While Bollywood provided glitz and glamour in the masala melodramas that teemed with catchy melodies, the Parallel Cinema fashioned from the mid-1950s by Satyajit Ray in Bengal appealed much more to cineastes outside the subcontinent. In addition to writing his own original scenarios, Ray often designed the costumes and sets, operated the camera and edited and scored action he often played out for his casts so that they understood precisely how he wished a scene to pan out. It was not unusual for Ray to create his own credits and film posters, too, as he had studied for a fine arts degree under Rabindranath Tagore in the early 1940s.
A Winding Road
Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 2 May 1921, Satyajit Ray came from a distinguished family. His grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, had founded a publishing house that gave him the wealth to establish the 19th-century social activist group, Brahmo Samaj. Father Sukumar Ray was also a respected Bengali author, who has specialised in the Abol tabol form of nonsense verse that influenced his son's development as an award-winning children's writer. However, Sukumar died when Satyajit was only three and he was raised on modest means by his mother, Suprabha. She persuaded him to study under the pioneering polymathic poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who became his mentor. While studying at Santiniketan, Ray also discovered the Indian artists Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee, whom he profiled in the short 1972 documentary, The Inner Eye.
In 1943, Ray became a graphic designer at the advertising company, DJ Keymer. However, he was happier creating book covers for Signet Press and was greatly taken with Aam Antir Bhepu, a children's version of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's semi-autobiographical novel, Pather Panchali. It was during this period that Ray helped set up the Calcutta Film Society and he developed a taste for Hollywood cinema through his contact with the Allied soldiers based in the city. Of greater significance, however, was his meeting in 1949 with Jean Renoir, who had come to Bengal to make The River (1951). Ray acted as a location scout during the shoot and the Frenchman encouraged him to bring Pather Panchali to the screen. The following year, Ray visited the Keymer offices in London and, among the 99 films he saw during his stay was Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), which taught him that 'the raw material of cinema is life itself' and convinced him to devote himself to film-making.
Branching Out From Bengal
In 1951, encouraged by Renoir and John Huston (who was in India scouting locations for The Man Who Would Be King - which he wouldn't get to realise for another 24 years), and backed by a government grant, Ray began filming Pather Panchali/A Song of the Little Road (1955). The first in the acclaimed 'Apu' trilogy, it astounded everyone when it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, particularly as it had been filmed on weekends and holidays over a four year period, with Ray having to pawn his wife's jewellery to complete the shoot. Influenced by Renoir, Robert Flaherty and Italian neo-realism, the story of a young Bengali Brahmin boy's introduction to the ways of the world is remarkable for its simplicity, humanity, the restraint of its non-professional cast and for Ray's focus on the interaction of the characters and the revelation of their inner lives.
Evocatively photographed by Subrata Mitra and scored by Ravi Shankar, this astute blend of domestic drama and social comment was followed by Aparajito/The Unvanquished (1956), which sees Apu (Pinaki Sen Gupta) pass from school in Benares to university in Calcutta. With his camera scarcely still for a second, Ray paints a fascinating picture of Indian life, as he considers the clash between traditional custom and Western ideas. The action focuses on Apu's relationship with his mother and the sharp contrasts between his simple country background and the bustle of city life. It lacks some of the poignancy of its predecessor, but this is still a remarkable and deeply felt film, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
The triptych concluded with Apur Sansar/The World of Apu (1959). Adapted from another Bandopadhyay novel, the unexpectedly linear narrative centres on Soumitra Chatterjee bid to become a writer and his struggle to accept Alok Chakravarty, the son whose birth caused the death of his beloved wife, Sharmila Tagore. Shooting on location in detail-packed long takes, Ray coaxes heartfelt performances from his largely non-professional cast to ensure a fittingly humanist conclusion to this sublimely cinematic masterpiece.
With their superb pacing, painterly compositions, perceptive characterisation and masterly use of the mise-en-scène technique, Ray's compassionate, poetic studies of Bengali life were much admired abroad. While waiting to complete the Apu series, Ray made Parash-Pathar/The Philosopher's Stone, in which humble clerk Tulsi Chakraborty finds a stone that can turn iron into gold, and Jalsaghar/The Music Room (both 1958). Although he excelled at surveying the contemporary scene, Ray could also do justice to historical subjects, as he proved with Devi/Goddess (1960). Set in Chandipur in 1860, this harrowing drama questions the extent to which religious belief is shaped by celestial or temporal forces, as Sharmila Tagore is installed as a goddess by her zamindar father-in-law, Chabbi Biswas, after she cures a sick child.
