Updated: May 2
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Indian cinematic history goes back a long way. With the first full-length feature film Raja Harishchandra, India set its foot in the world of filmmaking. Now, Indian filmmakers failed to make a significant cut on the global arena. Films lacked stories. Because as Indians, we fail to accept anything except religion and god. So, movies were made primarily based on stories inspired by the epics.
But, storytelling attains its best platform at a movie theatre where hundreds of people are sitting and watching a story on a giant screen. It is about truly making the audience experience the story. It is like getting involved in one another's story, trying to find meaning in this world, and just being on the same page with the character.
Satyajit Ray, born in 1921, went to Visva Bharati after completing his studies in economics at Presidency College, Calcutta. Therefore the first time he was introduced to oriental art. Which, in a way, blew his mind. He met with legends like Benode Behari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose. Of course, the influence of Tagore did stimulate his interest in Indian Art.
Like every other thing, Indians had very few things that were considered as the concept or storyline of a cinema. Whatever it was, it had to have a connection with religion. The most iconic change, that Ray bought, was he brought a different set of storylines to the popular genre of Indian cinema. The story of the village poor, the urban middle class, the story of a fallen landlord (‘zamindar’), an iconic sleuth, a self-made hero, a lonely housewife, two vagabonds, and last but certainly not the least, king of ghosts. Now the concept of telling a story for the sake of storytelling, is what I think, is truly the ‘stroke of the maestro’.
He has a very simple concept in mind. “Villains bore me’. White vs black, ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, etc. these were age-old formulas, but he chose to explore the complex shades of grey instead.
The Song Of the Little Road
(Part I of the iconic Apu trilogy)
“A story should make you forget about your surroundings, your agenda, your day, and hopefully, yourself’.
Now, normally, in a film, there is good and evil. We have a general tendency to support the good, find ourselves in the character of the good, feel for the good and hate the evil. Feel immense pleasure at the end of the film, when we see the good defeats the evil.
But imagine a film, where there is a story. Just a story. Of a simple rural family. There is a mischievous innocent child, who runs around the village all day, who steals milk from the kitchen, but not for herself, but for kittens, who collect fruits from a nearby tree. She is a very caring sister.
They enjoy life. Happiness. Which actually lives up to the word. The feeling from which this word actually has evolved. Happiness. The happiness from getting completely drenched in rain, the happiness of seeing the sunlight after that. The happiness of seeing a train. The happiness of running along with a train. Capturing that happiness. Making the audience feel that happiness. Making the audience smile. Even in the smallest of these things, that’s the stroke of the maestro.
A kid. Who loved his sister more than anybody else. A kid, who doesn’t have any desires from life, who doesn’t want to go to the rich neighbour’s house to play, and doesn’t want anything fancy. He just wants to see the train. He just wants to run with the train. He wants to see it closely. He enjoys playing in the rain. He enjoys holding his sister tightly as they take shelter under a tree, as it’s raining cats and dogs. He just enjoys how his sister covers his head with her saree.
Imagine the rain stops. Sister gets a very high fever. She passes away. Imagine this child. Losing his innocence. This child. Suddenly losing this unadulterated happiness.
A father. Out of the town. Comes back with some money and a few gifts for the family, including a new saree for his daughter. Hears, she is no more.
And finally, a mother, who is like a shield. Who never let anybody’s bad words even remotely touch her daughter. A mother who hit her daughter and then sat by the door all afternoon, waiting for her. A mother, who never let her children feel that they were out of resources. She hugged her daughter all night long as there was a thunderstorm outside. Upon seeing her daughter dead, she sat quietly like a stone.
A story. Just a story. Which makes you go through all kinds of human emotions possible. And in the end, just leaves you with anger. How can this happen to them! But you have no one to blame. No villain. No evil. Nothing. Just a story. Just the stroke of the maestro.
The beauty of a revolutionary new idea is that it always gets rejected at first. Ray was trying to bring the story of common people to the big screen. Hence, no producer was willing to finance his film. Primarily because, it lacked heroes, catchy songs, and action scenes. So, funding was a problem. In 1955, the entire production cost around Rs. 70,000. Producer Rana Dutta gave the money to continue shooting, but could not continue as some of his films flopped.
Ray had to borrow money to shoot enough footage to persuade producers to finance the movie. Ray continued to work as a graphic designer, pawned his life insurance policy, sold his collection of gramophone records, and even pawned the jewels of his wife, Bijaya Ray, to raise funds. The shooting was paused for one year and then was shot in parts.
