ucsclogo
Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection, UCSC
RayFASC:
News and Events
About Us
Restoration
Lethbridge Collection
Our Collection
Donations
Contact Us
Frequently Asked Questions
Satyajit Ray:
Biography
Filmography
Graphics
Books on Ray
Books by Ray
Articles
Awards
Critics
Links


ICCR Logo

Biography of Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)

By Dilip Basu

Biographical Sketch

Satyajit Ray was born on May 2, 1921 in Calcutta to Sukumar and Suprabha Ray. He graduated from the Ballygunge Government School and studied Economics at Presidency College. He then attended Kala Bhavan, the Art School at Tagore's University, Santiniketan during 1940-1942. Without completing the five-year course, he returned to Calcutta in 1943, to join the British-owned advertising agency D. J. Keymer as a visualizer. Within a few years, he rose to be its art director.

In 1948, he married Bijoya Das, a former actress/singer who also happened to be his cousin. Their only offspring, Sandip, was born in 1953. In 1983, Satyajit Ray suffered a massive heart attack. He died on April 23, 1992 in Calcutta after having some 40 films and documentaries and numerous books and articles to his credit.

Politics of Vision: Satyajit Ray and His Cinema

A Bengali Bergman? A sort of reincarnated Renoir? These are Andrew Robinson's cries of high hosannas while placing Satyajit Ray, the subject of his well-known study, in the pantheon of world filmmakers. Michael Sragow, a noted film critic, is more subtle. In a longish essay entitled "An Art Wedded to Truth" in the Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 1994), he describes Ray as the most sublime movie maker to emerge since Renoir and De Sica. Then he adds a careful caveat — unlike the two European masters, Satyajit Ray made "great" and "near great" films throughout his long career producing some thirty-seven features, documentaries and short films, an impressive accomplishment by any measure or standard.

Robinson and Sragow are among a host of Western admirers who have attempted to understand Ray's art in the idiom they know and in the categories they are comfortable with. It is commonly assumed that Ray, artistic and somewhat off-beat, must have emerged from India's long and prolific motion picture tradition which is as old as any. In India, Ray was initially dismissed, especially in Bollywood, as a peddler of poverty, and as someone who made low budget features with the foreign markets, international film festivals and awards in mind.

Even close to half a century after Pather Panchali made its first splash, proper appraisal of Ray's creativity and originality, whether in India or in the West, hangs in a precarious balance. Ashis Nandy, for example, has made the astonishing statement in his well-known essays on Ray that Satyajit Ray, being Calcutta born and bred, had little or no knowledge of rural Bengal, and that Ray and his films are not Indian, Bollywood being quintessentially Indian. Darius Cooper, on the other hand, finds the Ray films as examples of the traditional nine Rasas; Suranjan Ganguly in an otherwise astute study locates Ray culturally and aesthetically in the nineteenth century's ethos of modernity.

Calcutta's well-heeled cinema-goers, especially the leftists, have found in Ray and his films an outstanding political void. In contrast, filmmakers such as Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen are lauded for their outspoken political stance and leftist voice.

In this essay, I argue that Satyajit Ray was very much a product of his times and cultural heritage as well as his own creative self. His thirty-seven film oeuvre is at once a testimony to his diverse and multi-faceted creativity, and a record, a mirror image of sorts, of his times — the second half of the twentieth century in post-independent Bengal and India. Viewed in this perspective, I argue all his films are political; the degree of their political intensity increased as the social and economic crisis deepened in India . A parallel can be found in Tagore's life. From gentle, nuanced and overt cultural critiques of contemporary social mores of Bengali life and style in such works as Gora, Nashtanir (The Broken Nest or Charulata in Ray's film rendition), and Ghare Baire (Home and the World as a Ray film), Tagore's voice became increasingly covert and shrill toward the end of his life as the world was tattered by holocausts and wars. Tagore's last word to the world can be found in his "Crisis of Civilization"; Ray left his last messages to the people of Bengal, India and the World in his last trilogy, his farewell films : Ganashatru (The Enemy of the People) Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree) and Agantuk (The Stranger).

Education of a Filmmaker

Ray was born in 1921 to a distinguished family of artists, litterateurs, musicians, scientists and physicians. His grandfather Upendra Kishore was an innovator, a writer of children's story books (popular to this day), an illustrator and a musician. His father, Sukumar, trained as a printing technologist in England, was also Bengal's most beloved nonsense-rhyme writer, illustrator and cartoonist. He died young when Satyajit was two and a half years old.

