The world has many artists and all have their personal approach to art. Many want to intensify their expressions and demand from their audience a very pensive state of attention. Most want to be sell-outs and make sure there are enough commercial elements in their product to catch eyes. And then there are those, who portray the simple truths of life through their meticulous and vivid observations.
The first kind needs to find an audience that shares the same niche. The second probably need a CA to manage their bank accounts! But the third? Well, people seek out for them! Ray, needless to say, belonged to the third category. I don’t wish to create a divide among artists, nor do I will to compare the capabilities of one to the other. Being an artist myself has had me notice the subtle differences between our respective perceptions of art and hence, the categorisation.
….family and his early interest…
Satyajit Ray, aka Manik, as his family, friends and his immediate film fraternity knew him, was born to one of the most regarded Bengali families of all times. The portrayal of immense calibre just doesn’t extend to his father and his grandfather, but across a huge clan of relatives including his maternal side. In fact, the popularity of Sukumar Ray (his father) over shadows his mother’s contribution to his upbringing. Suprabha Ray (his mother) was a versatile woman and served as a teacher to support their livelihood. She was adept at making leather items and excelled at pottery too! And her home maker skills are evident from Ray’s blossoming into such an authentic human being.
Having spent most of his life with his mother at Shona mama’s (his maternal uncle) residence, both their guidance played a pivotal role in shaping him as one of the greatest film makers of all time! It was under the influence of his Shona Mama, that he was exposed to circus, magic shows, carnivals, and the most crucial form of entertainment in his life – Cinema! He journals multiple incidents of his youth, that sowed the seeds of his interest towards the reel world. One possibly being the lazy summer afternoons that he spent at his Bhowanipore residence, watching an upside down image of the street, strangely formed on his bedroom wall by the light passing through the blinds on the opposite window. And the other was him enjoying the moving images that he projected on the wall using one of his precious toys, a Magic Lantern.
Ray’s competence in art, painting and illustration was definitely an inherited quality from his much talented father and grandfather. Mentioned in his biography, “Jokhon Choto Chilam” is his early ownership of Upendrakishore Ray’s (grandfather) box full of colours, brushes and a bottle of Linseed oil. This early interest was later chiselled by his much revered teachers during his years at Visva Bharati University, Shree Benode Behari Mukherjee & Shree Nandalal Bose, both considered to be distinguished figures in the field of art. Pursuing his passion, Ray served in a British ad agency, D J Keymer, as a junior visualiser and also worked with D K Gupta as a book cover illustrator. It was during his time with Gupta that he came across Bibhutibhushan’s novel, “Pather Panchali”. This tale and Vittorio De Sica’s movie “Bicycle Thieves”, which he watched while his stay in the UK, persuaded him to chase his dreams of being a film-maker. And that dream changed the face of Indian cinema, as viewed by the world!
…emotions, struggles, relationships and conflicts…
Ray’s approach to creativity was primarily based on the grounds of simplicity. Even in the written form, his work bore a lucid flow of words. His descriptions were immaculate and his sense of weaving various plots to form a story, while adding in subtle bits of humour, still remains unmatched.
The content of his films depicted the very essence of human race, their emotions, struggles, relationships and conflicts. His priority lied not in the technical aspects of movie making, but on the connection he made with his audience through it. He perceived movies more as a language than as an art form; and this, he used to convey his observation of various human interactions.
Like in the Apu trilogy, we see the life of a very poor Indian village boy grow up to live through much insecurity. With the death of Apu’s sister, father, mother and his wife, Ray very boldly portrays the fact about our lives being at the mercy of nature. In Charulata, he is able to bring out the pangs of a married, yet lonely woman; and how the personalities of each character contribute to almost bringing a family down to ruins.
Pratidwandi talks about a young man in his mid-twenties trying to secure a job, but failing miserably. The protagonist’s ideals of averting diplomacy cost him a heavy price. In each case, he strikes a string of emotion that has represented us at some point in life. Be it the insecurity and pain of losing someone precious, the hollowness experienced in being left alone or the frustrations that take charge while we repeatedly face rejection! These are universally occurring emotions in every man. Hence, it is only natural for people to be drawn towards such work which represents these worldly phenomena.
….his vision and human skills….
Ray didn’t fancy setting trends for his successors in the industry. His inspiration was the neo-realist culture of art and literature. He wished to tell stories that illustrated life, as was, in those times. In trying to achieve this narrative, he sailed away from the use of unnecessary melodrama or unconventional techniques that are generally used to please the audience. His focus lied in packing the films with strong emotions and messages of our existing realities. And to execute the same, he didn’t desire the most sought after cast or crew. In fact, he nurtured and built a delightful bunch of actors and crew who he mostly worked with. Not all among them were extra terrestrially talented, but Ray used his profound understanding and crystal clear vision to extract exactly what he needed out of his colleagues. Here it is very important to mention that he was an extremely calm man with an immense capacity of foreseeing his films in great detail. This allowed him to brief his artists with precise details of the characters they needed to enact, without flooding them with needless information. Interviews with the artists have revealed that he never elaborately discussed the script. Instead, he briefly explained the scenes and the emotions that were to be conveyed in them. He never dictated the execution process and left it for the artists to present it in their comfortable sense of expression.
….working with the cast….
