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An enigma called Ray

SUMIT BHATTACHARJEE
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Tribute Satyajit Ray would have turned 91 this week

AT HOME WITH HIS CREATIVITY Satyajit Ray
AT HOME WITH HIS CREATIVITY Satyajit Ray

A couple of years ago at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, Satyajit Ray's brilliance came to the fore Many years after the genius breathed his last, IFFI played host to an exhibition of his films' posters. And in a festival where events compete for attention, the discerning made their way to the exhibition. “Pather Panchali”, “Shatranj ke Khiladi”…all found keen eyes. Some of the visitors left a note about his works. Among them was Goutam Ghose. For Ghose, Ray was “a trail blazer who taught us to make films, who told the world we can make wonderful films too”.

Ray would have turned 91 this week. Still the film fraternity is keen to dissect his films, his ways of making them, his eye for detail, his mastery over the camera, his penchant for the unsaid. So much so, that Jayaprada, who was at one time regarded as ‘the most beautiful woman in the industry' by Ray, to this day regrets that she could not work with the maestro. He had apparently scheduled a film with her though destiny had other plans.

Why just fellow Indians like Ghose, Shyam Benegal, Sharmila Tagore and even Mrinal Sen, filmmakers across the world cannot have enough of Ray. “The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of human race which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. Mr. Ray is a wonderful and respectful man. I feel that he is a ‘giant' of the movie industry.” These words of Akira Kurosawa epitomise the character and creativity of Ray, the multi-faceted genius, equally at ease as a director as a scriptwriter, cinematographer, graphic illustrator or musician. He was a perfectionist who used the sound of silence to eloquent effect.

The ‘City of Joy' (Calcutta) was his first love. In an interview to British author and journalist Andrew Robinson he had said, “I don't feel creative when I'm abroad somehow. I need to be in my chair in Calcutta.”

In his house, reclining in his chair in lose fitting pyjamas and kurta, surrounded by piles of books, papers, illustrations and scripts, Ray was at his creative best. Ray had the habit of producing hand-scribbled scripts and dialogues on the sets. When asked, he would simply smile and say, “It is here in my head”.

Since his younger days, he had a deep love for literature, both English and Bengali. He never believed in translated versions and preferred the original. “Shakespeare translated is diluted,” he once said. Apart from reading, Ray had the habit of playing chess – remember “Shatranj ke Khiladi”? – even solitaire chess whenever short of partners, and had a penchant for scrabble and crossword.

The famed Coffee House, the place where many creative ideas took shape, near College Street in Kolkata was the favourite haunt for Ray and his friends when in the prime of their youth. The culture of the Coffee House was depicted in his film “Mahapurush”, two decades later.

Yet he almost did not become a filmmaker. His mother, as well as the eminent statistician P.C. Mahalnobis suggested he pick up a job of an economic editor in a newspaper. But Ray had his way. He later discontinued his study at Santiniketan to join an advertising agency as a visualiser. During his brief stay at the agency and later at Signet Press, he exhibited his creative prowess. It is Ray's design that still can be seen on the cover pages of two famed books: Jim Corbett's “Man Eaters of Kumaon” and Jawaharlal Nehru's “Discovery of India”. He received international awards for designing two typefaces: ‘Ray Roman' and ‘Ray Bizarre'. He also created two characters that are still being projected in Bengali films and children's literature: Feluda-the sleuth, and Professor Shonku- the scientist.

Ray always liked to experiment with his subject and actors. The footprints he left behind were to be the guiding light for the next generation of filmmakers.Writer V.S. Naipaul once said, “Ray and Kurosawa are among the most prodigious personalities in cinema since it came into being”. True.

SUMIT BHATTACHARJEE

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