Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)

by Annie Saxena on Feb 09, 2023

It isn’t a stretch to call Satyajit Ray the most renowned director in the history of Indian Cinema. He was born on May 2, 1921 in a family that was already prominent in the world of arts and literature. His grandfather Upendrakishore Ray was a writer, illustrator and leader of a 19th century religious movement. He formed a crucial presence in Satyajit’s early life.

Being India’s first and only Oscar winning director, Ray started his career working at a British advertising firm as a junior visualizer in 1943, earning eighty rupees a month. Although he liked visual design and was treated well, there were tensions between the British and Indian employees due to the British being paid more for the same work. This animosity led Satyajit to leave the firm.

While working as a visual design artist, Satyajit Ray started Calcutta’s first film club in 1947. Ray also wrote articles for newspapers and began developing screenplays. When someone would announce a film on a novel/story, he would script his own version, then compare it with the actual film. This was his big step toward filmmaking

On a trip to London in 1950, Satyajit Ray watched about 100 movies. It was during this time that he thought about making Pather Panchali, his first film. He wanted to make the film using fresh, new actors not wearing makeup and shooting on location. Ray had been sorely discouraged by the response, as these methods were unheard of. On his London trip, however, a screening of Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves proved to be the push he needed to dive into filmmaking. The realistic treatment of the film inspired him and also convinced him that Pather Panchali was possible, just the way he had always imagined it to be.

Pather Panchali turned out to be a leap of faith for Satyajit Ray and the whole crew involved. From finding financial backing to finding the cast and shooting locations, the film was rightly called a labour of love at the time. Ray sold his own life insurance policy and his wife pawned her heirloom jewellery to cover the costs.

Such was his belief in the film. Later in life Satyajit credited the success of Pather Panchali to a “series of miracles”. Pather Panchali eventually turned into a trilogy and is still considered as one of his most accomplished series of movies winning awards at film festivals all over the world.

In 1961, Ray revived the children’s magazine Sandesh, that was founded by his grandfather. Thanks to Ray’s foray into novels and short stories aimed at teenagers the world got the cult character, Prodosh Mitra more commonly known as Feluda, the fictional Bengali sleuth. Feluda’s short stories are still cult classics today, 58 years after they were first published.

From 1965 to 1982, he ventured into varied genres of filmmaking, trying his hand at fiction, fantasy, detective films and historical dramas. It was in 1964 that he came up with his most acknowledged film, Charulata. Labelled as the magnum opus film of his career, it received wide appreciation by critics and audience.

Satyajit Ray introduced audiences to commercial parallel cinema. His movies are rooted in reality and warranted a discourse over things that matter. They touched various topics that are gnawing at the social fabric of our country and still managed to entertain a wide variety of audiences.His most commercially successful film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne inspired him to make a sequel called Hirak Rajar Deshe, which was mocked at Indira Gandhi’s implemented emergency period. Another movie called Sikkim was commissioned by the King of Sikkim who was threatened by India and China’s threats on the sovereignty of the landlocked state. When Sikkim became a part of India in 1975 the movie was banned. The ban was only lifted by the Indian government in 2010.

There are a few directors with movies that have stood the test of time. Ray’s first Hindi feature film Shatranj Ke Khiladi is one such example. This is a film that rings true in all political climates and societies – whether feudalist or democratic.

Shatranj Ke Khiladi keeps reminding us that in our daily petty politics, we miss the bigger picture. Something to think about while we vote in all future elections. With such a movie Ray became one of the first directors to come up with great cinema while being commercially successful. Perhaps one of his main contributions to film making will always be the art of appealing intelligent cinema to the masses.

Satyajit Ray’s contribution to commercial as well as world cinema is a part of his repertoire that cannot be ignored. His films are like the paintings of Ajanta and sculptures of Ellora. You forget about how technical it is or how the story holds up, all you experience is the feeling, the mood and the emotions that are expressed. You connect at a very basic human level, irrespective of your cultural background. His mastery lay in that, bringing that essential humanity and simplicity of the universe to the big screen. Even Hollywood’s great Martin Scorcese is a big fan of Ray’s films and treasures the interactions he had with him.

Famous British Film Academy Director Roger Manvell once said, “In the restrained style he has adopted, Ray has become a master of technique. He takes his timing from the nature of the people and their environment; his camera is the intent, unobtrusive.” Till today Ray’s cinematic techniques are studied by filmmakers world over.

Satyajit Ray won numerous awards over his lifetime. He was bestowed with 32 National Film Awards and numerous international honors such as Silver Bear, Golden Lion,Golden Bear and the ‘Hommage a Satyajit Ray’ Award at the Cannes film Festival. In 1992, he received India’s highest civilian honour, The Bharat Ratna.

In the same year he became the second Indian ever to be facilitated with an Honorary Oscar Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.

Shortly after receiving the Oscar which he considered his greatest achievement, Satyajit Ray passed away from a heart attack in 1992.

Satyajit Ray will indeed go down in history as one of the artistes who changed the cultural landscape of India and the world.