On the 60th anniversary of Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, Sharmila Tagore looks back at the life and work of India’s greatest director
In 1955, a visit to the cinema was a rare experience for us, something the adults in our family severely frowned upon. Pather Panchali, however, was an exception. The anticipation had built up weeks before the film was finally released. Our joint family household was abuzz with excited speculation about the film and its maker. Here at last was a film good enough for our children.
I remember watching the film with my cousins, rapt with attention, feeling distraught when Durga was being thrashed, shocked by the naughty things she got up to, and somewhat envious of her free spirit. All the while, not having a clue that three years on, I would be on that big screen in front of me and others would be watching me. That was 60 years ago, the years seem to have gone by so quickly.
My association with Satyajit Ray began in 1958 and continues to this day even after his passing. What a privilege and education it has been, both professionally and personally. Is it not incredible that 60 years after he made his first film, and 23 years after his death, his work continue to be a part of our discourse and consciousness, seen and admired in so many countries and across so many cultures? It is a tribute, not only to the artistic merit of his films, but to what has been called the ‘essential humanism’ of Ray – which has lived on through time and space.
His films are conversations with the shifting sands of time through which he lived, and which in turn shaped his films. The first phase of his career coincided with the hope and idealism of a newly emergent nation, and saw him make what in effect were his finest films – movies that truly reflects the spirit of the times. They also reflected his own upbringing, his education in music and the arts and his belief in the confluence of east and west. This vision was both Tagorean and Nehruvian.
Of course, the political and economic ideals of the Nehruvian period began to disintegrate around the mid-60s and this had its impact on Ray. The uncertainties of the era – the economic, political and social upheavals of the 1970s – found their way in to his films. The alienation and waywardness of the urban youth in Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya and the collapse of the middle class moral order in Seemabaddha. The grim portrayal of the 1943 Bengal famine in Ashani Sanket showed the politics of that time, while Ghare Baire was a very contemporary critique of a Hindu majoritarian nationalism. A secular impulse ran through his films and he often made courageous forays into the domain of blind faith, superstition and religious bigotry (Devi, Mahapurush and Ganashatru). His films were not about political stances. They were about how politics influenced people and altered their moral and ethical values.
Unlike the popular cinema of his time, he did not paint his characters in extremes of black and white. Ray’s characters lived in an instantly recognisable middle ground. There are no heroes in his films; instead you have the brave heroism of ordinary individuals, battling with the demons of their day-to-day lives. Ray’s world was also deeply embedded in the ordinary. Take for instance the iconic image of him we have all seen in print. Sitting in his spartan room in Kolkata surrounded by books, paper, music, pens and paintbrushes. Here was man far removed from the material world, inhabiting a world of imagination and ideas. He had use of money for just two things – books and music, and of course for making films.
What I find astounding is that he made his films despite the material constraints he had to face throughout his career; budget, technology, marketing and distribution are just a few of these. It was always a struggle for Ray to find the funds to finance his art. The conditions in which he made his films are inconceivable now. Studio floors were full of potholes, which made a simple trolley shot a challenge. Those were the days of load shedding in Kolkata and the erratic power situation cost him dearly. He didn’t even have the basic equipment so essential for filmmakers today and had to improvise continuously. Of course, those improvisations sometimes brought out the best – like the invention of the bounce light. Yet, with such poor working conditions, he still managed to compete with the best in the world and won international acclaim.
After Nayak, Ray went solo. He began doing everything himself – screenplay, camera operations (the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri is testament to his brilliant camera work), set design, in Hirok Rajar Deshe he even chose the fabric himself, his musicals needed such elaborate work. He also did the wardrobe, music, title credits, publicity posters, everything. But, typically he took money only for screenplay and direction. I don’t think there has been another director quite so versatile and as hardworking. The commitment to his art despite the conditions in which he worked, the steadfastness, the refusal to compromise for any consideration whatsoever are ultimately the qualities that make him stand apart.
The trouble with looking at Ray’s cinema is that his own formidable and impressive persona begins to mediate our understanding of his films.
His personal charisma, his baritone voice, his erudition and encyclopaedic knowledge, his familiarity and comfort with both Bengali and English made him a towering personality. It has, therefore, been impossible to extricate him from his films. This has been both good and bad. For those who admired him uncritically, he became the avenue by which to understand his films. For those who did not, he became an art-house figure who was distant, unreachable and obscure. This, combined with differences in regional sensibilities, lack of suitable marketing and distribution, and of course the Bengali language, has continued to impede a more widespread engagement with Ray’s films within the country.
Few will disagree that language is an important part of Ray’s films. Those who know the Bengali language will inevitably get more out of his films, and for the rest much will be lost in translation. Contrary to popular perception, his films weren’t confined to the intelligentsia, but have been enjoyed by a large cross-section of audiences belonging to both the Bengals. Far from being distant, he was deeply and vibrantly engaged with life and with the critical issues of his times. He always answered phone calls himself, and replied to letters in his own handwriting. Visitors to his home would often be surprised to find him opening the door.
