Ray, Satyajit (1921–1992) By Parui, Avishek
Satyajit Ray was an Indian filmmaker, writer, music director, and illustrator, considered among the greatest auteur-directors of 20th-century cinema, along with the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Born into an illustrious family of intellectuals who epitomized the high point of the late 19th-century Bengal Renaissance, Ray studied economics and fine arts before going on to join the British advertising firm D. J. Keymer in 1943, where he worked as visual designer.
Satyajit Ray was an Indian filmmaker, writer, music director, and illustrator, considered among the greatest auteur-directors of 20th-century cinema, along with the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Born into an illustrious family of intellectuals who epitomized the high point of the late 19th-century Bengal Renaissance, Ray studied economics and fine arts before going on to join the British advertising firm D. J. Keymer in 1943, where he worked as visual designer. The experience of watching Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves while on a company-sponsored training trip to London in 1950 inspired Ray to become a filmmaker. He would go on to make thirty-six feature films during a career that spanned over three decades and was marked by numerous accolades, including the Legion of Honor in 1987 and the Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, which Ray received in his hospital bed in Kolkata in 30 March, 1992.
Making his directorial debut with Pather Panchali [The Song of the Road] in 1955—a film that would win eleven international awards including Best Human Documentary at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival—Ray established himself as a filmmaker who combined a Western cinematic vocabulary with stories essentially and emotionally located in Indian contexts. Pather [Panchali], along with Aparajto [The Unvanquished] (1956) and Apu Sansar [The World of Apu] (1959) are part of the landmark Apu Trilogy, which is based on the work of the Bengali novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The trilogy is situated in the early years of the 20th century, and the narrative traces the life of the young Apu, who comes from a poor Bengali family. Ray’s trilogy played a foundational role in establishing the movement called the “Indian Parallel Cinema.”
Ray’s films dealt with topics that ranged from fairy tales to political satires, from rural poverty to urban discontent in post-Independence India. Ray adapted the works of other literary giants such as Henrik Ibsen and Rabindranath Tagore, whom he considered to be his mentor. Charulata [The Lonely Wife] (1964), one of Ray’s most successful films, is based on Tagore’s novella Nahtanir [The Broken Nest] (1901); the film is more experimental than Ray’s earlier films, and is one of the best examples of the influence of modernist cinema on Ray. A prolific writer of popular detective fiction who still features in the Indian fiction bestseller lists, Ray made the detective films Sonar Kella [The Golden Fortress] in 1971 and Joy Baba Felunath [The Elephant God] in 1979, shooting in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan and the Ganges Ghats in Benares. The Golden Fortress also deals with parapsychology, a branch of study that engages with telepathy and extrasensory perception.
The cinematic techniques Ray appropriated often included the modernist stream-of-consciousness narrative, perhaps most poignantly depicted in Ray’s 1966 film Nayak [The Hero] a film featuring the human subconscious in a real and symbolic journey across time. Ray often dealt with the disturbing dialectic of physical reality and metaphysical experience; in this, he shares the modernist ambivalence about the objective world and its subjective experience. The political quality of the magical Realism in Ray’s cinematic narratives—such as Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne [The Adventures of Goophy and Bagha] (1969) and Hirak Rajar Deshe [The Kingdom of Diamonds] (1980)—had attracted the personal admiration of writers such as V. S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow, and Salman Rushdie. Popular as well as intellectually stimulating in its formal innovations, disturbing as well as engaging in its content, Ray’s oeuvre is justifiably considered classic cinema.