Mr. Bidhan Ch. Ray, the then chief minister of Bengal was contacted for funds, who obliged. Govt. officials on seeing the footage, did address the cost of backing the film. Though it was misunderstood by them as some kind of documentary for rural uplifting.
Later Museum Of Modern Art, New York, helped Ray with the additional money.
The film was screened at the annual exhibition of MIAM, then went on to screen at many other international film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival, where it was recognised as the best human documentation.
It was played at the 5th Avenue Playhouse, New York for a record 36 weeks.
Throughout his career, Ray believed that the best style of filmmaking was one that was not noticeable. The story should be highlighted, not the style in which it is being told. Ray, never used cinematic embellishments for their own sake.
This vivid style of capturing life is truly unique and one of its kind. He preferred to capture a story. Just as it is. Now, to this, one had to have a clear idea about how it is going to be told, how the looking is going to be like, the tone, the palette. A very very clear idea about the environment in which the story exists. So, he used to sketch out the scenes. By hand. Nearly each and every frame.
The sketchbook of Pather Panchali.
Another major aspect of Ray's films was the extraordinary cinematography by the legendary Soumendu Ray.
Not only in the Apu trilogy, but in later films as well, the unique style of capturing a story can be noticed. And what is especially noticeable is the look of perfection. In the film Jalshaghar, Ray had been scouting for a suitable palace. After rejecting many, he finally landed at Nimtita Rajbari. This was not only perfect for the film, but to utter surprise, it was the palace, based on which Tarashankar Bandopadhyay wrote the short story, which Ray’s film was based on. It was a massive hit. It widely incorporated Indian Classical music and dance.
The story ... deals with a music loving Zamindar (land-owner) who refuses to change with the times and thereby meets his comeuppance. ... the script … refused to take a popular shape but ended up as a serious story of decaying feudalism, embellished with music for which I had some of the top classical singers and dancers of our time.
The music of Satyajit Ray
Often musicians used to play just a 4 to the 5-minute clip, but the post-production team had really a harp time in perfect sync that piece with the scene. So, with the cinematic masterpiece Teenkanya, Ray debuted as a music director.
Teen Kanya is a varied trilogy of three short films, spread over three different genres, based on three short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. Postmaster, Monihara, and Samapti.
Now, to protect the individuality of the stories, the selection of instruments is especially noticeable. So, for Postmaster, he used dotara, sarinda, and flute (as and when needed), in Samapti, he introduced violin, and finally, in Monihara, he introduced Cello. From these instruments, a unique soundtrack was created which not only came together to create the perfect background score but also individually is a musical masterpiece in its own right.
Creating a rhythm, or rather a rhythmic pattern using a string instrument is a signature style of Ray. In the film Shakespeare Wallah by James Ivory, Ray worked as a music director. He also worked as a music director in another Bengali film, called Bakshyo Badal. What truly mesmerises me is that, even after so many years, this gentleman never fails to leave me spellbound every single time.
The world of goopy bagha
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne
Ray went on directing a full-fledged musical, based on the story by his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. A fantasy musical adventure film. Now, this is a film made for kids. But as we grow old, we can truly anticipate what it actually conveyed. It keeps coming back time and again. Maybe this is how timeless masterpieces are. They never get old. They just exist and every generation just can relate to it. Maybe this is how the stoke of a maestro is.
The iconic “Bhuter Naach” (The Dance Of The Ghosts) is critically acclaimed and is undoubtedly one of the best cinematic moments in history. Ray imagined the caste system upside down through the dance. At the bottom, are the priests or Brahmans, and at the top are the farmers or the common people. Reacting to the exiting caste system or the power distribution, Ray just went on creating something unique, something which should be.
It portrays people from each and every sector of society. Drunkards, farmers, priests, and everyone in between. Priests who are unusually obese, irrespective of to which religion they belong. The fat ghosts try to convince and impose upon others the values and doctrines as given in his possibly sacred book. They seem to ignore and not take it kindly and hence a fracas ensues. After some time, the ghosts fade away, and appears the king of ghosts, who bless goopy bag with three boons of their choice. Thus here, a written code of religion that should stand for peace, harmony, unity, and love ends up becoming the primary source of disharmony and discord. The fat ghosts fight each other till the very end in an attempt to superimpose their written religious doctrines over those of the others. We thus find another instance where society directly reflects in the film.
