by Suresh Kumar
“Pivot” is a popular corporate concept and has been trending for a while. If you are looking for an example of a very successful career pivot, you only have to look at Satyajit Ray’s. His was the perfect one. After all, in his 30s, he left a very promising career in advertising (D.J. Keymer), to focus full time on film making. And the world has been richer for it.
Growing up, he was interested in music and films – listening to western music on vinyl and watching Hollywood blockbusters. It was only during a work trip to London that he saw Bicycle Thief and other European classics. De Sica’s Bicycle Thief in particular left a lasting impression on him – he realized that universal truths could be conveyed sincerely by shooting on location (as opposed to in a studio) without the use of professional actors. His subsequent meeting with Jean Renoir, one of the greatest film directors, during the latter’s visit to Calcutta for a film shoot only reinforced Ray’s conviction to tell Bengali stories with a universal appeal.
After the phenomenal success – critical and commercial – of his first feature ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Little Road) in 1955, Satyajit Ray decided to call a halt to his advertising career in favour of full time filmmaking. It was the first film in the now famous Apu Trilogy after which he went on to make 36 feature films, and many documentaries!
Ray was self-taught when it came to film-making, taking inspiration from directors as varied as John Ford, Truffaut and Charlie Chaplin. How he and a rag-tag set of friends turned their passion for films into the making of ‘Pather Panchali’ is the stuff of legend. For example, cinematographer Subrata Mitra (who also shot ‘Charulata’, which Ray considers his best film) was only 21 when he shot ‘Pather Panchali’ and had no prior experience handling a camera!
His art director sensibility and love for photography (an ardent admirer of the Cartier Bresson style) ensured that each frame in his films was not only interestingly composed but imbued with the right texture and light for sublime, timeless images. From ‘Nayak’ (The Hero) to ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’ (Days and Nights in the Forest) and ‘Devi’ (The Goddess), one can see how meticulously the shots have been planned and executed.
Perhaps it was his training as a painter, illustrator and art director that led him to find visual solutions for any situation. Nonetheless, equal attention was given to the scripting/dialogue. His screenplays, whether adapted or original, showed his mastery over the film medium and language. Ray has successfully brought to screen the works of famous Bengali writers like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhya, Narendranath Mitra, and of course, Rabindranath Tagore. His original screenplays include gems like ‘Kanchenjunga’ and his swansong, ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger).
Initially, he worked with the best musicians India has ever produced for the music composition in his films – Pandit Ravi Shankar for The Apu Trilogy, Ustad Vilayat Khan for ‘Jalsaghar’ (The Music Room) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for ‘Devi’. However, he soon started composing music for his films himself. In his own words, “The reason why I do not work with professional composers any more is that I get too many musical ideas of my own, and composers, understandably enough, resent being guided too much.”
Combining his vast knowledge of and love for both Indian and Western classical music, Ray has given us some great compositions. ‘Mahanagar’ (The Big City), ‘Ghare Baire’ (Home and the World) and ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) are just some fine examples of his musical prowess.
It’s no exaggeration then to say that Satyajit Ray was an auteur in the truest sense of the word: writer, director, cinematographer, costume designer, casting director, music director, editor as well as the designer of film posters! Ever since ‘Charulata’, Ray opted to operate the camera himself – not because he distrusted his cameraman, but because he wanted to know at all times exactly how a shot was going. No wonder, the arrangement of actors in scenes or as the French call it, ‘Mise-en-scène’, is always near perfect.
He was feted at Cannes. He has won the Golden Lion at Venice. He got an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. He has been celebrated with festivals and retrospectives all over the world. But the greatest award is being admired and recognized by your peers. From Antonioni, Kiarostami and Scorsese then to Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Isabel Sandoval now, directors continue to be inspired by the film legacy Ray has left behind.
Above all, Ray was a keen observer of life which he then put forth assiduously on the screen. He was accessible to all – his phone number was listed in the Calcutta phone directory and anyone could drop in at his Bishop Lefroy Road residence for a chat about anything under the sun!
Ray consciously tried not to repeat himself thematically. Which is why his film oeuvre includes myriad themes such as a coming of age story (The Apu Trilogy), a fantasy comedy (Parash Pathar, “The Philosopher’s Stone”), a woman-emancipation drama (Mahanagar, The Big City), an understanding of the impact of famine (Ashani Sanket, ‘Distant Thunder’), a study of science versus superstition (Ganashatru, Enemy of the People, an adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play), a mystery (Joi Baba Felunath, The Elephant God), a saga of indulgence amidst political manoeuvre (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, The Chess Players, Ray’s only Hindi feature) and so on. There was a strong, unifying link though – his signature poetic realism conveyed via the casting, costumes, setting and dialogues.
One wonders what his output would have been like if he had access to modern technology (read iPhone and iMovie)! If you haven’t seen a Ray film yet, it’s not too late. On his birth centenary, ‘Pather Panchali’, followed by the remaining two films of the Apu Trilogy is a great place to start. You don’t have to take my word for it. As Akira Kurosawa said, ”Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
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