“Charulata is my most technically perfect film. Sadgati is my truly fundamental film.” Satyajit Ray.
Ten of Satyajit Ray’s films will be screened at the Cannes classic section this May. It is really difficult to assess which one is Satyajit Ray’s best film. The illustrious career of Satyajit Ray is full of masterpieces made on low budgets. Almost all of them have stood the test of time. The Apu Trilogy is classic content-oriented, Devi visualizes Hindu superstitions which are not grounded in reality, Mahanagar highlights the plight of the struggling Bengali lower middle class and Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen is an all-time memorable allegory.
Satyajit Ray was never a mass entertainer. He directed socially purposeful films grounded in reality for a niche educated audience. Even in out and out Bengali surroundings he conveyed an international outlook. No wonder he ranks among the top five filmmakers of the world of the previous millennium.
He never received budgets available for Hollywood blockbusters, European cinema or even costly Bollywood glossies. The only time he got finance of high standards was from Suresh Jindal, he made an unforgettable Shatranj Ke Khiladi. The film flopped as the escapist entertainment-loving Hindi film viewers were unable to fathom the depths of the Munshi Premchand epic. Ray himself was not too comfortable with the Hindi language. Yet in his telefilm Sadgati, he translated another Munshi Premchand classic into an evergreen celluloid version for the small screen.
Legendary directors like Akira Kurasawa, Ingmar Bergman and of late Martin Scorsese have marvelled at his filmmaking abilities. From conceiving a subject to scripting it, directing and composing music, Ray remains peerless even today. For each of his storyboards, he visualized and drew perfect sketches of his characters showing mastery over costume design too.
Once during a conversation with David Lean during the latter’s visit to Agra in the early 60s, Ray pointed out the importance of making memorable films based on literature. Ray himself was an author of merit. Both the stalwarts agreed on one aspect that a film director should never think larger than life. They also strongly felt no filmmaker should consider himself greater than a literary creator.
It remains a matter of astonishment how a no-nonsense, serious person like Satyajit Ray could direct excellent satires like Paraspathar and Mahapurush. Not all his films are memorable. Abhijan and Abar Aranye are inferior compared to Teen Kanya or Pratidwandi. Yet, they had memorable cinematic moments.
Satyajit Ray always encouraged new upcoming filmmakers. He advised them not to imitate him. Buddhadev Das Gupta, Goutam Ghose and Aparna Sen were inspired by Satyajit Ray but never copied him. To students of FTII Pune, Ray’s advice was to read Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Sense and follow the path of Charles Chaplin, John Ford and Vittorio D’Sica.
Ray did not walk the surrealist path or never believed in unnecessary complicating simple issues. He never ignored the entertainment potential of cinema. As his centenary ends, Ray in the memory of countless viewers remains an iconic filmmaker whose best is very difficult to judge just as in the cases of Charles Chaplin or Francisco Rossi.
Special thanks to Ray Society for providing rare pictures of Ray.