20 January 2007

A bridge between Bengal and the world

Around the time Francois Truffaut was bringing in a wave of change in the world of cinema in Europe, closer home, Satyajit Ray was creating a similar history in India. In the 1950s, India was emerging from the British Rule as an independent nation, trying to build herself politically, economically, socially and culturally. Freedom of expression had taken on a new colour for the people in the new democracy… in continuation of the Independence Movement… and Satyajit Ray gave expression to the new India through the medium of film.

In Bengal, in Eastern India, where Satyajit Ray had been born and educated, the arts had always held a position of paramount importance. Ray was, perhaps, lucky to have been in the midst of its post-colonial development because Bengal is what inspired Satyajit Ray the most. Although gifted in fine arts, music and literature, it was his cinema which brought Ray international distinction. Barring just a few, all of his 29 films were of Bengal, presenting myriad images of Bengal and Bengali culture to the world beyond it. In his own words:

“I created a bridge between Bengal and the world. That’s how I want to be remembered.”

Like Truffaut, Satyajit Ray was also influenced by the French filmmaker Jean Renoir. In fact, Ray had the enviable opportunity to work with Renoir when Renoir had come to India to shoot for his film ‘The River’. However, unlike Truffaut, whose focus always remained on his main characters, Ray gave every element of his film equal importance. Moreover, Ray’s rendering of Indian life – whether he was filming poverty in villages as in his first film ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Little Road), or describing the trials of middle-class city living as in ‘Mahanagar’ (The Big City), or perpetuating a moral tale as in his last film ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger) – is remarkably sensitive and accurate.

What’s equally remarkable is that Satyajit Ray had achieved this through such simplicity that it’s beyond words. His themes were universal, his scripts meticulously crafted to reduce complexity (Ray wrote his own scripts), and his treatment almost genius-like. He had a way with his actors, particularly children who were central to many of his films. His musicians (Ray had written the scores in many of his films) and technicians knew his mind well, and Ray had completed his films with embarrassingly small budgets and, sometimes, poor equipment. Yet, Satyajit Ray’s films were great accomplishments… leading to many Indian and international awards.

No doubt, Ray’s influence in Bengal, in Bengali cinema and over Bengalis has been tremendous. But, it has been the acceptance and applause of Ray’s films internationally that has built his reputation in India, outside Bengal. Sadly, most Indians haven’t even seen Satyajit Ray’s films.

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