Through a Lens: Introducing Satyajit Ray

Amit Shah
14 min readFeb 13, 2017
Credit: Nemai Ghosh. In Calcutta, shooting “The Middleman.” 1975. Ray behind camera in trunk of car and assistant director Suhashini Mulay in foreground



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The purpose of the PRISM series from Green Comma is to provide a glimpse of something interesting in the humanities and some additional resources for exploration of that initial interest for high school and freshmen college students. It is not meant to be the definitive biography of the artists. We hope to make it interactive through your posts and comments. If not, go forth and explore.


Credit: Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives

Satyajit Ray (1921–1992) was undoubtedly India’s Renaissance man. No one has come close to being the very definition of the term. His media spans writing, drawing, calligraphy, designing typefaces, composing music, making films, both feature and shorts, graphic design, photography. Andrew Robinson, the English critic, said that after meeting Ray and getting to know him in the 1980s, Robinson knew that “genius, though everywhere rare, is a reality not an illusion.”

Poster for “Mahanagar” (The Big City) designed by Ray

Ray’s critical and artistic output is enormous and his trilogies and sets of films such as the Apu trilogy, Mahanagar (The Big City) , and the city sets are classics worth revisiting time and time again.

Here I simply want to give you a little taste of the beauty of Ray’s work.

In 1976, in Our Films, Their Films, Ray wrote in the slim volume about his passions in the arts. “ In the Year of India’s independence [1947] we formed the first film club in Calcutta, thereby shackling ourselves willingly to the task of disseminating film culture amongst the intelligentsia. In my job [art director in a major advertising firm] I was now firmly established not only as a visualiser, but also as an illustrator and a designer of book jackets. In all this time the thought had not occurred to me of changing my profession. Graphics were my bread and butter, while films were the food for the mind, as music was too. My three years at Santiniketan had opened my eyes and ears to our artistic and musical heritage, so that in addition to buying records symphonies and concertos, I was regularly going to concerts of Indian classical music.”

Ray’s graphic arts training made him a natural for storyboarding but I doubt he thought about it as a technical requirement when he first started sketching scenes for potential film distributors for his first film Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), a novel for which he paid Rs. 6,000 (a princely sum in those days) for screen rights. He had never made a film and he’d never held a movie camera.

Sketch of the train scene from “Pather Panchali

In a notebook he had written his entire screenplay, specifying camera usage and sketches for each scene to illustrate the composition of each shot. The notebook and the sketches were donated to Cinémathèque Française in Paris by Ray.

Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy in their 1963 (second edition 1980) Indian Film wrote: “[Most of the distributors] . . . wanted to know a few simple things. Who were the stars? Who was writing the songs? Where were the dances? When Ray explained that he had a different kind of film in mind, most concluded that it would not be a good risk. More than thirty distributors said ‘no.’ ”

The Story Within the Story

The extraordinary story of Ray bringing Pather Panchali to life is now part of cinematic history worldwide. He found his leads in either newcomers who had never acted to aging stage actresses long past their prime, sinking his personal earnings from his advertising job and working weekends in the Calcutta (now Kolkata) countryside to put together some sequences.

John Huston, a Renaissance man himself and one of the most famous director-writers of that time, came to Calcutta and met with the Calcutta Film Society and saw the sequences. Impressed, he spoke with the curator at NYC’s MOMA who was planning an exhibit on Indian arts.

Ray, in desperation, went to the state government of West Bengal to seek funding. In early 1950s India, this was unheard of but Ray’s personal connections and the fact that the Americans were interested, secured Ray state funding under the aegis of publicity for the state. The state government became the “producer.”

The film and its creator are legendary for good reason in my native Calcutta. As a child of the post-independent 1950s, the recognition of the film’s artistry in the cinema world was seemingly a personal one for many of us. Barnouw and Krishnaswamy wrote, “In 1954, when the film finally finished after two years of work, an invitation came to have the film premiered at the Museum of Modern Art . . . . Ravi Shankar completed his brilliant musical score in a matter of hours. There were a series of all-night recording and mixing sessions. . . . When Ray finally took his package of film cans to Calcutta air freight office of Pan American, and stood at the counter awaiting his turn, he fell asleep on his package.” (pp. 226–227, Indian Film, Oxford University Press, 1980, second edition.)

