Satyajit Ray: an auteur seeking truth

By Syed Faiz Ahmed

‘Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”

Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”

For the soul walks upon all paths.

The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.

The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.’  – Kahlil Gibran

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How can one describe Satyajit Ray, one of the finest filmmakers the world has ever seen, in one sentence? Perhaps the best line is that- He was an auteur with in-depth knowledge in film technique and a profound philosophy of an oriental man that transcended the world. All his life he sought beauty, truth and above all the beauty of human life, the eternal values and struggle that binds the society but despite being an auteur he was conscious that he was seeking ‘a truth’ not ‘ the truth’.

Rabindranath Tagore once said that among all the forms in the pantheon of  arts, cinema albeit the youngest, would rule one day as that absorb all others, namely literature, music, drama, painting and so on. Rabindranath, the great Bengali poet could hold the universal humanity though he was a Bengali by all means. Ray exactly did that and that with the help of the apparatus, cinema, which was extremely revered by Tagore.

Over his glorious 37-year career (1955-92), Ray directed 36 films, including 29 feature films, five documentaries and two short films, where he represented rich and poor, powerful and weak, famous people, urban and rural people, man, woman, child and all their surroundings and the total story of their individual lives.

Ray, himself a popular fiction writer, illustrator, brilliant sketch maker like Rabindranath, also had knowledge about music, both Indian and western, and all these were evident in his films as he could juxtapose all these credentials to make his film become gems.

In his first film Pather Panchali, which gave him worldwide recognition, his tempo seemed slow compared to the films of the western world. But he perfectly portrayed the pace of rural lifestyle in Bengal that is based on the oriental values and harmony just like its music.

Ray adopted the story from Bivutibhusan but masterfully transformed it into his own style. Bivuti’s style was like Indian music that makes repetitions and moves through melody without rigorous structure. But Ray shaped this story like western music and gave it a structure that had a beginning, middle and end.

But that does not mean he always followed western storytelling style. He took a wonderful step at representing the eternal Bengal life with the use of camera and music to create a universal humanity that even Westerners could easily feel.

He also adopted Rabindranath and contemporary writers like Sunil and Shankar but every time he inserted his own aura that transformed these literature sharper by blending in his wit, humour, modernity and values.

For example, Rabindranath’s Noshto Nir was turned into Ray’s Charulata and often the latter, which has some brilliant use of film techniques, notably a sequence made of 37 shots in 227 seconds, looked quite different.

Ray’s legacy was recognised by famous western filmmakers like Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorcese, Wes Anderson and many others as they were deeply influenced by the great man.

As a philosopher he sought to find the meaning and rhythm of life and hence could understand the importance of death. He was not overawed by death and that was reflected in his films numerous times. In Apu Trilogy, consists of Pather Panchali, Aparajita and Apur Sangshar, the protagonist Apu witnesses the deaths of many of his close people- his aged aunt, young sister, father, mother and later young wife. But his life moved on and in the end he found the solace in his young boy, the symbol of future and hence the eternal flow of life.

Ray’s other protagonists like Siddhartha in Pratidwandi took the death of a loved one as a painful experience but not as big a trauma that can overshadow life itself.

But at the same time Ray showed the horrendous face of famine, one of the greatest killers of human history. His award winning movie Asani Sangket was based on one of the worst famines, The Great Bengal Famine of 1943.

Ray praised life and youth. In his most dialectic film Pratidwandi, he showed the urban, youthful Siddhartha’s fight.  Siddhartha’s brother Tonu was the member of a rebel political party and his sister was a careerist, but the humanist Siddhartha was unlike both of them.

He was a thinker, he was enraged by the aberrations of society and at the same time had the dream to establish him. Ray gave voice to a character whose face was not shown and that character helped Siddhartha find a job in a remote, tranquil village and thus the man could jumpstart his life amid the chirping of birds and verdant of nature.  The harmony of human being and nature was the one thing that Ray emphasied on, the most.

Befittingly in his last film Agantuk, perhaps his magnum opus as a philosophical creation, the protagonist had a wanderlust- a man who moves around the globe to get acquainted with the diversity of human cultures. Thus he again emphasised the harmony between life of human beings and nature.

The maestro left us 25 years ago but his works and thoughts are still relevant in our life till date.