The Indian renaissance, which began in the 19th century and was largely due to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), saw the birth of several eminent personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi in the decade 1860-1869. Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhary, born in 1863, was one such versatile person. He had a press and processing studio, and was interested in good printing and reproduction of pictures. He also wrote stories for children and illustrated them. He published a coloured children’s magazine titled Sandesh in Bengali. His son Sukumar Ray was also a man of several virtues. He became famous for his humorous skits and nonsensical rhymes. He also illustrated his published work. After the death of Upendra Kishore in 1915, Sukumar used to edit Sandesh.
On 2 May 1921, Satyajit Ray was born in his ancestral house, 100 Garpar Road, Calcutta. Unfortunately, his father Sukumar died soon after, on 10 September 1923. Satyajit’s mother Suprabha Ray then shifted along with her son to the house of her younger brother Prashant Kumar Das at Bhawanipur. Satyajit, after schooling, graduated from the Presidency College, Calcutta, with honours in Economics.
Right from his younger days, Satyajit was fond of reading novels of popular writers and collected records of Western composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. He was fond of English magazines and comics. His interest and understanding of Western classical music later on helped him in filmmaking. He studied art for a short time at Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan. Under masters like Nandlal Bose and Binod Behari Mukherjee, he got lessons on various aspects of art.
Satyajit inherited his writing skills from his family. He wrote his first story titled Abstraction in Amrita Bazar Patrika (18 May 1941). Although many know Satyajit just through his films, he was talented in many other fields. He showed his writing skills in works of art and as a music composer and magazine editor. Most of his fiction works have originally appeared in periodicals before being collected and published as books. He also translated his father’s rhymes in English and edited several books.
After the liquidation of the family publishing house U. Ray and Sons, the publication of Sandesh came to a halt. However, Sukumar’s younger brother Subinoy managed to revive the publication of Sandesh for a brief period (1931-1933). Satyajit revived the magazine again in May 1961. He spent lots of time in editing, managing and illustrating for Sandesh. The magazine proved to be a source of creative inspiration for him.
In 1943, Satyajit joined the British advertising agency D.J. Keymer Ltd. as a commercial artist. His training at Visva-Bharati helped him in visualising the product to be advertised. He could observe life and nature from different perspectives. At Visva-Bharati Library, he had access to the works of Western painters. His approach in designing impressed the owner, who promoted him to art director in 1950 and subsequently sent him to the UK for further training. During his stay in London, he worked with Benson, an affiliate of D.J. Keymer. As a visualiser and later an art director for the firm, Satyajit designed newspaper and magazine campaigns for several products. He also got an opportunity in book designing. He designed the cover of several books, including an edition of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India.
Sukumar’s cousin Nitin Bose was a well-known film director. So Satyajit got exposure to cinema produced in India at that time. He was not satisfied with the state of Indian cinema and wrote an article titled ‘What is wrong with Indian films?’ published in The Statesman in 1948. He along with Chidananda Das Gupta founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. This culminated in the Federation of Film Societies of India in 1959. The result of this movement saw several outstanding filmmakers emerge in India. Satyajit remained President of Film Societies of India till his death. He also assisted famous French film director Jean Renoir when he came to shoot his film The River (1951). After the Calcutta Film Society was formed, Satyajit was able to watch the films of eminent directors like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Robert Flaherty, Marcel Carne and others. Further, during his five-month stay in London, he was able to watch over 90 films.
On his return to India, Satyajit was asked to design the cover of Pather Panchali, a novel written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya. He went through the novel and thought of making a film based on it. Since Satyajit was working for D.J. Keymar, the shooting of this low-budget film was scheduled on weekends. He had a set of devoted technical personnel in his unit. To meet the modest budget, Satyajit pawned his insurance policy and his wife’s ornaments. With all available resources he could complete only 40% of the film. Later on, the West Bengal government provided the funds for its completion and the film was released on 26 August 1955 for 19 days. The WB government made a net profit of `1,65,917. The film won the international award at Cannes Film Festival as “Best Human Document”. It was this film that put India on the map of world cinema. Noted filmmaker Akira Kurosawa observed, “Pather Panchali, for me, marks the beginning of the true Indian cinema.”
What followed were the two other films that completed the trilogy, Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). They formed the epic that moved from the village to the city, from the past, remembered, to the present, as experience—from the ordered structure of rural life to the anarchic experience of the metropolitan milieu, full of uncertainty and apprehension of the future. It was the universalisation of a local situation that evoked, from leading film directors and critics, surprisingly emotional responses. This trilogy remains an expression, an interpretation and record of humanity’s longing to understand the grand design of life and living.
During the span of 36 years of filmmaking, Satyajit made 36 films. These include long and short feature films, television films and documentaries. Most of the feature films made by him are adaptations of established literary works. In 1962, he made his first colour film Kanchenjungha, which was based on his own idea. The duration of events shown coincides with the film’s running time. The films Sonar Kella (1974) and Joy Baba Felunath (1979) are based on his own novels.
In most of his early films, Satyajit engaged Subrata Mitra as cameraman but later on he switched over to Saumendu Ray. Saumendu used to arrange lights in sets and facilitated the shooting process but Satyajit used to handle the camera.
In his first six films, Satyajit engaged virtuosos like Pt. Ravishankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to score the background music. In 1961, he paid tribute to Tagore on his birth centenary year by making the film Teen Kanya based on the latter’s three short stories. He scored the music himself. He continued this practice till his last film. He also scored background music for other film directors. This is my tribute to the man, who was not just a legendary filmmaker but a multifaceted personality, on his birth centenary year.
M C Chattopadhyaya
Former Head, Department ofChemistry, University of Allahabad