An Afternoon at Cannes

If it hadn’t been for the festival showing at Cannes, Ray’s film would’ve died a tragic death. The film was in Bengali, a regional language in a country of many, many languages. At that time only about 10 percent of Indians spoke the language. Most Indians would have had no idea of the film.

At Cannes that year, an unknown film from an unknown director from a country not recognized as a creator of meaningful cinema, the film was first relegated to a morning showing, which spelled disaster as most jurors would skip such showings. It was rescheduled for the afternoon after the Americans did some politicking. It was to be shown after Akira Kurosawa. Many of the judges went off to a large party hosted by the Japanese after Kurosawa’s screening.

Poster at Cannes 1956

The next day Andre Bazin, the French critic and editor of then-radical Cahiers du Cinéma, and the standard-bearer of the French New Wave that propelled Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol protested in print, and the film was re-shown and was awarded the “best human document” of that festival.

Ray went onto make over 35 more films in the next 40 years, the last of which was Aguntuk (The Stranger), in 1992.

Ray as Part of Cinema History

In November 2016, a young programmer named Eva Markovits, who currently works at the Cinema Department of the Pompidou Centre in Paris gave a talk very appropriately at the Cinémathèque Française, on Ray, the Renaissance artist. It was part of the retrospective on Ray that was organized there.

Satyajit Ray, un cinéaste de la Renaissance. Conférence d’Eva Markovits — La Cinémathèque française
La trilogie d’Apu, Charulata, Le Salon de musique, Les Joueurs d’échecs… Satyajit Ray est un cinéaste prolifique. Ce…

I have had the audio of the video and Eva Markovits’ illuminating, insightful talk translated, only in summary, below along with the link. It will, I hope, give you the necessary background to enjoy parts of the presentation, which is essential viewing for this subject.

Retrospective of Satyajit Ray — November 2 — December 14, 2016

Eva Markovits is a programmer who currently works in the Cinema Department of the Pompidou Centre. She has also worked La Cinémathèque Française, the Amiens Film Festival and the Brive Film Festival. She worked on the Ritwik Ghatak retrospective at the French Film Archive in 2011, as well as the Guru Dutt retrospective for the Amiens Festival in 2012, and co-programmed in 2016 a panorama of medium-length contemporary Indian film for the Brive Festival. She is an editor for Critikat.

The Apu trilogy, Charulata, Le Salon de musique (The Music Exhibition or Salon in its “gathering” sense of artistic works, such as in 18th-century France), Les Joueurs d’échec (The Chess Players), Satyajit Ray is a prolific filmmaker. This profusion, inherited from the Bengali Renaissance (rebirth) stretched out into different art forms: design/drawing, graphic arts (drawing), writing and musical composition. More than simple hobbies, he practices these talents all his life and convenes (assembles) them in his filmmaking work, that remains the center of his creation.

Credit: Nemai Ghosh. Ray sketching costumes

Markovits begins her presentation with a discussion of how she will approach the subject. She wishes to emphasize the complementary nature of the arts in his work, lesser-known aspects of that work and how it was fed, through a non-chronological approach.

(Eva Markovits) E.M. begins with the 1964 Charulata , his most accomplished work, showing his absolute control of process as a filmmaker, from costumes to editing, etc….

E.M. shows the first clip — the narrator (male character) describes how he wants the garden to be laid out…no peacocks, for example, and where the pond should be. He speaks to a woman, commenting that a modern woman is too much! He asks her if she knows how to swing, then she swings and sings a melancholy song. She inquires “what are you thinking about?” and he replies “I am thinking.” She presents him with a notebook, shows blank page, “Write for me,” she requests, but promise not to publish it. He proceeds to write with a feather quill pen — “write the date.” She puts a pair of opera glasses up to her eyes, looks at plants, sings, sees mother and baby, listens to animals (birds and such), and we hear sitar notes.…(the camera “vision” imitates the perspective of the opera glasses).

