The first internationally acclaimed director is Satyajit Ray, whose Discovery of India through directorial lens has been a strategy for changing the set rules of the game. He gave Indian Cinema it’s much coveted identity.

Global Magic Of Ray

“This land is your land, this land is my land/From California, to the New York Island/From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters/This land was made for you and me”: Pete Seeger.

1 11 Satyajit Ray: The Game Changer of Indian Cinema

Indeed, this world is as much ‘your world’ as it is mine! Stretching the boundaries of time, place and consciousness, certain eternal token of art stay… Satyajit Ray’s films are among them. As a result, the term paradox even becomes hollow when one affirms the modern world as the ‘dwindling yet expanding world.’ That is Globalisation and  Ray’s films have sustained the mortality of time and place. His films unite us to vow “ Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

To get lost in the wilderness might be a fantasy for many. It’s not feasible either. However, to get lost in and dwell amidst Ray’s universe and revel in cinematic experiences is, but a treat. The grand narratives envelop the cine lover and ensnare them forever. That’s Ray’s magic, his hunting style. To opine Satyajit Ray was the game changer when it came to Indian movies, won’t be an exaggeration. Though his films are categorised as ‘Bengali films’, owing to their linguistic margins, the canvas is humanitarian, universal and even his satires rueful. A grand master of world cinema, he had a way with the camera lens that spoke for him and shared an amazing camaraderie with the Western world. They loved his works and till date they do! The first Indian director to have bagged International recognition was Ray. The movie spectator and the bioscope share an interpersonal relationship. It’s the one between the hunters and those hunted. It’s at once dyadic and airtight. Even the most heckling of all crowds is befuddled by a ‘good movie’. Ray was aware of it. The ‘International art house circuit’, ‘third world film’,’ slow cinema’ and ‘rural realism’ all was known to Ray. He had a mouthful of them all. It was his ‘slice of life’ technique, as Anton Chekov would put it, that played a major role in demarcating boldly the issues of the contemporary society and changed the game! Map of Indian cinema was drawn afresh…

Early Life of Ray

An illustrious family was what Ray had. Upendra Kishore Raychoudhury, his father was a multifaceted artist-musician, publisher who forayed into Children’s Literature. Ray’s father Sukumar Ray, was a noted exponent of Absurd literature and rhymes. His creations gestate nonsense rhymes that later expanded and created a domain of their own. By the wield of Satire, Sukumar went on to follow the set traditions of Edward Lear. It’s no magic realism that Satyajit Ray, the fruit of this rich heritage became the uncrowned trailblazer of the medium that mirrors life.

Ray became captivated by the call of reel domain when he was still basking in the youthfulness of college life. Completing his graduation from Presidency College, Ray ventured, to discover the rustic artistry of Shantiniketan. The concept of Open air University thrilled him. Fine Arts was his chosen subject, and nature nurtured his soul as he went on to explore the Graphic Designer in him. Neo-realist films were then a huge hit with those hungry for meaningful cinema. Vittorio De Sica, created a worldwide fan following with his Bicycle Thieves. Ray literally started worshipping De Sica. However, idolatry was not his forte. Jean Renoir visited India to shoot and Ray started visiting him on a regular basis. Again a major impact on him was Charles Dickens, whose novels almost shook him out of complacency. So, there was the joint inspiration of England, Italy and France on this Indian mind, and the impressionist touch of Upendrakishore that he inherited as a legacy. A film maker with Indian identity was born.

As the Game started to Change….

‘Pather Panchali’ is about the struggle for existence of a famine faced family of colonial bengal and the story of Apu. Ray drew the rural, rustic life in black and white, his camera intriguing and forever penetrating the highs and lows. “The qualities that it made a great book;” Ray later observed about Pather Panchali, “ its humanism; its lyricism and its ring of truth. The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity; life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.” Apur Sansar and Aparajito followed completing the Apu Trilogy; the innocence of Pather Panchali replaced by the experience of the adult world in Aparajito and Apur Sansar. The films he did, all begin in a simple manner, but later move on to a level of complexity through cadenced camera exposures and escalating dialogues.

