24 January 2007

A Ray of stories… and films

It’s been said that Satyajit Ray used to believe that if storytelling is wedded to truth, then it is also wedded to art. Although I’m not sure whether Ray actually believed this – or said words to this effect – the connection between storytelling, truth, art and his cinema is inimitable. Through touches of neo-realism (Ray was greatly influenced by Vittorio De Sica), Ray’s films and his stories have always tried to portray the Indian reality, and therefore the truth, through art and film. To my amazement, barring a few occasions, Ray has achieved this magnificently without venturing beyond Bengal and Bengali society.

Like all Bengalis, Ray was greatly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and had made several films from Tagore’s collection of short stories. Films such as ‘Charulata’ (The Lonely Wife), ‘Teen Kanya’ (Three Daughters) and ‘Ghare-Baire’ (The Home and the World) are prime examples. Ray had adapted stories from many contemporary Bengali writers as well. ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Road) by Bibhutibhushan Badyopadhyay is probably the best known. There were others too: ‘Jalsaghar’ (The Music Room) by Tarashankar Banerjee, ‘Devi’ (The Goddess) by Prabhat Mukherjee, ‘Kapurush’ (The Coward) by Premendra Mitra, ‘Seemabaddha’ (Company Limited) by Manisankar ‘Sankar’ Mukherjee, ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) by Sunil Gangopadhyay… among others.

A master storyteller himself, Satyajit Ray had written many short stories which he made into films. His own ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger), ‘Shakha Proshakha” (The Branches of the Tree) and ‘Sonar Kella’ (The Golden Fortress), besides others, make up this collection. In fact, apart from a few films such as ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (The Chess Players) and ‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance) both written by Munshi Premchand, and ‘Gonoshatru’ (An Enemy of the People) written by Henrik Ibsen, the stories behind Satyajit Ray’s films were predominantly Bengali, their settings mostly Bengal, earning him the reputation of a Bengali filmmaker, rather than an Indian filmmaker… which is probably what he intended to be.

Yet, Ray’s films were not always popular in Bengal, nor in India. After being rejected by a Bengali and an Indian audience, many of his films were highly successful abroad and received accolades which helped inspire his later films. Many Bengalis criticised Ray for having Western aesthetic values and making films with European rationalism. His admirers were not always Bengali, nor Indian. For instance, when ‘Shakha Proshakha” (The Branches of the Tree) went into trouble during shooting in 1990, it was French actor Gerard Depardieu (an ardent Satyajit Ray fan) who helped complete it.

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