Women are also to the fore in Teen Kanya/Two Daughters (1961), which draws on stories by Rabindranath Tagore for 'The Postmaster', a study in betrayal in which a kindly man falls for the waif he teaches to read and write and 'Samapti/The Conclusion', in which a mummy's boy rebels against an arranged marriage to wed the local tomboy.
The same year saw Ray accept a commission from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to mark the centenary of his mentor with a documentary tribute. However, Ray found assembling Rabindranath Tagore to be something of a chore, as few moving images were available and he had to piece together a mosaic from photographic stills. As though inspired by this challenging assignment, Ray produced his first original screenplay for Kanchenjungha (1962), which saw him and Subrata Mitra work in colour for the first time. Following Chhabi Biswas and wife Karuna Bannerjee on a day trip to Darjeeling to arrange a match between their youngest daughter and a London-educated engineer, this was a subtly acerbic comedy of manners that is notable for its exquisite use of the hill town's ever-changing light.
Triumphs and Frustrations
Hurt by the failure of this venture, Ray accepted an offer to adapt Tarashankar Bandopadhyay's novel, Abhijan/The Expedition (1962), which stars Soumitra Chatterjee as a Rajput taxi driver who is suitably embittered by the desertion of his wife to accept an offer to use his 1930s Chrysler to ferry lower caste businessman Charuprakash Ghosh. However, his warrior pride means that he disapproves of his passengers and he is fired from his post and forced to accept the hospitality of Christian convert, Gyanesh Mukherjee, and his teacher sister, Ruma Guha Thakurta. But it's his encounter with prostitute Waheeda Rehman that forces Chatterjee to reassess his attitudes. Seen by some as a major influence on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), this was only a moderate commercial success. But it restored Ray's reputation and he won consecutive Best Director prizes at Berlin for Mahanagar/The Big City (1963) and Charulata/The Lonely Wife (1964).
The focus falls on the seedier side of life in Kapurush/The Coward and Mahapurush/The Holy Man (both 1965), which bore the influence of the nouvelle vague. The former harks back to the self-sacrificial aspects of Mahanagar and Charulata, while also anticipating the exposure of male weakness in Nayak/The Hero (1966). It centres on scriptwriter Soumitra Chatterjee, who is forced to accept the hospitality of tea planter Haradhan Bannerjee when his car breaks down. However, on entering his host's home, Chatterjee realises that his wife is Madhabi Mukherjee, whose love he was too timid to embrace as a student when she risked alienating her family in order to marry him.
Very much a miniature, this laudably restrained melodrama originally formed part of a double bill with Mahapurush, a wry treatise on religious charlatanism that ranks among Ray's most enjoyable outings. Widower Prasad Mukherjee is so impressed with holy man Charuprakash Ghosh during a train journey that he invites him into his home and seeks his advice in finding a suitor for daughter, Gitali Roy. Realising she can exploit the situation to provoke Satindra Bhattacharya into declaring his affection, Roy pretends to be convinced by Ghosh's tall tales about being ageless and a close confidante of Plato, Christ, Buddha, Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein. And her ruse seems set to work, as Bhattacharya and his friends vow to expose Ghosh as a fraud.
Echoes of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) can be heard throughout Nayak, Ray's second original scenario that accompanied film star Uttam Kumar on a train journey from Kolkata to Delhi in order to collect a prestigious award. En route, however, he makes the acquaintance of journalist Sharmila Tagore, who coaxes the matinee idol into opening up about his career and off-screen insecurities. As the mask slips during a series of flashbacks, Tagore realises the fragility behind the facade and opts not to publish her scoop. Despite a lukewarm reception, the film earned Ray the Special Jury Prize in Berlin and led to an invitation from Columbia to make his Hollywood bow.
In 1961, Ray had helped revive the children's magazine, Sandesh, which had originally been published by his grandfather. One of his short stories, 'Bankubabur Bandhu/Banku Babu's Friend', centred on a space traveller who befriends a Bengali village boy after landing on Earth and Ray suggested it might make an amusing film. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke put him in touch with screenwriter Michael Wilson, who was best known for his collaborations with David Lean on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). However, Wilson copyrighted the script for The Alien as a joint venture, even though his contribution had been negligible and Ray was powerless to intervene, as Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando and James Coburn slipped through his casting net.
Given that he had been prevented by his HUAC blacklisting from receiving his credit for Lean's blockbusters, it seems odd that Wilson should have acted in such a high-handed manner. Frustrated by the experience, Ray returned to India. However, he discussed the project in the Winter 1967/68 edition of Sight and Sound and was, therefore, more than a little miffed when he noticed the similarities between his plot and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and ET the Extraterrestrial (1982). Indeed, he went so far as to state that the latter 'would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies'. Spielberg denied any plagiarism, as did the producers of Rakesh Roshan's Koi... Mil Gaya/I Found Someone (2003). Eventually, Sandip Ray brought his father's vision to the screen when Kaushik Sen directed Bankubabur Bandhu for television in 2008.
