India’s greatest filmmaker, a liberal humanist, Indian neo-realist, writer, lyricist, composer, graphic artist, the Bengal Renaissance Man and even a counter revolutionary for the hard left of Bengal of that time. The list can go on. Every critique, every writer about ray adds some more titles to this list.
The western world and even a majority of the Indian cultural arena know Satyajit Ray through Apu Trilogy as a follower of Renoir’s humanism and De Sica’s Italian neo-realism.
So who was Satyajit Ray?
There could never be a better man to write about in the first post on my web site on Cinema. I had watched Charulata before watching any of his movies when I was 12 years old. In simplest words, it was “Mesmerizing”. I did not know that cinema can do this. As the years passed, I came to know more about Ray and his work. After watching all his movies several times, one day, my friend gifted me a collection of his stories. I was simply confused. Was he a better filmmaker or a better writer. As I talked to more and more people about Ray I realized that everyone knows about him, almost everyone. They know that he was a filmmaker, a writer, a cinematographer, a musician, an illustrator. But they all know it as “General Knowledge” taught in schools. In India, we all have a habit to boast that we know everything. Everyone has something to say about Ray, it is another matter that they have not watched any of his movies, neither read any of his stories. The most they could do is to read his biography and plots of his movies on Wikipedia. Even the westerners know him as the master filmmaker who made Apu Trilogy. This is sheer injustice. He is not just Apu Trilogy. He is equally Charulata, he is equally Teen Kanya, he is equally Agantuk. He is equally the creator of Feluda, Professor Shonku, and Bonku Babu and his friend. He is one of them and all of them at the same time. His complex personality is the result of the relationships, the conflicts, the contradictions between all these different “selves”.
So let us come to the question. Who was he?
He was a city born, city- bred guy. His family was an integral part of the well-educated middle- class fusion of East and West that gave birth to Bengal Renaissance. His deep interest in earlier days was European classical music. His expertise in western classical music was well recognized. He himself confessed that he was unaware of rural Bengal before deciding to make Pather Panchali.
These biographical facts about him do not provide a clue how he was able to surprise the world by portraying rural Bengal so authentically yet in a poetic flow. We can attribute his humanism to the fact that he was deeply inspired by Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore’s humanistic fusion of classical Indian tradition and Western liberal thoughts can be found in Ray’s art.
But the man in question is so complex that honest biographies like Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director that focuses on his ancestral biography and the facts of his upbringing or Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye which proves to be a guide of the man’s work are not enough to describe the man himself. His upbringing contradicts his body of work and on the other hand, he was not just the films he has made or stories he has written. Virtually everything about him or his work has downplayed the man he was.
Most critics find his vision of India as a bleak and despairing one. To some, he appears to be cashing in on the poverty of rural India. Nargis Dutt, actress, and MP denounced him in the parliament for “exporting images of poor India to the foreign audiences”. He himself says,”there is no reason why we should not cash in on the foreigners’ curiosity to the orient”. But Chidananda Dasgupta says in Ray’s works poor are no statistics and his unsentimental look at poverty differentiates him.
The Hindu Chauvinists claimed he was an “Orientalist” or westernized Indian who had renounced Indian culture. His western influence was well established and he himself agrees with that in various interviews. Ashish Nandy goes to the extent of questioning his authenticity as an Indian filmmaker- was he an Indian who was highly westernized, fully cosmopolitan but dealt with Indian themes merely because he happened to live in India? Or was he an Indian with Western aesthetic values even though the subject matters of his films remained Indocentric?
There was a demand on ray after the emergence of art cinema in India as a different category in the 70’s, to turn more “Indian” and to be more socially relevant. The alternative filmmakers of that period defined their works in terms of social and political commitment and perceived an absence of social analysis of poverty in Ray’s works. So, was he socially irrelevant? He himself categorized his work in terms of the universal humanism.
What about neo-realism? Was it his love or just a necessity in his earlier days? Neo-realism inspired him as a director or as a producer because of its low-cost and zero dependencies on studio system? The Bicycle Thief, Ray wrote in a 1951 essay, was “a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of the cinema” and the “simple universality of its theme, the effectiveness of its treatment, and the low-cost of its production make it the ideal film for the Indian filmmaker to study.”
Was he presenting a part of himself or his sentiments through his films? Reviewing Distant Thunder, Pauline Kael wrote, “Ray has put something of himself into Gangacharan, something of his own guilt, of weakness, of commitment.”
This is true that there cannot be a fully comprehensive and all-inclusive view of an artist like Ray. This is a first in a series of articles on Ray that I am writing and my focus is not on an unattainable totality, but is on deeper and less partial studies of Ray.