A Single Dewdrop: The Pleasures of "Satyajit Ray: Miscellany"

A new volume of Ray's writings showcases the legendary filmmaker's quicksilver intellect and steadfast humanism.
Arun A.K.

Satyajit Ray conducting in Music of Satyajit Ray (Utpalendu Chakrabarty, 1984).

Throughout his life, Satyajit Ray's passion for the cinema and zeal for spreading film culture in India found him entertaining requests to contribute writing to film-club journals, newspapers, and periodicals. These myriad writings—spanning film criticism, reflections on silent cinema and eminent film personalities, and snippets of greetings for film festivals and retrospectives—come together in Satyajit Ray: Miscellany—On Life, Cinema, People, & Much More. Edited by Ray’s son Sandip, this new volume is part of an ongoing endeavor from Penguin Random House India to bring out his entire written oeuvre. The collection gathers Ray’s generous introductions to other people's works—such as books on film, photography, painting, translations, and LP liner notes—which indicate his reverence toward the exponents of these diverse art forms. The humanist in him shines while reminiscing about people he admired and loved.

Miscellany opens with the facsimile of an unfinished, previously unpublished draft from Ray's notebook in which he describes his journey as a filmmaker: shooting his debut feature, Pather Panchali (1955), largely on Sundays and holidays owing to his full-time job at an advertising agency; obtaining a loan against his insurance policies; the painstaking ordeal of parting with his wife's jewelry and most of his art books and classical records to sustain the production, and so on. In his early articles, Ray came down heavily on the erstwhile Bengali films for their mediocre screenwriting and lack of aesthetic sense. “The contemporary scene, the texture of city life, the drama of everyday existence have been shamefully neglected by our filmmakers,” he observes. With Pather Panchali, he revolutionized Bengali cinema by eschewing the plot in favor of a poignant human theme. Ray's decision to hire a largely non-professional cast was influenced by his belief that established stars tend to destroy the illusion of authenticity. In Two Daughters (1961), an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's short stories Postmaster and Samapti, Ray paired the pros with the non-pros to extract the best from them. In a previously unpublished article, he states that "the non-pros feel flattered and elated to be put on a par with the pros, while the pros, faced with the competition of untutored ease and unnaturalness, find themselves suppressing their mannerisms." 

Sandip gleans further from various sources to offer a glimpse into his father’s diligent approach to filmmaking, especially screenwriting. Ray wrote his own scenarios throughout his career; in general, he felt that scriptwriting was one of the greatest weaknesses of Bengali cinema (barring a few exceptions, like the films of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen). One of Miscellany’s most insightful articles sees Ray wax eloquent about screenwriting. He would improvise the dialogues significantly during production, as he believed every action on location affects the words characters speak. He even took into account the influence of changing seasons on the speech. While adapting literary texts, Ray often exercised liberty in altering certain situations to fit the cinematic material. For example, in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), when Apu learns of his wife's death from his brother-in-law, he hits him, which was strongly criticized as it did not occur in Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's book. But Ray and his actor shared his conviction. 

Ray’s rebuttals to criticism of his screenplays reflect his clarity of vision and understanding of cinematic material. For instance, his adaptation of Bandopadhyay’s novel, Aparajito (1956), was condemned for omitting several characters, but Ray justified this by asserting that if an original is to achieve integrity as a film, it will need pruning, condensing, and reshaping. He was brutal in his retaliation to an eminent critic's remark that "the scene of Apu's weeping at his mother's death was an unwarranted fabrication because the book doesn't mention such an occurrence," with his sarcastic comment, "the book also neglects to mention Apu spoke with his tongue and ate with his hand and walked on his feet..." When filmmaker Rajbans Khanna slammed Ray for choosing to depict King Wajid Ali Shah in The Chess Players (1977) as "effete and effeminate," the latter responded with a scathing letter published in The Illustrated Weekly of India in December of 1978, in which he elaborates on the extent of research that went into his complex, contradictory portrait of Shah. 

Aparajito (Satyajit Ray, 1956).

