The man who changed Indian cinema

At 6ft 4½in tall, Satyajit Ray was head and shoulders above his compatriots. Its height was unknown among the Bengalis, “a low-lying people in a low-lying country,” as the colonial saying went. With his stature, jaw and baritone voice, he could have been a Bollywood hero. Instead, he opted to dominate the world of arthouse cinema, a directorial giant among the likes of Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini, alongside whom he is credited with inducting cinema in the temple of high culture.

His position was secured with his first film, Pather Panchali, which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955. India then produced only musicals which, as Ray later put it, “present a synthetic, non-existent society”. He led a new school of Indian cinema that was consciously artistic and realistic. The acclamation was delightful. Pather Panchali and its sequels in the Apu trilogy between them won top prizes at Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and now rank among the greatest films of all time. The restored versions will soon be screened at a BFI retrospective. But where do they come from?

Saying “India” does not do justice to their origins. Ray was born in Calcutta – the second city of the British Empire – in 1921, and was steeped in the Bengal Renaissance engendered there by the arrival of Western ideas. Its leader – and Ray’s greatest influence – was Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who in 1912 became the first non-white Nobel laureate. But Ray was the real cornerstone of the revival. Where Tagore was a traditional oriental sage, Ray made his art – in his words – “one of the greatest inventions of the West with the most far-reaching artistic potential”.

The Bengal Renaissance was propelled by Renaissance men. Tagore was also a composer, painter and playwright. But the talents mastered by the Ray family were more decidedly modern. They had once been Sanskrit scholars, but Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, started the family tradition of experimenting with art and technology. In addition to being a writer, Upendrakishore ran a printing house specializing in illustration, inventing various techniques and writing about them in scientific journals. Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray, studied printmaking and photography in London, before becoming a famous poet.

Satyajit Ray was thus a third-generation renaissance man, his talent synthesized from his ancestors. Growing up in the family print shop, smelling of turpentine and surrounded by ink and wooden blocks, would leave a strong impression on him. After a degree in physics and economics from the University of Calcutta, Ray studied modern painting, Japanese calligraphy and Western classical music at Santiniketan, the utopian university of Tagore. He got a job in advertising as an art director, as well as designing award-winning book covers and typefaces.

Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who designed every element of his films Tanjil Rashid

All the while, movies flickered in his mind. During the war, the GIs would take Ray to watch Hollywood movies at their base. A first cinematic experience came shortly after, when Renoir was in Bengal to shoot River. Having befriended the master of “poetic realism” (a term later applied to his own films), Ray set off to scout. Then, on a business trip to London, he saw Bike thieves and, as he said years later, it “gored” him: “I walked out of the theater with a strong decision. I would become a filmmaker.

Ray had illustrated an edition of Pather Panchali, a classic Bengali coming-of-age novel about Apu, the free-spirited son of a poor village playwright who wants to get an education and eventually become a novelist. More broadly, it is about moving from a traditional rural society to a modern industrial society. It was perfect for Ray to adapt, because for him it also reflected the artistic transition that had been generations underway for the Rays, from village pundits with their Sanskrit scrolls to the pinnacle of modern culture, cinema.

The scene viewers never forget from the movie Ray made of Pather Panchali is that of Apu crossing a field of sugar cane to see his first steam train in the distance. It is the modern world passing through village India, the India that would one day be swept away under a cloud of engine smoke. With all of its powerful movements, this iconic scene – this moment in history – could only be captured with the newly designed video camera.

Otherwise, there really is no better description of the ineffable experience of watching – and listening to – Apu’s films than Ray’s account of learning on the job while filming it:

You had to find out for yourself how to capture the hushed silence of twilight in a Bengali village, when the wind drops and turns the ponds into slabs of glass speckled with the leaves of the trees, and the smoke from the ovens settles in vaporous streaks on the landscape, and the plaintive knocks on the conch shells of distant houses are joined by the chorus of crickets, rising as the light falls, until all that is seen are the stars in the sky, and the stars flash and swirl in the thickets.

The film’s lyrical take on nature comes directly from Tagore, who once wrote a poem for young Ray, imploring him, despite all his urban background, to never “forget the glistening dewdrop on the ear of corn “.

Over the course of his 37 films, Ray has acquired the most complete mastery of filmmaking of any director. Just as his father and grandfather not only wrote their books, but also did the illustrations, typesetting, printing, and binding, Ray designed every element of his films. He didn’t just direct, he operated the camera himself. He wrote the screenplays, often based on his own short stories and novels. He did the editing, designed all the sets, costumes and posters, scouted the locations, found the props, composed the scores, wrote the songs, chose the actors, and even did the make-up.

This was partly a budgetary necessity since, strictly speaking, Ray was an amateur filmmaker – not professional, like the cast of Pather Panchali — because his movies have rarely broken even. As a rule, he made more money composing scores for other films than directing his own. He made a living by writing mystery novels, translating Lewis Carroll, and publishing the children’s magazine that Upendrakishore had founded.

The Indian government has neglected it. It’s true that when Pather Panchali, a self-financed film, flopped, the state stepped in with completion funding. It came out of the infrastructure budget because it was assumed that the film – which stands for “Song of the Small Road” – had something to do with road construction works. Generally, however, the ruling class ignored him, embarrassed by what they saw as Ray’s unpatriotic portrayal of India as backward and impoverished. Ray, a consummate aesthete, portrayed the world as he saw it, not as the ideologues of the time wished.

Greater recognition came from abroad. The President of France flew to Calcutta to present Ray with the Legion of Honor. Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate, the first for a filmmaker since Chaplin. Finally, Audrey Hepburn put on a saree (and, oddly, an Indian accent) to give Ray the Oscar he deserved. Watching Ray deliver his acceptance speech for that Oscar — for lifetime achievement — from his hospital bed has a dramatic irony as moving as any scene in his movies, because we know that three weeks later , he would be dead.

That so many people, east and west, admire Ray’s films should put an end to the age-old debate over whether non-Bengalis can appreciate them. No art form has crossed more borders and touched more hearts than cinema. At a time when left and right are emphasizing cultural borders, this retrospective reminds us that a truly great film “leaves its regional moorings and rises on a plane of universal gestures and universal emotions”. These are Ray’s words, and he lived them.

Satyajit Ray: The Language of Film is at the BFI from July 1 to August 31.

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