May 1, 2010

Happy Birthday Satyajit Ray

Growing up in the Calcutta of the 1980’s and early ’90s meant living with power shortages and political shutdowns. Nothing else happened. But we Bengalis drew solace from the fact that we had Jyoti Basu, Mother Teresa and Satyajit Ray (not necessarily in that order).

For a generation that had only seen communist rule in the state, West Bengal Communist Party leader Basu, the longest-lived of the three until his death in January at the age of 95, was the patriarch whom we saw often on our grainy black-and-white television sets string along the corridors of Writers’ Building, the state secretariat. Mother Teresa was the woman who could get foreign celebrities to make a pit stop in the “black hole” just to meet her.

And then there was Ray, who belonged to one of the most illustrious Bengali families, towered at 6 feet 5 inches and had a deep baritone, making him an intimidating presence to those lucky enough to meet him. But to us teenagers he brought real joy.

Ray’s work spanned a century of Bengali life – from the late 19th century at the peak of the Bengal cultural renaissance when Charulata falls for her brother-in-law Amal, to the partition of Bengal in 1905 when the psuedo-revolutionary Sandip tries to seduce his friend’s wife Bimala in “Ghare Baire” (Home and the World), to the turbulent Calcutta of the 1970s where the protagonist Siddhartha tells an interview board in “Pratidwandi” (The Adversary) that the triumph of the human spirit in Vietnam was the most significant event of the last 10 years, more than the moon landing.

“To a large extent Satyajit Ray introduced naturalism to the cinema of India,” said Pranav Ashar, president of The Taj Enlighten Film Society.

We watched transfixed as Ray wove his magic wand over each frame – whether it was wonderstruck Apu and Durga running through fields to catch a glimpse of a train in “Pather Panchali,” Ray’s first film, known in English as “Song of the little Road,” or the angst of the decadent landowner Biswambhar Roy in Jalsaghar (The Music Room). Even his children’s films were scathing commentaries on class conflict.

“The main attraction to me of Ray’s work is his abiding humanism,” said Arup K. De, 53, of the Kolkata-based Satyajit Ray Society, which works to preserve the director’s films. “His works transcend the barriers of time and culture, even though he was a deeply-rooted Bengali.”

Ray retained a spirit of quintessential “Bengaliness,” even amidst his refined western sensibilities. Of the other two great film-makers who were his contemporaries – Ritwik Ghatak was always something of a maverick while Mrinal Sen came across as too political. Ray showed us our middle-class pathos and angst.

The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once said of Ray, “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

One quibble. People outside Bengal often overlook Ray as a writer. Even if he hadn’t made a single film in his lifetime, Ray would remain immortal to this Bengali for literary works like the detective series Feluda.

Source: India realtime


  1. Happy Birthday to Satyajit Ray


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