Ray's mother, Suprabha, raised him as a single parent. They lived with Suprabha's brother's family and with his paternal uncles. He was much adored and "coddled" as a child and hence the nickname "Manik," or "jewel" in Bengali. Ray later recalled these fun-filled childhood memories in a little book When I Was Small. The extended joint family had uncles, aunts and cousins who crisscrossed cultures — East and West — in their everyday lives. Some played cricket, while some played piano. Some played the violin while others sang, sketched and illustrated stories and verses. One of the uncles was a photographer with his own darkroom, another was a cameraman (later a director) in India's burgeoning film industry.

As a youngster, Ray developed two very significant interests. The first was music, especially Western Classical music. He listened, hummed and whistled. He then learned to read music, began to collect albums, and started to attend concerts whenever he could. These interests and skills were to prove most useful when he chose to score music for his own films.

His second interest was cinema, or "bioscope," as it was called in the early years of motion pictures. He saw silent films as well as "talkies" and started to compile scrapbooks with clippings culled from newspapers and magazines on Hollywood stars. He wrote fan letters to Deana Durbin who replied. Manik carefully put it in his scrapbook, along with pictures of Durbin. The Ray family has preserved this early scrapbook to this day. Ray wrote to Ginger Rogers too, but did not receive a reply. Billy Wilder received a "massive missive," a twelve-page long letter from Ray, now a young man who had developed a keen interest in the craft of cinema. The occasion was Ray's fascination in the Golden Age American Cinema and its profound impact on his own craft which remains an untold story.

By this time a third dimension was added to Ray's passionate interest in cinema. This was Ray's exposure to and training in drawing at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. He joined the art school at his mother's insistence and encouragement from Tagore, the great poet, who was a friend of his late father. While in Santiniketan Ray learned to draw from the great master-teacher Nandalal Bose, a pioneer in art education in Modern India. The other teacher who made an abiding impression on him was Binode Behari Mukherjee. Binode Bihari had trained in China and Japan. Calligraphic elements entered his otherwise modernist oeuvre. With his natural talent in drawing, Ray later developed and deployed this element in his illustrations and graphic designs.

Ray did not complete the art course in Santiniketan. He returned to Calcutta, where among other things, he could see the Hollywood films he had enjoyed as an adolescent. While in Santiniketan, Ray had an unusual exposure to film theory, however. Deprived of the chance to frequent his favorite film-shows of the Golden Age variety, he read books on cinema. He read Rotha, Annheim and Spottiswoode. He discovered that his two passions — music and film — actually have a common convergence. Upon his return to Calcutta, he would go to the theater with a note-book. He was not just watching, he was studying as well. His apprenticeship in film-making began as a pleasurable self-pedagogy. This eventually put him on the path to making Pather Panchali. In retrospect, when his family background, early education and exposures are considered, he seems to have had a perfect grounding to be a filmmaker.

Even the diversions in his early life helped pave this career path. His job at D. J. Keymer saw Ray blossom into a great graphic artist, typographer, book-jacket designer and illustrator (he would later sketch frames of his films). While at Keymore, he visited Jean Renoir and had intense discussion on cinema with him when the great French director was shooting The River outside Calcutta. Before this, he had established the Calcutta Film Society where he saw films by Capra, Ford, Huston, Mileston, Wilder and Wyler among others. He also saw films by Eisenstein (he heard Bach in them) and Pudovkins (where he heard Beethoven). During a six-month stint in London in 1950 he saw over one hundred films. Among them were The Bicycle Thief and La Regle du Jeu . Both made a deep impression on Ray and later inspired him to undertake the making of Pather Panchali.

Pather Panchali

In 1950, Satyajit Ray was asked by a major Calcutta publisher to illustrate a children's edition of Pather Panchali, Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee's semi-autobiographical novel. On his way back from London, with little to do on a two-week boat journey, Ray ended up sketching the entire book. These formed the kernel and the essential visual elements in the making of Pather Panchali, Ray's very first film and the film that brought him instant international recognition and fame. At the Cannes Film Festival, in 1956, Ray received in absentia, the Best Human Document Award for this hauntingly beautiful film, its carefully executed details of joys and sorrows in the life of a little boy named Apu in a tiny village in Bengal in the 1920s. Instant fame, however, did not bring in its wake instant fortune.

