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Films of Satyajit Ray: Getting Started

First in a series of Articles published in India Post

By Dilip Basu

Even before Pather Panchali (1955) was released to public screening and greeted as a masterpiece, it had received much critical acclaim in private.

In the Fall of 1954 Monroe Wheeler, a director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had come to Calcutta. He met Satyajit Ray and learned that he was making a film. He saw some stills and immediately invited Ray to send the film to the exhibition that would open at MOMA the following year. A few months later, John Huston arrived in Calcutta to scout locations for his film The Man Who Would Be King. He had already heard about Ray and his work. Ray showed him a half-hour of rough cut of the visual highlights — among them the scene of the running train in the field of white Kaash. Huston was moved: "A grim and serious piece of film making, which should go down well in the West," he commented. Wheeler got the glowing report from Huston. A hastily finished first print was sent to New York in May 1955. It was screened without subtitles to an adoring audience moved by the film's humanist appeal and imaginative photography.

Ray alludes to these vignettes and many more in his posthumously published Memoir on the making of the Trilogy (My Years With Apu, A Memoir, by Satyajit Ray; New Delhi: Viking, 1994).

He waited with great anticipation for the Bengali audience's first reaction to the screening of Pather Panchali in August 1955. Using his expertise in publicity gained as an executive at D. G. Keymer & Co., a British Advertising firm in Calcutta, he had designed five billboards for the film. The response was instantaneous. "For the first time I tasted triumph," Ray writes, "with unknown young people elbowing their way through the milling crowd to kiss the hem of my garment as it were." Contrary to common belief that Pather Panchali was appreciated in Ray's hometown only after it had received awards abroad, the film was in fact a box office hit from the day of its premiere. However, it ran only for six weeks. Ray explains why.

The theater in South Calcutta showing Pather Panchali was booked in advance for the screening of Insaniyat, a film by S.S. Vasan, the South Indian Cecil B. De Mille. The day after his film was taken off, Ray was awakened early in the morning by his servant. He had a dhoti-clad visitor: Mr. S.S. Vasan. Asked by Ray what had brought such a distinguished director to his door so early in the morning, Vasan replied, "You! I had been to see your film last night. If I had known that that was the film Insaniyat was going to replace, I would certainly have withheld my opening. You have made a great film, Sir."

Ray had fought against overwhelming odds to come to this point. Backed by a handful of young film buffs, equipped with sketches and notes on select episodes of Pather Panchali, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay's epic novel, he had approached all the major and minor producers in Calcutta. They included B.N. Sirkar, "a sort of Bengali Louis B Mayer," and a fledgling named Das who was trying to produce from a "seedy hotel in the heart of central Calcutta." These led him nowhere. But Ray had made up his mind. He had decided to go ahead on his own with a hand picked cast of mostly non-professionals and a crew of rookies. His cameraman Subrata Mitra, for example, had not handled a movie camera before. Ray's familiarity with this magic tool extended to possessing a second-hand Leica. While funding these faltering efforts, he had pawned his classical western music collection and his wife's jewelry. The project finally got going through his mother Suprabha Ray's intervention. She knew one Mrs. Bela Sen who was a personal friend of Dr. B.C. Roy, the Chief Minister. Dr. Roy agreed to offer state funding.

Moved by the film, Dr. Roy had arranged for a special screening for Pundit Nehru. Already vested interests in India's filmdom were building barricades against Pather Panchali. Nehru saw the film at Calcutta's Lighthouse Miniature Theater flanked by Dr. Roy and Satyajit Ray who did the occasional translation. Nehru too was moved and quickly acted to ruin all opposition to the film's proposed entry to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Officials attending the festival did precious little to publicize or promote the film. The screening took place on a holiday at midnight. The result: most jurors did not show up. Amongst those who did were Ray aficionados — Lindsay Anderson, Lotte Eisner, Andre Bazin, George Sadoul and Gene Moskowitz. They persuaded the Festival Committee to organize a second screening with all the jurors present. Pather Panchali went on to receive the Special Jury Prize for the Best Human Document. Later the film received a dozen or more national and international awards.

The recognition, writes Ray, persuaded him to take the plunge. He decided to give up advertising and turn to film making as a full time career. The choice was a logical one for Ray: He had been training, we now know, for years in the arts and sciences of motion pictures. But who were his role models, and which film making traditions was he attracted to?