Satyajit Ray is the most acknowledged Indian name in international film and is one of the greatest film makers of all time. Most of his films were made in Bengali, but the universal humanitarian appeal of his movies influenced cinegoers through out the world.
Ray was born on the 2nd May of 1921 in a distinguished Bengali family of north Calcutta. His grandfather Upendrakishore Roychoudhury was a renowned children’s story writer. Upendrakishore was a friend of Rabindranath Tagore and once introduced Ray to Tagore in his childhood. His father Sukumar Roy(1887-1923) was a legendary Bengali writer, poet and a celebrated cultural figure. Satyajit Ray’s nickname was Manik and was known to many others by this name. Their family was used to run a printing and publishing business under the name of U. Ray & Sons in Garpar, a place in north Calcutta. Ray lost his father at the age of three when Sukumar Ray died from a dreadful disease called Kwalajwar.
At the age of six, their family business did wind up and he moved to Bhawanipore in South Calcutta with his mother Suprava Devi. Ray did his schooling at Ballygunge Government High School. In 1936, he got admitted into Presidency College and in 1939 graduated with Economics as major. He later regretted that this subject was not his cup of tea. He had great passion for music and art. After graduating from Presidency College, he went to Shantiniketan, the open air University founded by Rabindranath Tagore and started practicing art under Nandalal Bose. In 1941, upon hearing the news of Tagore’s death, he came to Calcutta bare footed to pay homage to Tagore.
Ray came back to Calcutta in 1942. In 1943, he took his first job as Assistant Art Visualizer at D.J.Keymers, an advertising agency. When D.K. Gupta started Signet Press for publishing and promoting Bengali books, he picked Ray for designing cover pages of the books published from his press. Ray laid out the design for the cover page of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s novel “Aam Aantir Bhnepu“, which he later converted to the famous film “Pather Panchali“(The Song of the Little Road).
Ray was used to watch films regularly and in 1947, he and his friends formed a club – The Calcutta Film Society. In 1949 famous French film director Jean Renoir came to Calcutta in search for locations for his new film “The River”. Ray assisted him and Renoir became his mentor. This was the first time when Ray could watch a famous film director from close. His employer sent him for summer training to London in 1950. During his stay there, Ray watched about 100 films in a span of about six months. Probably this was the time when he decided to make films. While coming back to Calcutta by sea, he completed a rough script for the movie “Pather Panchali“.
Ray bought the film rights of this novel from Bibhutibhsan’s widow. He formed a team with his friends to shoot the film. The team included Bansi Chandra Gupta who was a production designer and also worked as art director in Renoir’s “The River”. Ray requested Ravi Shankar to compose the background music for this film. They started looking for producers with a budget of seventy thousand rupees. But no one was interested. In 1952, Ray used his savings, took loan from his friends and managed to gather around fifteen thousand rupees and started shooting in Gopalnagar, Bibhutibhsan’s native village. His crew was full of first timers and no stars. He had to shoot only in Sundays and holidays to keep his regular job. Shooting schedule discontinued whenever money got exhausted. In 1953, he started shooting in a village named Boral, near the southern outskirt of the city. To keep up the cost, his wife’s jewelry was pawned; some of his music records and books were sold. He started showing prospective producers the portion of the film he was able to shoot so far. At last, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, a famous doctor and then Chief Minister of West Bengal, came for a rescue. He saw the portion of the film and managed to get some fund from a State Community Development Project.
In 1954, a Hollywood film director came to Calcutta to select a location for his upcoming film. He saw the unfinished version of the film and was deeply impressed. He requested Ray to send the film to New York for a premiere. The film was shown in New York. After couple of months the film was released in Calcutta. Initially it failed to draw any attention. But slowly the news about the movie started spreading and people got interested. Prime Minister Nehru viewed the movie in Calcutta and arranged all clearance from Govt. for this movie to be shown elsewhere. The movie went to the prestigious Cannes Film festival and won “The Best Human Document” award. Lots of national and international awards and recognitions were showered upon this film. The film became one of the finest films ever made in the world. This film brought Indian cinema in international limelight. After this, Ray made two films based on the rest of the original story – Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). These three films together is well known as ‘Apu Trilogy’.
