Satyajit Ray’s genius lay in portraying subtleties and daily truths as art.
It was by complete coincidence that I was in Kolkata in the first week of May in the year 2014. It’s a week that sees cine lovers from all parts of Bengal and world over coming together to celebrate the birthday of Satyajit Ray on the second of May. My book on Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen had completed a year and over bhader cha (tea in an earthen saucer) and samosas, a few movie buffs among friends had gathered one evening to discuss the restoration and preservation of films from the 1950s and 60s.
The centre of attraction, however, was a hand drawn poster of Satyajit Ray’s film Sonar Kella that had been recently acquired by a collector friend who was with us that evening. With much fanfare, the poster was rolled out on the floor so that we could see the rather life-like sketch of the scorpion stare back at us. I ran my hands over the texture of the paint on the brilliantly done black and blue backdrop with yellow and white fonts that announced grandly in Bangla: ‘Satyajit Rayer sanghatik chhobi — Sonar Kella’ (a terrific film by Satyajit Ray — Sonar Kella). Unknown to my friends, I was searching for the master’s inner eye in the poster.
In his book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, who has profiled Ray like few others, talks very early on about the filmmaker’s sense of overpowering quietness, even that of withdrawal from a scene during the process of shooting, when he thought his presence wasn’t really required. Robinson, while accompanying Ray during one of his shooting sequences in the studio, remarks,
“Whenever he felt he had something to contribute, Ray was on the move around the studio, talking volubly, often vociferously in Bengali with occasional phrases in English… Otherwise he sat quietly, on a small wicker stool, pondering with his red shooting notebook in his hands and smoking or just biting his pipe; as his production team went about their jobs I was sometimes hardly aware that Ray was present at all.”
One sees much of this invisible eye in his open ended interpretation of the stories (by famous writers), which he adapted into films. The fact that Ray lets his characters speak more than himself in his films gives one the feeling that his invisible eye glides over the ultimate orchestra while he observes from a distance the direction it would take. In such cases what he doesn’t say as a filmmaker—or where he chooses to restrict his opinion — assumes as much importance as that which is obvious.
There have been very few directors who have adapted as many stories from literature, while leaving them open to interpretation, as did Ray in his films. In Postmaster, for example, Ray gives Ratan pride unlike how Tagore had handled the character. She does not react with sorrow to the postmaster’s offer of money when he leaves her towards the end, but seems to shrug off the inevitable show of pity that is typical of the emotion a caretaker feels for his protégée while walking off into his own world. A similar sense of suspense hangs about Charulata and her relationship with her husband in the film (of the same name), and we are left to ask as viewers whether they reconcile or separate. Ray leaves it to us to interpret.
In Pather Panchali, the questions are about delight — that one look on Opu’s face when he sees the train through the dense growth of kaash (Saccharum spontaneum) flowers. Or, is it in the play of dragonflies when Durga’s mother receives her husband’s letter saying he has finally earned some money? Or, is it in the play of the dog and the cat who idly sit around the verandah of the house?
Few filmmakers have made as fine a use of the subtle, or the unspoken as did Ray in his films. Our discussion that evening veered from Sonar Kella to the poetry-loving controversial character of Wajid Ali Shah in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Right after the stupendous success of Sholay and the immensely popular character of Gabbar played by Amjad Khan, Ray gave him a complete makeover in the character portrayal of the Nawab of Awadh, lover of poetry and dance.
Based on a story by Premchand about two apolitical aristocrats who are members of the political elite of Awadh, while also being passionate chess players, the film shows them concentrating on their game while the historical event of the annexation of the kingdom (to the British Empire) happens right under their noses. Who is a good ruler and who is not, what is important in life, battles or leisure, the film addresses all these issues with humour, subtlety and largesse. Does Ray make us look at the lifestyle of the aristocrats and landed gentry like he does in Jalshaghar, their behavior therein, the eternal dilemma of male virility between the man of arts and the man who goes to battle? Or, does he make us ponder over the questions on good governance from that which is perceived as wrong? Or, is it a commentary on the manipulative annexation and the politics therein seen through the outward glance of an inward game that the director wants us to focus on?
The psychological intensity of his films, the grandeur of the small and the familiarity of the familiar depicted through the pristine lens of art and acute timing, bring it all together like a miraculous gossamer web, which is perhaps what Ray’s work is all about. Strangely these are also the reasons why many do not understand Ray, dismissing his cinema as ‘slow’. Ray was anything but slow. The fact that humour and subtlety go hand in hand is a known fact, in Ray they found ample reflection. To understand Ray, one has to understand his sense of ease while working within Bengal, his familiarity and understanding of Western culture, music and art, his sense of Indian history, the influence of art and so much more.
As an only child, he confessed to observing his elders a lot, a habit that stayed with him for long. All art is perhaps a cumulative effect that life has had on the artist, and so it is with Ray. When Charulata flits from one window to another as the bored housewife, there are numerous sounds that one hears from the streets downstairs. The restless woman darting within her domain in the house can identify each of them, by merely hearing them from above. Ray perhaps puts into use, his own childhood memories of the various sounds of different street cries. In the same vein he also remembers that his first lessons in understanding light and its effective use were learnt while watching the rays of the sun filter in through small holes in his uncle’s house.
Ray’s genius, however, stems from his fine ability to showcase extreme reality in the lull of a dream, sometimes in the interludes of a musical piece, or the idiosyncrasies of children, which he deals with by panning the camera over the little magical moments of everyday life most of us have forgotten. Many would agree that Ray manages to depict children with rare finesse. It is interesting to note that a man occupied with serious issues of life like poverty, unemployment, women’s empowerment and much more could actually find such clarity of thought in the portrayal of children. In Pather Panchali, Ray does not depict Apu as a poor creature to be pitied or one who lives away from the realities of his poor life. The very fact that he shows both Apu and Durga, children who have little for themselves, enjoying the happy moments of life, is the sheer balance of brilliance that is reflected in most of his work.
My encounter that evening in May, with Ray’s poster of Sonar Kella filled me with curiosity enough to pick up a book that delves into the director’s art work — the oeuvres that were not confined to his films but found delightful resonance in the book covers he designed, the illustrations he did for different stories or his work with film posters. On 22 April this year, a leading digital cinema company involved in Bengali cinema released a calendar that featured 12 minimalistic versions of Ray’s original film posters as a tribute to the maestro on his death anniversary.
Every time we celebrate a few or all aspects of this talented filmmaker, one pauses to reflect on the fact that, while there have been many good directors after Ray, immensely successful in their own rights, there is no one like him, still. And in that Ray remains somewhat like the tree one finds after a long walk, grand in its immenseness, beautiful in its subtlety and yet rich in the capacity to understand the traveller’s fatigue and offer.