Hollywood in his heart
Satyajit Ray was more interested in cinema from the land of the setting sun than those made in India at that time. One of his oft-repeated sayings was, “Hollywood taught me what to do and what not to do.” True, he was highly impressed by Akira Kurosawa, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Luis Buñuel and Vittorio De Sica. But he loved the films of Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder.
Ray wrote to Wilder in the late 1940s stating his admiration of the latter’s works; Wilder never bothered to reply. But, in time, Ray became the most respected Indian director in Hollywood. Says Martin Scorsese, “I was overwhelmed watching the Apu trilogy and Devi…. Ray worked wonders in Charulata, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Pratidwandi. His handling of a variety of subjects with finesse, within small budgets unimaginable in Hollywood, is superb.”
Even Wilder warmed up. Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, says, “When the Lifetime Achievement Oscar was presented to my father in 1992, Billy Wilder invited my father to visit Hollywood as his guest, but sadly he passed away soon after.”
Elia Kazan, maker of classics such as On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, made it a point to visit the Ray residence on Lake Temple Road in Kolkata when he toured India in the early 1960s. Kazan said, “In Ray, I have noticed a complete filmmaker. He has mastered the art of scriptwriting, direction, editing and scoring music — which very few in the world can equal. If he were in Hollywood, he would have proved a tough challenge for all of us. The simplicity of Pather Panchali, the poignancy of Devi, and the aesthetics of Charulata haunt me as well as many other filmmakers of the west.”
Ray came across Gregory Peck in Europe. Peck, like Marlon Brando, had showed keen interest in working with Ray. He had told the maestro, “I will work with you anytime you want me. True, I got a Roman Holiday and To Kill A Mocking Bird in Hollywood, but I am equally eager to perform in a Devi or Nayak, which I consider masterpieces.”
Ray met David Lean at an Agra Hotel in the early 1960s. He walked up to Lean and, after the introduction, spent hours discussing international cinema. Ray marveled at Lean’s Brief Encounters and Lawrence of Arabia, while Lean considered Mahanagar and Charulata among the best he had seen. To him, Ray and Kurosawa were the best directors from Asia.
In 1977, Richard Attenborough acted as the ruthless, scheming General Outram in Shatranj ke Khiladi at a pay much lesser than what he received for, say, The Great Escape (1963). Says Attenborough, “I was honoured that one of the world’s greatest directors was eager to direct me. I submitted myself totally to him and found him to be a true actor’s director. His sense of the script and details are unparalleled.” Till today, Attenborough remains a torch-bearer of the Satyajit Ray Society.
In the same decade that Shatranj ke Khiladi was made, Francis Ford Coppola admitted in an interview: “Had Ray received a Brando, an Al Pacino or a Robert De Niro, he could have worked wonders with them.” About a decade earlier, Ray was close to making an English film for Twentieth Century Fox with Marlon Brando, Shashi Kapoor and Audrey Hepburn; to the stars’ dismay, the film never went on the studio floors.
Later, a bitter Ray pointed out to author Hirak Sengupta that Steven Spielberg’s ET was a take-off on one of his Bengali short stories, though uncredited. Presenting the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991, a cheerful Audrey Hepburn said, “One of the greatest directors at last got his due.” Ray breathed his last a year later, on April 22.
The author is a freelance journalist and PR consultant