The Everyman in Ray’s Cinema
By Indrasish Banerjee
For a very long time while growing up I wondered where the stories of Satyajit Ray, apart from the ones he had made films on, came from. There were short films and tele serials, on Doordarshan, directed by Sandeep Ray, the son of the auteur. Most of them were mystery stories, some with a slightly nuanced plot and some a little straightforward. As a kid, I liked the straightforward ones. But as I grew up and started developing a mature understanding of stories, my admiration for the more nuanced ones grew.
However, it was not until roughly 10 years ago that I came to know there was a treasure trove of Satyajit Ray stories meant for children but could be read and enjoyed by all age groups, and that he wrote them for a magazine, Sandesh, his family magazine. A Tamil friend informed me. Some online research followed, and I came to know there was a time when everybody in the Ray family contributed to the magazine. Satyajit Ray was quite proud of that. I purchased a book of Satyajit Ray’s short stories.
They are small to medium sized stories which can be broadly classified as mystery stories. But they really broaden the scope of mystery stories. Of course, some of them deal with preternatural themes but a lot else. Within the format of mystery, they are about the human psyche, day-to-day life challenges, sci-fi, cruelty towards animals, filial love. The list is endless. But when you have gone through a bunch of them, a commonality starts emerging. Almost all of them have a very average person at their heart. The average person can be a professor or a salesman or a closet writer or painter or a wannabe or retired actor or a humble clerk.
And the stories revolve around the world they inhabit, representing the challenges they negotiate in their day-to-day lives, the choices they make, how circumstances or sudden events shape their lives and how sometimes they manage to rise above them. The characters have some similarities, yet each person is unique. In most cases, the main characters display the traits that were dear to Ray: humanity, curiosity, and intelligence.
These three traits characterize almost all the characters that Ray created or adopted from literature for his films. Apu, in Aparajito, had all three of them, so did Manomohan Mitra, in Agantuk. The three characteristics lift them from mediocrity.
The unquenchable thirst for knowledge of these characters teleports into the audience or reader who is imbibed then with a similar appetite for knowing. Humanity informs their choices and intelligence sets them apart in their profession and other spheres of life. I often think Satyajit Ray invented a new kind of fiction – the informative fiction – through which he not just told a story but shared knowledge. Ray’s movies, of course, dealt with much more nuanced subjects and were mostly based on slightly grown-up themes except for a few, like the Feluda and Gupi Gayan Bagha Bayen series. But even in films his characters were mostly average men trying to defend their ideals against an unobliging world.
Narsingh, a taxi driver, in Abhijan, 1962, wants to learn English to attain social respectability. Narsingh expects to fulfil his aspiration through his friend’s sister, an educated woman, who he has a private crush on. His muse approaches him one day asking Narsingh to help her elope with another man. Next, heartbroken, Narsingh decides to accept Sukhanram’s immoral business offer of drug and human trafficking dropping his earlier contrition.
Narsingh comes from one end of social spectrum; Mir Roshan Ali and Mirza Sajid Ali, aristocrats from the time when East India Company annexed Awadh, come from the other end of the social spectrum. Shatranj Ke Khilari, released in 1977, deals with many themes. East India Company’s expansionist politics, decline of Muslim Nawabi culture, tumultuous times that they were and so on, but at the core of the story are two friends whose all-consuming passion for chess has made them indifferent to the world around them. Mir Roshan Ali and Mirza Sajid Ali, their aristocratic background notwithstanding, have most pedestrian emotions. Jealousy, over-competitiveness, and false pride about their ancestry make them very similar to any average man, not very different from Narsingh if a little less noble. This intricate study of the human character was Satyajit Ray’s hallmark. His ability to strip every human to basics, their exalted social position (or otherwise) notwithstanding is reflective of Satyajit Ray’s mastery over the human character, but it is also equally indicative of his deep humanity, his egalitarian values which place every human being on the same platform judging them by same parameters irrespective of their social positions.
Ray adopted novels by several writers for his movies, but he adopted Rabindranath Tagore’s novels the maximum, four times. The film adaptations marked the apex of a long and deep relationship. This relationship is a strange one that has mostly stayed in the confines of conjectures since Ray never talked about it publicly, leaving later-day observers to decipher commonalities in the masters’ general outlook towards life and art. Ray’s music (both were influenced by Western and Indian classical music), his universal outlook, his philosophy on things like faith, education, social hierarchies – reveal traces of Tagore.
After graduating in economics from Presidency College, Satyajit Ray spent a few years at Santiniketan, the abode of alternative learning that Tagore had set up having failed to get along with conventional modes of learning himself, to learn painting and drawing. It was not Ray’s first exposure to the poet. As a kid, accompanied by his mother, Ray had met Tagore. Upon seeing him, a young Ray had rushed to touch his feet asking the poet to write a poem for him in the notebook the young lad carried with him. Tagore had asked him to leave the notebook with him, and the next time, when Ray visited him again, Tagore returned his notebook with the promised poem in it.
