Even in Calcutta in the 1960s he was a strange man. Calcutta was not then the city of narrow horizons that it later became. It was teeming with oddballs—anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists, beatnik fans, die-hard alcoholics, acid geeks, and lunatics who believed in the flat-earth theory. The ratio of intellectuals to the population was then high even by the usual Bengali standards. Satyajit Ray was literally distinguished by his size. On a Sunday morning I saw the two-meter-tall colossus climb out of a green station wagon in front of the Metro cinema for the first time. That was sometime around 1963 when his Mahanagar (The Big City) had just come out. He hastily grabbed a magazine from the kiosk in front of the theater, probably Life, and almost ran back to the car. I found him a little stooped, as if trying to hide his height if not stature.
Even so early on, Ray’s cultural stature had become more intimidating than his height. During the release of Apu trilogy, between 1955 and 1959, its apotheosis was accomplished. The crowd of coffee houses started to refer to him by his pet name “Manikda”. Breaking into his home on Lake Temple Road, Ballygunj, using flimsy excuses, became such a common cultural pastime that Sandip, his school-age son, who was always full of pranks, put a note on the front door saying an entrance fee of eight annas was demanded. In the 1960s he was too famous to frequent his favorite haunt, the corner room of the Chowringhee coffee house called the House of Lords – still. After becoming involved with the Calcutta Film Society as a precocious teenager, I remember the select audience sitting in a projection theater where we were watching top-notch films, waiting to read Ray’s post-screening reaction to get over the crowd of applause to decide.
His deification was quite unusual, for Bengal’s cultural nerve center has always been in its literary community, Rabindranath Tagore being a classic example. In Ray, it was a filmmaker’s turn to occupy that throne. It happened because of the international aura Ray acquired so early. In this age of media explosion, it’s difficult to gauge the global recognition Ray has lauded during this time. In the 1960s and 1970s, as his reputation soared, each of his new releases garnered lengthy reviews in the New Yorker or the Times of London. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conscientiously invited visiting foreign dignitaries to private screenings of the new national icon, which was presented to the world in a way no Indian artistic personality had ever done. With the possible exception of Tagore. Film historian Penelope Houston commented that Ray’s Bengal would remain “the India of cinema” “unless someone else comes along to change it”. Well, no one else came along that way. Raj Kapoor was popular in India and the former USSR, but lacked the sophistication to catch the eye of the high priests of culture in New York or London.
V. Shantaram’s fare was box office burlesque. Ray’s contemporaries from Bengal, like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, were the local flavors at best. Talents like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Kundan Shah, Ketan Mehta and Adoor Gopalakrishnan were yet to rise. Even if they had been there, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Because nobody in the Indian film industry is as diverse as Ray. Long before the release of his trilogy, his reputation as a book designer was on solid ground. His Feluda stories for children still top the list of Bengali books today. A generation ago children skipped their homework to read these stories as they appeared in the annual puja issues. Above all, he was a man of great social charm who could excite any gathering, from the enlightened chic to the local wannabe. And there was a rather odd and unavoidable Englishness to his personality. More than his accent, which had a BBC quality, it was his sharp understatement that sounded alien at typical Indian social evenings.
Speaking about a particularly lewd Hindi film at the home of a French diplomat in Kolkata, he said even a color-blind person would recognize its resemblance to “Picasso’s paintings of a certain period.” He once invited a famous leftist to his home, and the leftist, seething with class hatred of this middle-class filmmaker, said his home had been frequented by far too many “nice guys” for his liking. “Don’t worry,” Ray told him, “let me know when you’re coming and I’ll invite quite a few rude guys to please you.”
In a 37-year filmmaking career spanning 29 feature films, Ray left a body of work and a string of international awards to be the envy of any artistic personality. However, it is Apu trilogy that remains the cornerstone of his oeuvre. They are amazingly full of character, portrayed with a naturalness that one would expect from documentaries. From the American art houses, the Apu films touched creative minds as compelling coming-of-age stories perfectly attuned to the young adult fiction genre that would later explode in American television fiction and animation. In The simpsons, the cartoon saga of Bart Simpson’s Education now popular in India, there is an Indian convenience store owner named Apu (this Apu is a Patel of course). Throughout the various stages a film goes through—script, sets, locations, editing rooms, and recording studios—Ray was an image of the dictator, his words the ring of army commandos. He had the last word, and the members of the unit accepted it. His production staff and many of his actors stayed with him for decades. They were a disciplined army. Ray was terribly practical. At the time of manufacture Ghare Bairehis last major film before a debilitating heart attack in 1983, the tall man crouched behind the Arriflex camera, which rolled on a trolley.
Ray continued to shoot his films until his last days and fought a heroic battle with the disease. Most of his recent films were shot indoors, as doctors wouldn’t allow him to work on location. These films therefore lacked the magical magnificence of sun and rain Father Panchali. His control over all production departments was loosened so that the films lacked the classic precision of, shall we say, Charulata. But even in his smaller works, he did not waver from his deepest artistic commitment to present, in his own words, “truth married to art”.
This perhaps explains why his best films were shot in black and white. Indian cinema had been immersed in color long before Ray began loading the Eastman color reels into his camera. It was a compromise where color added glamor but robbed cinema of its role as a critical observer of reality. Even today, when Steven Spielberg, the messiah of techno cinema, likes to tell a blatant story Schindlers List Based on an apro-Jewish German’s attempt to save the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, he chooses black and white film, not color. Ray had a duty to his native country to record the joys and sorrows of its people. He literally did it in black and white.