I met Satyajit Ray only once, when I was seven years old. Like every month, my father had taken me to the office of Sandesh
, the children’s magazine that Ray co-edited, to collect my copy. We rang the bell, and the door was opened by the tallest man I had ever seen. Far above me hung a huge face seemingly carved out of granite, which now turned and called inside in a voice of distilled thunder: "Mini-di, here’s a subscriber of yours." (Mini-di, or Nalini Das, was Ray’s cousin, whose home doubled as the Sandesh
office.) As we waited, my father kept prodding me in the back: "Ask him, ask him!" So, finally, shyly, I did. "I sent in a story three months ago..." I squeaked to this unknown giant. (Sandesh
had a section which carried the literary efforts of its underage readers.) "What’s it called?" asked Ray. I told him. "I’ll see," he said, and we left.
The next month, the story was published in Sandesh
In many ways, this little incident has, for me, epitomised Ray’s art. I have always directly connected the fact that he remembered a random child and took the trouble to find his story in the stack of manuscripts lying with him, to the compassionate humanism that illuminates his films. In Pather Panchali, the octogenarian Indir Thakrun is greedy and thieving, yet we weep for her. In Charulata, the unscrupulous Umapada will betray Bhupati, but he is also devoted to his artless wife Manda. In Kanchenjunga, it’s the wastrel son-in-law who tells Manisha that she should not marry for any reason other than love. "Villains bore me," Ray wrote once, famously. In Camus’ The Plague, Tarrou said: "I understand everyone, so I judge no one." Ray made us understand.
In the sparest and the most refined of cinematic idioms, he gave us a world. Other than Abhijan, Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Sadgati, his body of work is an exquisitely crafted narrative of a century in the life of a society. If Joyce captured a man in full through the relentless description and analysis of a day in Dublin, Ray’s films are delicate vignettes sculpted in time recording an entire culture. While the anglophile yet patriotic aristocrat in Charulata brings out a newspaper at the turn of the century, Apu is being born to an impoverished priest in Nishchindipur village in Pather Panchali. As he goes to school, Nikhilesh and Sandip are debating the use of violence as a political tool in the aftermath of the Bengal Partition in Ghare Baire. Apu grows up, as the feudal system crumbles in Jalsaghar. And even as he sets off with his son Kajol at the end of Apur Sansar, Bengal is careening towards history’s most devastating man-made famine, when the Brahmin Gangacharan will break all taboos and cremate an untouchable woman dead from hunger in Ashani Sanket.
If Charulata ever had a child through her husband, it’s conceivable, in a warped way, that he’d grow up to be the Raj-relic autocrat Indranath in Kanchenjunga, watching petulantly as the next generation shrugs its way into rebellion. And Siddhartha in Pratidwandi, Ashim and Sanjoy in Aranyer Dinratri, Shyamalendu in Seemabaddha and Somnath in Jana Aranya, could all be Apu’s grandsons, charting different probability pathways determined by chance and circumstance. The jungle makes Ashim, the yuppie, a better man, but timid yuppie manque Sanjoy will possibly go back and marry his boss’ daughter. Siddhartha will have to leave his beloved Calcutta in search of a livelihood but will retain his romanticism. And the two Apu progeny who will make the most appalling compromises will be Shyamalendu, the mnc high-flier who will wreak misery and death on his way to a directorship, and Somnath, who will supply his friend’s sister to a rich businessman to get a contract. Yet, victorious or vanquished, morally perpendicular or prostrate, they all carry a bit of Apu within them.
Ray chronicled Bengal. When asked in the early 1970s by a magazine what it meant to be a Hindu, he said: "I consider myself a Bengali, not a Hindu." But he turned his Bengal into something universal, drawing from it the essence of the human condition. I once watched Aparajito in my college hostel common room. The boy sitting next to me, weeping unashamedly, was from Mauritius. "The scenes between Apu and his mother..." he told me, "I have had exactly the same conversations when I have gone back home during the vacations." Forget the technical jargon of montage and mise en scene, fade-outs and jump cuts; Ray performed, better than any other Indian, the basic duty of a filmmaker. He communicated. He touched. Singularly British and Brahmo at his core, uncomfortable with overt displays of emotion and bodily contact, the only man who refused to be kissed by a French president while receiving the Legion d’Honneur, Ray touched you. He gave you the fundamentals, in a way that always seemed right.
