Like his films, Ray was deeply rooted in the culture of Bengal, but was simultaneously international. He straddled effortlessly the East and the West. Consequently, his films are culture-specific and yet manage to transcend language and cultural barriers. Probably that is why, even today, they run to packed houses in places like Los Angeles, where I recently had occasion to be witness to one such ecstatic reception. And it is not just the Indian diaspora that make up the appreciative crowd but a diverse international audience, three or four generations removed from Ray at that. Fifty years after they were made, viewers and film-makers alike continue to be moved and influenced by the wonder of Apu’s first glimpse of a train, the romance of Apur Sansar, the lyricism of the swing scene in Charulata, the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri. In that regard, Ray’s films constitute a truly successful cross-over cinema that everybody now is aspiring to make.
Ray was often accused of being non-political by several contemporaries as well sections of the audience. To say that Ray’s films were not political would be to take a very narrow definition of politics. He was political but his approach was different. His protagonists are not political demagogues — except perhaps the malevolent Hirak Raja — but characters who are caught on the hinges of historical transformations, like the protagonists of Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya. These films are conversations with the shifting sands of the times through which he lived and which, in turn, shaped his films. The first phase of his career — coinciding with the hope and idealism of the newly emergent nation — saw him make what in effect are his finest films reflecting the spirit of the times. They reflected also his own upbringing, his education in music and the arts, and his belief in the confluence of the East and the West. This vision was both Tagorean and Nehruvian. The political and economic ideals of the Nehruvian era, however, began to disintegrate around the mid-1960s. The uncertainties of the era, the economic, political and social upheavals of the 1970s, found their way into Ray’s films: the alienation and waywardness of the urban youth in Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya and the collapse of the middle-class moral order in Seemabaddha. The grim portrayal of the 1943 Bengal famine in Ashani Sanket showed politics of that time, while Ghare Baire was a very contemporary critique of a Hindu majoritarian nationalism. A secular impulse ran through his films and he often made courageous forays into the domain of blind faith, superstition and religious bigotry (Devi, Mahapurush and Ganashatru). His films were not about political stances; it was about how politics affected people and altered their moral and ethical values.
The trouble with looking at Ray’s cinema is that his own formidable and impressive persona begins to mediate our understanding of his films. His personal charisma, his baritone voice, his erudition and encyclopedic knowledge, his familiarity and comfort with both Bengali and English, made him a towering personality. It has therefore been impossible to extricate him from his films. This has been both good and bad. For those who admired Ray uncritically, he became the avenue by which to understand his films. For those who did not, he became an art-house figure who was distant, unreachable and obscure. This combined with differences in regional sensibilities, lack of suitable marketing and distribution, and of course, the Bengali language has continued to impede a more wide-spread engagement with Ray’s films within the country. Few will disagree that language is an important part of Ray’s films. Those who know the Bengali language will inevitably get more out of his films and for the rest, much will be lost in translation. Contrary to popular perception, his films were not confined to the elite intelligentsia, but have been enjoyed by a large cross-section of audiences belonging to both the Bengals. Many in Bengal accused him of not taking the box office into consideration. Ray had this to say in response: “I did not actually do that. Not just me, no director would want his film to be watched only by his near and dear ones. Films are made for people — everyone wants as large a viewership as possible. I wanted the same for mine. But my own view of the box office is somewhat different from the accepted one. I know that audiences can be entertained even without the tradition- al elements of the box office.”
Yet, sadly, there are those who thought that his international fame was undeserved; and that he got his international acclaim “by peddling Indian poverty abroad”. One would have thought that such an absurd viewpoint would by now have been dismissed with the contempt it deserves. But it keeps cropping up every now and then and this is certainly a lie that needs to be nailed. The implication seems to be that to be a true nationalist one must sweep uncomfortable truths about India under the carpet. This precisely is what Ray’s cinema stood against and this indeed is the ideological difference between Sandip and Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire. For Nikhilesh — as for Tagore and Ray — the people and their predicament came first and not the love of one’s country in the abstract. There is also disingenuousness in the way this argument is deployed. Would anyone say that Mother India is about poverty, or the films of Raj Kapoor? Or would anyone say that De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves owes its international reputation to its portrayal of war-ravaged Italy reeling under unemployment and hopelessness? If anything, Bicycle Thieves is as relentless a look at reality as the Ray films it inspired. As Ray most eloquently put it, “Cinema has its own way of telling the truth and it must be left free to function in its own right. This story [Pather Panchali] says true things about India. That was enough for me. It had the quality of truth, the quality that always impresses me.”
