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Manikda as artist, icon

Two revised biographies of Satyajit Ray give a complete picture of auteur and the Bengali middle-class's 'Sottojeet'.

art and culture Updated: Mar 06, 2004 10:17 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra

The Inner Eye
Andrew Robinson
Oxford University Press
Biography, Cinema
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 745
ISBN: 019566812x

Portrait of a Director
Satyajit Ray
Marie Seton
Penguin India
Biography, Cinema
Pages: 416
Price: Rs 495
ISBN: 014302972X

For those of us gently suckered into either attacking or defending the ‘India Shining’ campaign, here’s a neat anecdote. In February 1954, nearly two years after Satyajit Ray began shooting Pather Panchali, an important state government official wrote a note regarding the possible sponsorship of the film.

The Home Publicity Departmant official, after seeing edited footage wrote: “PatherPanchali is rather dull and slow moving. It is a story of a typical Bengali family suffering from privation and family embarassments but at no stage does it offer a solution or an attempt to better the lot of the people and rebuild the structure of their society.” Ray got some money — in installments — from the government only after he was feted as a world-class director two years later.

Satyajit Ray, like that other cultural giant from Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, is perceived by two sets of people — Bengalis and non-Bengalis — as two different entities: one, the master filmmaker, who brought a sharp lyricism into world cinema, of whom Renoir had said in 1974: “Ray is quite alone, of course.” And then there’s ‘Shottojeet’, who along with Rabindranath (as opposed to Tagore) finds himself sharing wall space — and shelf-space — in Bengali middle-class homes.

While the former may have been lost on the government official, the latter, with his keen sense of humour and urban Bengali sensibilities, is lost on non-Bengalis. (One reason why the West has never found anything of any consequence in Ray’s richly textured musicals Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshey.)

Marie Seton’s classic biography, Portrait Of A Director, was published in 1971 by Dobson Books (UK) and captures in great detail the emergence of Ray as a world-class filmmaker. Reissued by Penguin India, it captures the spirit of the West’s- and via that ‘digression’ India’s — discovery of a 20th century genius. Seton updated the book in 1978 to include chapters about Ray’s later films, but it remains ‘incomplete’ due to the author’s death in 1985. We get Indrani Majumdar’s afterword instead on Ray’s subsequent movies. But it is Seton’s anecdote-driven, yet knowledgable writing that sparkles in its ‘now-ness’ even after Ray’s canonisation.

Andrew Robinson’s The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker, first published in 1989, obviously covers more ground. The writer, whose understanding of the Bengali psyche, language and landscape is much firmer than Seton’s (along with Krishna Dutta, Robinson has written the excellent Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man), tries to merge ‘Ray’ with ‘Sottojeet’ to form as composite a picture possible of the man.

Both authors have based their biographies not only on their understanding of the Ray oeuvre, but also by talking with the late director. Seton’s writing on individual works probe deeper into the text of the film. For instance, she writes with great insight the erotic undertones injected by Ray into his adaptation of the Tagore ghost story Manihara (one story from the triptych, Teen Kanya).

Robinson is less subjective. Instead, he goes to share revealing facts about the filmmaker- such as Ray’s usage of stuffed birds to suggest a menacing-cum-sterile atmosphere in the above-mentioned film after watching Hitchcock’s Psycho. But above everything else, both books portray a passionate man at his work — despite Robinson’s unsuccessful attempt to rescue the director’s last three films from mediocrity.

First Published: Mar 06, 2004 10:17 IST