Yet sadly, there are those who thought that his international fame was undeserved and that he got his international acclaim by peddling Indian poverty abroad. One would’ve thought that such an absurd viewpoint would by now have been dismissed with the contempt it deserves. However, it keeps cropping up every now and then and this is certainly a lie that needs to be nailed. The implication seems to be that to be a true nationalist one must sweep truths about India under the carpet. This is precisely what Ray’s cinema stood against and this indeed is the ideological difference between Sandeep and Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire. For Nikhilesh, as for Tagore and Ray, the people and their predicament came first and not love for one’s country in the abstract.
There is also disingenuousness in the way this argument is deployed. Would anyone say that Mother India is about poverty or the films of Raj Kapoor? Or would anyone say that Vittorio De Sica’s Bicyle Thief owes its international reputation to an exploitative portrayal of a war ravaged Italy reeling under unemployment and hopelessness? If anything, Bicycle Thief is as relentless a look at reality as the Ray films it inspired. As Ray most eloquently put it, “Cinema has its own way of telling the truth and it must be left free to function in its own right. This story [Pather Panchali] says true things about India. That was enough for me. It had the quality of truth, a quality that always impresses me.” In any case except for the Trilogy and Ashani Sanket, no other films of Ray dealt with poverty.
While being rooted in the culture of Bengal, he was simultaneously international. His films are culture specific and yet managed to transcend language and other cultural barriers. Perhaps that’s why even today, they run to packed houses all over the world. It is not just the Indian diaspora that make up the appreciative crowd, but a diverse international audience, three or four generations removed from Ray at that. Decades after they were made, viewers and filmmakers alike continue to be moved and influenced by the wonder of Apu’s first glimpse of a train, the romance of Apur Sansar, the lyricism of the swing scene in Charulata and the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri. In that regard, Ray’s films constitute a truly successful crossover cinema that everybody is aspiring to make.
I have often been asked if Indian cinema has measured up to his legacy. My answer would be, cultural influences cannot be measured, they can only be seen through the traces they leave behind. And sometimes, the traces may appear not to be influences at all. Therefore, when Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahani decided to structure their films like Indian classical music – as opposed to Western classical music like Ray – they too engaged with the legacy of Ray. Points of departure can also be tributes. It may seem at first that Ray’s films have nothing to do with the popular cinema of Bombay, but culture travels in mysterious ways. Legacies like Ray’s seep through to become part of the social and cultural landscape.
His influence has been widespread, many have acknowledged his seminal contribution and have carried forward his legacy in their own way. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasarvalli, Govind Nihalani and Buddhadev Dasgupta have directly acknowledged their debt. The early works of Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh resonate with the influence of Ray. Today, what we call multiplex films often demonstrate the legacy of the parallel cinema movement by Shyam Benegal, who was greatly inspired by Ray. Recently, the Ray Society in Kolkata held a seminar on his cinema where successful contemporary directors like Dibakar Banerjee, Sujit Sarkar and Sujoy Ghosh dazzled us with their knowledge and admiration of Ray’s work. If we free the idea of legacy from the connotation of replication, we open ourselves up to many ways of engaging with the magnificent world of Ray. Then, for us viewers, the possibilities of inheritance are endless.
Popular mainstream cinema today has more money and investors than it ever did. Therefore, materially and technologically new opportunities have opened up for both mainstream and independent cinema. However, as I often say, these possibilities by themselves do not make for memorable films. Extraordinary films aren’t made by great technology or a big budget, but by extraordinary imagination, intuitiveness and insight. Cinema is central to our cultural and social lives. Because, in the words of Ingmar Bergman, “no art passes our consciousness in the way film does and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” If today, the cinema of Ray is part of our consciousness, then it is because it has the ability across a different time and space to illuminate the “dark rooms of our souls” and offers us an outlook – to live and let live. Long after a Ray film is over, the audience is left with an unshakable optimism that endures and inspires. Given the many concerns of his films, I have no doubt Ray’s cinema will return to enrich our lives over and over again.
Satyajit Ray with his rich legacy meant many things to many people. For me, he was Manik Da who gave me a new life. I owe him a huge personal debt. He taught me how to look at cinema, how to be in front of the camera, how to think in character, how to enjoy a language and he taught me the importance of the “moment”. He led by example and from him I learnt the value of commitment to one’s work. Fifty-seven years ago, a girl of 13 as the young bride Aparna on that first day’s shooting at the technician’s studio, took her first tentative steps across the threshold to a mysterious unknown. Her life changed forever as she entered the enchanting, magical world of cinema, which has given and continues to give her so much. Thank you Manik Da.
Sharmila Tagore is an acclaimed actress. She made her debut in Satyajit Raj’s Apur Sansar (1959) and went on to act in four other films made by the director