It is a never-ending discussion. The character of Borfi (the magician), the messenger of Halla, Halla’s king, Shundi’s king, and many more. Most importantly, the character arc of Goopy and Bagha. But, we are limited on space.
The entire film was planned to be made in colour, but due to a shortage of funds, it was decided to be shot in black and white, except for the last scene. It carried an extraordinary message through the story and just made the sequence exceptional.
Ray composed more than 30 songs for the character of Gupi. And the background score had the predominant use of the traditional Bengali instrument, Bangla Dhak.
Hirak Rajar Deshe
Imagine, a country, where there is a king. A cruel king. Where education is banned. Where the farmer dies out of hunger, a place where a person working in a diamond mine, dies out of poverty. Where, if you remotely try to raise your voice against the king, you are brainwashed and the only thing that comes out of your mouth after that is "The king is my god".
A teacher, who is trying to educate the children. Trying to teach them values, tell them about history, science. And the school is shut down and the books are burnt. The teacher is forced to flee and live in exile. The king's guards are after him.
The king in the meantime throwing away parties and living his life, making gigantic statues.
We have such individuals amongst us.
A film whose each and every dialogue rhyme with each other. Maybe only the maestro can create something like that. It won’t be wrong to say that the character of Hirak Raja has been inspired by a modern-day politician. Through the film, Mr. Ray has tried to teach us something. Something which can save us. Our country. Our future. These power-hungry people only care about money and power, who don’t believe in democracy and are slowly taking away our freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of choice. Freedom of questioning the government. They don’t care about us. They never will. They are systematically destroying democracy. And instead of using some potion, they are using religion to wash our brains.
Maybe we have our ‘mastermoshai’, whose hands are tied. Maybe we are still waiting for our goopy and bagha. They will come. Surely. And the king will be crushed under his own statue. Maybe that day, we can truly celebrate 'democracy'.
There has been a great influence of Rabindranath Tagore on his works. Some of his finest films were based on Tagore’s novels. Works such as ‘Charulata’ (1964: The Lonely Wife), a tragic love triangle set between a wealthy, western-influenced Bengali family, Teen Kanya (1961: Two daughters), a varied trilogy of short films about women, Ghare-Baire (1984: The Home And The World) is a somber study of Bengal’s first revolutionary movement in the years 1907-08 during the British period.
Never thought I would end without mentioning our very own master sleuth, did you?
Children are hard to work with. They throw tantrums and they always demand special care. True. But only if you don’t know how to deal with one. Ray had this capacity to deal with child actors in a way they demanded. In a way they understood. Be it the iconic “Sonar Kella” or “Joy Baba Felunath”. Child actors have always played a special role in these thrillers. One thing he was a master of was child psychology.
Let’s take you on an adventure. Through the deserts of Thar, Rajasthan. A child, who has memories from his past life. One who knows where is situated the “Golden Fortress”. One parapsychologist. Trying to solve the mysteries of the child’s mind. Nearly murdered. Child kidnapped. Hundreds of miles away from his home. Two bad guys. Are off that fortress.
Chasing them in a train, riding on camels. Comes our master sleuth. Feluda. Assisting him is his cousin Topse and popular thriller writer, Lalmohan Ganguly or Jatayu.
There is action, comedy, thrill.
To date, I am a fan of this movie. Feluda is probably the most iconic character in the literary and cinematic world of Bengal.
It always about how Ray chose to end the film.
With a strangely satisfying note. Followed by the iconic ‘Feluda Theme’.
It is not about money. Creativity can always overcome financial constraints. Maybe one of the boldest examples of this quote is Ray. Pather Panchali, heavily laced budget and a financer. Yet, it is one of the jewels of not only Indian but also of global cinematic creations. Same with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Shooting the film in colour would require a budget, which Ray did not have. Instead, he just made it in black and white and surprised the audience with the introduction of colour in the last scene. The iconic dance of ghosts could not have a four-storey set as shown. So, he builds a two-story set and folded the lens of the camera, and zoomed back at a particular pace, which matched the rhythm of the music.
One particular angle of Ray’s films that needs to be discussed particularly is the metaphors. Be it the flight of regions in Aparajito, signifying the death of Harihar, the sudden fall of the model boat, or Biswambhar Roy noticing that an insect is trapped in his glass, signifying the death of his wife and son. And many more.
So as said earlier. A story should make you forget about your surroundings, your agenda your day, and hopefully, yourself. Satyajit Ray’s fluent style of storytelling did much more. Maybe because it was the stroke of the maestro.