Satyajit Ray, the genius of cinema: The Tribune India

BN Goswamy

Not having seen Ray’s cinema means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.

—Akira Kurosawa

To Satyajit Ray, in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of cinema and his profound humanitarian vision, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences around the world. – Excerpt from the citation of the Academy when awarding an honorary Oscar to Satyajit Ray

I am not aware of being a humanist. It’s just that I’m interested in human beings. —Satyajit Ray

In the very first scene of the only Hindi film he ever made – Shatranj ke Khiladi in 1977 – we see Mir Raushan Ali and Mirza Sajjad Ali, the two protagonists/antagonists of the game, bend over a chessboard and make their movements, hookah stems in hand, the mastery of detail is synonymous with perfection. There is not an unwanted wrinkle in the shawls they wear; the soft silk caps on their heads did not move an inch from where they were; the sequins of their exquisitely embroidered sherwanis continue to shine with the same silvery intensity. Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) saw to it. It’s because he’s seen it all.

Painting of Nawab Asaf ud-Daula listening to music, ca. 1812, British Library.

When he decided to make this film, starting from the great story of Munshi Premchand in the dilapidated context of mid-19th century Lucknow, he had hordes of people around him working for him. Starting with Pather Panchali, he had already established himself as one of the most admired filmmakers, one of the brightest stars in the firmament of world cinema, but he wanted to do the research for the film himself: the sets , the material details, the characters, the general atmosphere. A young scholar from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Sarbajit Mitra, traced how Ray carried out his self-proclaimed task, accessed his notebooks, his visits to London to examine the archives of the India Office Library dating back to those times and how the British plotted to take control of this kingdom, one of the last outposts of Indian power in this region. There’s a bound notebook he found with the words Shatranj ke Khiladi written on the cover in Ray’s hand, and inside, page after page filled with notes from him. To Munshi Premchand’s story, Ray had decided to add “a parallel narrative which examined the transfer of power to the East India Company from the perspective of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last gifted but somewhat dissipated ruler of the kingdom. of Oudh, and Sir James Outram, then an English resident in Lucknow.’ The requirement for the film was therefore painstaking research, “not only to be faithful to historical facts, but also to authentically recreate the period on screen”. Ray does his job diligently and devotes almost an entire year to researching and writing the screenplay. Visual references had to be found; the language and grammar of social relations had to be studied; the works had to be consulted. art specific to the period and the events taking place there; the design of sets and costumes had to be refined. Ray did all of this. Himself.

A portrait of Satyajit Ray.

The Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata apparently holds his extensive archives and shooting logs. Ray used handmade notebooks with a distinctive red cover, commonly called Kheror Khata (traditionally used by accountants in Bengal), to keep his notes. The research notes, the first drafts, even the shooting schedule of Shatranj ke Khiladi were, we learn, in the Kheror Khata of the film, divided into two volumes.

To achieve historical accuracy, Ray obviously needed to consult contemporary visual material. He began by consulting European and British oil paintings in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata to understand the depiction of key political figures. Tilly Kettle’s portrait of Nawab Shuja ud-Daula of Awadh with her four sons, of course, came in handy.

Satyajit Ray’s handwritten notes with the exact number of works in the India Bureau Library / British Library

But to faithfully recreate the life of the Awadhi, Ray chose to rely more on the works of anonymous Indian painters. And then he wanted to look at the paintings kept in the India office library. In these files, he referenced eight paintings along with their accession numbers in his notebook. In 1976, he visited London, saw the flesh and blood paintings. On Indian paintings – from the period of Nawab Asaf ud-Daula, Wajid Ali Shah’s longtime predecessor – Ray’s notes have a surprisingly sharp entry: he says that “these paintings were done in the Murshidabad style (from East Bengal) as opposed to Lucknow or Awadhi style”.

Ray seems to have made a point of continuing to study Lucknow stories and look at paintings. One painting, that of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah embracing then-Governor-General of India Lord Hardinge in 1847 – shortly before he was expelled from his kingdom – appears to have paid particularly rich dividends to Ray. Because, in the film, he reproduced it almost identically: the architectural decor, the abundance of colors, the confusion of confusions, the diversity of the characters. Strangely perhaps, he also seems to have been comfortable with it all, with all the pretense, all the irony, all the sadness that went into it.

This is how Satyajit Ray worked, and this is what worked for him: an endless curiosity, a search for the authentic, a palimpsest of ideas and images, a concern for what the French call ” the human condition “. I am not personally aware if there are any notebooks of Ray that relate to other great films of his: Aparajito, Apur Sansar, Charulata, Jalsaghar, Devi, Teen Kanya, Mahanagar, Aranyer Din Ratri, Agantuk, Ghare -Baire, Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne, Parash Pathar, Sadgati, Ganashatru. But if there is, an inexhaustible treasure, a virtual Kuber mine, is waiting to be explored.

But to end here with a nugget. While reviewing the casting for the characters in Shatranj ke Khiladi, Ray is said to have contacted the great British actor Sir Richard Attenborough while in London asking if he would agree to play the small role of General Outram in his film. Attenborough’s response? “Satyajit, I would be happy to even recite the phone book for you.”

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