Satyajit Ray, legend of Indian cinema

There has been no one like him in India in the field of films. Acclaimed as one of the greatest film makers of the 20th century, Satyajit Ray (1921 – 1992) was the legend who elevated Indian cinema to international recognition and honors. As a movie director, script writer, producer, and as a writer of fiction, painter, illustrator, graphic designer, publisher, film critic and music composer, Satyajit Ray stands head and shoulder above the others in the field. He directed thirty seven films, some of them documentaries and shorts and the rest celebrated feature films. His first film, Pather Panchali ('The Song of the Road'), released in 1955, was an unmistakable announcement of the arrival of a genius who was going to be one of the greats in history.

Pather Panchali, the film that put its maker in deep financial troubles, gave India its neo-realist film movement and won eleven international awards including one from the Cannes Film Festival. And the other films that rolled out of his creative energy brought him many major awards from various parts of the world, including an Oscar for life-time achievement, British Film Institute's recognition as one of the greatest three film makers in the world, and India's highest civilian honor.

A list of his major films: Pather Panchali ('Song of the Road', 1955), Aparajito ('The Unvanquished', 1956), Paras Pathar ('The Philosopher's Stone', 1957), Jalsaghar ('The Music Room', 1958), Apur Sansar ('The World of Apu', 1960), Devi ('The Goddess', 1960), Rabindranath Tagore (Documentary, 1961), Teen Kanya ('Three Daughters', 1961), Kanchenjunga (1962), Abhijan, Mahanagar ('The Big City', 1963), Charulata (1964), Kapurush-O-Mahapurush ('The Coward and the Holyman', 1965), Nayak ('The Hero', 1966), Chiriakhana (1967), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968), Aranyer Din Ratri ('Days and Nights in the Forest', 1969), Pratidwandi ('The Adversary', 1970), Sonar Kella (1975), Shatranj Ke Khiladi ('The Chess Players'), Shakha Proshakha (1990), Agantuk ('The Stranger', 1991).

Ray's Background: Satyajit Ray was born in 1921 into a famous Calcuttan family, which has an ancestral history of at least ten generations. His father Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was a leading writer, satirist and painter, who got trained in England in printing technology. His grandfather Upendrakumar Ray was also a noted writer, painter, violinist and music composer. He was the founder of 'Sandesh', the famous Bengali magazine for children. He was one of the pioneers to makes half-tone blocks in India, and 'Upendra and Sons', the printing press he set up in Calcutta remained one of the most famous printing houses in the country. Later, his grandson Satyajit ray made a film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, based on the grandfather's story. He died six years before Satyajit was born.  The Ray family had close connections with the Brahmosamaj and the principles and ideology of the Samaj influenced the mental makeup of Satyajit to a great extent.

He was sent to school when he was eight in a city school, and in 1936 he joined the famous Presidency College where he learned science for the first two years and for the third he opted economics. But right from his younger days, he was more interested in films. Ray himself told later to film maker Shyam Benegal on his fascination for films right from his childhood days like this: "I remember being a film fan as a very small boy; even in my early school years I used to buy magazines like Picture-goer and Film Pictorial, and I had my own star-rating system. I used to keep notes of the films I would see and give them ratings. But then, gradually, in my early ears of college, I became more and more interested in the directorial aspects of film-making. I became aware of the director. I was reading up on people like John Ford, Earnst Lobachain, William Wyler and Frank Capra, and looking for their specialty in a film; their sort of special characteristics; their hallmark in films, more than the stars….. When we were very young, we were only allowed to see certain kinds of films because our parents and elders told us what we should see. In the very early days it was things like Robinhood and The Count of Monte Cristo and the sort of this. Later on, when I was nine of ten, I remember seeing the early Libich films like Love parade and Smiling Lieutenant. I remember them exceedingly well, so they must have made a very strong impression. Not the stars s much as the way of telling the story, the witty kind of things that Lubich was doing all the time. That was in the early '30s, the early days of sound." When Benegal asked him about his interest in Westerns, Ray answered: "Westerns, yes, not to the same extent as Lubich. By the time I got really interested in Westerns, I was already very seriously interested in cinema, and so I was looking for John Ford and William Wellman and things like that. I saw whatever John Ford films I could get to see. Even later, in the late '30s and early 40's, I used to see Holly wood comedies and Hollywood thrillers and the very hard-edged films like the Billy Wilder movies of the early '40s, Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend and comedies like Major And the Minor; Leo McCary's comedies with Cary Grant and Irene Dunn which were very, very fine. I have re-seen them on television and they are still marvelous. Frank Capra's films of the '30s like It Happened one Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were very, very well crafted films. So my education really is based on these extremely well written, well directed, well shot, well acted films of the '30s and '40s. What about Bengali films and Hindi films? No, he avoided them as much as possible. He was never really interested in the stories or in the way they were told. It was a strange concoction. They seemed to stick to a formula even in those days. Ray took a degree in 1939. He wanted to become a commercial artist and with this in his mind he went to Shantiniketan of Tagore in 1940 and became a student of painting there. His frequent trips to the villages to do sketches were his first window to the real life of India. His teacher for Painting, Bihari Mukherji cast such an influence on him that he paid his respect to him by making The Inner Eye, a documentary on him, after 30 years. Returning to Calcutta after completing his education at Shantiniketan, Ray joined a British advertising firm there as a junior visualizer. He worked there until he made a name and became a full-time film maker after the success of Pather Panchali in 1955. While working for the advertising firm, Ray had designed certain type faces which became famous as Rayroman and Raybider and won international awards. Ray also designed jackets for books and made illustrations for them. It was Ray who designed the jackets for Nehru's Discovery of India and Jim Corbett's Maneaters of Kumaon. When Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay decided to bring out an abridged edition for his 'Pather Panchali', the job was entrusted with Ray and it was thus that he happened to read the novel for the first time. Of Pather Panchali ray said later: "Certainly Pather Panchali was a big, big thing for me. That one book gave me an insight into village life which I knew nothing about. It is almost an encyclopedia of village life and the general attitude of the extraordinary author, Bibhutibhushan, a true human being, should have reflected in the script. It is certainly reflected in Pather Panchali itself and in the entire trilogy and eventually it developed into my own attitude; my own point of view is that it may have had something to do with what I inherited from my family, from my father's side, from my mother's side." Ray read many Bengali novels for illustrating, and later he created films on some of them.