Ray started making films based on a wide range of ideas. Devi (The Goddess) was not just a film, it was a piece of social work, shaking the truth under prejudices and believes. His first work on color film was Kanchenjangha based on his own story in 1962. His first film on Tagore’s work was – Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), based on three short stories of Tagore. His first film for children was Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen in 1968. Later he converted some of his own popular stories into movies. He made three films based on urban Calcutta life –Pratidwandi, Jana Aranya and Simabaddha. He was a fine music composer and composed scores for most of his films. His first film in Hindi was – Satranj ki Khiladi. In 1978, Berlin Film Festival ranked him as one of the three all time greatest directors in the world.
Ray began composing music on his own from his seventh film, ‘The Three Daughters’ after using Indian music virtuosos like Ravi Shankar (for ‘The Apu Trilogy’ and ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’), Vilayat Khan (for ‘The Music Room’) and Ali Akbar Khan (for ‘The Goddess’), since he had evolved his own style and method of composition to suit his situation and talents. His overall aim always was to compose a pure background music that belongs to the particular film rather than to any recognizable tradition or genre, whether eastern, western or a fusion of both. Ray preferred a fusion of Oriental and occidental music and jazz as his characters constantly reflected that blend, especially those of his urban films based in Calcutta. The variety in the gamut of his themes stretched from Bengali folk songs based on North Indian ragas and songs of Tagore, to the Carnatic style of the South. He used western instruments like the string quartet, flute and guitar with great finesse.
He was a prolific writer and his literary skill created two of the ever popular characters of Bengali literature – Feluda and Professor Shanku. Satyajit Ray created his famous detective Prodosh Mitter (popularly called Feluda) in December 1965-February 1966 in the short story ‘Feludar Goendagiri‘(The Investigations of Feluda), published in Sandesh. The character of Feluda, along with his cousin Tapesh Ranjan Mitter (affectionately called) and his friend Lalmohan Ganguly (alias Jatayu), are some of the most lovable persons created in Bengali children’s fiction. The indomitable trio solve crimes in locations as diverse as Sikkim, Rajasthan, Mumbai, Kathmandu and even London, apart from their native Calcutta, and Feluda evolves gradually into the sort of hero that every schoolchild loves to look up to. Ray filmed two of his Feluda stories, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Jai Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), in Rajasthan and Benares respectively, to high acclaim.
The eccentric Professor Shonku made his appearance in three consecutive issues of Sandesh – September to October, 1961 in ‘Byomjatrir Diary‘, (An Air Traveller’s Diary) as a scientist who works more for the welfare of man than for that of science. Not one of his inventions, apart from Annihilin, a deadly weapon for self-defense, is harmful to man. The Shonku stories combine the spirit of science and adventure, retaining at all times a strong sympathy for basic human values. The International Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, with a foreword by Isaac Asimov, ranked him as one of the only two Indian writers in this genre- the other being Sridhar Rao.
Ray’s memoirs are called Jakhan Chhoto Chhilam (When I was Young), which he wrote originally for Sandesh in 1981 and later published as a small book with his line drawings. The style of writing is lucid, yet revealing, providing interesting insights into the depth of thought of the child Satyajit. His books about his shooting experiences may also conveniently be grouped here, including the one for children – ‘Ekei Bole Shooting‘(Making Movies) and a later book about the Apu trilogy – ‘My Years with Apu’.
Ray’s proficiency in English and Bengali helped him to translate an extensive number of pieces, ranging from his excellent English versions of his father’s nonsense rhymes to equally appealing ones of Lear’s limericks. He also translated into Bengali a number of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur C Clarke and Bradbury. He wrote a number of articles on cinema and filming in both English and Bengali for prominent dailies in Calcutta. A collection of his articles in English have been published as ‘Our Films, Their Films’.
For all practical purposes, Ray’s writing divides itself into four broad groups : fiction, translation, memoirs and articles. Of these, the corpus lies in his fiction for children which includes his detective stories, science fiction, miscellaneous short stories and novellas and even some modern fairy-tales. He wrote around 25 story books, articles and book on film making.
Ray received many awards through out his life. Some of them are:Bharatratna – the highest civilian award from India, Lègion d’Honneur from France, Academy Award (Oscar) for Lifetime Achievement in World Cinema.
Ray fell sick due to heart trouble and could not shoot film. In 1989 he again came back to filming but started shooting indoor only. He made three movies during this time –Ganashatru, Sakha Prosakha and Aguntuk. Satyajit Ray died on April 23, 1992. He was survived by his son Sandip, wife Bijaya, daughter-in-law Lalita and grand son Sauarajit.