While Charulata (1964), Satranj Ki Khiladi (1977) bears the watermark of Ray’s luxuriousness, Ghare Baire (The Home and the world), an adaptation of Tagore’s convoluted novel is a far cry marked by the steep contrasts of clash of idealism and pettiness of political power play. Set in 1905, the period film traces the Bengal partitioned by Lord Curzon into Hindu and Muslim Sectors. The colonizer and the colonized, the world and the home: the chambers that rule the social, political and the family fronts: Ray showed it all. Nikhil is the epitome of the Bourgeois class, a wealthy landowner who is liberal, a pacifist so to say and farsighted. He is ‘home’ to Bimala, his betrothed wife and the figure of the Eurocentric colonizer to Sandeep, Nikhil’s revolutionary, Swadeshi comrade. Transgression is a major feature in The Home and the World. Sandeep’s nationalistic oratory vs. Nikhil’s scepticism, Bimala’s transgression, narcissistic tendencies of the Swadeshi Hero are all portrayed by Ray that may be coined what Gillo Pontecorvo’s felt -the“Third World Cinema.” As Ray goes on to portray Sandeep’s overt nationalism as a subversion of Curzon’s divide and rule policy, and celebrates Bimala’s transgression, the spirit; the reel scenario that was akin to Bengal and India at large starts changing. Bimala is an existentialist to the core, who transgress the lines of domesticity set by patriarchy and is willing to suffer for her choice.

ghare baire 011 Satyajit Ray: The Game Changer of Indian Cinema

Bimala seen with her Husband Nikhil transgressing the boundaries of domesticity

Unthreatened by Bimala’s desire to explore the unexplored, the character of Nikhil embodies the road towards oncoming matriarch. His diligence is overwhelming and so is his championing the women’s cause as he clarifies “I see no logic in confining women… I think Muslims introduced the custom”. Tagore and Ray, the two custodian pillars of progressive Indian picture, amalgamate to give Bimala her new-found independence, Bimala- the representative of freedom loving women. It’s in Ray’s hand that Tagore’s Bimala finally gets a life, unburden the shackles of patriarchy and explores a world that is a far away globe, beyond the outcries of right and wrong. An allusion to Ibsen’s Nora, is Bimala, the later’s later journey is the beginning of the end or may be a brave new world that she is to explore at the cost of her earned ‘knowledge’. And it is here we realize the truth of Martin Scorsese’s observation about Ray, “Ray’s magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact will always stay with me.” To fit art timelessness in time and making them in sync with time was the magic of Ray with which he showed the real world and real characters in reel.

“For a popular medium,” Ray had once observed, “the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of the theme and the dishonesty of treatment.” His films were exactly so, the bricks he laid were of humanitarian colour, the roof was of a rare joie de vivre of the cosmopolitan world. The end result was an establishment; that is the rare enemy of time.

Ganashatru by Ray is a shadow of Ibsen’s “An enemy of the People”. The mob cowardice and religion, two vehement blocks before the journey of progress is etched by Ray in this film. A doctor is ‘enlightened’ only after a ‘progressive’ editor of a newspaper, politicians and the ignorant masses hailed by religious discourses start seeing him as an instrument of Machiavellianism. What religious bigotry can ram home, and the vicious web of religious totalitarianism along with the lack of reason and logic headed by science in common mass is all depicted by Ray. Ganashatru is a social doctrine of Ray who was perpetually an atheist and perhaps someone who knew to the core like the doctor “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”.

Agantuk1 Satyajit Ray: The Game Changer of Indian Cinema

Collage of Scenes from Agantuk

Again, Agantuk (The Stranger) traces the tale of a family that is bewildered by the retreat of the long-lost uncle. Labelled as an imposter, he is the centre of accumulated mistrust and suspicion. Conversations, veiled interrogations and questionnaires give way to the conflict between faith and the lack of it. The uncle is the epitome of disillusionment with civilization and the modern tech savvy world. A bohemian by choice and a crusader of nomadic life, he explodes ““It is one my greatest regrets that I am not a savage… long before I left home, civilization was drilled into my brain—Shakespeare, Bankim, Marx, Freud, Tagore…” the uncle is indeed a preacher of Rousseau’s Noble savage. As the uncle bifurcate civility (a definite behaviour pattern) from civilization (a reification), we are at once in tune with the discourses preached. To agree or not is a matter of choice.

