IN HIS CENTENARY YEAR, SATYAJIT RAY REMAINS AS RELEVANT AS HE WAS WHEN THE WORLD DISCOVERED HIS BRILLIANCE IN CANNES ALL OF 65 YEARS AGO
by Saibal Chatterjee
Nearly three decades after his passing, Satyajit Ray’s relevance hasn’t dimmed a bit. In fact, as more and more contemporary Indian filmmakers seek to make renewed global inroads, Ray is the perfect role model.
After all, he combined in his remarkable body of work the twin virtues of cultural veracity and universal accessibility. He, therefore, belonged as much to India as he did to the world. Efforts to replicate his scale of international success and recognition continue in the land of his origin, but true, sustained triumph eludes his successors.
In his centenary year, Ray remains a constant presence in our midst, reminding us of the intrinsic capacity of the medium to capture the essence of life in its cultural specificities and yet communicate with people all around the world. His epochal first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), won a major prize in Cannes in 1956 and put Indian cinema on the global map.
Indian and world cinema have moved on since Pather Panchali redefined the parameters of the medium, but the master’s all-pervasive influence continues to impact our films and filmmakers to this day.
Born on May 2, 1921, the multi-talented Ray – filmmaker, writer, music composer, graphic artist, illustrator, and designer – was a master storyteller and a consummate craftsman. What set him apart, however, was his masterly ability to achieve a seamless mix of content and technique, an attribute that a lot of Indian filmmakers of the new millennium would do well to keep in mind. Flamboyance sans depth and substance is a completely useless quality to aspire for.
Ray once told an interviewer, “I feel that an ordinary person – the man in the street, if you like – is a more challenging subject for exploration than people in the heroic mould. It is the half shades, the hardly audible notes that I want to capture and explore… In any case, I find muted emotions more interesting and challenging.” His cinema spoke to all of us because, no matter where in the world we lived, it was about all of us. His humanism was all-pervasive.
Veteran film critic Chidananda Dasgupta, wrote in his book, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: “Seldom has a film director’s work chronicled the process of social change in a country over as long a span of time as Satyajit Ray’s. The subjects of his films range over the shifting social scene in India for over one hundred and fifty years (at the time of the book’s publication). Devi (The Goddess, 1960) is placed in the 1830s. Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977) in the 1850s. Charulata (1964) is laid in 1879, Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) at the turn of the century, the Apu trilogy in the early years of the 20th century. Sadgati (The Deliverance, 1981) was written by Premchand in the 1930s about an unspecified, as it were timeless, period. Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973) deals with the British-made wartime famine of 1943; besides, he of course made a host of contemporary films.”
Ray’s contemporary films – Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975), among others – present a vivid portrait of a society and a culture in flux. No filmmaker has ever caught the nuances of this process of change and its impact on human beings quite with the same felicity. The effortlessness was obviously misleading. Nothing that Ray did was ever chance-directed.
Few filmmakers in the annals of cinema have had as much control over the medium as Ray. He wrote the screenplay, handpicked the cast, directed the film, scored the music, operated the camera, did the production design, contributed actively to the editing of his films, and even designed his own credit titles and publicity material. Cinema is a collective art form. A film is the result of teamwork. In Ray’s case, however, the medium came closer than ever to being a means of pure personal expression.
Providing a glimpse into his approach to cinema, Ray wrote in an article published in March 1952: “In the thirty years of its existence the Bengali film as a whole has not progressed one step towards maturity. Looking over the past three or four years one comes across a handful of commendable efforts… a bare dozen altogether, none entirely successful and satisfactory but each containing passages of acting, direction, writing or photography which, if sustained, would make for respectable cinema. As for the others (the overwhelming majority), they bear the same relation to art as do the lithographs in Wellington Square to the art of painting… These films neither stimulate the sensibilities, nor please the senses.”
The freshness evident in Pather Panchali probably stems from the fact that all the major technicians who worked on the film, including Ray himself, came to the project with little or no experience. Ray was no more than a film lover at that point, his cameraman Subrata Mitra had never shot a film before, art director Bansi Chandragupta had cut his teeth on The River, and for editor Dulal Dutta, Pather Panchali was only the third film. Pather Panchali rescued Indian cinema from the confines of studio sets and set it free into the wide, unexplored expanse of real locations.
Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali altered the face of Indian cinema forever. Sixty-five years on, Ray’s debut film – and the rest of his work – remain a benchmark and a beacon that inspire those blessed with the courage to break free from stale habits.
Beginning with the ninth edition of the Cannes Film Festival (1956), where his debut film Pather Panchali won the Prix du Document Humain, the Indian maestro travelled to the Croisette on several occasions in subsequent years. He had three more titles in the Cannes Competition – Parash Pathar (1958), Devi (1962) and GhareBaire (1984) – besides Ganashatru (1989) in the Special Screenings section. In 2013, one his greatest films, Charulata, was screened in Cannes Classics.
Pather Panchali is as much a part of Indian cinema folklore as it is of the Cannes Film Festival’s own history. In 1956, it won the Best Human Document Award, narrowly losing the Palme d’Or race to the French documentary Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World), directed by Louis Malle and famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It was a year of heavy-hitters in the Cannes Competition, with the likes of Ingmar Bergman (Smiles of a Summer Night, which also won a Special Award), Akira Kurosawa (I Live in Fear) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much) going head to head. It was also the year when Henri-Georges Clouzot, known for his seminal French thrillers, landed a Special Jury Award for his Picasso documentary, Le Mystere Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso).The jury was headed by French actor-director-producer Maurice Lehmann.