Miscellany also curates several articles in which Ray muses about silent cinema. The cineaste laments the cruel illogicality of commercial pressures that arrived with the coming of sound, signaling the death of silent movies—which he held in higher artistic and visual merit than most sound films. He draws attention to Kevin Brownlow's book, The Parade's Gone By, wherein the British film historian lauds the quality of camerawork in the silent days, the wonderful feeling for light and landscape that the cameramen had, and the meticulous work of the set designers. Besides Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Ray speaks highly of D.W. Griffith's innovations in the early days of cinema, especially the crane shot. In Ray's telling, filmmaking back then was much more of a personal, intimate affair, where the artists worked harder and with more painstaking care than their modern counterparts. Ray attributes these qualities, as well as better research and taste, to the superior visuals of silent-era spectacles like Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), over their present-day, Panavision Technicolor counterparts. While heaping praise on The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), he proclaims, “In the precision and expressive range of its photography, in the depths of its emotional intensity and the simplicity and the exactitude of the means employed, it remains the greatest single reason for the cinema to be regarded as art and for the silent cinema to be considered as a valid and self-sufficient form of expression.”

Ray had been a fan of science-fiction stories ever since childhood. When Stanley Kubrick was filming 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Indian filmmaker got a chance to watch him at work at MGM-British Studios in the company of the film's co-author, Arthur C. Clarke, who ensured that everything that went into it was scientifically accurate. Impressed by the systematic thoroughness of the whole undertaking, Ray writes, “Both the meticulousness and the scale seemed to uphold the claim of the makers of A Space Odyssey, that this was going to be the biggest film ever made.” Ray's own photograph of Kubrick at his office accompanies the article. In a couple of other pieces, Ray traces the influence of the imaginative stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Clarke, and Isaac Asimov on his own flights of fantasy. At the age of ten, when he read Verne’s Mysterious Island, Ray was enthralled by the author’s “power to grip and persuade by sheer abundance of convincing detail.” In 1966, after encouragement from Clarke, Ray even drafted an original sci-fi screenplay, The Alien, which germinated from a short story he wrote for Sandesh, the children’s magazine launched by his grandfather in 1913. It concerned a meek village schoolmaster whose life is changed by an extraordinarily lucky encounter with an extraterrestrial. With the help of Clarke and his partner Mike Wilson, Columbia had provisionally agreed to finance the film, but, like many a cherished project, The Alien never really got off the ground. 

Publishers used to frequently approach Ray to write introductions to other artists’ books, and he never shied away from expressing his admiration for them. In his forewords to the English versions of Mahanagar by Narendranath Mitra and Pratidwandi by Sunil Gangopadhyay, he eulogizes the writers for their high degree of sensitivity and observation, which inspired him to adapt their works into films. Gangopadhyay’s flair for visualization made it easy for the filmmaker to bring the written material to life: he notes, “Characters, incidents, relationships are largely built up by means of sensitively observed external details—a fundamentally cinematic device.” The vivid descriptions in the short stories of Urdu and Hindi writer Premchand convinced Ray of their cinematic possibilities, leading him to pen the screenplays of The Chess Players and Deliverance (1981). Ray admires Gaston Roberge's book on the cinema, Chitrabani, for illuminating the distinction between Western and Indian points of view in art, drama, and communication. 

Although Ritwik Ghatak didn't reserve savory remarks on Ray's films, barring his initial couple of movies, Ray always spoke highly of his fellow Bengali filmmaker. In his foreword to Cinema and I—Ghatak's writings about the cinema—Ray opines that as a creator of powerful, epic images, Ghatak was virtually unsurpassed in Indian cinema. He also praises his imaginative grasp of filmmaking techniques, especially his command over editing. When Ghatak's documentary film Amar Lenin (1970) landed him in trouble with the Censor Board, Ray expressed his solidarity with its producer Sushil Karan through a letter. Ray was no stranger to making documentaries either; his half-hour homage to Balasaraswati, Bala (1976), records the Bharatnatyam dancer at her resplendent best. The director was interviewed in a few documentary films that focused on artists he worked with, such as the playback singer Kishore Kumar, violinist V.G. Jog, and actress Madhabi Mukherjee. The first time he spotted Mukherjee was in Mrinal Sen's film Baishey Shravan (1960), and, impressed with her talent, he offered her the leading role in Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963). Ray found her extremely intelligent and intuitive, and she was subsequently cast in Charulata (1964) and Kapurush (The Coward, 1965).

Satyajit Ray composing music in Music of Satyajit Ray (Utpalendu Chakrabarty, 1984).