Feeling disenchanted, Ray undertook Chiriyakhana/The Zoo (1967) after the underlings entrusted with the project ran into difficulties. Adapted from a Sharadindu Bandopadhay whodunit and rarely seen outside India, it's set in a colony outside Kolkata for those disowned by society. Amongst its residents are Shyamal Ghoshal, a doctor who used to perform illegal abortions, and retired judge Sushil Majumdar, who sent over 20 prisoners to the gallows. The latter hires python-owning private detective Uttam Kumar to track down the actress who sang his favourite filmi song. But, as Kumar poses as a Japanese horticulturist, he stumbles across an old murder case and two more deaths follow before he gets to the heart of the mystery.
Answering His Critics
As he approached his fifties, Ray became increasingly pessimistic, as he sought to respond to accusations from the likes of fellow Parallel Cinema director Mrinal Sen and actress-turned-politician Nargis Dutt that his work lacked connection with the great social and political issues afflicting India, as the Naxalite movement committed terrorist acts throughout Bengal and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi virtually became a dictator after the imposition of martial law. Yet, he scored a box-office hit with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne/The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (1969), which remains a firm favourite with children five decades after it was made.
Following a satirical swipe at the folly of macho youth in Aranyer Din Ratri/Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), Ray bit back at his critics with the political trilogy of Pratidwandi/The Adversary (1970), Seemabaddha/Company Limited (1971) and Jana Aranya/The Middleman (1976), in which he castigated the politicians, businessmen and ordinary citizens who had placed self-interest above the needs of the nation. Having opted against making a film about the Bangladesh Liberation War, Ray looked to the past to recall the 1943 Bengal famine in Ashani Sanker/Distant Thunder (1973) and the 1856 British military takeover of Lucknow in Shatranj Ke Khilari/The Chess Players (1977). He also cast Soumitra Chatterjee and Lalmohan Ganguly as Feluda and Topshe in two films based on his own Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson-like detective novels, Sonar Kella/The Golden Fortress (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath/The Elephant God (1979).
At the start of the new decade. Ray followed the French television short, Pikoo (1980), with Sadgati/Deliverance (1981). a Hindi adaptation of a story by Munshi Premchand that stars Om Puri as a Dalit, who is forced to work for Brahmin priest Mohan Agashe in order to set a date for his daughter's wedding. However, his despair at the subcontinent's mounting problems continued to gnaw at him and Ray questioned the efficacy of revolutionary politics in Ghare Baire/The Home and the World (1984), an adaptation of Tagore's 1916 novel, which he had considered making as his first feature four decades earlier. Victor Bannerjee stars as a Bengali nobleman, whose comfortable life with wife Swatilekha Sengupta is upset by the arrival of his friend, Soumitra Chatterjee, who has become a revolutionary and supports a ban on the imported goods that are damaging the local economy.
Although it caused controversy by including the first kiss in one of Ray's films, it was overshadowed by the heart attack that limited production over the next few years to Sukumar Ray, a 1987 documentary profile of his father, Two years later, Ray had recovered sufficiently to tackle rural ignorance and prejudice in Ganashatru/An Enemy of the People (1989), an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play that stars Soumitra Chatterjee as a doctor warning that the water at a holy temple is responsible for an epidemic among the peasants. Somewhat surprisingly, Gérard Depardieu co-produced Ray's penultimate picture, Shakha Proshakha/Branches of the Tree (1990), which centres on four generations of a Bengali clan to rail against the spread of corruption and the breakdown of family tradition. But the Frenchman remained on board for Agantuk/The Stranger (1991), a study of bourgeois preconceptions that draws on Ray's short story, 'Atithi'. Bearing a passing resemblance to Daniel Vigne's The Return of Martin Guerre (1984) - in which Depardieu had co-starred with Nathalie Baye - it sees Mamata Shankar and husband Deepankar De come to question whether Utpal Dutt is really her long-estranged anthropologist uncle or a gold-digger after her grandmother's fortune.
Just 24 days after he became the first and only Indian to receive an Honorary Academy Award, Satyajit Ray died on 23 April 1992. He had also been presented with an honorary doctorate by Oxford University in 1978 to reflect his prowess as a writer, critic, composer, calligrapher, illustrator and designer, as well as his distinctive achievements as a film-maker. Among the major subcontinental directors indebted to Ray are Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Gautam Ghose, Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh, while Wes Anderson dedicated The Darjeeling Limited (2007) to him. The most poignant tribute, however, came from Akira Kurosawa, who claimed that 'Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.'