As the issue of identity subsides later, a moral query is left to be answered. What is identity? Does ‘identity’ have any strict notions that it needs to identify with? The only answer retrievable is: those who abide by and attempt to thwart others with a strict definition of identity themselves are the “imposters”. Like once Colonialist Europe attempted and as a result colonized India. And the transgression of Ray, the insistence on identity is but the search of identity as the representative of a post colonial nation. V.S Naipaul has observed about the “third world consciousness” and the concept of “half made societies” where the impossible old struggles with the appalling new. To abolish, dislocate the Eurocentric identity and identifications and rather create own definitions thrives to be the duty of the postcolonial nations who is in a perennial journey from nothingness of identity to a ‘being’. Satyajit ray films exactly did that to Indian Cinema giving Indian cinema a distinct identity amidst the world frame. Unarguably, the empire showed back!

Game Changed?

“In the restrained style he has adopted, Ray has become a master of technique. He takes his timing from the nature of the people and their environment; his camera is the intent, unobtrusive observer of reactions; his editing the discreet, economical transition from one value to the next.” – Roger Manvell (The International Encyclopedia of Film, 1972). Apart from the thematic crux, even technically Ray represented the Neo Indians! His Kanchenjungha is berserk with a narrative of hyperlink format where multiple narratives weave in and out and the characters are interconnected through one principal event, the technique that is currently favourite of Alejandro González Iñárritu. A chronological concept of time, a feature of post modern cinema is portrayed in Kanchenjungha where time moves, but not in a linear pattern. Ray was in sync with it when Indian cinema was in the phase of crawling and was learning to walk! There lies Ray’s changing the game!

Critical acclamations and success arrived at his door as his movies were highly applauded in Venice, Cannes, Locarno and Berlin. What Ray earned for Indian cinema was but a global market and recognition and an identity. However, he was the recipient of intense criticism from several quarters. Ray was accused of being an ambassador of the bourgeois class and culture. Ray’s friend Chidananda Dasgupta accused him of being unconcerned of “Calcutta of the burning trains, communal riots, refugees, unemployment, rising prices and food shortages”. While Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta ’71 pen pictured the restlessness of Naxallite Bengal, and Ritwik Ghatak wrapped his vision with the issues of have not’s Ray conspicuously dealt with the loving portrait of landed gentry in Jalsaghar whose aesthetic overtones mapped the charisma of his aristocracy. However, someone who has glared through the reel reality of Mahanagar or Pratidwandi, is aware of the fact how the Bengal famine of 1943 touched Ray. He just portrayed them in a different manner. Even in Seemabadhha and in Janaarranya the problems of unemployment that governed the social sky of the contemporary metropolitan life; are depicted.

Ray himself had once observed‘Film, as a mode of expression, and the very concept of an art form existing in time was a western concept, not an Indian one.’ And there lies the perennial attempt of Ray to show the Western world through a reel journey of success of the colonized Indians. And there lies the irony too; his films were accepted much heartily in the west than in the Home front. Often Jingoists’ criticised his work and labelled them as a brutal romanticism of India’s poverty to earn global market. But Ray showed it, as it was!

Salman Rushdie observes about Ray-“Ray has invariably preferred the intimate story to the grand epic, and is the poet par excellence of the human-scale, life-sized comedy or tragedy of ordinary men and women, journeying, as we all journey, down little, but unforgettable roads.” The unforgettable roads remain. As India is on her sojourn for a progressive tomorrow with each dusk giving way to a new dawn, Satyajit Ray’s films are discovered in new ‘ray’ of light. That he would be a game changer perhaps was preordained, his name bearing allusions to the fact: someone who has won over truth. He did. He did it for India, the country that salutes him and his works till today and remembers him as the game changer before the Eurocentric world!

By Adrita Dey Ghatak

Also See:

Complete Adventures of Feluda – Vol. 1 Satyajit Ray: The Game Changer of Indian Cinema
A Century of Indian Cinema: From the Art to the Technology,
R itwik Ghatak: The Radical Genius

Image Courtesy: NDTV Photos, Video Courtesy: You Tube Videos

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