Take a clinical eye to Apu’s story. Nothing much happens to him that is out of the ordinary. His lower middle-class life is but a basis point in the statistical percentages of social studies. But Ray makes him Everyman; you see him grow from birth to fatherhood, and all you want is that he should be happy. His quest becomes yours, for Ray creates an Apu inside every viewer. Apu’s happiness becomes yours, a reaffirmation that Graham Greene was wrong about "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of god". At the end of the original novel, Apu abandons Kajol again and goes away to explore the world. Ray knew better than Apu’s creator that he would never have done that. So, in Ray’s world, Apu strides off into the future with Kajol on his shoulders, in the most satisfying and uplifting ending in the history of cinema. New Yorker’s Pauline Kael once said that "Ray’s films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness...than the work of any other director." It was as if Ray believed, like Greene, a very different human being and artist, that "hate was a failure of the imagination".
These also constitute the most important criticisms of Ray: that he naively believes that people are fundamentally good, that his films are too well-crafted. Many see a lack of the raw passion that marks a Ritwik Ghatak film—every frame spontaneous and stubborn; in contrast, when Charulata walks down a corridor, the framing is just so; when Waheeda Rahman folds a bedsheet in Abhijan, the sheer beauty of the shot leaves you open-mouthed. In Mrinal Sen’s Akaaler Sandhane, a film crew in the ’80s travels to rural Bengal to shoot a movie about the Bengal famine and finds that the famine never ended. But in Ray’s 1973 film Ashani Sanket, on the Bengal famine, the despair of the starving is constantly contrasted with the unyielding beauty of nature.
Take whichever view you choose. But just two little points. Ray was always accused of ducking the big political issues of the day. "Ivory tower" and "Ray" were frequently mentioned in one breath in the powder-keg Calcutta of the ’70s. Ray could only respond through his art, and his argument had to always follow the higher diktats of aesthetics. In Pratidwandi (1970), when asked in a job interview about the most significant event in the last 10 years, Siddhartha says: "Vietnam." What about the moon landing, asks an incredulous interviewer. We knew man would land on the moon some day, Siddhartha replies, it was just a matter of time. But no one could have predicted that a small poorly armed nation could have held the world’s most powerful army at bay for so many years. This is a political statement so powerful it can still raise goosepimples.
Jana Aranyais the only film made and released during the Emergency which showed a corrupt Congress politician with Mrs Gandhi’s picture hanging on the wall behind him.
But there are two Satyajit Rays. One before his heart attack in 1983 and one after. His illness woke Bengalis and—more importantly—the Bengal government up to the possibility that this man was mortal. So they made him a living monument of Calcutta, someone to be hosannaed from afar, a benignly guarded national treasure, isolated from society in glorious majesty. His last four films have villains, unabashed bad men. Sandip in the film Ghare Baire is merely a glowering sexual predator. In Shakha Proshakha, when someone is aghast to discover corruption after working for years in advertising, one realises how cut off Ray had become from the common citizenry. In Agantuk, when the globetrotter argues the meaning of being human with a one-dimensional oaf, it’s Aesop with a camera. Villains had ceased to bore him. Ideologies seemed more precious than ideas. And cinema became agitprop.
This is only my personal opinion. I write about a man who was the last and pinnacling product—and the final curtains—of a 200-year-old social process called the Bengal Renaissance. I have not written about the stories he wrote which made him beloved of millions of children (that would have been enough for a lifetime), the way he revolutionised Indian graphic art and design (yes, his work in this field would have been enough too for a lifetime). I write about his films. And when I write about his films, I write about a man who thought people were fundamentally good.
Ray began to believe otherwise when he grew old. But so what? His films belong to us, not him.