When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asked Audrey Hepburn to present the Honorary Academy Award to Satyajit Ray in 1992, many were sadly aware that the directing great would be breathing his last not long after. Yet, in one of the most poignant moments in awards show history, Ray delivered a heartfelt, witty speech from his hospital bed while fervently clutching what he called “the greatest achievement of [his] film-making career.” It was this astonishing mix of grace, humour and emotion that Ray etched into every shot of his films, and which made him the epitome of the craft in India, Asia and possibly the world.
Ray’s enthusiasm for the fine arts was born at an early age. Both his father and paternal grandfather were writers – a familial influence that in no small way contributed to Ray’s exquisite screenplays – and he would go on to study at Rabindranath Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan. It was here that Ray truly fell in love with Oriental art and culture. The rural romantic nature of Oriental paintings by such artists as Nanadalal Bose would wind its way into Ray’s epics, such as the unforgettable paddy field scene in Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road). Further influences came from his visits to the Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta Caves. In 1943, Ray joined the British-run advertising agency D.J. Keymer. His skill at visual and graphic design was nurtured here, though he never felt truly welcome amongst his English colleagues. Later on, Ray joined the purely Indian-run Signet Press; it was here that he worked on the cover design for Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India as well as a reworked version of Pather Pachali, which would be the focus of his first film. Ray’s involvement with the print media would continue throughout his life, as he helped revive the children’s magazine Sandesh (translating to both News and a particular type of sweet). In 1947, Ray co-founded the Calcutta Film Society, where he helped screen many foreign films. Ray maintained a lifelong love for American cinema. It was this unique blend of Indian and Western influences that made Ray a standout film-maker.
Ray’s first two films, Pather Pachali and Aparajito (The Unvanquished) would end up as two-thirds of his greatest legacy, the Apu Trilogy. Yet, when he made them, many were wary of their potential. Ray’s crew was largely inexperienced, though both his cameraman, Subrata Mitra, and his art director, Bansi Chandragupta, would go on to build formidable careers, mostly filled with collaborations with Ray. His cast members were also new to the scene and drew very little interest from studios. As a result, Ray had to use his own personal funds along with whatever he could scrape together with his production manager, to the extent that he ended up filming Pather Pachali over the course of three years. After taking loans from the local government – and ignoring their suggestion to incorporate a happy ending – Ray finished his first directorial piece in 1955. After the film defied all expectations, winning awards, critical acclaim and commercial success, Ray followed it up with Aparajito. Considered by many to be superior to the first instalment, it won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Ray would go on to win several times at the film festivals in Venice, Berlin and Cannes, but this particular win was the first time he was able to achieve recognition at a prestigious international event. After taking a break from Apu to churn out two more films, Ray finished his trilogy with Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). If people preferred the sequel to his original, Apur Sansar surpassed both easily, while also marking the debut of Sharmila Tagore, one of Ray’s favourite actresses. The trilogy introduced the world to traditional Indian – and specifically, Bengali – story-telling. Most importantly, it introduced the world to Ray’s genius.
Ray made several films that depicted the British Raj in India along with a few documentaries and comic films. His next so-called ‘series’ that resonated most strongly with critics were three unrelated films that are still considered the most deeply felt portrayals of Indian women on screen. Devi (The Goddess), Kanchenjungha – his first original screenplay – and Charulata (The Lonely Wife) are probably lesser known worldwide than Ray’s actual trilogy, but no less remarkable. Their portrayals of women have gone on to have a lasting impact on Indian cinema and also helped establish the careers of their leading ladies in the industry. Ray himself was particularly fond of these three films. Charulata, in fact, was the director’s personal favourite piece and was one of only two films he defended from critics, the other being Apur Sansar.
Ray continued to experiment with different genres, ranging from fantasy and science-fiction to crime thrillers and historical dramas. He also made a handful of films in other languages – three in English (Sikkim, The Inner Eye and Bala), one in Hindi (Sadgati [The Deliverance]), and one in Hindi, Urdu and English (Shatranj Ke Khiladi [The Chess Players]). While filming Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) in 1984, Ray suffered a heart attack that would severely limit his ability to work. Ghare Baire was his thirty-second film; he would only go on to complete four more. The last of these, Agantuk (The Stranger), was completed a year before his death. His final four pieces had more dialogue and were shot mostly indoors, perhaps to compensate for the director’s limited mobility following his heart attack. While generally considered inferior to his earlier body of work, they are nonetheless extraordinary works of art.
However, Ray’s contribution to films cannot, and should not, be limited to his directorial work. He singlehandedly ushered in a new era of cinema in Bengal. His work still stands as the quintessential example of Bengali filmmaking and has gone on to shape the careers of several other directors in the region, including Aparna Sen, Rituporna Ghosh, Tareq Masud and Tanvir Mokammel. Many others have been influenced, in one way or another, by his seminal contribution to Asian cinema. Even directors such as Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Elia Kazan and Danny Boyle have drawn inspiration from his cinematic style. (Interestingly, Ray drew heavily from the style of Jean-Luc Godard who himself helped Akira Kurosawa, two legends already examined in this series.) Ray has also been credited by many to have been the original source of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Ray had written a similar sci-fi script called The Alien in 1967 and had even been in talks with Marlon Brando to star in it, but issues with finances and timing meant the film had to be scrapped. However, copies of the script were apparently in circulation, though Spielberg has vehemently denied using any of it in his work. Despite this dispute, even Spielberg has acknowledged Ray’s achievements as a filmmaker.
Satyajit Ray will forever remain the single greatest filmmaker that the Indian subcontinent has ever produced. While many have come after him – and have scaled similar heights – Ray was the first, with no one to copy or chase. His films are still the benchmark used to measure cinematic work in any part of India (and even worldwide). To anyone who doubts the legitimacy of this statement, I only have this to add. The one thing that thirty-six of India’s all-time great films – including, in my humble opinion, the top ten – have in common is this: Satyajit Ray is their director.