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Ray’s Artistry and Reflection of European Neorealism in Indian Cinema

By Sambhu Nath Banerjee

The year: 1956. The world was getting ready to witness on the big screen the stunning visual effects and larger-than-life epic saga, The Ten Commandments, a remake of the 1923 biblical movie. Cecil B. De Mille displayed his brilliance in almost every sphere of filmmaking – from breath-taking colour photography to high fidelity recording and the use of Vista Vision, created by Paramount Pictures in 1954.

The Cinecittà Studios, Rome, January 1959. William Wyler had just finished the shooting of the costliest film ever made until that time. The famous Chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala is still regarded as one of the best-ever spine-chilling action sequences portrayed on the big screen. The movie went on to win a whopping 11 Oscars from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

The year 1955 was a turning point in the history Indian cinema as well. The whole world bowed to the craftsmanship of a young Indian director for his outstanding portrayal of rural life in black and white on the big screen. The golden rise of Satyajit Ray during the period of 1955 to 1959 gained momentum with the making of three films in a row: Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). The first of its kind in India, the ‘Apu Trilogy’ was devoid of external polish and gimmick found in western movies, but won the hearts of millions by virtue of their lyrical charm and distinctive style.

I would like to draw attention of my learned readers to the period during which Ray embarked upon his film-making career. Post-World War II, the world was passing through a critical phase of political, social, and economic turmoil, but there were people who also had the strong urge for creativity. Ray went to London with an assignment from his Calcutta office (he was a graphic artist at D J Keymer from 1943 to 1956) in early 1950 and used his spare time to watch a handful of movies. The movie that brought about changes in his career graph and evoked love and passion in his mind for filmmaking was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. After his return from London (late 1950), Ray met the wife of the late Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, for securing the film rights of his novel Pather Panchali as he believed “it is one of the most filmable of all Bengali novels” (Ray, 2011). Ray had designed the cover page of the novel by Bibhutibhushan. She liked the works of Ray’s father and grandfather and impressed by Ray’s illustrations on the book she gave the green signal to go ahead with the project.

The story of making of the film Pather Panchali itself provides lot of elements of neorealism and demands elaborate discussion, which is beyond the scope of this article. Ray had to face numerous hurdles in realizing his dream, but remained undeterred and defied them all to reach the summit of excellence. Ray was a born artist, inherited the legacy of artistry from his forefathers. His short stay in London in the year 1950 also helped him broaden the horizon of his knowledge on the art of filmmaking. In 1947, the year when India got its freedom, Ray founded the Calcutta Film Society. Before his visit to London, Ray happened to meet Jean Renoir, the French legend, who was in India for shooting his film The River. Ray accompanied Renoir to different locations of the river Hooghly and shared his willingness to film Pather Panchali with the director. Renoir’s view that the emotional integrity of human relationship is the most important aspect of a film also holds true for Ray’s work (Ray, 1976).

After Tagore, Satyajit Ray is probably the only person in the field of Indian art and culture for whom maximum space has been consumed in both electronic and print media, and literature on his works is virtually spilling over. A look into the early years of Ray before the making of Pather Panchali gives us a clear idea how the auteur had been propelled by the style and cinematic language that gave birth to post-war neorealism in Italy. Benito Mussolini founded the prestigious Cinecittà Studios in Rome in 1937 only to propagate fascism as he believed cinema to be the most powerful weapon. The dictatorship of Mussolini caused acute political and economic crisis in Italy during World War II. The Cinecittà Studios was severely damaged due to bombing by the Western Allied forces, making the studio unsuitable for any shooting purposes. The country was left devastated on every front. The undying creative zeal of the Italian directors was finding ways with minimal equipment and resources to depict real life stories in their films. Shooting on real locations and engaging non-professional actors, they highlighted the plight, the emotional conflict, and the desire to live through troubled times. Neorealism thus projected harsh documentation about social disorder, poverty, injustice, and oppression in art and films in the wake of the fall of Mussolini.

The idea that neorealism emerged as a compulsive negative response to fascism causing socio-political disturbance would be too much of an oversimplification. On the contrary, fascism did serve as a latent force for the post-war neorealism to flourish in Italy and other countries. Even Roberto Rossellini, one of the revered names in the neo-realist movement and a close friend of Mussolini’s son, started his career making three propaganda films, The White Ship (1941), A Pilot Returns (1942), and The Man with a Cross (1943). Often called the ‘Fascist Trilogy’, these films served to act as the mouthpiece of the fascist regime. Some positivity can be explored from these films as they bear many of the features of the new-born cinematic style like use of armatures in the lead role, on-location shooting, quotidian activities that generally go towards the making of a neorealistic movie. Vittorio De Sica also debuted as a co-director in Red Roses (1940), a comedy, in the era of ‘white telephone movies’ (white telephones, the status symbol of bourgeois classes). For good or for bad, Mussolini patronized and exploited the film industry for political purposes. Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), another progenitor of the neo-realist movement was also made during the same period. After the fall of Mussolini, Rossellini salvaged his reputation through the ‘War Trilogy’: Rome, Open City (1945), the most celebrated of that series followed by Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).

The world knows Ray as the legendary film director, composer, graphic artist, and marvellous script writer, who has also created Feluda, the detective with the razor-sharp intellect. What is more amazing about the director is his observation and power of critical analysis about the works of his contemporaries. This also throws light on the gradual development of a creative urge into the act of filmmaking quite similar to the process of a zygote maturing into a full-grown baby in the mother’s womb. We find the references of many acclaimed directors in his writing who are important figures in the neo-realist movement – Czech director Otakar Vàvra, Italian Giuseppe De Santis (Bitter Rice fame, a 1949 movie), Alberto Lattuada, Alessandro Blasetti, Mario Camerini (Vittorio De Sica acted in many of his films), Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini to name a few. Ray has not even spared these great names to criticize the drawbacks of their films. Apart from De Sica, the Italian director whose work impressed him the most was Renato Castellani: “This young director’s work has a wholly distinctive flavour. His style, which has no parallel in England or America, is marked by an astonishing verve and agility in the handling of plot, characters, and camera; a profusion of telling details, and sharp changes of mood and locale” (Ray, 1976).

Any tribute to Ray would remain incomplete without the mention of the Italian legend Vittorio De Sica for whom Ray’s admiration is limitless. The maestro held Bicycle Thieves at the highest place, “It creates a norm which few films aspire to, let alone attain.” According to the maestro, Bicycle Thieves “is a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of cinema, and De Sica has openly acknowledged his debt to Chaplin. The simple universality of its theme, the effectiveness of its treatment, and the low cost of its production make it the ideal film for the Indian film maker to study” (Ray, 1976).

A genius generally does not complain about the limitations he may face in his endeavour to achieve his goal. Ray was pained to see the lack of quality movies made by Indian directors during 1930s and 1940s (with few exceptions) that could attract world-wide acclaim and appreciation, although by that time the film industry in India had turned into a big business. Ray was, however, not ready to accept excuses that might be dubbed as limitations or hindrances by Indian directors, “No doubt this lack of maturity can be attributed to several factors. The producers will tell you about that mysterious entity ‘the mass’, which ‘goes in for this sort of thing’, the technicians will blame the tools and the director will have much to say about the wonderful things he had in mind but could not achieve because of ‘the conditions’. These protestations are true but not to the extent you are asked to believe. In any case, better things have been achieved under much worse conditions. The internationally acclaimed post-war Italian cinema is a case in point. The reason lies elsewhere” (Ray, 1976). An intelligent director has to improvise with time and situation, has to evolve himself or herself to learn the changing cinematic language to compete with rest of the world.

For Ray, script remains an important tool in the process of filmmaking: “It is the basis of the film, its blueprint, its skeleton. It is an indispensable first step in film-making” (Ray, 2011). The maestro is meticulous about script writing, and his mastery lends such completeness that it appears no less vivid when translated into a film. He draws inspiration from Cesare Zavattini, the Italian screenwriter who wrote the script of Bicycle Thieves (1948): “Zavattini’s treatment makes room for pathos, humour, and excitement, as well as digs at the police, the church, the brothel, and phony astrology. It paints a sharp and poignant picture of a working-class family; it depicts a father-and-son relationship that is among the subtlest and most profound in the cinema” (Ray, 1976). The Zavattini-De Sica pair has produced many memorable films like Shoeshine, Umberto D, Miracle in Milan, etc.