E.M. comments that all arts are engaged here: music, writing, musical composition. This clip is a good representation of an adaptation of a short novel by Rabindranath Tagore and his drawings — Tagore also paints and draws — a truly deep influence on Ray.

For the 100th birthday celebration of Tagore in 1961, Ray made a documentary about Tagore, a major figure of the Bengali Renaissance.

Tagore is considered by many as the father of modern India — monotheistic, against the caste system, and for the marriage of widows. E.M. then shows etching of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1853–1915), Ray’s grandfather who died before Ray knew him. Ray’s grandfather’s greatest contributions were to children’s literature with the founding of a children’s magazine, Sandesh, and a series of fantasy stories named “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne,” which Ray based his movie of the same name. Then Markovits shows drawings of animals by Sukumar Ray (1887–1923). Ray’s father, who is Bengal’s premier children’s writer, with a set of nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol, influenced by Lewis Carroll.

In 1987 he makes a documentary of his father, combining the Orient and Occident.

“I was unconsciously enormously impregnated by occidental culture, since school days, when we were familiar with English novels and poetry. I know Western music, Western painting. I think I couldn’t live without one or the other culture. I need both, Eastern Indian music, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven. I need oriental painting, Chinese, Cezanne….”

Charulata shows this duality — “truffe” (the French, meaning garnished or bristling with, replete with word play). [Editorial note]In 2007 the music from the film was used by Wes Anderson in Darjeeling Limited, an hommage to Ray, whose work influenced Anderson a great deal.

In 1940 Ray studied economics. E.M. then shows a picture of Santiniketan, the school created by Tagore in 1901, a place where all disciplines gather, math and arts, which is today Vishwa Bharati University. Ray had been drawing since childhood, admired Bengali School (E.M. shows paintings): Nandalal Bose (a woman behind trees), and Benode Behari Mukherjee (people in village, life & work, next to water). The sense of detail displayed through the play between foreground and background scenes. E.M. reads quote:

Uma Dasgupta as Durga in “Pather Panchali

“How to interpret contour drawing and what is inside it” She then shows four illustrations from La Complainte du Sentier (Lament of the path) 1955 (engravings or prints) and then the storyboard of the film, delicate drawings, scene of the schoolmaster and students, then two images of two characters fleeing, then in the rain, then posters of the film. Ray states, “I see characters moving before my eyes all the time.”

E.M. then discusses Les Carnets Rouges (the red notebooks that Ray always carried with him in which he would draw and write elements for his films, costumes, decor, silhouettes), on left a drawing of the décor of The Kingdom of Diamonds (1980), in the middle one of Doyamoyee in The Goddess (1960) and on right, an excerpt of storyboard of Charulata (1964).

Dhritiman Chatterjee in “Adversary” (1970)

In 1942 Ray works in an English ad agency, using motifs in his ads, commercial ad campaigns. (1942–55) E.M. shows book and newspaper covers (from 1945) four images, then illustrations for children’s books in color (also from 1945) then film posters 1953, then four from his own films (1955–63), series from 1957, then three more from Charulata, Des jours et des nuits dans la forêt (Days and Nights in the Forest) (1969) L’Adversaire (The Adversary) (1970), Le Dieu Eléphant (The Elephant God) (1979).

In 1971 Ray created Polices de caractères, a letter font created for an international competition. Though he did not win, Ray Roman was adopted for marketing posters.

E.M. goes on to quote Ray in which he ironically lists the perfect ingredients to make a Bollywood movie: “Listen well, first one needs contraband, some hash, some marijuana, diamonds, gold weapons, etc…in short, everything you would want. Next, at least 5 songs, preferably devotionals, then 2 dance scenes, 2 or 3 chases and at least one of them with a luxury car going off a cliff, and at least 1 shooting scene (guns) and the last thing, the most important, you have to have an ending that is ‘all’s well that ends well.’ ”

In a quote, Ray suggests, “there needs to be an absolute simplification of style and recit (first- person short narrative prose, a French form of short novel) in order for there to be hope for Indian cinema.” (from a notebook of 1955). He begins work from 1950–2 that result from two main and deeply influencing events:

1) meeting French filmmaker Jean Renoir in 1949 — although not his assistant, they had many conversations discussing the importance of attention to detail and decisive relationships between characters.

