August 01, 2021
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Understanding Satyajit Ray Through The Prism Of His Writings

De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is amongst the works that motivated Ray most deeply. In 1951, he describes this film as a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of cinema.

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Understanding Satyajit Ray Through The Prism Of His Writings
File photo: Satyajit Ray
Understanding Satyajit Ray Through The Prism Of His Writings

When Satyajit Ray, as a child, went with his mother to Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a short poem for him, the last lines of which translate as ‘But I failed to see with my eyes, just two steps away from my home/ On a sheaf of paddy grain, a drop of dew.’ Attracted by the obvious - the mountain or the ocean - we often fail to notice the beauty in the ordinary. Tagore’s influence on Ray would only grow with time. Much later, Ray would quote his teacher Nandalal Bose ‘Draw a tree, but not in the Western fashion. Not from the top downwards. A tree grows up, not down. The strokes must be from the base upwards…’ But it took a student of his sensitivity to appreciate ‘This was basic - the reverence for life, for organic growth.’

Despite being India’s most original and composite artist after Tagore, whose oeuvre in cinema, literature, music and graphic design is acclaimed all over, his impact on the common people - outside Bengali speaking areas and some Western countries - has been rather limited. Is it because of the language barrier? Is it because of his style and method? Evidently, one has to immerse in his films, read his literary outpourings and observe how his diverse talent coalesced to produce some of world’s most  memorable movies.

Ray’s writings on cinema - direct, authoritative and unpretentious - often provide the key. In his first book of collected essays titled Our Films, Their Films, his mind gets revealed in an amazing manner. Although more reflections on the history, art and craft of cinema would come out of his pen later, and Ray himself would make films  belonging to different genres, OFTF remains a source book for understanding Ray’s work.

Noting the complex process of the ‘triangular relationship between the maker, the machines and the human materials that is deployed’, Ray cites an example during the shooting of his first film Pather Panchali. On the first day when he was planning to take a shot ‘of the girl Durga observing her brother Apu - who is unaware of her  presence - from behind a cluster of swaying reeds’, his friend, a professional cameraman, suggested ‘an enormous close-up of Durga’s face, backlit by the sun and framed by the swaying, shimmering reeds…’ The irresistible shot was taken, but was rejected later at the cutting room. ‘… the scene simply did not call for such an emphatic close  up. For all its beauty, or perhaps because of it, the shot stood out in blatant isolation from its companions, and spoilt the scene.’

He learned that ‘a shot is beautiful only if it is right in its content, and this rightness has little to do with what appears beautiful to the eye…’ This discipline, which may appear rather austere in our cinematic tradition that revels in ‘letting loose of emotions’ or portraying sheer prettiness of face, has been a hallmark of his creativity. He had once lamented ‘It is incredible that a county which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker.’ That was his preparatory phase.

Ray has often been criticised for the lack of anger in his films, even in the Calcutta trilogy set against the backdrop of a turbulent Bengal of the left radical days. Shatranj Ke Khilari was also criticised by some as having been meditative and not harsh enough against the vile colonial power. ‘Consider the Fujiyama. Fire within and calm without. That is the symbol of the true oriental artist.’ is what his professor at Santiniketan once told him. This statement provides an insight into Ray’s mind. Angst, if controlled or internalised, can be creatively metamorphosed.

He wrote on directors he had admired - Chaplin, Renoir, Ford, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and discussed about Griffith, Wilder, De Sica, Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, and
the like. Most of them made films markedly different in style and content from Ray’s. Yet there were creative aspects that made an impress on Ray. For example, he opines ‘… that in a Ford film the camera is a sensitive observer, always sure of the best view point, while in (Orson) Welles, it is a dexterous participant, exploring all manners of viewpoints.’ Those who know how Ray ‘wrote’ cinema with his camera would appreciate the significance of this comparison.

But were his ideas of what constitutes the ‘cinematic’ too subtle for the common viewer? In exemplifying the ‘mysterious, indefinable quality of poetry’ in the best of Ford’s Western films, Ray writes ‘Let me describe one such moment from the film Fort Apache. Two men stand talking on the edge of a deep ravine. There is a bottle lying alongside. One man gives it a casual kick and sends it flying over the edge. A few seconds later, in a gap in the conversation, the soundtrack registers the faintest of clicks. That’s all. This is the sort of thing that belongs uniquely to the cinema…’

De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is amongst the works that motivated Ray most deeply. In 1951, he describes this film as a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of cinema. ‘The simple universality of its theme, the effectiveness of its treatment, and the low cost of its productions make it the ideal film for the Indian film maker to study… The Indian film maker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, not De Mille, should be his ideal.’

In 1966, outlining the odds against film making, he wrote ‘It is the bareness of means that forces us to be economical and inventive, and prevents us from turning craftsmanship into an end in itself’. Eight years later, he would praise two films made by debutants, M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa and Shyam Benegal’s Ankur. By then Ray has silently changed the course of Indian cinema.

When Jean Renoir came to Calcutta in 1949 to shoot for The River, the young Satyajit came close to him. Renoir advised ‘If you could only shake Hollywood out of your system and evolve your own style, you would be making great films here’. How prophetic his words turned out to be!

During the birth centenary celebration of Ray (1921-1992), would it not be worthwhile to revisit his films that have made our world so very luminous?

(Note: The quotations are from the book Our Films, Their Films, Orient Longman, 1976)

Mr Bhattacharya belongs to the 1975 batch of the IAS (Andhra Pradesh cadre) and retired in the level of Secretary to Government of India as a Principal Adviser in the Planning Commission. He had also worked with UNDP and the private sector, before joining the service and upon retirement from it.  ( Views are perosnal) 

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