Ok! First read this story. A man, working as a taxi driver, is deeply unhappy with his far lower status in the society. He believes that he deserves better. His frustration and anger find a passage to vent through drinking. He becomes an alcoholic. In this disillusionment and cynicism, he joins hands with drug dealers and human traffickers. Lastly, he falls for a prostitute and rescues her at the right moment from the vultures. What do you think of this story? No, you are wrong. Our man is not Travis Bickle and this is not Taxi Driver. He is not a Vietnam War veteran but a Rajput i.e. a warrior by cast itself. This man is Narsingh from Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan made in 1962. Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese released in 1976.
Martin Scorcese doesn’t need an introduction. He has always acknowledged the influence of Ray’s works on him. At various events, he has regularly emphasized the importance of Satyajit Ray in the development of the language of Cinema and he includes him in the “Four Greats” of World Cinema (the other greats include Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellin).
India is world’s largest producer of films (by numbers) but we hardly produce one or two films that are recognizable globally and leave an impact. What about the makers? Not a single international face (if you are thinking Anurag Kashyap, I am planning a different article on him) that is praised in international film circuits. But once there was this man Satyajit Ray who single-handedly put Indian cinema on the world map.
It was Ray through which the western filmmakers (we can include most of the modern western world) explored India. Scorsese himself has said, ” I come from a family of Sicilian Americans and my mother and father worked in the garment district, they were not educated. There were no books in the house, so there was no way for me to really be introduced to the Indian culture in the 1957 or 58, except through visual means, and this was the first film that I saw of Ray.” Being a Sicilian-American, Scorsese lived in his small village and his world was entirely different from what was there in Pather Panchali, yet he was able to understand the characters and their stories. There was nothing alien about their feelings and doings. This was purely the language of Cinema without any cultural or language barriers. And this is what we find common in all the four greats of Cinema.
Watch Martin Scorsese talking about Satyajit Ray
Critics have often said that Ray has a “Poetic vision”. What does that mean? Scorsese explains this by saying that the distinction between poetry and cinema dissolves in rays works. He is absolutely right. What we see on the screen is poetry in motion. With each film of his, he broke new grounds. Cinema for him was simply a language. Shyam Benegal noted Indian filmmaker has rightly said that Ray used cinema like how great writers use language; his use of cinematic language was not topical.
The concept of Visual Literacy was known to Ray even before he became a filmmaker. He was an illustrator. He understood the importance of historical, technical and cultural significance of the film language in making better films for a universal audience.
There is a great Proust quote that Scorsese has shared in one of his essays, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson recalls visiting the director’s flat to find him “discussing the exact kind of button required by one of his costume designs with a member of his production team”. This may sound like he was a perfectionist but he was not. He just had the eye, the new eye. Only a man having new eyes each time can make Distant Thunder (1973) (story of 1943 Bengal famine) and Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) (a fantasy involving adventures of two boys) with equal virtuosity. Long before Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) in 1962, Ray wrote his first original screenplay, Kanchgenjungha, a non-linear, fragmented tale of several groups of characters going back and forth. He was definitely ahead of his times.
Martin Scorsese is not the only big Hollywood filmmaker who publicly acknowledges the influence of Ray in his works. Talented filmmaker Wes Anderson is a most ardent admirer of Ray and accepts that Ray’s films have inspired all his films. He further says, “His films feel like novels to me. He draws you very close to his characters, and his stories are almost always about people going through a major internal transition. My favorites are the Calcutta trilogy of The Adversary (Pratidwandi), Company Limited (Seemabaddha), and The Middleman (Jana Aranya), which are very adventurous and inventive stylistically, and Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Dinratri), which I relate to the kind of movies and books that completely captured my attention when I was a teenager, with soulful troublemakers as heroes. I think Charulata (The Lonely Wife) is one of his most beautiful films, and also Teen Kanya (especially The Postmaster) and the Apu films.”
Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, 1982), always said that he was fortunate enough to know and have worked with Ray in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). He and more strongly Scorsese have pointed out towards the similarities between Steven Speilberg’s E.T. and Satyajit Ray’s short Story on an alien. In late 60’s, Columbia Pictures even finalized a plan to make The Alien with Satyajit Ray as the writer-director but due to some dirty politics, this had to be shelved. The jury is still out on this matter but in the meanwhile by just reading the description of the alien in Ray’s story you can judge what could have happened. I recommend this book of Ray’s Short Stories as a must read.
Satyajit Ray provided a window for the world to see India by presenting universal emotions, identifiable characters and most importantly during the time when there was no internet or Facebook or Instagram he showed to the world that we Indians are not something different, we are also real human beings with real emotions.
That is why Kurosawa has said this about him:
“The quiet but deep observation, understanding, and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. … I feel that he is a “giant” of the movie industry.” … ” Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”