July 26, 2020
Satyajit Ray (1921 – 1992) is one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. He is also one of the last proponents of the Bengal Renaissance. In the 19th century, The Bengal Renaissance was a period of intellectual awakening. During this period, Young Bengals questioned the old ways of living that were unjust. They promoted atheism and rationalism as a code of conduct to bring down caste and dowry system.
Satyajit Ray’s contribution to the Bengal Renaissance and Parallel Cinema has been immense. His work has influenced me, and many others alike, beyond words. Manik da, as he was known and called by his beloved, expressed his worldview through his films. He delivered his ideas through the portrayal of ordinary people in ordinary settings. His complex characters shattered binary categorization of good-bad and right-wrong. By the time the final credits would start rolling, I would find myself feeling reborn.
The technological limitations of his time did little to limit his vision. He never needed props or high-end gears because he believed in the power of his message. In some interviews, actors candidly talked about their experience with Manik da. They shed light on the clarity and precision in Ray’s direction. Ray knew exactly what he wanted, how he wanted, and how to get it out from his actors.
Satyajit Ray always walked in the opposite direction of what was considered conventional. His characters, although ordinary, defied all customs and conventions. His protagonists would often fall on their knees trying to grapple with moral dilemmas. None of his characters were flawless, which made them more human than ever. His actors weren’t placed on a higher moral pedestal than their adversaries. What distinguished them, however, was their ability to reflect upon their actions and be at unease from a troubled conscience. Satyajit Ray was way ahead of his time and we haven’t caught up to this day. This is my humble tribute to a man whose work will help generations to come, reconcile with their conundrum of the complexities of the world.
In his lifetime, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries, and shorts, for which he received 32 Indian National Film Awards, a Golden Lion, a Golden Bear, 2 Silver Bears, a number of additional awards at international film festivals and award ceremonies (11th Moscow International Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, 1982 Cannes Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival), an honorary doctorate awarded by Oxford University, Bharat Ratna (highest civilian award in India) in 1992, Legion of Honor by the President of France in 1987, Dadasaheb Phalke Award (the highest award in cinema in India) in 1985, and an Honorary Oscar awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992 for Lifetime Achievement.
Sandesh was a children’s magazine founded by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather back in 1913. After the demise of his grandfather, and his father Sukumar Ray, the publication unfortunately discontinued. Satyajit Ray revived the magazine again in 1963 and did all the amazing illustrations on the magazine covers himself. It soon became children’s favorite as they would dearly look forward to the next issue. Satyajit Ray has been a gifted illustrator throughout his life.
Ekhon (meaning Now) was founded by Nirmalya Acharya and Soumitra Chatterjee. For every issue of Ekhon, Ray designed the journal’s cover where he did different experimentation of the same three-letter word – Ekhon (in Bangla) – with a splash of color and calligraphy. The covers also consisted of portraits for special issues of the journal.
Prior to a long and illustrious career as a prolific filmmaker, Ray had a stint at a British-run advertising agency called D.J. Keymer where he was fascinated by typography and calligraphy, graphic design, and illustrations. He later joined Signet Press, a publishing house, where he designed many book covers for them, among which were Jibanananda Das’ Banalata Sen & Rupasi Bangla, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar, Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India.
Satyajit Ray sometimes made sketches on chits of paper and cigarette packs to visualize the screenplay for his films. Ray had an acute sensitivity to detail and would do whatever necessary to get his visions across the entire team. These rare sketches are from his first and iconic film “Pather Panchali” and a few of his other sketches that I could find from the web.
© Amitabha Dey. All rights reserved.