Still from Pather Panchali

Away from life’s unfettered howl, lies this ditty of the village road that unfolds the rambling saga through the lives of a Bengali Brahmin family who have very little as material possessions, but the shaky oil lamp of dignity illuminates their otherwise dim, impecunious lives. What you see here is the aged woman in the centre, as old as the earth, being caught in the vortex of a turmoil while the bareback girl is accused by the neighbour on the left of stealing a necklace as the girl’s mother on the right rummages her little possessions tucked in the folds of her sari. (Remember that other doddering old woman, in another sort of vortex, toddling along to punish the captive brigand in Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’?) This ‘Song of the Road’ still travels with the passing breeze in my memory with its distant sounds – those of the passing sweet-seller, or of the distant train in the desolate horizon, a moving metaphor that would eventually connect the little boy Apu (not in this image) to a world way beyond his present village.

As a master craftsman, you had faith that if a story-telling is wedded to truth, it should also be wedded to art. This is why you are easily the most composed and realistic story-teller in cinema to emerge since Jean Renoir and Vittorio de Sica who were also your two cinematic mentors – although, since the very outset, you made your films under conditions strained and humble, with finances insufficient, and with equipment much less than perfect.

Satyajit Ray on the set of “Distant Thunder” (1973) (Image: Reproduction)

Your eye for details, especially in enclosed spaces, can be associated with the style of Balzac’s pictorial descriptions, or with the paintings of Bonnard, or with the framing of Ozu — where the human figure does not always enjoy greater importance than the ingredients of still life — the furniture, the mirror, the lamp, the flower vase, the window, the door…. details that in life, as much in art, we are wont to pass by. Thus, you conjured up your art out of the overlooked.

The ‘calm without, fire within’ notion of the Far-eastern art, which you had spoken of and appreciated, finds best expression in your poignant portrayal of women – as we experience it in ‘Kanchanjangha’ ‘Mahanagar’, ‘Charulata’ ‘Nayak’, ‘Ghare Baire’ ….. you name it: serene without but conserved bold feelings within.

It is a great pity that your attempt to move to Hollywood in the late 1960s to shoot your script ‘The Alien’, based on your own short story which appeared in your edited Bengali magazine, ‘Sandesh’, was nipped in the bud and you bore that wound silently. But much later, in 1982, when Spielberg made his paean for lyrical fancy ‘ET’, you thought that this film ‘‘would not have been possible without my script of ‘The Alien’ being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”, while Scorsese also agreed with you, saying — “I have no qualms in admitting that Spielberg’s ‘E.T.’ was influenced by Ray’s ‘Alien’. Even Sir Richard Attenborough pointed this out to me.” Let this controversy be laid to rest with your passing.

Your profuse creations spreading way beyond script-writing and cinematic direction — your thrillers, science fiction stories, your lyrics, musical compositions, paintings, illustrations and book covers and your editing of your family magazine and so on – all make you doubtless the last figure of the Bengal Renaissance.

I was so privileged to have your most singular company on several occasions – always in your capacious working room with rows and piles of books, records, mementoes, art works and what have you…. and not to forget those huge, bar-less, wide-open windows yawning down at Bishop Lefroy Road below.

As your birthday is hurrying near, I wish you in advance a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Manik kaka!

[SATYAJIT RAY: May 2, 1921, Calcutta — April 23, 1992, Calcutta]

This article was written in 2017 by Romain Maitra

Romain Maitra was a Senior Fulbright Fellow at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is a former consultant at UNESCO Headquarters and former research fellow at Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris. He studied sociology and Social Anthropology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi


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