2) seeing De Sica’s film Le Voleur de Bicyclette (The Bicycle Thief), which demonstrates that you can make a film with little experience and mediocre equipment.

E.M. shows a film clip from “La Complainte du sentier,” (Panther Panchali) 1955. (We see water, insects dancing on the water, lily pads and plants, sitar playing in rhythm with objects, a dog and kitten play, a bird, a fan waving over a resting woman on a porch, a young girl applying eye liner, a dot on the forehead, comes into the courtyard and narrates — she is thankful for siblings, speaks of a garland from pond, “I don’t know how to pray but wish for a husband.” A little boy runs down a path and a huge rain begins- the scene becomes more frantic, lilies dancing on water, mother pulls in laundry, man on edge of pond puts up umbrella, then young girl dances in rain with her long hair flowing, she and boy seek shelter under large tree)

E.M. describes this almost silent sequence of nature, lily pads, insects, very beautiful scene between the siblings — the music reflect the stress and anxiety of the mother. The Bengali government wanted to suppress it. John Huston reproduced it favorably for an audience in New York, and in Cannes in 1956 . Truffaut, infamously, is reported to have said that he did not want to see peasants eating with their hands after he saw the film at Cannes.

Still from “Charulata.”

These two excerpts show the rapport between music and film, where music is preeminent. Ray feels music isn’t subordinate to film but vice versa. In 1961 Trois Filles (Teen Kanya), the music is strictly Indian. In other films, such as ones set in Calcutta (Kolkata), the music reflects the mixture of the Orient and the Occident. Ray states “one must experiment with mixing sitar and alto sax and trumpet.” In Charulata (there is a song by Tagore, which he heard in 1882 when he was in England) the characters express themselves through music.

Then a quote about music and film: “Film is a medium closer to Western music than Indian because there is no concept in the Indian tradition of an inflexible time (as in tempo). Temporality is important for Ray.

In the magazine Sandesh, created by his grandfather and father, there is a focus on the fantastic. E.M. shows covers from 1965 and 1961–81.

After 1962 there are more varied films, cop films, adaptations of his own writings, and historical films. He then works in science fiction — The Alien which was never produced, an extraterrestrial meets a boy in a village . Ray had thought about a role for Peter Sellers. The script circulates, then Spielberg does his E.T., Alien arrives on the scene. There’s been some commentary about the resemblances of E.T. and Ray’s Alien scripts but nothing has ever been substantiated.

E.M. then discusses the 1968 The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, where Ray creates all the music, costumes (foreigners didn’t like it much). The premise is about two men who wish to be a singer and a drummer (Goopy the singer and Bagha the player of the tambour, a drum). She shows a scene, where a sort of genie says, “Goopy and Bagha, fear nothing! I give brave boys three wishes, think well!” The two say, “feed the hungry, see the world, let us know how to sing and play the drum.” Then the scene moves to a large room where a master/king of sorts is sleeping and many people are in a large circle, chanting around him. The two sing and play before him. E.M. remarks that it represents four castes: kings/warriors, the Europeans, the fat ones are the lawyers, the clergy, and the people. This sequence is difficult to understand, although Ray’s musical compositions, costumes and décor say “we come from Bengal” — the language is that of music. The paradox is that this film is the most commercial yet the most innocent and most difficult to produce.

E.M. closes with Dans la Forêt (Days and Nights In the Forest), the story of four people in the country, the forest, nature — their personalities are revealed and put people ill at ease, yet it is also playful.

Ray on location for “The Middleman”

Lastly, to sum up the deep bond between Tagore and Ray and their shared world view, there is a story of a young Ray visiting Tagore at Shantiniketan in 1928. Tagore told him, “I wrote something you will not understand now, but will later.” Tagore had written: “ I have travelled all around the world to see the rivers and the mountains, and I’ve spent a lot of money. I have gone to great lengths. I have seen everything. But I forgot to see just outside my house a dewdrop on a little blade of grass, a dewdrop which reflects in its convexity the whole universe around you.”

Credit: Nemai Ghosh



Amit Shah

Fearless reader, fearful writer, optimistic traveler