How he managed to make the film, pawning his rare music albums, his wife Bijoya's jewelry and his mother, Suprabha's networking in the Government circles in Calcutta, has now become a by-word in the annals of Indian film history. It also provides a paradigm on the "modes of production" in the kind of world cinema that stubbornly refuses to kowtow to commercial pressure. The paradigm required a perennial search for the elusive producer; an essential routine of most of Ray's movie-making career. If he had access to funds for the kind of films he wanted to make on his fiercely independent and nonnegotiable artistic terms, the world would have seen more diversity and many more period pieces in Ray's oeuvre: films based on ancient epics, the Mughals and the British Colonials. Instead, he limited himself to what was locally available and possible, refusing to stop or give in to commercial presuures. By 1992, the year he passed on, he had made forty films including shorts and documentaries. Some of these are all-time classics, great and near-great films. Unlike his illustrious contemporaries Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, for example he never made a film that can qualify as "bad" from the filmmaker's standpoint.

Ray resigned from his job as a visualizer in the British advertisement firm soon after Pather Panchali was released. The die was cast: Ray was now a full-time professional filmmaker. After the completion of the Apu Trilogy (1959), regarded as a classic of World Cinema, Ray continued to work with amazingly diverse and varied material. With each film made in the 1960s, his reputation soared to new heights. Many distinguished awards and prizes came his way.

Satyajit Ray made modest amounts directing and making films. The producers reaped the profits from films that earned substantial revenues, e.g. The Apu Trilogy, and The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (1968). In the mid-sixties, for a couple of years he had no work. The solution to making ends meet for his small family surfaced this way. In 1968, a prominent editor of a widely read literary magazine in Bengali persuaded Ray to write a novella for its annual number. Ray the writer of whodunits, adventure stories, science fictions, appropriately illustrated by himself, made a dramatic appearance on the Bengali literary scene. In addition, there was no surcease since then in his literary output until the time he was taken to the hospital in 1992. His last writing, My Years With Apu, was published posthumously in 1994. He wrote some seventy novellas, stories and translations and each one of them became a best seller in Bengali. The royalties from these various writings supported the Ray family, easing somewhat his anxiety to provide for his family. In the 70s and the 80s he chose to make a few films based on these stories: Sonar Kella (1974), Joi Baba Felunath (1978), Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980), Pikoo (1980), Shakha Proshakha (1990), Uttoran (1993). Sandip Ray directed the last film after Ray had passed away.

In 1975, Satyajit Ray had this to say on the bewildering array of films he had made to date:

"Critics have often accused me of a grasshopperish tendency to jump from theme to theme, from genre to genre... rather than pursue one dominant subject in an easily recognizable style that would help them to pigeonhole me, affix me with a label. [Films with] a whodunit, a children's fantasy, a tale of adventure, problems of contemporary urban youth, the famine of '43, all made over a ten year stretch, it is inevitable that a feeling of restlessness, perhaps even of indecision, will emerge from this jumble. All I can say in self-defense, if one is needed, is that this diversity faithfully reflects my own personality and that behind every film lies a cool decision."

The eclectic Ray was not, as he points out, erratic or idiosyncratic in the choices of his themes. What he does not spell out is how the themes overlapped with and related to the changing social and political mores in post-colonial India and probably his personal life as well.

Politics of Vision

One can locate three major compositional periods in Ray's work and life. The first period (1955-1964) was remarkable for its robust optimism, celebration of the human spirit as well as a certain satisfaction and self-confidence in assuming full auteurship. Ray was not only directing and scripting, he was scoring the music and increasingly taking charge of the camera-work . During this period, he directed, arguably, his greatest films following a trajectory that can be traced back to his family background, his education in art, music and letters, and to the East-West cultural confluence that captured what one can call "Calcutta Modern." One must point out that this phase coincides with the first flush of independence in India or the idea of India that was being forged with yet to be tested forces of nationalism/internationalism, secularism, humanism and modernism of the Nehru era (1947-64).

From the mid-sixties through the seventies, all of the above came under a dark spell. There were two wars — one with China early on and one with Pakistan in 1965. Growing unemployment among the urban middle classes and an agricultural crisis created by a command economy had brought parts of the country face-to-face with famine. In addition, there was an increased disaffection and restlessness among the intelligentsia and politicians. The war in Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution in China had radicalized Calcutta's urban youths and many of its artists, writers and filmmakers. Revolutionary violence and the violence of the counter-revolutionary forces gripped the city. Calcutta, noted as a friendly and safe city, became a dangerous place to live. The Bangladesh war and the influx of millions of refugees fleeing Pakistani pogrom, filled Calcutta and its outskirts. The successful Indian Army operations, the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation were capped by India's first nuclear test in 1974. The anti-Indira Gandhi agitation led to the imposition of the "Emergency" in 1975. This gave Indians a bitter taste of living under an authoritarian government. The Government clamped harsh and draconian measures on the citizens. Yet there were hardly any signs of protest: people followed orders, streets were cleaner, the economy showed growth and the trains were running on time.

