Book review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More
Author: Satyajit Ray
Publisher: Penguin Randomhouse
There could be any number of books on Satyajit Ray. Even after thirty years after his death, he continues to be written about. The present book Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, as the title suggests, is everything that the veteran filmmaker India had put in black and white.
As part of the Penguin Ray Library, the book has more than seventy rarest essays on filmmaking, screenplay writing, autobiographical pieces, and rare photographs and manuscripts.
“Ray is a singular symbol of what is best and most revered in Indian cinema” as the film director and scriptwriter, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has put it and the actor, Ben Kingsley, complimented him: “Satyajit Ray, I salute you. The greatest of our poets of the cinema.”
One of the doyens of world cinema, Ray gave a “unique aesthetic expression to Indian cinema, music, art, and literature. His writings, especially, autobiographical works, thoughts on filmmaking, screenplay writing, and eminent personalities from art, literature, and music, among others, are considered treasure troves, which largely remained unseen and therefore less known till date.” Ray was a writer of repute – his short stories, novellas, poems, and articles, written in Bengali and translated into English, have been immensely popular. Author of the famous Feluda stories, Ray’s Bengali books have long been bestsellers.
Ray was awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992 – the year he was also awarded India’s highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna, and also when he breathed his last.
Writes Sandip Ray in the ‘Foreword’ to the book: “Since his schooldays, my father was a cinema addict in the true sense of the term – lapping up Hollywood movies of Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and others as well as the timeless comedies of Chaplin and Keaton. The hobby gradually turned into a serious interest. The formation of the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with a few like-minded friends opened to him the diverse range of European cinema, and in a sense, acting as a catalyst to his writings on cinema. In his first two articles, he heavily criticized the make-believe stereotypes of erstwhile Bengali cinema and called for soul-searching among the filmmakers. The result as he himself remarked later amusingly – ‘Nothing of that sort happened. The piece was simply shrugged off by the people of the trade as yet another piece of tomfoolery by some arrogant upstart who saw only foreign films and knew nothing of local needs and local conditions.’”
The book has been enchantingly divided into: ‘Satyajit Ray – A Self-Portrait’, ‘A Director’s Perspective’, ‘Personal Notes’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Festival greetings LP Sleeve Notes’, and ‘Miscellaneous Writings’. There is also a chapter on the ‘Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives’. Together, these writings bring to the fore fascinating anecdotes of Ray’s eventful life.
About the art of Rabindranath Tagore, Ray wrote: “Tagore took to painting at a later stage in his life. Some manuscripts dating back to his youth show doodles in the margin which suggest a natural flair for drawing. After that, there is nothing to show that he had any interest in visual expression until, when he was well over sixty; fantastic forms began to appear in his manuscripts. Where one would normally cross out a word or a sentence, Rabindranath turned them into grotesque creatures. These emendations were stung together until the whole page took on the appearance of a tapestry of words and images. In time, paintings and calligraphic drawings began to appear as independent efforts, unrelated to manuscripts. Blue-black ink gave way to transparent colors, and the subjects became more and more varied. The output clearly suggests that Rabindranath was absorbed in his new pursuit and enjoying the experience. The lack of formal training was compensated by an instinctive feel for rhythm, texture, and spacing. There was also the calligraphic virtuosity when he used the pen. (His unique and beautiful Bengali handwriting– which came to be known as the “Rabindrik” script has been widely imitated.) But the brush, too, was frequently used. Some of the efforts were purely abstract while others dealt with subjects which covered a wide field.’
Ray considered scriptwriting to be an integral part of direction. Initially, he refused to make a film in any language other than Bengali. In his two non-Bengali feature films, he wrote the script in English; translators adapted it into Hindustani under Ray’s supervision. Such was the purist in Ray!
In the section ‘The Outlook for Bengali Films’ Ray was fairly real-world: “It is generally conceded that the film industry in Bengali is facing a big crisis. Some have gone so far as to predict a total annihilation of the Bengali film as such, and the sprouting up in its place of a product not dissimilar to the well-known type created by Bombay. This may be the height of pessimism, but there is no denying some alarming symptoms. Firstly, the area of exploitation of the Bengali film has been considerably reduced by the Partition; secondly, for reasons we shall presently examine, the exhibitors in Bengal have grown increasingly distrustful of the home product preferring the unpretentious, brassy, and frankly escapist products of Bombay and more recently, Madras.”
Nemai Ghosh was Satyajit Ray’s only cinematographer who did almost all his films. Ray wrote: “We founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with the help of a few friends and associates. Nemai Ghosh was one of them. Like me, he was also enamoured by the cinema; so we got along very well. I was a mere cineaste then but he was already a practitioner as a cameraman. However, he harboured the desire to direct films himself at the back of his mind. The chance came his way during the late forties when he made Chhinnamul (The Uprooted, 1952) on the theme of Partition. It was the first instance of realism in Bengali cinema. But thereafter he was compelled to head for Madras for want of work in Calcutta and had to spend the rest of his life there. Being a leftist to the core, he did a lot for the cinema workers in Madras. We exchanged correspondence only occasionally. But whenever we met, the old warmth of friendship was revived. Today I am feeling his absence intensely and I am sure the cine workers of Madras are also feeling likewise.”
Satyajit Ray Miscellany, the second book in the Penguin Ray Library series, brings to light some of the rarest essays and illustrations by Ray that opens a window to the myriad thought-process of this creative genius. With more than seventy gripping write-ups and rare photographs and manuscripts, this 275-page book is undoubtedly a collector’s item.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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