As for influences beyond the cinema, although Ray had minimal interactions with Tagore, he keeps popping up time and again in Ray’s writings. Throughout Miscellany, the impact of Tagore’s exceptional versatility on Ray, a polymath himself, becomes evident. As a short story writer, Ray regarded Tagore as no less than Chekhov, and as a composer of songs, he felt Tagore had no equal, not even in the West. Despite starting as a painter at the age of nearly 70, Tagore remains among the most original and interesting India has produced. His lack of formal training was compensated for by an instinctive feel for rhythm, texture, and spacing. A short poem by the bard, handed to Ray when he was eight years old, profoundly impacted his perspective. It said: I have spent a fortune traveling to distant shores and looked at lofty mountains and boundless oceans, and yet I haven't found time to take a few steps from my house to look at a single dewdrop on a single blade of grass. 

Ray cherished the works of painters, photographers, and musicians: he considered the two years he spent at Tagore's abode Santiniketan studying fine arts under Nandalal Bose to be among the most fruitful of his formative years. Bose's way of looking at nature, his profound humanism, and the documentary benignity in Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography also taught Ray to look at people and places selectively. In addition, Santiniketan opened his eyes for the first time to the splendors of Indian and Far Eastern art. Until then, he was entirely under the sway of Western art, music, and literature. As one born and bred in the city, Ray had no experience of village life, and Bandopadhyay’s Bengali novel helped him embellish Pather Panchali with rural details which he was encountering for the first time.

Ray's benevolence also saw him filling LP sleeve notes of musicians he greatly admired, such as the Esraj exponent Ashesh Bandopadhyaya, Rabindra Sangeet singer Ritu Guha, flutist Alokenath Dey who played the haunting theme in Pather Panchali, and vocalist Ajoy Chakrabarty, whose voice carried “extraordinary depth and flexibility.” Miscellany reproduces some of these liner notes, which are testament to Ray's understanding and command of both Eastern and Western music. An important feature of Ray's life, he engaged naturally with music to effective use in his films, wherein he employed stalwart Indian maestros to score his early works and later started composing his own music. In most of his films, the orchestral pieces use a combination of Eastern and Western instruments: violins, cellos, electric guitar, trumpet, xylophone, as well as sitar, sarod, veena, flute, and Indian percussion. However, in Pather Panchali and Aparajito, he and the composer Ravi Shankar decided against using any Western instruments. 

Some of the book’s most heartwarming passages find Ray reminiscing about his friends who passed away. We are introduced to David McCutchion, who translated the dialogues of several Ray films into English to aid with subtitling. Ray recounts how McCutchion's interest in the terracotta temples of Bengal gradually developed into an obsession, leading him to walk several miles through obscure villages to discover temples. A pioneering scholar in an inadequately explored field, McCutchion's death came as a jolt to Ray. In another article, he recalls the brilliance of Bansi Chandragupta, the art director behind the scenes of Charulata and The Chess Players. While assisting Renoir on The River (1951), the French legend was so enamored of Chandragupta's creative abilities that in the course of shooting, he made his own art director the production designer and asked Chandragupta to be his art director. Ray fondly remembers film critic Marie Seton, whose initiating zeal allowed the film society movement to spread and take root in India. “Her boundless energy was mostly spent on causes that she believed in, and what she believed in was what all right-minded and conscientious people believe in,” Ray wrote, his words attesting to his own strong moral fiber. Nemai Ghosh, who assiduously photographed the filmmaker in action and repose for close to 25 years, is also paid a deserving tribute.

Several of Ghosh's photographs adorn the book, which is also interspersed with Sandip’s portraits of Ray making his films. With handwritten notes, sketches of scenarios, cover designs, musical notations, portraits and doodles of artists, Miscellany invites the reader into the ingenious and highly creative mind of one of the most multifaceted artists of the previous century. An unparalleled polymath, his greatest achievement perhaps lay in his ability to convey the uniqueness of the Bengali milieu through his films, which transcended regional, cultural, and linguistic barriers. The anthology deserves to find a prominent space on the bookshelves of Satyajit Ray aficionados all over the world, who might concur with Ben Kingsley’s quote on the back cover: “Satyajit Ray, I salute you. The greatest of our poets of the cinema.”

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