Today, the world is recognizing India’s contribution to the arts and to entertainment. It is an exciting time for us in films. Few years ago, there was a lot of interest and excitement about A.R. Rahman’s Golden Globe triumph and the Oscars for Gulzar and Resul Pookutty. But it may be useful to remember that if anyone can be credited with putting Indian cinema on the world map, it is Satyajit Ray. Among the many accolades he won was also the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. The journey began with Pather Panchali — a cinema utterly unlike what international audiences and film critics had so far associated Indian cinema with. I remember the New Statesman writing, “Now and then the wholly captivating film does arrive, the film we could sit through again immediately, and again. Such is Pather Panchali. It is the kind of masterpiece that, despite the imitation goods that poured for so long from the second biggest film industry in the world, one always felt that India should and must produce.” Over the next forty years, Ray was India’s flag-bearer in the international film scene. That, too, in an era not marked by the hype and hoopla we see and read about these days; an era where ‘India rising’ or ‘shining’ wasn’t part of any journalist’s lexicon.
But while awards and praise poured in, the commercial film industry‘s ambivalent attitude to Ray continued. While acknowledging Ray as the “first man to bring realism to Indian cinema, and the last”, Manmohan Desai told India Today in 1983, “Realism is Ray’s strength as well as his undoing. His films don’t click because the masses crave melodrama and excitement. If only Ray had struck an optimistic note here and there, he could have won a larger audience.” Ramesh Sippy made a clear distinction between what he called “our kind of cinema” and “Ray’s kind”, which, he opined, would never meet. He was categorical that “the level to which Ray probes his characters is beyond the reach of the ordinary viewer” and that “Ray will never be able to make a film for the masses”. Manoj Kumar dubbed Ray a “splendid failure” and summed him up as someone who “is always against the tide, against what the masses desire”. At a juncture when the multiplex phenomenon is inaugurating a variety of styles and stories, this polarization between Ray and practitioners in the popular industry seems anachronistic. While some remain hugely critical of him and his work, some admire him uncritically, even deifying him, making him too iconic to benefit from his legacy. They make his legacy appear impossible to contemplate, attempt or achieve.
Yet, Ray’s world was deeply embedded in the ordinary. Take, for instance, the iconic image of Ray that we have all seen in print: sitting in his spartan room in Calcutta, surrounded by books, paper, music, pens and paintbrushes. Here was a man far removed from the material world, inhabiting a world of imagination and ideas. He had use of money for just two things — books and music and, of course, for making films. And far from being distant, he was deeply and vibrantly engaged with life and with the critical issues of his times. He always answered phone-calls himself and replied to all letters in his own handwriting; visitors to his home would often be surprised to find him opening the door.
I have often been asked if Indian cinema has measured up to his legacy. My answer would be, cultural influences cannot be measured. They can only be seen through the traces they leave behind. And sometimes the traces may appear not to be influences at all. Therefore, when Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahani decided to structure their films like Indian classical music as opposed to Western classical music like Ray, they too engaged with the legacy of Ray. Points of departure can also be tributes. It may seem at first that Ray’s films have nothing to do with the popular cinema of Bombay. But culture travels in mysterious ways. Legacies like Ray’s seep through to become part of the social and cultural landscape. Ray’s influence has been widespread. Many have acknowledged his seminal contribution and have carried forward the legacy in their own way. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli, Govind Nihalani and Buddhadeb Dasgupta have directly acknowledged their debt. The early works of Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh resonate with the influence of Ray. Today, what we call multiplex films often demonstrate the influence of the legacy of the parallel cinema movement, pioneered by Shyam Benegal, who was greatly inspired by Ray. And if we free the idea of legacy from the connotations of replication, we open ourselves up to many ways of engaging with the magnificent world of Satyajit Ray. Then, for us viewers, the possibilities of inheritance are endless.
Popular mainstream cinema today has more money and investors than it ever had. Therefore, materially and technologically, new opportunities have opened up for both independent and mainstream cinema. However, as I often say, these possibilities by themselves do not make for memorable films. Extraordinary films are made, not by extraordinary technology or budget, but by extraordinary imagination, intuitiveness and insight. Cinema is central to our cultural and social lives because in the words of Ingmar Bergman, “No art passes our consciousness in the way film does and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” If, today, the cinema of Ray is part of our consciousness, then it is because it has the ability across a different time and space to illuminate the “dark rooms of our soul” and offers us the mindset to live and let live. Given the many concerns of his films, I have no doubt Ray’s cinema will return to enrich our lives over and over again.
Satyajit Ray, with his rich legacy, meant many things to many people. I will end with the huge personal debts that I owe him. He taught me how to look at cinema, how to be in front of the camera, how to think in character, how to enjoy a language, and he taught me the importance of the “moment”. He led by example and from him I learned the value of commitment to one’s work. Fifty-five years ago, a very young girl, as the young bride Aparna, crossed the threshhold on that first day’s shooting at the Technician Studio. Her life changed forever, as she entered the enchanting, magical world of cinema. Thank you, Manikda.