrical traditions and incorporated them into celluloid, and Ray was the first in India to make a significant departure from that tradition, thereby creating his own language of cinema in the process.
According to Benegal, before Ray, in Indian cinema, modernity was there only in terms of technology. The fact that technology brought about the possibility of a new kind of language in cinema was simply ignored by Indian filmmakers.
“He recognised the kind of language that technology of films enables you to use, and how well it can be used, and consequently developed a distinct language of cinema that nobody had done before in India,” Benegal observes, adding that he views Indian cinema as before-Ray and after-Ray.
I do not entirely agree with the views of this great filmmaker. In my view, cinematic language arrived in Indian cinema before Ray’s Pather Panchali, albeit in bits and pieces. It was not so comprehensively evident in most of the frames of a given feature film, as in Pather Panchali.
It would not be an overstatement to say, nonetheless, that before Ray, by and large, other than very few exceptions like Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946), Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951), Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953), or the great Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), Indian cinema was not much different from photographed theatre or literature. I think Ray gave the necessary momentum to Indian cinema which helped it to develop a comprehensive cinematic language in subsequent decades.
Finding Beauty in the Commonplace
Another of Ray’s great contribution to Indian cinema is perhaps to reveal the great latent beauty in mundane, commonplace things. His films didn’t so much focus on stunning visuals of great natural beauty or great spectacle, nor have they any lavishly mounted song sequences or great, spectacular, jaw-dropping stunts. Rather, he focused more on the beauty of the many day-to-day, commonplace realities that frequently go unnoticed by us.
For example, he could create great cinematic beauty from two penury-stricken village children’s viewing of a moving train from a field of kans grass (Pather Panchali) and their excitement in the experience. Even at this middle age of mine, whenever I watch this scene, which I have watched innumerable times before, I cannot prevent goosebumps from emerging on my skin. It is pure cinema with no need of any language.
Similarly, in the same film, Durga waking up Apu by opening one of his sleepy eyes, by inserting her fingers deftly through a torn quilt is simply a breathtakingly beautiful piece of cinema, though it depicts a very mundane reality of an impoverished family. The car’s fumes enveloping the zamindar’s elephant in Jalsaghar (1958) and Charulata eyeing her husband through a pair of binoculars (Charulata, 1964) are other examples of great symbolic meaning conveyed through apparently commonplace reality.
According to Sen, “While being deeply rooted in his local soil, Ray’s films are not ethno-specific. His deep humanism and simple storytelling give his films an enduring, universal appeal.”
She also lucidly explained Ray’s shot-taking style. “Unlike Ritwik Ghatak, Ray rarely stunned the audience with a breathtaking wide-angle shot with a character in the foreground. Ray’s method was to seep gradually into your consciousness without any gimmickry, until you identified deeply with the characters he had created. In the hands of a less talented director, this manner of shot-taking may have resulted in a mediocre film. But not with Ray, whose vision had tremendous clarity.”
Ray also gave us, she says, “his brilliant use of leitmotif. He invariably used a character or an object several times in different situations, imbuing it with a different layer of meaning each time. This made his films both dense and nuanced. An example of this is the sundial in Aparajito. It first appears as a symbol of Apu’s inquisitiveness and his opening up to the world of science. When we see it next, it tells the time for Apu to hurry back to his college in the city. It appears again when Sarbajaya, the mother of Apu, is dying, indicating that it is time for her to make her final journey. This use of the same object with different meanings at different times, add layers to his film.”
However, the Bharat Ratna and Legion d’ Honneur award-winner was not only a trendsetter in form but also a pioneer in terms of content, as far as Indian cinema goes. Before him, who in Indian cinema ever made a film centred on two children in a rural Bengali setting, with no love interests and no typical hero or villain? “At the time, it was virtually inconceivable for Indian filmmakers to think of adopting such a subject into a film,” says Sanyal, speaking of Pather Panchali.
The way Ray combined the genres of comedy and fantasy to make a wonderful film with strong elements of magical realism (Parash Pathar, 1958) can also be perceived as a novel experience in Indian cinema.
Before him, who in the realm of Indian cinema had made a film on 100 minutes (real time) in the life of a wealthy Bengali family on the last day of their visit to Darjeeling, with no proper narrative storyline as such, and drawing corollaries between the moods of characters and moods of nature (Kanchenjungha)?
I do not know of anyone in Indian cinema before Ray to have made a film on a day in the life of a famous cinema star, exposing his pent-up insecurities and sense of guilt behind the façade of glamour (Nayak, 1966).
Or, for that matter, which filmmaker before Ray in India showed the vision of making a musical fairy tale-cum-political satire on two levels; a film that appeals to children and adults differently, with each able to enjoy it at their own level (Hirok Rajar Deshe, 1981)?
Succinctly, one can say that Ray was not only a trendsetter in Indian cinema in terms of form, he also translated a wide variety of novel story ideas to celluloid; topics which perhaps were not attempted before within the by-and-large conventional boundaries of Indian cinema.
Casting, Editing and Child Actors
The auteur’s frequent habit of casting non-professional actors, often in pivotal roles, also deserves exploration. “Ray’s films teach us about casting according to character. That is the reason he often used non-professional actors — simply because they looked the part! If they could act, well and good. If they couldn’t, Ray used them in ways that did not demand too much acting. Whether they looked the part or not was of supreme importance to him,” says Sen.
She also speaks passionately of the quality of Ray’s editing, whose pace varied according to the theme of the film. “The tranquil pace created through editing in the Apu trilogy is vastly different from the pace of Ray’s city films like Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya, which are full of quick cuts that convey the inner restlessness of the protagonist as well as the throbbing pulsation of a metropolis,” observes the eminent filmmaker and actor.
“In Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen, I would watch out for the editing in the scene where several singers from different gharanas are singing in front of the king of Shundi to compete for the post of the court musician. They just sing a phrase, when Ray cuts seamlessly to a completely different style of singing by another aspirant. This again, is like a master class in editing. I have watched this scene countless times and marvelled at the virtuoso’s editing,” says Sen, who has directed many prestigious and award-winning films.
Sanyal points out the remarkable natural acting that Ray brought out from his child actors. “In his films, child actors delivered wonderfully natural performances, shorn of any bombastic elements, which is hardly seen in mainstream Indian cinema,” the filmmaker asserts.
The Musical Link
Sanyal also marvels at the “brilliant song picturisation and background music score of Ray’s films.” “His grasp of film music was simply amazing,” she says. In this regard, however, I totally disagree with her. To me, Ray’s background score may have been appropriate to the scenes but they are highly repetitive in terms of style. And, in my modest opinion, song picturisation is perhaps the weakest element of Ray’s filmmaking. The very few times he used songs in his films — except for Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen (1969) and Hirak Rajar Deshe, which are musical satires — they were picturised in quite a bland manner.
His song picturisation was simply no match for the brilliant song picturisation by some of yesteryears’ Bollywood greats like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, or for that matter in comparison to contemporary greats like Srijit Mukherji and Rajkumar Hirani. But that, perhaps, is because he didn’t belong to that school of filmmakers who view song as an integral part of film.
Moreover, though his scripts are quite tight and concise, because of the sheer paucity of drama elements or the slow pace of narrative flow in most of his films, often his films fail to engage ordinary viewers at large. That is, viewers who are not trained in cinematic nuances.
Overall, though surely we cannot say that Ray was the greatest Indian filmmaker in all aspects of filmmaking, there is no denying the fact that he made many significant and some pioneering contributions to Indian cinema’s journey from adolescence to adulthood.