Friday, May 1, 2009

Satyajit Ray : an expedition

I remember very clearly when I first saw him on TV, in an interview and have some moments etched in my memory. A very handsome, towering 6.4” in his 50s and a proud owner of a strapping physique.This was contrary to the image I cultivated in my mind, that of a short, plump, specky Bengali. With those looks he could have done equally well as an actor, but he was no actor, he was a realisateur: a director and no ordinary one at that,he was the finest India ever had. Not to say that his looks did'nt make me a fan, I was already one, long before I saw him on TV, when I read Feluda during my school days.

Feluda: the sleuth that dominated Sandesh (his family magazine) for decades was inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is classic, legendary, more popular. True. But Feluda is dearer and so are the stories, for a number of reasons. Foremost being the fact that the stories are set in the Indian scenario, places like "bhul bhulaiya" in "badshah ri angti" and the jaisalmer fort in the "sonar kella" are the ones we are acquainted with and even today they beautifully bring back the nostalgia of those summer vacations that were a part of my up bringing. Also, because I could relate to the narrator Topshe(Feluda’s cousin). I was his age when I picked up Feluda. But Feluda is only one of the not so famous works of this very famous film maker.

Born in a family of notable writers, illustrators and philosophers, Ray was a blessed child. Although he lost his father at the tender age of 3, but if the gene theory is to be believed then Ray was born a “thinking” man .His family lived on a meager income of his mother but an extremely rich philosophical environment.
Ray studied economics at the Presidency College, Calcutta. I am told that even back then St. Xavier’s, Calcutta and St. Stephens, Delhi had a greater brand value but "prezy" had its own charm , I’d like to believe it .After finishing college he went on to study Arts at the Shantiniketan but before he could finish the five year long course , he ran away . He’s known to have juggled many jobs, but his stint as an illustrator in the pre film making period of his life is most remembered.

Ray never studied film making. In fact most of the great film makers, ones who were able to raise the bench mark for their contemporaries, never did go to the film school. The paradox is reciprocated in the fact that the great film schools like the one in our own country were not able to deliver the likes of Ray. This, we know, is a part of the greater polemic that questions the existence of these institutions.

Many of his films have women playing central roles (maybe because the feminist films/novels had become a part of the Zeitgeist then) and all of them pleasantly occupied the screen with a credible degree of grace (now, that wouldn’t have been so difficult because all women have grace, whether they're from some far off tribe in Africa or a slum in Mumbai , for whatever small amounts, as a result of being passed in the womb to the girl child or probably they're brought up this way, grace comes naturally to women) and this, what is natural to them was beautifully captured by Ray .So what if she is a slut who has dangerous liaisons or even crushes that would endanger her institutional marriage , Ray managed to bring out the quintessential grace that dons women, Charulata comes to one’s mind.

Picture of Pather Panchali script
(C) copyright of the Ray family

Ray did most of the work revolving around the film making business by himself, the screenplay, cinematography, designing the credits, even music at times, saved him a lot of money in the process (something that came handy for his daring, off-beat cinema, for which funds didn’t trickle down easily). Talking about his scripts, being very richly illustrated they sure are something to look at! Some of the illustrations went on to become the exact scenes in his films. Ray, no doubt is a hell of an inspiration for the film makers across the globe but two of his characteristic qualities clearly stand out, his patience and his consistency in the quality of the work he delivered. Lets take them one at a time. Ray, a typical taurian, had an amazing capacity for calmly enduring difficult situations without giving up. A special mention of this particular incident from the filming of pather panchali: it was when Ray shot the scene where train is discovered by Apu and his sister Durga in the field of Kaash flowers' but was unable to finish it the same day. The following day when they returned to shoot, to their horror they discovered that the Kaash flowers had been feasted upon by a herd of cattle. He had to wait for the next season of flowers to complete the scene.
Consistency: How ray managed to maintain (even elevate) his own standards is quite impressive. Many of his aficionados believe his later films are better than the Apu Trilogy era. (Exclude Ganashatru, Shakha Prashakha and Agantuk, that were filmed during the time when Ray was practically bed ridden, these were the films that were very heavy on the dialogues with most of the shooting happening indoors, so very not Ray)

Illustrations of some scenes
(C) copyright of the Ray family

A deserved admiration is a responsibility, an undeserved one is precious. With every masterpiece that Ray produced, came a heavy load of expectations, the hype can be unbearable at times and kills the film even before it confronts the audience, but Ray being Ray, managed to pass this test.
We know Akira Kurosawa was not exaggerating when he declared “not to have seen cinema of ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon"

So, from being a typical general knowledge question in school "which Indian has won the academy award" to becoming a fan of Pradosh C.Mitter(Feluda) to be swayed in the glory of Ray's cinema and trying to understand the dream of liminality away from social custom that often evolves in them, Ray is an expedition, an "abhijan", a never ending one.

p.s. This article is a tribute to Ray, a personal one. (May, the 2nd happens to be Ray’s birth day).It does not claim to bring about anything new about him, which is practically impossible because so much has been written about the man already. This article, howsoever unfocussed it might seem, is about how I remember him. I can’t even try to mention his body of work that too in so many different fields. If I did then I might have to consider writing a book.

p.p.s.: Some of the pictures, where mentioned, are a copyright of the Ray family; they are being used here after seeking permission from Sandeep Ray, Ray’s only child and a prolific film maker.