Satyajit Ray wanted to be something different, he wanted to do something unique like his father and grandfather. He chose the medium of filmmaking, probably the most powerful art form, to express his ideas and thoughts, “No matter what goes into the making of it, no matter who uses it and how—a producer for financial profits, a political body for propaganda or an avant-garde intellectual for the satisfaction of an aesthetic urge—the cinema is basically the expression of a concept or concepts in aesthetic terms.” And we get to see one of the most gifted talents in the field of world cinema.

Making a movie like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur is a dream for any director. It definitely demands something extra to emulate the feat of De Mille or Wyler – the large canvas, hundreds of artists, a movie set simulating the true ambience of the old period and above all the budget together pose a tough challenge for any film-maker. Ray was well aware of this harsh reality and limitation, “the high technical polish, which is the hallmark of the standard Hollywood product, would be impossible to achieve under existing Indian conditions. What the Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium” (Ray 1976). He liked the sequence of ‘Chariot Race’, making Mahabharata was in fact at the back of his mind. Ray had a caring and deep interest in ancient India and the maestro had started working on the epic.

A manuscript recovered in the form of a CD bears the date, 13 February 1959, on its first page. The last part of the manuscript also contains the dialogues of the first scene of The World of Apu, possibly for dubbing and the design of a big and wide billboard of Debi (The Goddess) (Chakraborty, 2020). Again, Ray is quoted saying, “The Indian film maker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not De Mille, should be his ideal.” His remarks may have different connotations: after Independence, India was grappling with social and economic issues like poverty, unemployment, lack of technological development; the food security through Green Revolution was yet to be achieved. Working in the era of social and economic revival, any sensible artist could not overlook such burning issues and resort to a world of fantasy. Ray did what was more relevant in the context of the society, more appropriate in the perspective of a country’s need to focus on real-life struggles in the most aesthetic and poetic way. So, we get to see The Apu Trilogy, where the characters are universal, and the appeal is eternal. Almost all his films portray social issues and intricate human relationships in myriad colours. His preoccupation with neo-realist idealism is evident throughout his film career, from the Apu Triology to Calcutta Trilogy, from Kanchenjungha to Agantuk. The style and methods may be different, but he always tells a story “with organic cohesion, and filling it with detailed and truthful observation of human behaviour and relationships in a given milieu” that sustains interest with visual, aural, and emotional quotient (Ray, 2011).

As Ray believed, “For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it” (Ray, 1976). While bestowing the Honorary Academy Award on Ray in 1992 (handed over to the maestro on his death bed in Calcutta by Audrey Hepburn), the Academy of Motion Pictures recognised profound humanism in his films and depiction of life, which is uniquely Indian but universally appealing. Ray has always touched upon these basic tenets of neorealism in his films. Lindsay Anderson, the British filmmaker and critic once said: “I would compare Satyajit Ray to Eisenstein, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Antonioni. He is among the greatest in world cinema” (Sen, 2010). Ray’s artistry and the ‘sharpest revelations of truth’ carefully captured through his lenses has inspired filmmakers across continents, from Martin Scorsese to Shyam Benegal, and will continue to motivate generations to come.

Photo: Nemai Ghosh

Works Cited

Abhijit Sen (2010), Western Influences on Satyajit Ray,

Ujjal Chakraborty (2020), The Mahabharata in a secret note book, Filmbuff.

Satyajit Ray (1976), Our films, Their Films, Orient Longmans Ltd.

Satyajit Ray (2011), Deep Focus (Ed. Sandip Ray), HarperCollins Publishers India.

A teacher, researcher, and Ph.D. from University of Calcutta, Shambhu Nath Banerjee is associated with the Department of Plant Physiology (Ag), CU as a Guest Faculty. He is passionate about writing poems and travelling and also takes a keen interest in photography. His coffee-table book Ek Mutho Roddur collected the poems and photographs of several budding artists.


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

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