Karuna Banerjee, who played Apu’s mother in the trilogy, shares that she was initially reluctant to play the role, but later began to enjoy it as Ray let her develop the character with her insights from the script. Similar reflections of Ray’s work are heard from the “Charulata” lead actor, Madhabi Mukherjee, as she applauds the independence that Ray grants her during the shoot. But again, he didn’t let them go astray with their capabilities of impromptu performance.
Rabi Ghosh, a pioneer Bengali actor mentioned in an interaction with a journalist, how Ray loved his improvisational skills and licensed him to use them on multiple occasions. Though, such wasn’t the case on the sets of “Jana Aranya”, where he was portraying the character of a middleman. Ghosh said, “As usual, I started doing something of my own. Manik da just took out his eyes from the camera and told, ‘Rabi, no improvisations, exactly to the lines!’”. Ray was very balanced in his approach towards the craft. Exaggerations or ‘bafoonery’, as quoted by Ghosh, was never used as a selling point for his films.
“…a homogeneous workplace…”
Soumendu Roy, who happened to be the assistant camera man in Pather Panchali, and later, the primary camera person from the film “Teen kanya” onward, describes Satyajit Ray’s film sets to be a homogenous workplace. The cast and crew members worked together as a single body, as opposed to other sets where an invisible line created a divide between them. This work culture propagated an ease of communication among all and enabled the creation of all the masterpieces that Ray delivered to the world.
Ray also worked with many child actors, who delivered splendid performances on his sets. This he brought out of them with ease! As remarked by renowned actor Soumitra Chatterjee, he had an amazing chemistry with children. Neither did he talk to them like a stern adult, nor acted like a child. His magnetism was such that it elevated the consciousness of the child, to that of an adult!
…the result was magical!
Many a times, he chose people that were completely new to the field of cinema and had never faced a camera before. Given his ability of judging people for their skills, Ray tactfully drew out their strengths and presented them on screen. Much to the newbie’s surprise, the result was magical! We hear Anil Chatterjee say that the actors felt relief in the presence of Satyajit Ray and never worried about their short comings or flaws, if any. He said, “Normally you develop a feeling of total surrender to such a personality and a feeling that he will take care of me.” This ‘surrender’ helped Ray act like a higher power which didn’t just instruct, but worked through his artists to paint the perfect picture, without being an imposition on them.
The time at which Ray made his films saw him work under major technical and financial constraints. Sharmila Tagore points at the acute difficulty they faced in studios to procure a smooth trolley shot due to the presence of potholes on the floors! She also mentions the loss of negatives in the lab owing to the fluctuations of electricity. Shantanu Moitra throws light on how Ray experimented with recording voices, and slowing them down and re-recording them to obtain the voice of the Ghost-King in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. And we all know how Pather Panchali took about two and a half years to be shot, as Ray ran out of funds multiple times and strived hard to find producers. It is indeed incredible how he managed to jump over these hurdles and produce some of the best films ever known to man!
….satyajit ray – a master composer….
Ray always looked for people who resonated with him and understood his vision, rather than those who just excelled in their craft. And it was for this reason that he began composing music for his films. Ray’s love for music began with his first gramophone, which he received as a gift from his beloved Bula kaka, an acquaintance of the family that owned a gramophone store in Kolkata. His early years saw him explore and appreciate a great deal of western classical music. His admiration for Indian classical music came in with time and he used it extensively in his films too. Initially he worked with great musicians such as Pandit Ravi Shankar , Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Vilayat Khan for his scores.
Brilliant instrumentalists as they were, their compositions more defined their mastery over the instrument, and added less than it should, to the emotional value of the movie. Their thought process mirrored that of a soloist and not of a film scorer. This didn’t quite excite Ray. He was an admirer of simple, yet appealing pieces that braced the feelings being depicted in the scenes. Besides, due to the growing popularity of these incredible musicians, most of them shifted base to Bombay for work. This void gave Ray the charming idea of turning to his piano and writing down some unforgettable scores that the world is familiar with today! The fact that many of his films were based on Bengali culture in an urban setting, shaped his compositions as a beautiful mix of Indian and Western sounds. This miscellaneous form of music very rightly complimented the subject of his films.
There is so much to the man that no amount of words is enough to describe him. Reading and researching about Ray has not only revealed his artistic side, but also his persona as a very sensitive human being. He valued people’s sentiments and acknowledged the significance of every person he met. His high morals and a clean, egoless conscience helped him observe life from a height that not all could. It is this fine sense of inspection that aided him to scrub and purify his thoughts, and serve to us, these refined beliefs through his art. Such a description may give him a very complicated and critical appearance, but it is quite the opposite. He was a grounded person and led a very simple life. He was highly energetic which inspired his crew to direct their dedication and energies towards his vision. He was an ideal captain to his team who mentored them patiently and watched them grow. Fame wasn’t his primary object of achievement. He found satisfaction in sharing his love for his city, nature, human relationships and the simple incidents that constituted human life. To sum up, I would like to quote Soumitra Chaterjee from one of his interviews.
“My respect and admiration for Manik da wasn’t just for his outward successful career, or for the prizes he won, or even for him being the talk of the town. I beheld his artistic perception before my eyes. He had an immense world view and an ability to understand all about life and the universe.” (Translated from Bengali)