The genius of Satyajit Ray

It has been 20 years since the master film maker passed away. Bengali cinema has never been the same after him. It is remarkable that a man with no training in film making (even as an assistant) went on to become the face of Indian cinema across the globe
Akira Kurasawa once remarked, “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon,” while calling him a giant of the movie industry. Most of India still has not realized the genius of Ray, for he has been placed at an altar too high for common moviegoers to reach. As a child, I was told that Ray was an art film maker and that very word put me off.
The poignant climax of Pather Panchali
It was only during the days in my college that I first chanced upon the cinema of Ray, as I watched his Pather Panchali. Each time I watched his Apu Trilogy after that, I discovered something novel and beautiful, which I had not discovered earlier. The trilogy tells the story of Apu (Subir Banerjee), whom we see as a child in Pather Panchali, spending time in a sleep village in Bengal with his sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta). His father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) earns little to support the family and there is an old aunt (Chunnibala Devi) to be taken care of. All this is tough for his mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) to handle and the problems are only compounded by the complaints from neighbours about Durga. But in the middle of all these troubles, Apu and his sister discover the little joys around them. But the monsoons wreck their world as Durga passes away. The family leaves for Benaras.
Apur Sansar
The second part shows the family trying to start life afresh in Benaras. Harihar passes away and Sarbhajhya returns to Bengal with a family relative, where life resumes for Apu (Pinaki Sengupta as the child and Smaran Ghosal in the adolescent role). Apu’s teachers advise him to continue his studies in Calcutta. Sarbajaya refuses to grant him permission but relents later on. Apu returns for his holidays and returns to his college. Meanwhile, Sarbajaya passes away, unable to lead a lonely life. Apu returns to cremate her and leaves for Calcutta, never to return to his village.
Apur Sansar -A sensitive portrayal
of post-nupital life
In the final part of the trilogy, Apu (Soumitra Chaterjee) is a young man, looking for a job in Calcutta. He gets married to Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) after a series of dramatic events and arrives in Calcutta to bring order and romance to his single life. Aparna returns to her village for the delivery of her first child. His joys crash when Aparna dies during the delivery and he refuses to look at his son, holding him responsible for Aparna’s death. Apu roams around endlessly and plans to leave abroad, not before returning to the village to inform Aparna’s father of his decision. He sees his son and all the pent-up bitterness in his heart melts away. His son agrees to go with him, not as a son perhaps, but as a friend. The trilogy ends with the much celebrated shot of Apu carrying his son on his shoulders, in a bid to start life all over again.
 It was in the mid 1940s that Satyajit Ray had his first tryst with the classic Pather Panchali, written by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay. Ray worked in D J Keymer, a British-run ad agency in Calcutta. A senior colleague there started a publishing house, where he wanted to publish an abridged version of Pather Panchali. Satyajit Ray read the book to design its cover and the idea of the film struck him then. Apu, who is nestled in the innocence of childhood in Pather Panchali comes to face the tragedies of life in Aparajito and finally comes to terms with life in Apur Sansar. This journey of man is embellished in one of the most outstanding marvels of cinema. The three works seem so consistent in their quality and visualisation that they all seem to be a part of one great piece. All the three movies end with Apu resolving to start afresh after a major calamity in his life (the death of Durga in Pather Panchali, his mother’s death in Aparajito and Aparna’s death in Apur Sansar). What flows seamlessly through the trilogy is the mellifluous music of Pt Ravi Shankar. The theme song of Pather Panchali is even used to perfection in Aparajito and Apur Sansar to evoke a sense of dejavu.
It was the time Ray spent at Shantiniketan in the early 1940s, while learning art that accentuated his sense of aesthetics and eye for detail. There were works in the neo-realistic realm even before Ray. There was Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar and of course, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen. In fact, the success of Do Bigha Zameen confirmed Ray’s own faith in his project. It was no small deal to gather a few theatre artists and shoot on weekends in a village near Calcutta, funding the project by pawning his wife’s jewellery and drawing loans against his insurance policies.
He came up with so many brilliant works thereafter and remained a pioneer in his field for a long time to come, churning classics like Mahanagar, Devi, Teen Kanya, Charulata, Jalsaghar, Ghaire Baire, Seemabaddha, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Agantuk, Aranyer Din Ratri and the wonderful Feluda series. It is very rare that trilogies are taken up so seriously in India by filmmakers. But the fact that he had a smashing debut and followed up his success with two equally amazing works to complete the trilogy still seems like a wonder. Simple human emotions have seldom been captured with such effortlessness. If, some of the most beautiful portrayals of relationship between mother and son in Indian cinema can be seen in Aparajito, Apur Sansar flows like a piece of poetry on the early days of marriage. Personally, I find Apur Sansar to be the best of the lot. But it took Ray five more years to come out with, what he called, his most perfect film – Charulata. But more on that, some other day.

2 thoughts on “The genius of Satyajit Ray

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  1. I discovered Ray's films a few weeks ago – or well, I finally did watch some. Of course I had heard of his work before, but I just always thought it would be artsy and boring.
    Anyhow, I watched Ghare-Baire, Teen Kanya and his documentary Rabindranath Tagore, and liked all of them.
    I think his style is very calm and simple – and of course, brilliant.
    I'm eager to watch the Apu trilogy as soon as possible!

    Great post!


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