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Satyajit Ray: India’s Visionary Polymath

Satyajit Ray was a visionary genius, a polymath who wasn’t just one of history’s greatest filmmakers but also an exceptionally talented writer, illustrator, orator and composer.

He was, arguably, the most influential auteur of post-colonial India, whose greatest achievement was to marry his mastery of the camera with a profound understanding of the human condition. 

As such, he was decades ahead of his time not only as a filmmaker but as a humanitarian.

Born in Kolkata on 2nd May 1921, Ray was fortunate enough to be born into  a quite remarkable family of gifted artists. 

His grandfather was the acclaimed children’s author Upendrokishore Ray Chowdhury, whose finest work was creating children’s versions of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in Bengali – titled “Chheleder Ramayon” and “Chheleder Môhabharot” – and in the process liberating those two weighty works and making them accessible to an ever greater readership.  Apart from his writing, Upendrokishore Ray was also a talented violinist.

Ray’s father Sukumar was another multi-talented man. 

He was often placed in the same company as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and was India’s greatest creator of “Nonsense Verse”, literature and poetry characterized by humour and whimsy and full of “non-sensical” characters. 

His stories, whilst being immensely entertaining for children, were also pregnant with satire and commentary.  He was also a playwright and an illustrator.

Sukumar passed away at the young age of 36, succumbing to Leishmaniasis, a rare disease caused by the bite of a sand fly.  At the time, Satyajit was just 3.

Upendrokishore and Sukumar – along with Rabindranath Tagore, under whom Ray studied later on his life – proved to be immense influences in Satyajit Ray’s life.  He inherited his father and grandfather’s artistic dexterity.

Ray’s films are the ultimate manifestation of his versatile talents: he wrote the screenplays for a vast majority of his movies, composed the background scores, created sets, costumes and storyboards, illustrated the film posters, everything but act.

What’s more, far from being a director known for a particular genre, Ray’s movies explore myriad topics and span a plethora of genres, styles and themes.

Internationally, he is best known for the “Apu Trilogy” which, remarkably, included his directorial debut “Pather Panchali” (Song of the Little Road) as well as “Aparajito” (The Unvanquished) and “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu). 

Adapted from a novel by Bibhutibhshan Bandopadhyay, the trilogy follows the life of “Apu” from his childhood through adolescence to adulthood, from doe-eyed rural innocent to world weary urban cynic. 

The beauty, simplicity and humanism that Ray imbued in these movies brought him global fame and Ray was frequently hailed in the same breath as the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

His towering prowess behind the camera has meant that Ray’s literary genius has been overshadowed, somewhat.

It is safe to say that had he not taken up films, Ray would still be famous the length and breadth of India, perhaps even beyond the borders of the sub-continent. 

Two of his most famous literary characters – Feluda and Professor Shonku – have long been dominant characters in Bengali popular culture.  Ray was an admirer of Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and he drew much from Holmes’ exploits in shaping his characters. 

Prodosh Chandra Mitter, aka Feluda (‘Felu’ being his nickname, and ‘Da’ a a short form of ‘Dada’ or elder brother), was in many ways a reflection of the great man himself.

Like Ray, Feluda was a chain smoker, over 6 feet tall (Ray was 6′ 5″), an avid reader, a travel addict, extremely knowledgeable on a wide array of topics ranging from history to music and possessed a brain the size of a planet and a quick wit.  

With his nephew-cum-narrator Topshe and a writer of mystery and adventure fiction, Lal Mohon Ganguly aka ‘Jatayu’ (representing a typical middle-class Bengali) as sidekicks, Feluda’s thirty-five captivating detective and adventure tales are to Bengalis what the Harry Potter series to the West.

Professor Shonku’s forty-odd tales, on the other hand, were science fiction stories borne out of Ray’s vibrant and eclectic imagination. 

Ray also wrote numerous short stories, belonging to a vast variety of genres, ranging from the macabre to the swashbuckling through satire and fables of love.

Ray was in fact a huge lover of detective and science fiction tales.

He adapted two of his Feluda stories, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), to screen with thrilling and utterly memorable effects.

If there was one disappointing aspect of his life in motion pictures it was that he failed to realize a long-held dream to bring a science fiction story to the big screen.  Ray had planned to adapt one of his short stories into a film called The Alien.

Columbia Pictures was lined up to produce with Marlon Brando starring. 

The plan however, fell through only for Ray to be disillusioned further when Steven Spielberg’s iconic film E.T. captivated the world a decade and a half later bearing striking similarities to Ray’s original story.

Many still believe that it is much more than a coincidence that Columbia was behind E.T. and that Spielberg’s film was blatant plagiarism.

Ray was perhaps most accomplished as an illustrator, a fact identified by the famous British advertising firm of D. J. Keymer in Kolkata.  All of his novels and short stories are wonderfully illustrated giving added life to his vibrant stories.

It was while he was working for Keymer that he was drafted into assist famed French director Jean Renoir who had arrived in Kolkata to shoot his movie “The River”. 

Ray would later travel to London where he immersed himself in the movies, watching hundreds, including the “Bicycle Thieves” by Vittorio De Sica.

It was a film that would leave a lasting imprint on Ray and eventually lead to the adaptation that would become “Pather Panchali”.

American filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said: “Ray’s magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact will always stay with me”. 

Befitting his exceptional talent and enduring influence, Ray has been conferred with innumerable awards, chief among which is the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award; the French equivalent, ‘Legion d’Honneur’ and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

– Poonam Joshi

The Satyajit Ray Season at the British Film Institute gets underway August 14.  For screening times and venues, visit www.bfi.org.uk

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