Ray’s cinematic characters had to defend Tagorian ideals in a less ideal world. We may remember Professor Shonku for his scientific genius but at the core, Professor Shonku is a humanist who wants humanity to benefit from his discoveries constantly protecting them from those who use science for commerce. Or take Feluda in Jai Baba Felunath. He is angry with Maganlal, at the end, as much because of the latter’s shenanigans in general as for his murdering an old, a helpless potter.
However, it is important to note that Tagore was not the only man from literature Ray had come in touch with or on whose writing had based his movies. Satyajit came from a family with considerable literary and artistic accomplishments. His grandfather, Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury, was a prolific writer with several science and children’s books to his credit. Upendrakishore’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was later adapted to screen by his famous filmmaker grandson. Satyajit Ray’s father Sukumar Ray is also a formidable figure in Bengali literature who pioneered nonsense verse in Bengali through children’s stories like Abol Tabol, Pagla Dashu, HaJaBaRaLa, and many more. A point to note here is, apart from being literarily gifted, the family was also considerably westernized. Sukumar had gone to England to study printing technology and photography.
After his years in Santiniketan, Ray joined an advertising agency as a junior artist, but left the job after some time to join Signet Press as a book cover artist. Ray’s main interest lay in becoming a commercial artist. His interest in films was rather academic and restricted to learning about cinema. And it’s not until sometime later that Ray started thinking about directing a film.
In fact, before he joined Santiniketan and till the time he directed his first film Pather Panchali, Ray was mostly a student of cinema. While at Santiniketan, Ray missed Calcutta (now Kolkata) because he couldn’t watch the international films that released during the time. Whenever vacationing in Calcutta, Ray made sure to catch up on the latest offerings from world cinema, particularly American films. Billy Wilder, Major and Minor, Citizen Kane – and other films made in the 1930s and 40s made a lasting impression on him. Film directors like John Ford, William Wyler, and Frank Capra impressed the young artist with their style of film making. An important aspect of these filmmakers is they didn’t represent American homogeneity; they came from different countries of Europe later settling down in the US. William Wyler had a Swiss-German ancestry and Frank Russell Capra was an Italian-born American. Although Frank grew up in the US, he was a rags-to-riches story who brought with him the attendant wealth of experience, diversity of narrative style, and cultural idiosyncrasies.
That Ray was impressed with their filmmaking techniques is well recorded, but did these films, their makers and the world they represented have a larger influence on Ray forming his outlook, causing the Bengali director to develop a taste for the West? Hard to say because Ray only alluded to their technical aspects in his interviews and writings but, for that matter, never talked about being influenced by Tagore either. Ray was a reserved man as has been attested by people who knew him closely. Mrinal Sen’s son has admitted to being surprised by the candidness with which Satyajit Ray expressed his disapproval for Sen’s Akash Kusum in 1965 in The Statesman’s ‘Letter to Editor’ column triggering an epistolary spat with Sen. Several tit-for-tat letters between the two ensued. Finally, the editor had to step in and say no more letters on the subject would be published in the newspaper.
Satyajit Ray called himself a product of East and West (interview link), one of the most important aspects of his personality, albeit very less commented upon.
Culturally, Ray had two sides to him – his familiarity with Bengali culture and his western outlook. He will always be etched in our memories wearing a bush-shirt and trousers and smoking a pipe. And to those who have seen his interviews – with a cultivated English accent. Ray was among the last torch bearers of a generation of educated and westernized Bengalis whose Anglophilia was a bit tempered by their exposure to refined Bengali culture (literature was a part of which but there were other aspects, too). He was a product of a time when India hadn’t completely excised Britain from the minds of educated Indians.
There was another side to Ray: he was apolitical. Unlike his contemporary greats – Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak who wore their communist convictions on their sleeves – Ray never used his movies to convey his stand on political issues. Liberated from any political ideologies, Ray’s characters were ordinary men and women engaged in day-to-day struggles, seeing the world through a lens untinged by any ideologies. This makes them ordinary expressing who they really are without any ideological burden. One way to look at it would be to recall the four friends of Aranyer Din Ratri – Asim, Sanjoy, Shekhar, and Hari. Each one represents a different type of person. Another way would be to revisit Arati of Mahanagar, an archetypal traditional Bengali housewife who oversteps the limitations imposed by such roles when she decides to take up a job to financially help her husband. The former highlights the contours of each type by restricting the four friends within their boundaries (none of the four friends in Aranyer Din Ratri do anything uncharacteristic of the type of people they are), the latter underlines another type (Arti, a housewife circumscribed by social boundaries) by violating its boundary (when she steps out to earn a living). They represent the two ends of the human dynamic spectrum and between them there are so many other types of humans Satyajit Ray dealt with in his movies. They embody traits like foibles, limitations, aspirations, inanities, ingenuity, and curiosity, making up the world of Satyajit Ray’s everyman.
Indrasish Banerjee lives in Bangalore and works as a knowledge manager, spending his time reading books and watching movies. He has been writing for many years and has published in various Indian English dailies like Hindustan Times, Pioneer, DNA, and some online platforms like KM Insight. He also reviews books on a portal, Reedsy and maintains his own blog.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.