The late Nargis Dutt criticised Satyajit Ray in 1980 by saying that he became popular by showcasing India’s poverty to the world.
Her comment heralded a series of protests across the nation, but the issue died soon, as Nargis did not have many supporters. But Ray never responded to this. He didn’t believe in involving himself in petty issues and maintained his dignity. When Nargis passed away a year later, Ray didn’t fail to compliment her acting skills. He also confessed that he had missed the chance of working with her in Abhijan for which Nargis was the first choice. She couldn’t accept Ray’s offer in 1961 because she was pregnant.
Twenty years ago, today, India lost Ray, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers. Even today, people remember him with awe and respect. However, people thought of him as a serious person who had a volatile temper. But Ray was nothing of that sort.
He was the proverbial urban, educated Bengali who had the rare touch of British restraint. He was honest to confess, after the death of his illustrious contemporary Ritwik Ghatak, that he could never be a true Bengali like the maker of Megne Dhaka Tara. An introvert by nature, Ray maintained a distance from a majority of people, especially those associated with the film world. He opened up to only his closest associates like Subrata Mitra, Bansi Chandragupta and Soumitra Chatterjee.
Ray felt that in Bombay (today’s Mumbai) scripts are made, not written. He was critical of those who found unnecessary faults in his most technically perfect film Charulata. Ray brushed off his critics by saying that those who enjoyed Sangam should not criticise Charulata. He had high regard for V Shantaram, Guru Dutt and Ramesh Sippy whose Sholay he thoroughly enjoyed. Ray’s favourite director in the Hindi film world was Chetan Anand whose Neecha Nagar, he thought, was a trend-setter. His admiration for MS Sathyu, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta is well known. Ray went to the extent of writing that parallel filmmakers of Mumbai in the 80s were better storytellers than their Bengali counterparts. Ray also made public his resentment of the national awards and the selection process of its jury. He never chaired the national awards committees. His critics tried their best to degrade Ray’s reputation by stating that many of his comments were out of context, but Ray did not care, as he believed in calling a spade a spade.
Ray was India’s most sensitive and committed filmmaker. He believed in — and stuck to his principle of — directing socially poignant and relevant films without complicating genuine issues in the name of art.
A senior film critic once pointed out a flaw in Pather Panchali (Song Of The Road). The charge was that Ray’s knowledge of rural Bengal was limited. The reason: Ray showed a married Sarbojaya (Karuna Bandopadhyay and Apu’s mother in the film) sewing with a thread and needle after sunset in the movie, which was not common in the villages of Bengal in the 1950s. Ray accepted the mistake and confessed that if he had directed Pather Panchali a decade later he would have made the film better and would have rectified all the flaws.
Ray will always be remembered and admired — not worshipped, as he disliked it — as long as cinema exists. Ranjan Das Gupta is a Kolkata-based corporate communications consultant and freelance journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal