2 June, 2023


Recollections Of A Phenomenal Filmmaker Of Our Times – SATYAJIT RAY [May 2, 1921 to April 23, 1992]

By Sunalie Ratnayake

Sunalie Ratnayake

Satyajit Ray is no more, yet that, with no doubt, is the most common feature in ‘life’. As humans, whether we are in favour or not, of life’s unique ‘modus operandi’ assimilated on each individual, facing the surge of events from birth to ailing, including the culmination, that shall temporarily blot the end of ‘one journey’ on earth, shall remain intact, unable to be amended as one may, at times wish it could be.
For the millions in number, who believe in ‘rebirth’ and the cycles in ‘sansara’, the indefinite space in time, from the ending of one journey on earth, to the beginning of another, shall only assemble a bridge of prolongation. The element of novelty unfolding in another time, another life.
The moment one may enter this world, also the moment of departure shall be registered, yet undisclosed. On May 2nd 1921, a day such as today, 92 years ago, Ray entered this world, and his moment of departure was registered to fall 71 years later, on April 23, 1992. Therefore, today falls Satyajit Ray’s Birth Anniversary – the 92nd in integer.
“Well, it is an extraordinary experience for me, to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award, certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career. As a school boy, I was terribly interested in the ‘Cinema’. Became a ‘film fan’. Wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply. Was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers. Didn’t get a reply. Then, of course I got into cinema, as an Art form. And I wrote a twelve page letter to Billy Wilder, after seeing ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944). He Didn’t reply either. Well, there you are. But, I have leant everything I’ve leant about the craft of Cinema, from the making of American films. I’ve been watching American films very carefully over the years. And I loved them, for what they entertained. And then later loved them for what they’ve taught. So, I express my gratitude, to the ‘American Cinema’, to the ‘Motion Picture Association’ who have given me this award, and who made me feel so proud. Thank you very, very much !” ~ Satyajit Ray (via satellite at the 1992 Academy Awards).

A distinguished appreciation 

That was the poignant segment of a fragile Ray’s Oscar acceptance speech, merely days prior to his death, which he delivered from bed, soon after the elegantly striking Audrey Hepburn clad in crimson, made a debonair introduction of this world renowned filmmaker, at the March 30, 1992 Oscar Award Ceremony, the 64th to be precise – An introduction of a man of colossal creativity, aptitude, and simplicity, that the entire world undoubtedly needed no prologue of.

Satyajit Ray

“This year, the Academy board of governors has voted to award an honorary Oscar, to the great Indian Filmmaker, SATYAJIT RAY. Mr. Ray has been making films for almost four decades. The Academy recognizes Mr. Ray’s rare mastery of the Art of Motion Pictures, and of his profound humanism, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.” That was the brief, yet consequential preamble on Ray, at the legendary Oscars, two decades ago, by the then 62 years old Hepburn, who had also unexpectedly neared her end, having suffered a sudden abdominal pain, during one of her many UNICEF trips to Africa, and later being diagnosed with abdominal cancer, which before long, seized her life on January 20, 1993, merely less than a year from adorning the said Oscars.
Be that as it may, the above mentioned were fractions of the momentous and emotive moments, when the remarkable Ray received his “Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement”. An award granted “just in time”, as obviously, there certainly is no point in garlanding pictures, wreathing statues, granting or promoting in designation, lamenting for dear life, once someone has bid farewell to this world. We have immense such scenarios, that could be taken as examples of such states of affairs, in our dear motherland Sri Lanka alone. For that reason, I shall rest my case on the notion, by simply stating ; “A human should always be appreciated, and even worshipped if apposite, during his or her lifetime. All the ‘drama’ following death, are mere futile affairs of hollow approach.”
An old and grey Ray, at the Oscars, seemed to be reaching the eventual finale of this riddle called ‘life’. Yet, with all that discomfort he may have been undergoing at that given moment in time, Ray, embracing the Oscar from both his now brittle hands, did not forget to also embrace the awe-inspiring moment via satellite, with some ‘mirth’, also carrying great weight in recollecting his humble past.
A past overflowing the abundant love and desire for the medium ‘Cinema’. And now a pair of brittle hands, attempting to feel the rigidity, and magnitude of the momentous award received, hands that once have guided instruments from a mere pencil in sketching scenes, to the potent camera in world renowned filmmaking. Hands that have worked hectically for a lifetime, giving it’s best for generations to gain knowledge from, adore and appreciate, the same scenario being valid even for generations yet unborn.For that reason, today, on his birthday, we rejoice the “life and times” of this Cinema Maestro, a rare talent, that indeed, God once loaned to earth.

Early Years

Being regarded a greatest auteur of 20th century cinema, Ray was born to a Bengali family, which held prominence in the arena of “Art” and “Literature”, in the city of Kolkata in India. Sukumar and Suprabha Ray were his parents. Ray’s grandfather’s printing press, “U. Ray and Sons” served as a vital milieu in young Ray’s life. After all, the family, depicting generations in the rear, were veterans in fields alike.

Having lost his father Sukumar at the tender age of three, Ray grew up in Supbrabha’s abode that was meager. Though his interest confined to Fine Arts, Ray studied and completed his B.A. (Hons) in Economics at Presidency College of the University of Calcutta. Though reluctant to leave Kolkata, his mother’s persuasion, in amalgamation with the esteem for Tagore convinced him to study at the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, founded by Tagore.

Later, a visit to London, which unfolded him a viewing of Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”,following a meeting with French filmmaker ‘Jean Renoir’ completely unwrapped a pathway for the ardent Ray to follow. That was a pathway rather distant from his career as a ‘Commercial Artist’ – A fascinating, yet intricate pathway towards “independent filmmaking”.

Since stepping intrepidly in, and joining the ‘club of filmmakers’, there seemed to be no turning-back for Ray, who had an incomparable zeal towards his chosen field of work. The multi faceted Ray, who contributed by and large towards arenas of unreserved thirst and demand as a Fiction Writer, Publisher, Illustrator, Graphic Designer, and Film Critic, Ray, during his existence, directed thirty-seven films, which included feature films, documentaries, and shorts.

The Apu Trilogy 

Each and every erudite individual, not only in a world far-flung from Asia, or Ray’s native soil India alone, but also in her neighbouring Sri Lanka, irrespective of being a cinema aficionado, or not, happens to be absolutely familiar with ‘The Apu Trilogy’, the three consecutive Bengali movies directed by Satyajit Ray between 1955 and 1959. Namely, they are, Pather Panchali (Song of the little road – 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished – 1956), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu – 1959). These three movies, which form the much renowned ‘Apu Trilogy’ are remarkable stories that have also been translated into the Sinhala language for the nourishment of an expanded local audience, by brilliant writers / authours / translators such as Chintha Lankshmi Sinha-Aarachchi, more importantly, without causing any harm to the originality of the tale, indeed a raison d’être for all Sri Lankan translators / writers to be proud of. Pather Panchali remains Ray’s debut film.

In an interview, Ray once claimed that Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay was a writer who fascinated him immensely. Hence, Bandopadhyay’s two novels indubitably happened to be the birthplace of inspiration, for the creation of Ray’s indelible Apu Trilogy.

According to Ray, his much desired novelist, Bandopadhyay had actually been living in a village at the time of the ‘famine’ in 1943, when Ray had simply obtained employment as an Advertising Designer, living in Calcutta. At the time, Ray had witnessed a populace adding up to hundreds and thousands, from the villages streaming into Calcutta. He had further witnessed refugees brimming at the railway stations in the verge of death. In Ray’s scrutiny, if they did not die at that very given moment, they were to die, at least a few days from that particular moment in time. Ray’s experiences from this era seemed to have been etched in his mind evermore, especially when he himself stepped across corpses lying all over the place, when stepping out from his house en route to work. All such daunting experiences in life certainly nourished his filmmaking, in the years to the fore. The same factor made his films more pragmatic by nature.

Rich with his own life experiences, and later by ardently reading the novels by Bandopadhyay, Ray had immediately decided to weave the material into the mode of ‘film’, his preferred cup-o-tea. And, in doing so, he remained distinctive, in aspects of the ‘medium’, as well as the ‘parable’.

Apart from Bandopadhyay, the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, who re-shaped his region’s literature and music remained Ray’s greatest inspiration. Tagore’s profoundly sensitive verses seemed to have elevated Ray to a much higher, yet ‘uncomplicated’, and ‘pragmatic’ podium in life, though Ray was always living in a ‘realistic’ world, with ‘imagination’ being beneficial, only in terms of nourishing his meaningful creations. Such happen to be ‘imaginative inceptions’ in Ray’s mind, that we take pleasure in, as meaningful creations of Art, even decades following their birth in his mindset.

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali describes the maturation of a small boy named ‘Apu‘, in a far-flung village in Bengal. The cast in Pather Panchali, like in may other Ray movies, consisted of amateur actors. Due to difficulties in finances, as well as being adamant not to be dictated terms by influential sources in exchange of finances, in terms of changing certain areas of the plot, and frequent urging from the government to shift the ending to a happy one, Ray filmed Pather Panchali throughout three long years, generally quite a long period for the completion of a movie. It was released in 1955 with popular success, and had an exceptionally long run, when released in the United States.


Aparajito being his next creation, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, bringing him considerable commendation. It’s plot is woven around the eternal struggles between Apu, the little boy from Pather Panchali, who had turned into an ambitious young man, and his mother who loves him unreservedly.

During the making of Aparajito, though Ray had not planned of a ‘trilogy’, a proposition in Venice, towards such a brainchild had triggered Ray’s urge to follow-up on same, and in due course, he did.

Apur Sansar

Bringing Ray’s planted urge to the next level, Ray concluded the trilogy with it’s last segment, Apur Sansar in 1959, introducing the duo Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, stars he loved much indeed.

The movie unfolds with the matured Apu living in ‘approaching dearth’ in a Kolkata house. Later, the plot glides to his strange involvement in marriage with Aparna. And the poignant scenes of their lives together as man and wife, forming exemplary depictions of married life. And, just like any other duo in such circumstances and surroundings, Apu and Aparna too suffer tragedy.

Defending thyself

Though Ray seldom responded to critics during his filmmaking career, he wrote an article defending a harsh criticism on Apur Sansar by a Bengali critic. Just like every other perception in life’s entities, especially in aspects of individuality, Ray too had his personal favourite amongst his creations, which was the film ‘Charulata’ (The Lonely Wife). This was another film he took steps in defending, when criticized.

Nevertheless, Charulata, by many a critic was regarded Ray’s most accomplished film, based on the short story ‘Nastanirh’ (The Broken Nest) by Tagore. Madhabi Mukherjee’s performance as ‘Charu’ the young, wealthy and lonely housewife in 19th century Bengal, married to a husband who runs a newspaper, and due to his long-drawn-out involvement at work, her developing feelings for her brother-in-law Amal, have been highly praised by critics. Soumitra Chatterjee who played Apu also plays the role of Amal in Charulata.

Ray believed that Charulata consisted of the least number of flaws amongst his creations, and if given the chance, he proclaimed that it was the only movie that he would re-make in the exact same manner.

Views on filmed plays of Shakespeare

Per Ray’s view, in aspects of filmed plays of Shakespeare, whatever the achievements may have been of  Lawrence Olivier, in terms of his adaptations, Ray could never accept Olivier’s Shakespeare films as ‘filmic’. As opposed to same, in his filmic eye, Ray accepted Grigori Kozintsev as the only director who used features such as apt backgrounds and peasants, hence bringing a different kind of vitality to Shakespeare movies. A vitality enormously successful in Ray’s eye. In due course, Kozintsev was named the People’s Artist of the USSR in 1964.

A simple man, who did not believe in erecting walls

At the instigation of this article, I asserted Ray to be a man of colossal creativity, aptitude and simplicity. That indeed was a statement untaught, yet naturally being born in my heart, via the attributes of Ray that I have carefully observed from intense reading about the luminary, through the years. This included the much renowned works of the said personality as well. After all, the end-products of a filmmaker who writes his or her own script, and even illustrates it, frame by frame, at one point or the other, shall have a correlation of the staging of characters, to that of his or her actual experiences in life. This may not be the case at all given times, yet a general probability.

Amongst those characteristics of Ray, while absolutely appreciating the initial two, which indeed is quite obvious to the world, may I take a moment to underscore the third – ‘simplicity’. This feature in Ray may have been acknowledged only by a limited segment, as opposed to the entire world. It is the attribute, the relentless salutation that taps on my heart, above all.

Therefore, in my eyes, Ray shall remain a luminary, who never lost his glow, even once he departed the nightly sky. Usually, stars are visible only in a nightly sky. Yet, Ray remains a star that blaze in skies of all time. Only because, Ray never lost the ‘common touch’, inside and outside his career as a filmmaker, even following his ascend to stardom, through the years. Only because his vision in the medium of cinema consisted of deeper meaning. Only because, that deeper meaning unfolded via depictions of life’s realities. Realities that traveled constrained peripheries. Now, even following two decades of his absence from the nightly sky, Ray’s beams, or rather, the beam named Satyajit Ray remain intact, in the skies of all nature, that are the hearts and minds of his many an aficionado, around the globe.

As mentioned before, Ray’s lineage, which could be traced up to at least ten generations, proves to be a family-unit, well established in the business of “publishing”, as well as all other features surrounding a publication, that are writing, illustrating and philosophy, to name a few.

Nevertheless, Ray was a simple man, who could be reached by anyone, by simply climbing a flight of stairs. His number was in the directory. Anyone who wanted to see him, had unreserved access to him. Ordinary folks, not renowned stars, visited him on Sunday mornings, most of them, void of prior notifying. They included old colleagues from his ‘advertising’ era, in his past. Others were those who merely felt an affability towards him, most probably due to the unfading strokes he left in their hearts, via his unrivaled filmmaking.

Ray always believed that it was an act of ‘stupidity’ to raise walls around thyself. For him, the simple means of doing things gave excitement. In his judgment, it was interesting and rewarding. That was Satyajit Ray, until the day he stopped breathing. That was a man who proved by act, that life had more meaning to it than hovering on cloud nine, the imperceptible or barely visible podium that most humans attempt to float on, once their rank may alter via fame. For Ray, fame meant the contentment he bestowed upon the world via his unparalleled filmmaking. – Happy Birthday Mr. Ray ! The indebted earth shall certainly miss you !

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