How can someone who had once created artworks for Jabakusum hair oil and Chelsa cigarette advertisements become India’s foremost filmmaker? By observing Jean Renoir it would seem. Watching the director shoot The River in a 1940s Kolkata, Satyajit Ray had first developed a keen interest in cinema. An interest, which apart from direction, saw Ray master the arts of scripting, editing and composition.
Indian cinema was never Ray’s forte. He disliked and criticised the larger than life characters, the melodrama and the cheap gimmickry. His mind was set on Hollywood films directed by Charles Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Fleming.
He believed Hollywood taught him what to do and what not to do. Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin were his idols. When Vittorio D’Sica transformed the concept of filmmaking with his 1948 neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves, Ray watched the film five times over. But for Ray, an artificially created set was never enough. He wanted to bring the movie camera to the streets and forests. Most importantly, he wanted to invent a reality that was not crude.
With his very first film Pather Panchali (Song Of The Road), Satyajit Ray created a cinematic language that was unknown to India. With this and subsequent ventures, Ray proved that even an audience used to the one-food-serves-all thali culture of entertainment, is able to digest a more meaningful cinema. While brevity and the effortless weaving of private and public narratives remained the hallmarks of Ray’s cinema, we even find demonstrations of a very practical romanticism in films like Devi and Charulata.
Several critics have argued that Ray’s repertoire shies away from making political statements, but it is perhaps essential to note that the filmmaker was only too aware that the Indian censors would never be accepting of films like Godard’s 1967 La Chinoise.
Yet Ray openly protested the Vietnam War and refused to film a documentary on Jawaharlal Nehru during the Emergency. Ray, Manoj Kumar, Gina Lollobrigida and Inder Kumar Gujral were once attending the International Film Festival of India in 1974 at New Delhi. IK Gujral, who later went on to become the prime minister of the country, happened to state that the censors had permitted kissing on screen. Indian filmmakers were not making the right use of it. “That is the tragedy,” Ray had in his deep baritone.
Depths are not alien to Ray or his work. An exhibition of his sketches, photographs and art designs at New Delhi’s Siri Fort only goes to prove that no celebration of Indian cinema’s 100 years is complete without a mention of the inimitable Ray.
Ranjan Das Gupta is a Kolkata-based corporate communications consultant. The views expressed by the author are personal.