Ray, however, was troubled. The films he made during this period clearly projected a troubled vision of India. The "Calcutta Trilogy" Partidwandi, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya was a powerful portrait of alienation, waywardness and moral collapse among the urban youth. Aranyer Din Ratri, a major film, shows a rape scene; Ashani Sanket, a grim and poignant narrative on the Bengal Famine of 1943 was made during the Bangladesh war. This film shows rape as well. Shatranj Ke Khilari, made during the Emergency shows through irony and the metaphor of a chess game how the king of Oudh, more a poet, composer and singer than a ruler submitted to the British take-over, as his people subjected themselves to the alien rule fleeing from the villages as the British-Indian Army marched in.

The two short films Pikoo and Sadgati refused to equivocate or distance themselves from issues of adultery and untouchability. Even his so called "escapist" films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Sonar Kella, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Joi Baba Felunath, carried not-so-hidden messages against wars, crooks, goons and love of lucre and greed. In mid-life, at the height of his creative best, Ray seemed to have suffered a "crisis" — arguably a personal one, but certainly one in his world-view, the way he looked at people and things around him. Increasingly, he became a loner, isolating himself in his Bishop Lefroy Road apartment. He even seriously considered leaving Calcutta — his beloved cinematic city.

The third and last phase saw Ray's "crisis" come full circle. He became even more isolated and distant, telling his telos in enunciatory terms. Unlike the early Ray genres, his films became frankly "wordy," declaring a didactic Ray voice that sought social correctives through acts of enunciation in cinema in Ghare Baire. Based on a Tagore novel, Ray was recasting Tagore's time-tested shibboleths against narrow nationalism, mix of religion and politics, demagogues and their dishonesties. Stricken by two heart attacks, Ray was now involuntarily isolated on doctor's orders. When his condition somewhat stabilized in 1987, he begged his doctors to let him make a film or two: modest family dramas shot indoors under their watchful eyes.

Before he passed on, he made three such pluvies (or movies that were more plays than movies) marking the years 1988, 1989 and 1990 as if he was counting time and using the medium for the message. Ganashatru addressed the questions of the late Capitalist corruption, and manipulation of religion, people, politics and environment. It is Ray's contemporary Indian version of Ibsen's Enemy of the People. Shakha Prashakha also addresses issues of the late Capitalism as it impacts family values corroding traditional generational bonding on the inside, and the fetishization of "black" money as the individuated upwardly ambitious try to make a living on the outside. To the protagonist-enuciator, who like Ray, is a heart patient, "honesty" becomes an obsessive compulsion mediated in the mood swings of music and madness. The signifier is a son who suffers the swings, seldom talks and is dysfunctional. The third in this trilogy is Agantuk. An emotionally charged film, Ray literally plants his own voice in it. He briefly sings three times in place of the enunciator-protagonist. There is little doubt that the protagonist is Ray himself. Ray is a transnational. His global concerns and questions are articulated locally and nationally as the post-Cold War era is ushered in. Issues that are brought up implicate Ray and his visions: Who is an artist? How do his loved ones measure it? In monetary terms? Who is civilized and who is "primitive?" The world-traveller and the ethnographer reveals his telos at last. He is against narrowness of all sorts, against boundaries, borders and barriers. "Don't be a frog in the well," he tells his young grandnephew as he moves on to his next destination.

Selfhood of Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray received many labels in his lifetime — most of them admiring, adulatory, some critical. Critics and scholars have marveled at his craftsmanship, mastery of detail and storytelling techniques. He has been called the last Bengali renaissance man, the inheritor and an exemplar of the Tagore tradition, a classic chronicler of changes being wrought in a traditional society, a humanist, an internationalist and a modernist. All these can be defended and debated. But two charges against him are not defendable: that Ray was not political or not political enough; that he was a humanist and modernist. About the first, one can argue that Satyajit Ray, at a certain level in all his films negotiated the polyps of the political Unconscious . However, the way he did it, as I have tried to show, changed over time. Second, Ray was a modernist in the sense that his medium was a modern invention that he used to perfection. However, this mostly applied to the use of the medium and not to the material he grafted on it. The latter came in various shades of Indian life, particularly life in Bengal. He attempted to represent this, mediated by great artistic sensibility and with attentiveness to complexity and diversity. The East/West confluence produced a modernity in Bengal that can be traced to antecedents in prior histories of early modernities outside the Modern West. The same thing can be said about humanism which certainly has a long and illustrious tradition in India.

Ray's films illumined lives. No one made films on such diverse subjects before him the way he did; and it remains to be seen whether another director would do so in the future. Whatever Ray was, it is impossible, as he said himself, to label him or put him in a pigeonhole.