Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Trail of Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray was born in Calcutta in West Bengal in 1921 in a family of writers. The families of Ray and the great Bengali author, Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 are the heirs of an intellectual movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, known as the Bengali Renaissance, which advocated a fair cultural exchange between East and West, rising against the caste system, denouncing the religious dogmatism advocated by the fundamentalists and favoring the emancipation of women.

These ideals will undoubtedly mark the filmography of Satyajit Ray, including adaptations of Tagore with Teen Kanya as well as Charulata and Ghare-baire. The theme of the emancipation of women in Mahanagar was followed by the strong indictment in Sadgati against the caste system. Unlike his family, Satyajit Ray did not choose literature, but cinema as a mode of expression and creation.

As a teenager, he discovered classical American cinema of Lubitsch, Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks in the dark rooms of Calcutta, but first studied Oriental art with Chinese painting and calligraphy at Santiniketan, the university founded by Tagore. He first worked as a draftsman in an advertising agency, illustrated children's classics and founded with friends the Calcutta film society, the first Indian film club in 1947. He was attracted towards the Soviet and American cinema.

It was after meeting Jean Renoir, who came in 1949 to make a survey and then to direct Le Fleuve, a few kilometers from Calcutta, that Satyajit Ray decided to make cinema. The meeting with Renoir and his admiration for neo-realism, among others the Bicycle Thief, will be decisive for the project of direction of Pather Panchali, the adaptation of a popular classical of Bengali literature.

From the beginning, Satyajit Ray refused the constraints imposed by the cinematographic studios and it is with a meager budget, and a little help from the government of Bengal and a group of friends that he embarked on the adventure of Pather Panchali, filmed in natural settings, with mostly inexperienced actors. After three years of difficult shooting with multiple interruptions, the film was released in Bengal in 1955 and was a huge success.

Presented at Cannes the following year, it was awarded there too. Aparajito (1956), the second installment of the Apu trilogy (completed in 1959), won the Golden Lion in Venice in 1957. The success in Bengal and international recognition will determine Ray's cinematographic choices. His films, primarily aimed at the Bengali public and the international public. The Apu trilogy, recognized today as one of the major works of Indian and international cinema, traces the course of a child, Apu, who became a teenager then an adult, left his village to reach the city.

Ray, through his trilogy, draws a sociological and cultural portrait of India in the aftermath of independence by portraying the oppositions between towns and villages. This commitment of the filmmaker as a witness of his time is one of the characteristics of his cinema, which tries to portray the evolution of mentalities through the characters. It was found in Jalsaghar in 1958, Devi in 1960 and Charulata in 1964.

In Mahanagar, which he directed in 1964, Ray illustrates the professional life of a woman, in order to show the intellectual evolution of the urban woman. Despite his career as a filmmaker, Ray did not abandon his first love for literature and music. Thus, in 1961, he began composing the music of his own films, following the example of Charlie Chaplin, mixing Indian and Western influences. Often, he combined the functions of writer, director and composer.

The same year, Ray revived the magazine founded by his grandfather in 1913, Sandesh, which published transcripts of Bengali oral literature, especially children's stories, and also his own news, including the adventures of Detective Feluda, a character that he himself created inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's novels. He adapted the adventures of his hero, Detective Felu Mittir, one of the most famous of which is Joi Baba Felunath.

In 1973, Satyajit Ray received the Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival for his film Ashani Sanket. He also won an award for his film work in 1992, the year of his death, from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of the Oscars.

There were also telefilms for television, like Sadgati in 1980, as well as documentaries that complemented the work of the filmmaker who also directed Phatik Chand in 1982. Satyajit Ray's cinema is also about the faces of actresses. He revealed the likes of Sharmila Tagore, Madhabi Mukherjee and Mamata Shankar. Soumitra Chatterjee, his favorite actor, was his lead actor since Apu in 1959 in The World of Apu to Proshanto in Shakha Proshakha in 1990.