Satyajit Ray, the Auteur Bollywood Couldn’t Understand

He was an acquired taste, still is. Because it’s a given, every mid-generation filmmaker of India salutes his memory, but those who have actually seen his films can be counted on your 10 fingers.

“No, I haven’t seen Pather Panchali,” bragged a scion from a film-making family over a decade ago, “And I never will. It’s in black-and-white... and it must be too depressing-vepressing. No baba no, you keep your Rays-Fays.”

That quote is reproduced here today exactly as it was said. And I still marvel at the fact that the prolific filmmaker snatches scenes and ideas for his blockbusters from the most esoteric European and American films, but refuses to stock a single Ray dvd in his extensive collection.

Perhaps, he can’t do much with the Rays. After all, Pather Panchali and the 27 other films Ray directed, are inimitable – imbued with an originality of vision, technical mastery and universal relevance.

What am I getting at? Am I implying that the Mumbai’s glitzwallas should know about the Ray masterpieces? Or am I reminding you that Ray was not appreciated by the mainstream moghuls during as well as after his lifetime?

No, because that would amount to stating the obvious.

A still from Charulata.

What I’m trying to say on the day of his 96th anniversary is plainly that those who haven’t seen Ray’s cinema are film-illiterate. Endowed with the spirit of humanism and with a story of power to narrate, his films are what Kurosawa’s are to Japanese cinema, Robert Bresson’s to France and Howard Hawks’ to the U.S. Those critics/ reviewers/ whatever who have not watched the Apu trilogy, Jalsaghar, Mahanagar, Charulata and Aranyer Din Ratri are unqualified for their jobs. They don’t know what cinematic excellence is... and that’s why perhaps the most asinine comedies get away with multi-star ratings.

Apart from Shatranj ke Khiladi, Ray did not attempt a Hindi film; he had the honesty to say that he could not get into a language he neither understood nor speak. Unlike Ram Gopal Varma and Mani Ratnam, the master remained rooted in his soil, unmindful of niche recognition and an infinitely lower bank balance.

Globally, of course, he became India’s ambassador to world cinema. Francois Truffaut is believed to have walked out of the Cannes screening of Pather Panchali because “it was about poverty and peasants.” Turned out that this story was fabricated. When Truffaut was in Mumbai in the 1970s, he clarified, “On the contrary, I wanted to see Pather Panchali once again, immediately after it ended.”

Be that as it may, Satyajit Ray loomed larger-than-cinema; his was a Renaissance sensibility that fused Bengal and western idioms of literature, art , music composing and filmmaking. Influenced most of all it would seem by the French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whom he assisted on the making of The River. Ray was the quintessential Kolkata bhadralok-turned-refined-artist.

Ray with Kurosawa and Jean Renoir. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/ Gokarkar)

From Kolkata, Bimal Roy moved to Mumbai and reached a wider national audience, but in the international eye, the focus remained on Ray.

Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen had their immeasurable value but comparisons with Ray often led to odious controversies.

Through the decades, access to Satyajit Ray films for Mumbai was restricted to film society screenings and at one point, to morning shows as Dadar’s Chitra cinema. Not much has changed, except Chitra doesn’t screen Ray anymore. Instead, a handful of Ray DVDs are accessible at some selected stores. Mumbai’s Crossword store would store them but not any longer. In Kolkata, though, the DVDs were easily accessible till DVDs went out of the market.

Oddly enough, television has not lionised the director at all or sought to discover an untapped audience. Undoubtedly, his children’s films like Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen, if adequately publicised, could jack up TRP ratings.

Aah, do you ever wonder if Ray left a legacy at all for the filmmaking community? Ray did stress the importance of real-life locations, a natural style of acting and wry colloquial dialogue. Vestiges of Ray can be traced in the cinema of Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, Goutam Ghose and perhaps even Sanjay Leela Bhansali (the Charulata atmosphere in Devdas).

The others, even after his passing away at the age of 70 in 1992, remember him as that man from Bengal whom the world adored...but they couldn’t. Or wouldn’t understand.