Satyajit Ray at 100: Abiding Legacy of a Maestro
The enduring genius of Satyajit Ray lies in his exploration of the mundane taken to sublime heights.
For Satyajit Ray, cinema was the greatest medium of art. He didn’t make motion pictures just for entertainment. He would say, "The vast potential of cinema means it has ample scope for experimentation compared to many others since it has its own language."
Tributes are endlessly forthcoming on the master’s birth centenary for his brand of extraordinary work—how his films are about the stories of ordinary people and their extraordinary dilemmas, struggles and vulnerabilities. Pather Panchali’s premise was post-famine, poverty-struck Bengal.
In Devi, a young bride finds herself in a quandary when she is worshipped as a goddess. One of Ray’s most appreciated classics is Charulata; the portrayal of a lonely housewife whose husband, despite being a man of wealth, couldn’t give her what she craved the most—love.
Richard Attenborough who worked with Ray on Shatranj Ke Khiladi had said, "I understood that Satyajit Ray was more meticulous in handling actors than me."
During a crucial shot, Ray asked Attenborough to shed his stiffness. The iconic British actor-director was playing General Outram—a pivotal character. The result was a brilliant scene. "I directed stalwarts, Laurence Olivier,Liv Ullmann, Sean Connery, Maximilian Schell in A Bridge Too Far. Yet I honestly feel Satyajit Ray was way ahead of me in handling actors," Attenborough had shared.
Martin Scorsese too was a fan. "His expertise in creating film classics on shoestring budgets is an ideal example of a great filmmaker. I am overwhelmed by the Apu Trilogy," he said. In the days of multimillion film budgets, the observation sums up the genius of Satyajit Ray, who ranks among the world’s top ten directors of the last century.
From Pather Panchali to Agantuk, Ray scripted and directed his own films. After Parash Pathar, he composed the music too.
His scripts had storyboards full of drawings, sketches and designs—a rare feat for a director. Bengali actress Madhabi Mukherjee, who played Arati in Mahanagar (1963), remembers that Ray never imposed his views on actors and brought out the best in them.
Ray handled stalwart actors like Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal, Tulsi Chakraborty, Waheeda Rehman and Sanjeev Kumar with customary charm and skill. He treated child artistes especially well. Says his son Sandip Ray, "Baba (Satyajit Ray) understood child psychology. He mixed freely with them, gave them affection and believed in their artistic freedom."
Similarly, working smoothly with new actors was another of Ray’s strengths. He extracted uninhibited performances from Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen and Dhritiman Chatterjee in their early days.
Remembers Jaya Bachchan, "I was in my teens when I debuted in Mahanagar. I did exactly what Manik Kaku (Satyajit Ray) instructed. During my FTII days at Pune, I understood he was an actor’s true teacher."
Ray, along with team cinematographer Subrata Mitra, art director Banshi Chandragupta, and editor Dulal Dutta, has received praise from many film legends. Naseeruddin Shah said, "I wrote a letter to Satyajit Ray requesting to work with him. He did not reply. But hearing from Smita Patil that he appreciated my abilities, satisfied me."
Years after his first film Pather Panchali in 1955, Ray’s cinema leaves many in his vast audience dissatisfied; not by his genius but in their own examination of themselves and the times they live in.