The Sonic Ethos of Satyajit Ray's Films

The sound experience of his films are marked by a thorough consideration for the actual locative sounds and deep respect of spaces being filmed.

Satyajit Ray began writing film reviews from very early in his career, and in 1948 he published a short but perceptive commentary entitled ‘What is Wrong with Indian Films?‘. The essay criticised the predominance of saccharine sweet musicals, and a thrust on religious and mythological themes in Indian cinema of his times:

“The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the moviemaker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.”

The essay expressed his critique of (Indian) cinema that is far from life. Following this perspective, the kind of sound experience his films advocate are marked by a thorough consideration for the actual locative sounds and deep respect for the pro-filmic spaces triggering a site-aware, embodied sonic experience derived from the reality of life – this sonic ethos becomes a benchmark in practicing sound in India, South Asia and beyond, in socially and perceptually realistic filmmaking.

His sounds are not in any way escapist or disembodied from lived places, people and situations — contrary to an escapist tendency that was common with then mainstream Indian cinema inclined to use an abundance of musical scores and post-synchronised songs.

Contrarily, in the use of sound in his films, Ray was interested to carry out a detailed observation of the locations depicted in the narration providing documentary evidence of the presence of corporeal sites, people and the realistic social condition of his times throughout his entire oeuvre of films from Pather Panchali (1955) to Agantuk (1992) with a distinct commitment to realism. These sonic elements were integrated in narration to depict the diegetic story-world as a way to establish the presence of the sites in film space and expand the awareness of the existence of an eventful and transforming outside universe heard from the indoor. Ray was concerned with an inclusive framing of the worldly elements that are reflecting societal change in his contemporaneous India.

Such a sonic ethos makes Ray a reference point in the trajectory of synchronised sound and monaural aesthetics in the way his work exploits the territories of the technique and pushes the boundaries of the aesthetic choices with innovations in film sound – from hacking into Western classical musical objects – such as vinyl discs to generate cinematic sonic textures, to ‘direct bubbing’. Ray indeed appropriated and bent a Sibelius symphony by DYI methods of reversing and fast-forward in the musical scores for Apur Sansar (1959).

In my book Between the Headphones (2021), the late Jyoti Chatterjee, sound mixer for many of Ray’s films, speaks about some of these sound techniques Ray innovatively used, such as direct dubbing, in which he used to record an actor’s voice with a boom microphone just after the shot was taken, to avoid camera noise, but to keep the locative information intact for realism. This ethos of sonic realism led Ray to write:

“For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian filmmaker must turn to life, to reality.”

The statement aptly frames Ray’s realist aesthetics from which most of his contemporary Indian filmmakers of the popular mainstream escaped. They, however, used the same monophonic system as a standard format that morphed in their hands into vococentric soundtracks dominated by the normative structure of the song and dance sequences with the rhetoric of narrative pleasure, entertaining the masses with the non-diegetic musical sounds in cinema.

Satyajit Ray expanded this narrower attitude towards listening and used the monaural sound recording and reproduction system like a window of the world formed within the home. The recurrent use of off-screen sounds in his film enhanced this expanded mode of listening to the outside world. Such a window-like listening space made the audience sonically sensitised by learning to develop an ‘enormous curiosity about the world’.

In this process, Ray allowed the audience to respect the worldly sites from where the stories of real people unfold and took these sites as points of departure for producing a vibrant cinematic experience based on the reality of life lived. This particular sonic sensibility made Ray’s authorial positioning distinct.

In an interview with me for my book, Shyam Benegal underscores Ray’s position in Indian cinema as a marker: ‘I locate Indian cinema as before Ray and after Ray’. As his legacy, Ray influenced his predecessor filmmakers to be sensitive to the capacity of sounds in revealing in-between spaces, and unspoken stories of places and people. His influence was felt in the way actual sounds were explored aesthetically and incorporated in post-Ray Indian cinema, particularly in films from the Parallel Movement, and later in Indian independent films in the digital era.

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is a media artist and scholar, with a PhD from Leiden University, Netherlands. He is the author of three books, The Nomadic Listener (2020), The Auditory Setting (2021), and Between the Headphones (2021). He received the first prize at Confluence 2021 of Serendipity Arts, Delhi.