A classic resurrected

MARIE SETON first met Satyajit Ray in Calcutta soon after he had completed "Pather Panchali" (1955). The tall strapping Bengali left a great impression on her and she became an ardent follower and a friend, discreetly taking notes and impressions of his working methods, following the career of his films in India and abroad. Together with Dilys Powell, film critic for Punch, and Penelope Houston, who till the 1980s was the all-powerful editor of the celebrated British film journal Sight and Sound, Seton formed a redoubtable trio of firm supporters who promoted and defended Ray in England and Europe. The rather obscure English publisher Denis Dobson first published Seton's biography of Ray in 1971.

In India, the then reigning English publisher Vikas brought out the hardcover and rapidly issued a paperback since the biography became a national bestseller. In the 1980s Ray's reputation among the art house critics suffered a decline. He was accused of ignoring India's real problems. Seton's book was allowed to go out of print and her revised version found no takers in India. In 1985 she died.

In 1990, another Briton, Andrew Robinson, published a detailed biographical study of Satyajit Ray. It was ecstatically reviewed by Salman Rushdie. In another essay Rushdie claimed that Ray had been a formative influence and Goopy and Bagha, two Ray characters, even found their way into Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Around the same time V.S. Naipaul gave an interview to Andrew Robinson in the Illustrated Weekly of India and hailed Ray as a peerless modern maestro. Ray's standing as India's greatest filmmaker, it seemed, was here to stay.

It is just as well and timely too that Ray should be available to a new generation through Seton's biography. In the last decade or so Ray has been appropriated by academics from all over the world leaving little space for popular in-depth introduction to his films.

Seton's biography meets these needs very well. Simply by its range, its detailed and sympathetic account of the films and the wealth of illustrative material, this biography has no rivals. Seton had the advantage of close interaction with members of Ray's own family and unit members and of actually being present at the shooting of most of his films. Ray and his family unstintingly gave her access to family material, photographs and letters. For the latter reason alone this biography is invaluable as a primary archive about Ray's life. As one of the first full-scale biographical accounts of a major post-independence Indian artist, Seton's book certainly deserves to be labelled a classic.

Pam Cullen from the British Film Institute has written an affectionate Preface to this new edition that tells us something about the biographer. Other stray information suggests that she belonged to a wealthy family related to English Prime Minister Lloyd George.

A woman of independent means, she had radical leanings. She knew the great Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, intimately and published a massive biography of him in English. She also campaigned extensively for Paul Robeson during the McCarthy witch hunts and wrote his first biography. It may have been during this time that she got to know Jawaharlal Nehru well, who was also an ardent Robeson supporter. She was close to Indira Gandhi and befriended young Rajiv and Sonia in Cambridge. Seton later published an illustrated pictorial biography of Prime Minister Nehru, though this lavish tribute has all but been forgotten.

In the 1960s, NCERT commissioned her to write two popular introductions to cinema, stray copies of which still surface in pavement stalls in Delhi. Seton belonged to that liberal strain of English thought which set great store by India's endearing civilisational values. For Seton these were best embodied in Modern India after Nehru's death by the stature of an artist like Ray.

Despite the success of Seton's book, Ray maintained an Olympian distance from it. When Andrew Robinson approached him with a proposal for a fresh biography, Ray is supposed to have thundered that he would not cooperate with any author who did not know Bengali!

Perhaps this was an indirect criticism of Seton's book, although retrospectively it is not the Bengali bits in the book that seem weak. Seton for instance makes only passing reference to Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen and has little to say on the ideological and other conflicts that made film making in the 1960s and 70s so contentiously exciting in Bengal.

Indrani Majumdar who contributes the Afterword to this new edition has made the interesting suggestion that Ray felt lonely at the top and had Ghatak not died in 1976, the ensuing dialogue between the two could have been extremely fruitful for both.

It is thanks to Majumdar's perseverance and quiet industry that this new edition has seen light of day. Her detailed knowledge of Satyajit Ray is widely known and even the maestro acknowledged her expertise. She has sensibly not tried to add new chapters, since Seton's original text is best left alone. Instead she has provided a detailed commentary on Ray's films not covered in Seton and compiled an extensive filmography, added a chronology, a list of awards and updated the index. This book is required reading for all film fans and a must for all those who want to be acquainted with the rich artistic life of post-independence India.

Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, Marie Seton, Penguin, p.376, Rs. 495.

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