Joining hands with friends like Chidanandadas Gupta and Bansi Chandragupta, Ray founded Calcutta's first film society in 1947. The society's first show was 'Battleship Potenkin'. Ray began writing on films and his book 'Our Films and Their Films, is an anthology of the articles he wrote during 1948-71. Another hobby of his was writing film scripts based on literary works. He wrote a script on 'Ghare Baere', one of Tagore's novels. But it was not made into a film because the producer insisted on changes and Ray did not oblige. And the film came out after 35 years, but with a different script that Ray prepared for it. Ray married Bijoya Das, his first cousin and longtime sweetheart in 1949 – an unconventional marriage, according to the social customs of the day, an illegal one, too. The couple had a son, Sandip. He is a film director, a profession he chose when his father was alive, and it was he who completed the last film of his father as he was lying helpless in his sickbed. Ray met Jeane Renoir, the famous French film maker, as he was in Calcutta to inspect a location for his film The River. The Ray discussed his idea of making a film on Pather Panchali with Renoir who encouraged the young man.  Ray wanted to work with the great film maker; but his commitment at his firm stood in the way, and a couple of Ray's friends worked as assistants to Renoir. That was in 1949. The next year, Ray went to London with his wife on an assignment to work there for a couple of months. During the sailing, he jotted down his notes on Pather Panchali. While in London, he saw hundreds of films including Vittorio De Sica's master piece, The Bicycle Thieves. For Ray, it was the discovery of the potential and possibilities of Cinema. And by the time he reached India back, the outline was ready for Pather Panchali. An epic was in the making. Ray secured the rights for making a film on the basis of Bhibhuti Bhushan's novel from the novelist's widow. But Ray had not the money needed for the making of the film. No producer was willing to sponsor the film Ray narrated to them. Ray's idea was to shoot it outdoor, but the Indian cinema was cloistered within the dark walls of the studios and moving out of it was anathema! Ray did not lose his heart. He took a loan against his own insurance policy, personal loans from some of his relatives and friends and shot the first scene on 27 October, 1952. Most of his cast and his crew including the cinematographer had no previous experience in film making. Funds stood in the way several times, and Ray had to find some money by selling off his wife's gold and jewelries to resume his shooting.  And he had to rush to the Chief Minister of his state, West Bengal, seeking financial support to complete his dream project. Seeing the partly made Pather Panchali, the discerning and benevolent Dr. B.C. Roy, the chief minister, provided the necessary fund for Satyajit Ray, the new film maker, from the funds of the West Bengal Road Transport Corporation. And in 1955 Satyajit Ray's first film was released. Enter Pather Panchali. Enter one of the greatest movie directors. India's history of film making marked a new chapter, a chapter that launched India into the haloed halls of World Cinema. It was not the end of history. But only the beginning. During the next twenty five years Ray made a film every year. Pather Panchali was followed up with Aparajito in 1956 and Apur Sansar in 1958, completing what later became the famous Apu Trilogy. Aparajito bagged the Golden Lion Award from the Venice Film Festival. Jalsaghar and the rest of the lot followed as the list given above suggests.

Ray was the recipient of more than 35 prestigious awards and honors from different parts of the world. Berlin Film Festival honored him in 1978 as one of the three great film makers of the world, the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Bergman. Oxford University honored him by conferring a doctorate, an honor given only to Chaplin before him. In 1988 he was given the French Legion of Honor. In 1992 he was presented with an honorary Oscar Award. The Government of India honored him conferring the highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna in the same year. He is the only Indian having given all the four civilian honors of India – Padmashree, Padmabhushan, Padmavibhushan and the Bharat Ratna.

Winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award, the Government of India saluted him by decorating him with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest of film honors. Ray, the master passed away on 23 April, 1992 in Calcutta, marking the end of a golden age of India's movie making.