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An introduction to the special commemorative issue on the centenary of Satyajit Ray (1921-2021)

By Roshni Sengupta

We began putting this issue together by trying to define or categorise the work of the undefinable genius – Satyajit Ray. One of the objectives of getting an ensemble group of writers – scholars, filmmakers, actors, admirers, and fans – together was to attempt an understanding of the enigma that was Satyajit Ray, much of which was laid bare for us to fathom in his filmic canvasses. Yet, each one of us – writers, editors, magazine runners – have faced an indeterminate obstacle in this attempt at “figuring out” the genius of one of the greatest cinematic legends of Indian and world cinema. Working towards peeling the layers off his work, his craft, and his persona, even his politics, we have collectively arrived at one definitive conclusion, if not more – a straightjacketed categorisation of Satyajit Ray and his immense body of work is not only difficult, it borders on the impossible.

As a result of the task given to us, we went about attempting to unravel his cinematic universe – from the innocuous innocence of Pather Panchali and the Apu Trilogy to the searing subliminal violence of Pratidwandi, from the erudite extrapolation of class consciousness in Jalsaghar to the astonishing profundity of Mahanagar, and from the casual nonchalance of the Nawabs of Shatranj Ke Khiladi (Ray’s only Hindi feature) to the garrulous celebration of folk cultures in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The Bengali auteur’s genius remained limitless, boundless, manifesting further in the children’s literature he produced, the devastatingly original characters he created – including the everyman supersleuth, Feluda – and his vast landscape of short fiction, ranging from sci-fi pieces to mini-thrillers and horror stories. Anyone entering Satyajit Ray’s world would never come out disappointed!

A political scientist by profession and pursuing interdisciplinary research in politics and humanities, I have often been drawn towards unpacking the political in Ray’s cinema. One of the revolutions that is attributed to him is the heralding of European (French, Italian) neo-realism in Indian cinema, imbibing his own creations with uniquely Indian (read Bengali) elements, thereby orchestrating the move towards what could be conclusively termed as Indian neo-realism in cinema, the initiation of the first New Wave in Indian cinema, a revival of the universe of parallel cinema. Along with his closest contemporaries, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, Ray undoubtedly signified the prismatic understanding of the Indian reality – of rural oppression and penury, of urban angst and poverty, of the crumbling class and social structures, of the understated intersectional violence of gender and religion. Much can be said of the politics of Ray’s films – which remained wrapped, layered, and minimalist, open to interpretation by the viewer – while Sen and Ghatak are attributed with bringing political activism to the Bengali silver screen. Ray, therefore, remained as enigmatic in his treatment of intensely political subjects (Calcutta Trilogy, Ghare Baire, Mahanagar, Aranyer Din Ratri) as his personal political leanings. One could however deduce that the auteur – from what his cinematic creations and writings reveal – remained loyal to socialist liberalism and committed to the development of a secular, equal, and just society.

Some years ago, as part of the quest for cultural renewal of South Asia at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS, Leiden University) and in collaboration with the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS, Leiden), I had the privilege of organizing a festival of neo-realist films from India and South Asia and found myself principally working with Ray, Sen, and Ghatak. The festival closed with the Dutch and international audiences being introduced to the first New Wave of Indian cinema, thereby broadening the canvas of Indian filmmaking from simply collapsing Indian cinema to Bollywood. I have to say, in this context, that it was one of my greatest joys – to be the torchbearer of the multilayered character of Indian cinema brought into focus by Ray and the plethora of accolades he received during and after his lifetime. At the same time, it must also be said that Ray’s work remains deeply etched in the minds of myriad global viewers and cinematic connoisseurs who place him in the same league as Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman.

Issue roundup

A master of his craft, a remarkable auteur ahead of his times, the creator of an unenviable cinematic canvas, a filmmaker, writer, artist of immense reach and range, Satyajit Ray re-defined neo-realism in art and form, brought it alive on screen, and portended a legacy of brilliant work that subsequent generations have been attempting tirelessly to define and categorise without much success. Ray is – as has been said before – the ultimate indefinable genius.

This special commemorative issue of Café Dissensus attempts to understand and revisit Ray’s immense range of work – from pathbreaking films to books to the astonishingly everyman crime-busting hero he managed to make immortal – Feluda. With the focus on his genre-defying cinematic productions, the issue also brings together writings on Ray as a multi-faceted and consummate artist. Beginning from the pristine canvas of Pather Panchali which – in more ways than one – inaugurated neo-realism in Indian cinema of the age to the aristocratic charm of Charulata which immortalized Tagore’s supremely etched characters on celluloid and the edgy, intensely political violence of the Calcutta Trilogy, Ray’s range of work remains unmatched. The issue also attempts to examine the politics of Ray’s cinema as well as his personal politics, his inspirations from European realism, and neo-realism and his contribution to neo-noir literature.

As mentioned earlier, the special nature of the issue extends from being dedicated to a cinematic genius to the brilliant confluence of writers who have contributed to making this a remarkable commemorative catalog of Ray’s work. From film scholars, to linguists, and filmmakers and actors, and from ardent admirers to veritable fans, this is a fitting tribute to a man who strode the cinematic universe like a colossus during his lifetime and does so even in the afterlife. I hope you find this issue dense, at the same time alluring; phlegmatic, while being surreptitiously entertaining – just like Satyajit Ray’s works!

Photo: Hindustan Times

Issue Editor:
Roshni Sengupta is Assistant Professor, Institute of Middle and Far East, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She was Assistant Professor at the Leiden Institute of Area Studies, Leiden University, Netherlands and Fellow of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden. Among her published work is the monograph Reading the Muslim on Celluloid: Bollywood, Representation and Politics (Primus Books, 2020).

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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