The script and track of a master storyteller

Truthfulness was the defining feature in the life and work of Satyajit Ray, whose birth anniversary falls today

May 02, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 12:42 pm IST

Satyajit Ray at the inaugural function of Filmotsav-80 in Bangalore, in January 1980.

Satyajit Ray at the inaugural function of Filmotsav-80 in Bangalore, in January 1980. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Satyajit Ray, director, script writer, documentary film-maker, author, illustrator and composer, to name a few, had a flair for sketching from his childhood. His drawing teacher in school used to say that he was Satyajit not merely by name but in his deeds as well (translation mine). Praising his integrity, a British manager in the advertising firm where Ray worked, made the comment that there was no chalaki (craftiness) in him.

Decades later, in an interview with the film critic, Iqbal Masud, on Shatranj Ke Khilari, Ray said, “One can well imagine a treatment of annexation with Wazid painted whiter and General Outram blacker, which would automatically enhance its popular appeal. My treatment avoids this falsification.” (August 1978). Do all these fall in place? Does not Ray’s oeuvre reflect ‘art wedded to truth’ that he valued so much?

The world of Ray

Extensive literature exists on the artistic merits of Ray’s cinema. New books are being written and fresh appraisals made of all his films. While Ray continued to renew himself and explore new frontiers, critics, especially those based in the West, failed to keep pace with him. Nevertheless, the subterranean truthfulness of his persona and outpourings has never been questioned.

In his book, “My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari” (HarperCollins, 2017), producer Suresh Jindal faithfully chronicles his experience of how meticulous Ray had been in his research and treatment of the subject. Understandably, Ray took much longer time for his documentary on Tagore than for a feature. And for advancing the cause of good cinema, he did not mince words even at the cost of raising controversy and being misunderstood.

Ray’s critique of his contemporary Mrinal Sen’s film Akash Kusum, the much younger Mani Kaul’s Duvidha, Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan and Bapu’s Seeta Kalyanam emanated from his conviction. In all these cases, he explained clearly the reasons behind.

While Ray sounded critical of the initial works of a few directors, he was equally appreciative of others such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and M.S. Sathyu. Among his contemporaries, his writings on Jean-Luc Godard who introduced radical departures from certain established norms of cinema, or comments on Ritwik Ghatak who remained uninfluenced by Ray, are cases in point.

In his convocation address at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune (1974), his indictment, ‘...that in our country at least, films have been made with virtually no contribution from the director or at least nothing of a positive nature...’, raised some hackles. He contended that of various kinds of people contributing to a film here, the director’s was (often) the least palpable.

Ray developed his own style and cinematic idiom, often laced with understatement, humour and irony, while never undermining the audience. Therefore, his comment that Shatranj was not for the Sholay audience, was not to disparage Sholay. In fact, he had ‘real admiration for Sholay’s craftsmanship....’ What he indicated was that Sholay was aimed at mass audiences, whereas Shatranj was not.

Since cinema is the highest form of commercial art, audience taste cannot be ignored altogether. At the FTII convocation, Ray bared his mind: “One can draw an analogy with cooking here and say that when a large number of people having a meal finds a certain dish unpalatable, the cook is in no position to blame them for failing to rise to the level of his concoction... as long as it stays in the cans, a film is a dead matter. It comes to life and serves its purpose only in the theatre, in the presence of the public.” However, remaining truthful to self, the audience, and to the demands of the subject being handled is a feat few masters can accomplish.

In an article (April 5, 2023, The New Indian Express), Adoor Gopalakrishnan alludes to his telling Ray that he must have contributed substantially to the original text of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, in terms of richness in minute details and a keen observation of life in a remote village in Bengal. Ray’s answer surprised him, “No, Adoor, it is all in the book.”

Though not a propagandist, and too individualistic to be swayed by any dogma, his stand against state authoritarianism, religious superstitions, corruption and loss of innocence was portrayed in his characteristic style.

Also Read | Satyajit Ray in books, notes from the prison cell and more

Cinema and the deeper truth

I still remember our discussion at his residence decades ago, when he explained how ‘deeper truth’ is depicted in cinema. This keenness to go beyond the surface of reality and probe deeper into the conditions of our life marked films that bore his stamp. From truthfulness arose his determination to support causes dear to his heart.

Over four decades ago, the tax authorities in Andhra Pradesh decided to levy entertainment tax on film society screenings. The Vijaywada Film Society, as I remember, received such a notice. Aware that such a move would kill film-society activities, we brought the matter to the notice of Ray. Expectedly, he shot off a letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who immediately intervened. The decision was promptly withdrawn.

According to Ravi Gupta, former managing director of the National Film Development Corporation of India, Ray was the only film-maker he knows of who had refunded a few lakh rupees to the organisation as unspent balance for his film, Agantuk. Having been associated with the production, commissioning and financing of about 200 films, he found this experience as unique in every sense.

Satyajit’s Ray lit up much of our cinema. Didn’t he live up to his name?

Amitabha Bhattacharya, a retired IAS officer, had served as Principal Adviser (Education and Culture), Planning Commission, New Delhi. He had also worked in the private sector and with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

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