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A Ray of realism and humanism- An ode to the cine maestro

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Abhijit Ghosh
Abhijit Ghosh
Filmmaking Teacher & Film/Video Editor.

As the world is going through the struggle of a pandemic and humanitarian crises erupt around the world, the time is true for the audiences to know what makes Satyajit Ray’s films so significant. His films can offer the logical depth to reflect upon the human condition in our daily lives, which makes them more important than ever.

As we celebrate the birth centenary of arguably India’s best filmmaker ever, Satyajit Ray, let’s take a ride on his art of moviemaking that is considered as the epitome of realism and humanism.

Satyajit Ray (May 2, 1921 – April 23, 1992), the master storyteller, has left a cinematic heritage that is universal. For the art of filmmaking or knitting a plot to create a realistic film, Satyajit Ray was a rare gem. He just took the art of filmmaking to a new dimension. He was simply an institution by himself.

As an Auteur, Ray’s visual style of storytelling bonded with the aesthetics of European realism and symbolic realism, based on classical Indian iconography and theory, which he combined in a self-reflective way into his filmmaking as the means of perceiving the human condition in a rapidly changing world. His films display the poignant effect of the socio-economic and political changes on the private lives of his characters. Ray’s films reflect upon the changes within the conscious collective of the society and therefore the time they were produced, while offering a historical document of this transformation of his imagined society.

Ray on location ©Nemai Ghosh. Image

His films demonstrate a poetic realism and cinematic imagination with remarkable humanism, elaborate observation and subtle handling of characters and situations. The cinema of Satyajit Ray is a unique blend of mind and emotions. He is superbly organized, specific, meticulous, and yet, evokes deep emotional reaction among the audience. His films portrays a fine compassion without using melodrama. He formed a cinematic style that is almost invisible. According to him– “The best technique is the one that’s not noticeable”.

Apu and Durga see a train for the first time ©Government of West Bengal, Image

His first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955) catapulted him into international fame and established his status as a major filmmaker in the world cinema, winning numerous awards and credits including Best Human Document in Cannes, 1956 and Best Film in Vancouver, 1958. The lyrical Pather Panchali introduced the cinema-going world to the wide-eyed Apu, born into extreme poverty but who would over time grow into a studious young man with a mind of his own and an autobiographical novel boiling in his chest. Fighting with poverty, it is the family’s little moments that make the film remarkable. The ‘train scene’where little Apu and Durga run through fields of ‘kash’ (Catkins) flowers to see a train running in the distance — there is no song and dance or action sequences, but the melodiousness of the scene and wide shot have made it iconic. Pather Panchali is the first film of The Apu Trilogy – a three-part tale of a boy’s life from birth to magical childhood to a roving manhood. The other two movies of the trilogy are Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). The narrative moves from village to city, tracking Apu’s personal difficulties, at all times companioned by Ravi Shankar’s melancholic sitar-and-flute score that seems so deeply implanted into the trilogy’s core as flavourful seeds in a soil.

A scene from Pather Panchali, Sarbajaya, Durga and Apu ©Government of West Bengal, Image

Pather Panchali is considered to be a neo-realist movie and possessed all the necessary characteristics of neo-realism as defined by the great Italian screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini.

Ray chose natural or real locations, amateur or non-professional actors, outdoor shots while shooting Pather Panchali. He wanted the backdrop setting of each shot to speak for itself. He totally avoided from the artificially exaggeration of the popular or commercial cinema prevailing in Bollywood, India. Ray was a poet, celebrating the beauty and universality of ordinary lives. Pather Panchali showed what would define Ray: realism, naturalism and deep humanism.

Ray directing Sharmila Tagore and Barun Chanda for Company Limited, 1971, ©Nemai Ghosh. Image

Ray’s humanism exceeds modern day politics. In his City Trilogy (three of his Calcutta-based films) – Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971) and Jana Aranya The Middle Man, 1975). Adapted from the stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay and Manishankar Mukhopadhyay, these films are portrayed by contemporary characters, all confined within the typical Indian paradox of individual ambition disillusioned by limited opportunity. 

Though influenced by Western culture Ray remained loyal to his roots in his south Calcutta (now Kolkata) home from where he explored and depicted universal human values through his films.

A scene from Arnayer Din Ratri ©Nemai Ghosh , Image

There is an iconic sequence – the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970) that is utilized in the film under discussion, right in the middle of the development of the plot, is pivotal in understanding the entire film. All the main characters are seated in a circle and the game starts where they have to say the names of the famous personalities one by one. The game advances with the names of – “Rabindranath, Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Atulya Ghosh, Helen of Troy, Shakespeare, Mao Tse Tung, Don Bradman, Rani Rashmoni, Bobby Kennedy, Tekchand Thakur, Napoleon, Mumtaz Mahal”. Ray had himself taken the shot, panning the camera, which spun on an axis, at 360 degrees. It was important that the memory game focused only on people. Regarding this Ray said “I am not conscious of being a humanist. It’s simply that I am interested in human beings.” The way he depicted human beings, their weaknesses, their struggles, their individual agitations and simple achievements, attracted followers far and wide. Aranyer Din Ratri is a landmark film of Satyajit Ray which portrays a deep humanism and a magnificent study of man, nature, and the very nature of man.

Satyajit Ray directing Joy Baba Felunath at location in Benares, ©Nemai Ghosh. Image

Ray in his 40 years of filmmaking career made 37 films. He showed human dignity amidst tragedy in The Apu Trilogy, the flexibility of the human spirit in Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), the strong anti-war message in a children’s film named Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, 1968) and the victory of punishment over crime in his detective films Sonar Kella (The Fortress, 1974) and Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979).

Ray’s films demonstrates relationships, emotions, struggle, conflicts, joys and sorrows of human life. Though initially inspired by the neo-realist style of filmmaking, his cinema fit in not to a specific category but belongs to a meta-genre of storytelling that consists of the works of Kurosawa, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Fellini, David Lean, Bergman, Renoir, Bunuel, Robert Bresson Yasujiro Ozu and Ritwik Ghatak. All very distinct in style and subject, and yet architects of cinema that is ageless and universal.

Ray’s last film, Agantuk (The Stranger, 1992), was on a peak of the master storyteller’s philosophy and belief systems. When casting Utpal Dutt for the main role of Agantuk, Ray told the veteran actor that he must speak on the filmmaker’s behalf as he had put his own views into this character. Civilization to religion, Tagore to tribal, morality to science, social responsibilities to human values — Ray the humanist explored all in his own style as a true Auteur.

Satyajit Ray sketching costumes possibly for Home and the World 1984 ©Nemai Ghosh. Image

It is heard that on the final day of shooting his last film, Ray spread his hands up in the air and said, “That’s it. That’s all there is. I don’t have anything more to say.” Soon after receiving the Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, he passed away at the age of 70 in his beloved Calcutta in 1992. He was remarkably prolific throughout his film career. Still now the Master Filmmaker is very much relevant and living through his immortal films among us.

‘‘Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.’’ – Akira Kurosawa

‘‘We all need to see the films of Satyajit Ray and re-see them, again and again. Taken all together, they’re one of our greatest treasures.’’ – Martin Scorsese

“I have 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 work. I am interested in learning more about Indian film industry and that is the reason why I came,” – Christopher Nolan told PTI on his trip to India in 2018.

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Abhijit Ghosh
Abhijit Ghosh
Filmmaking Teacher & Film/Video Editor.
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