Ray | Great Master of Cinema

rankmylist.com - satyajit ray 1

Pic credit: rankmylist.com

By Siddhartha Krishnan . 8 Min Read

I was introduced to Ray very early in life. Growing up in Bhowanipore, within the heart of Kolkata, amidst some of the city’s iconic historical and cultural landmarks, the chance that he wouldn’t have sneaked into our lives, in some way or the other, was an impossibility. You could blame it on the Kolkatan’s love for “Adda” (intellectual discussion), but Ray has this nagging habit of stealthily creeping into our conversations, be it at a tea shop early in the morning, the football ground at dusk or at the dinner table late at night. The discussion could be on any topic, not necessarily about cinema – from politics to religion to art, Ray found a way to stay relevant in our lives.

euphorian desi - satyajit ray

Pic credit: euphoriandesi.com

It was at a children’s film festival, hosted by Nandan cinema, where I got to watch my first Satyajit Ray film; Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress). I was 8 years old then. It was a detective story about a young boy who has vivid memories of his previous life and becomes a target of miscreants after he mentions about hidden gems at a Golden Fortress. I remember being hooked onto the story, from start to finish even as a child. Later, I watched the film multiple times on television and took something new from it each time. This was my first introduction to the genius of Ray.

sonar kella - the times of india (1974)

Pic credit: timesofindia.com – scene from Sonar Kella (1974)

However, my understanding of Ray’s genius stayed limited to his children’s films, namely Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), Sonar Kella (1974) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980). In fact, for most of my childhood, I regarded him as a filmmaker who made movies, exclusively for children. All the intellectual discussion on Ray and his other films were left to the adults, while I listened attentively to their engrossing conversations. But by overhearing their conversations, I realized, that even his so-called “children’s films” were steeped in subtexts, deeper meanings and universal messaging. Hence, I couldn’t garner the courage to watch some of his most iconic films, because I knew, I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate its details.

It would take me many more years, to finally take that plunge and delve into his cinema with honesty. But when it happened, it felt like natural progression. Now, when I think about it in retrospect, I feel that it was a good decision. I say this because Ray’s films are simple in its technique and execution, but flawlessly capture, perhaps the most complex thing in the universe with extraordinary precision – human emotions.

lassiwithlavina - apur sansar (1959)

Pic credit: lassiwithlavinia.com – scene from Apur Sansar (1959)

While researching on Ray for this article, I came across many of his interviews, where he refers to a certain film, which had kickstarted his journey as a filmmaker. Hence, I thought it was important for me, to watch that film, to understand the man and his cinematic sensibilities. The film was – The Bicycle Thief (1948) made by neorealist Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Sica. It is a story of a poor father who is searching for his stolen bicycle across post World War II Rome, without which he would lose his job and thus not be able to provide for his family.

Let me first admit that it was a brilliant film, a must watch for lovers of good cinema. But my intent was to look for scenes from the film, which might have inspired Ray. It was apparent, that although there aren’t any direct references to Ray’s films, it was how the film conveyed its message that might have inspired the great man.

Hence, the use of cinematic language instead of over-the-top dialogues, precise framing of shots, use of camera angles, apt use of music and the art of being simple yet effective, all traits of Ray’s film making, are features of this film as well.

pinterest - aranyer din ratri (1970)

Pic credit: pinterest – scene from Aranyer Din Ratri (1970)

The most common mistake people make, when they first harbour thoughts of watching a Ray film, is to go for his most famous work first. Let me assure you, this could turn out to be a blunder!

This is because all of Ray’s films are different and they appeal to all kinds of sensibilities. They cut across genres and so, what appeals to your best friend may not appeal to you. Hence, when starting off, you should choose his films wisely. In this article, I will tell you the story of how I went about exploring Ray’s films.

I was in my late twenties when I began exploring Ray’s work and started off with a 12 min short film called “Two” (1960). The film shows an encounter between a rich kid and a street kid, through the rich kid’s window. Surprisingly, not a single word is exchanged between the two throughout the film. Ray makes for some gripping cinema by employing clever camera positions, angles and movements, an effective background score and deriving natural performances from the child actors. The result is spectacular.

I would urge all my readers to watch this film (link below) to get your first taste of Ray, in case you have never been exposed to his films before.

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the greatest sophistication” and this philosophy, resonates with Ray’s style of filmmaking. Many of Ray’s films were made on shoe-string budgets and in a way, he had no choice but to use clever, simple and innovative techniques to tell a story. This is illustrated in the next film that I watched called “Pratidwandi” (The Adversary) – 1970.

rediff.com - pratidwandi (1970)

Pic credit: rediff.com – scene from Pratidwandi (1970)

The film is widely regarded as one of Ray’s best. It is set in the backdrop of political turmoil in Bengal, at a time when corruption and unemployment was rampant. It was also a time when the Communist and Naxalite movements were gaining strength. The protagonist is a middle-class man; educated, intellectual and idealistic. He is desperate to find a job but is caught in this social unrest. Thus, he is forced to make a choice between his ideal and his necessity.

In the following 4-min job interview scene from the film, at the very onset, we know what to expect and a conflict between the interviewers (capitalist) and the interviewee (leftist) is imminent.

However, Ray manages to make this scene riveting, by intelligently crafting its sequence – interrogation, negotiation and acknowledgement. The absence of a background score surprisingly adds to the tension. Despite being an interview scene, the dialogues are minimal, and a lot is conveyed through body language. Its these delicate nuances which makes this scene so memorable. In the end it was how he portrayed the transition of the protagonist from being powerful (due to his knowledge of things) to being vulnerable (due to his urge to stay true to his ideals) which caught my attention.

