The year 1921 has its own glory with being the birth year of legendary figures in history - and as a country, Bangladesh is grateful to that particular year for being the birth-year of our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There is another reason to thank 1921, for sure - because exactly 100 years ago on the 2nd day of May, another legend was born who changed the landscape of modern Bengali cinema and contemporary Bengali literature for good. One of the most iconic and talented filmmakers in the world, Satyajit Ray was born on May 2nd. 1921 - and this year marks the birth centenary of the allrounder filmmaker and literateur.
Although Satyajit Ray is remembered for his handful of amazing and remarkable creations, he is best known as the profound creator of acclaimed detective series Feluda, science fiction series Professor Shonku, and the director of 36 remarkable films (including feature films, documentaries and shorts). He was a fiction writer and author, lyricist, publisher, illustrator, calligrapher, screenwriter, music composer, graphic designer and even a visionary film critic. Throughout his 70 years of living, he utilized every day of it through crafting all of his majestic creations.
Born in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to a renowned Bengali family which is credited for its contributions from generation to generation in the world of Bengali literature, Ray grew up with the passion to create a visionary difference that can be seen in all of his works. His father Sukumar Ray was a prominent writer of children’s books, who is best known for his humorous and eccentric rhymes and literary presentations. Speaking of his other prominent ancestors, Satyajit’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury was a writer, illustrator, philosopher, publisher, amateur astronomer and one of the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, a religious and social movement in nineteenth-century Bengal.
Ray started his schooling in Ballygunge Government High School, Calcutta. Later, he achieved his BA in economics at Presidency College, Calcutta (which was then affiliated with the University of Calcutta), though his interest was always in fine arts - and the passion never left his shadow that one can understand exploring his creations. So he later went to Nobel laureate literary maestro Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, where he truly came to appreciate Oriental art. He credited his learning from the famous painters Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee while he was studying at Santiniketan.
As a fan of oriental arts, Satyajit Ray started his career as an illustrator and graphic artist. He became interested in independent filmmaking after meeting French filmmaker Jean Renoir and viewing Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief (1948), during a visit to London starting his career as a commercial graphic artist. However, the director Satyajit Ray’s career as a journeyman of modern Bengali cinema started with his remarkable cinema titled Pather Panchali (1955), which won eleven international prizes including the inaugural Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. After the success of this maiden venture of filmmaking, he decided to shape a trilogy (an idea that had been rarely used during that time) along with Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). All of those films in this Apu Trilogy emerged to win huge affection from the fans, which continues to date.
From the massive success of his Apu Trilogy, the ever-glowing ray of this rising sun of Southeast Asia continued lightening up Indian-Bengali cinema even after his death and still continuing. He invented, mastered and experimented with new cinematic language to present his stories which are still being highly appreciated among film lovers. His later films include Jalsaghar (1958), Devi (1960), Tin Kanya (1961), Kanchenjungha (1962), Charulata (1964), Nayak (1966), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968), Asani Sanket (1973), Sonar Kella(1974), Joi Baba Felunath (1979), Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980), Ghare Baire (1984), Ganashatru (1989), Shakha Prashakha (1991) and Agantuk (1991). His maiden venture in Bollywood’s mainstream cinema was Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) with veteran and powerful actors Amjad Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi and also Amitabh Bachchan as the film’s narrator.
As a prolific director who always wanted the best visual narrative in his films, Ray used to control many aspects as well such as writing the screenplays for all his films, designing the sets and costumes, operating the camera since Charulata (1964) and composing music for all his films since 1961, along with designing the promotional posters. His expertise in arts and drawings which he mostly used to garnish his literary creations are often considered the epitome of dedication and one being the jack of all trades, as he was that good with brush, colours and canvas.
The influential footstep of Satyajit Ray has left everlasting marks in the pathway of modern Bengali cinema, as previously mentioned. A number of Bengali directors, including Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and Gautam Ghose as well as Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee, Shyam Benegal and Sujoy Ghosh from mainstream Bollywood in India, Tareq Masud, Tanvir Mokammel, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki and Amitabh Reza in Bangladesh, and Aneel Ahmad in England, to name a few, and even some other filmmakers from the Malayalam film industry which has earned a whole new level of respect among film lovers across the world in recent times - have been influenced by his film craft and his artistic enigma. Across the spectrum, filmmakers such as Budhdhadeb Dasgupta, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan have acknowledged his influential contribution to Indian cinema. Beyond India, filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Kazan, William Wyler, François Truffaut, Carlos Saura, Isao Takahata, Wes Anderson, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan and many other noted filmmakers from all over the world have been influenced by his cinematic style, with many others such as Akira Kurosawa praising his works and attention to details, as well as for transcending the hardships and barriers in the filmmaking of his period.
The legendary filmmaker was honoured with many awards and prizes including 32 Indian National Film Awards, a Golden Lion, a Golden Bear, 2 Silver Bears, and a bunch of other awards. The Government of India honoured him with the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian award in 1992 while he was also awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University, only the second film personality after another legendary filmmaker Charlie Chaplin to have been awarded this degree.
His biggest achievement as the prolific filmmaker came full circle through winning the Honorary Academy Award in 1992 - although he could not receive the award in person. Presented by world-famous actress Audrey Hepburn on March 30, 1992, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ray expressed his feelings at the 64th Academy Awards through his acceptance speech (pre-taped) from Calcutta where he was already exploring the last days of his life, saying: "Well, it's an extraordinary experience for me to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award; certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career. When I was a small, small schoolboy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. Became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply, was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn't get a reply. Then, of course, I got interested in the cinema as an art form, and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing "Double Indemnity." He didn't reply either. Well, there you are. I have learned everything I've learned about the craft of cinema from the making of American films. I've been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught. So, I express my gratitude to the American cinema, to the motion picture association who have given me this award and who have made me feel so proud. Thank you very, very much."
(Cited from the Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database website)
Just within a few days after winning the Oscar, Satyajit Ray passed away at the age of 70 on April 23, 1992. He canonized many characters from his books and brought them alive on the big screen during his lifetime, and now his son Sandip Ray is restoring and holding the rights of his old documents, original illustrations and scripts, as well as continuing the direction of his father’s literary creations such as the Feluda series. Ranked 13th in BBC’s ‘Greatest Bengali of all time’ list, Ray is always respectively remembered as a pioneer in the cinema of greater India and especially, in the world of Bengali literature and arts. Salute, to the centurion king of modern-day filmmaking.