The dialogues are in English, so readers will not have a problem understanding what is being said.

Pratidwandi job interview scene ( Click link to watch the scene of YouTube)

These two films gave me an understanding of the man’s thinking and style of storytelling. Hence, I was now comfortable to watch some of his other famous works like (source: Wikipedia) –

Mahanagar (The Big City) – 1963 – story of a housewife who battles the ideology of her conservative family by getting the job of a saleswoman.

Nayak (The Hero) – 1966 – story about a superstar actor who is on a train journey to receive an award. During the journey he reveals his mistakes and insecurities to a young journalist, who realizes that behind the arrogant facade is a troubled man.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Day and Nights in the Forest) – 1970 – story about four friends, educated but coming from different layers of society, who head to a jungle to escape the grind of daily life.

Jana Aranya (The Middleman) – 1976 – story about a young man with moderate academic results who makes numerous unsuccessful attempts to find a job. Hence, he decides to start his own business as a middleman.

As, you might have realized, Ray offers you a platter to pick and choose from, based on your tastes. (Click here for a complete list of Ray’s films)

Another, fascinating aspect about Ray’s filmmaking is that he does not push anything down your throat, despite the subtexts and layering. He allows for multiple interpretations from a scene on the part of the audience. However, if you like to study filmmaking and its intricacies, then here is an interesting video from a YouTuber, who has studied Ray’s camera angles and movements.

The Apu Trilogy, arguably Ray’s most famous work, comprising of three films, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) were the last films of his, that I watched. These I must admit are not easy films to grasp, but there is no doubt that each one is a masterpiece. Pather Panchali, perhaps Ray’s best film ever, which also happened to be his first film, won the Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. It features in the lists of the best films ever made and is a part of the curriculum of film schools.

You must remember that Ray made movies at a time when we didn’t have big budgets, marketing expertise and social media promotions. Yet, he managed to win all the awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and 2 Silver Bears at the Berlin International Film Festival. In fact, he beat some of the directors who had inspired him, to win these prestigious awards. Today, Indian film makers have the budget to market their films at these film festivals, yet we don’t manage to win any awards. Ray proves through his films that you don’t need money to make a good film, what you need is skill, talent and honesty.

In 1992, the year in which he passed away, Ray was awarded a honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. He was also awarded the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian award) in that year. Ray is also the recipient of the Legion of Honour (France’s highest civilian award) and the second person in history to have received a honorary doctorate from Oxford University for his contribution to world cinema. The first and only other person to get that honour was the great Charlie Chaplin!

oscar - hindustan times

Pic credit: hindustantimes.com – Ray delivering his Oscar speech from a hospital in 1992

Ray put Indian cinema on the world map and inspired a generation of filmmakers after him. I see his references and inspiration in the work of many of the Indian filmmakers today. But not many know that some of the great Hollywood directors of today, have also been inspired by his work. Also, his contemporaries had spoken very highly of him. Here’s what some of them had to say about Satyajit Ray (source: bookmyshow.com):

“The few interactions I had with Ray are memories I treasure” – Martin Scorsese, director – Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).

“Whenever someone speaks from Kolkata, I remember Satyajit Ray’s call, praising me for the Godfather” – Sir Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather series.

“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without having seen the sun or the moon” – Akira Kurosawa, legendary Japanese filmmaker and a great master of cinema.

“If he were in Hollywood, he would have proved a tough challenge for all of us” – Elia Kazan, maker of classics like On the Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching Mr. Ray’s Pather Panchali recently, which I hadn’t seen before. I think it is one of the best films ever made. It is an extraordinary piece of art” – Christopher Nolan, director of the Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

“I was honoured that one of the world’s greatest directors was eager to direct me” – Richard Attenborough, director of Gandhi (1983), on his role in Ray’s film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) – 1977.

When Ray was awarded the honorary Oscar, the crew which had to put up the clip package of his films for the award show had struggled because they realized that a freak fire accident had burnt the reels of some of his greatest films. Hence, the Academy began a restoration project to preserve his work. Their efforts in this regard deserve a lot of praise, especially from Indians. The following is a video on the restoration effort:

I’ve been writing short stories for the last two years and in my writing I try to imbibe Ray’s approach of being simple and subtle with art. These are the two great qualities of his which have inspired me immensely, apart from his originality. Whenever, I get stuck with my writing my first instinct is to watch a Ray film. This article and the short video tribute that I had posted on my blog last week, is my way of saying thank you to the great master.

mubi - satyajit ray

Pic credit: mubi.com

The video tribute was well received and garnered 1000 + likes on Instagram. To my surprise 90% of the people who liked that video were between the age of 18-24. This only reinstated my belief, that Ray through his work is still alive and relevant today and he still manages to mysteriously creep into our conversations and inspire writers and artists.

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12 Thoughts

  1. Ray won, apart from the Silver Bears, also the Golden Bear for the best film in Berlin Film Festival, for his Ashani Danker (The Distant Thunder). This needs to be mentioned.

    1. That’s interesting! The wikipedia page on Ray, mentions about his most number of Golden Bear nominations record, but not about his winning one. I wonder why? Guess this has been missed out and needs an update. Thanks for letting me know. The man has won so many awards that maybe it has become difficult to keep count of it. But this is an important point that you have made.

  2. Thank you for sharing this comprehensive look at Ray’s career. The only film of his I’ve seen is “Pather Panchali”, which I love, but you’ve shown me there is are many more films outside the Apu Trilogy. Thanks again for sharing all this fabulous research with us. 🙂

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