Born into an aristocratic Bengali family with a father who was a writer, painter and photographer, and with an equally illustrious grandfather who created children's fictional characters, Ray admired the finest of European literature and music.
His later association with Rabindranath Tagore and Shantiniketan — a bonding he resisted for a while — turned him into an epitome of refinement. Tagore's art and writings became a lifelong obsession with Ray, and he based some of his movies on Rabindranath's stories. Even when Ray chose other pieces of literary inspiration, one could easily discern Tagore's touch and nuances in the films.
However, it was Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" — which Ray saw during his days in London — that pushed him towards neorealism, and the art of film-making itself. He was simply bowled over by this work and vindicated his enormous interest in everyday tales and in non-professional actors in real situations and locations.
When he returned home, his meeting with Jean Renoir, who was in Kolkata looking around for locations for his "The River", made Ray even more determined to make movies.
He had a story in mind. It was a Bengali classic written in 1928 by one Banerjee. Although he penned several works, his best known was "Pather Panchali", and its lead characters, Durga and Apu, caught the imagination of the Bengali bhadrolok (gentry), much in the same way Ray's screen protagonists moved cinophiles the world over.
But Ray did not have the money to translate Banerjee's prose into picture. At least for a long time, till New York's Museum of Modern Art and the West Bengal Government agreed to finance Ray's movie.
It is a simple narrative in black and white of an impoverished family in a Bengal village driven to despair by tragedies, but which ultimately rises in hope. Ray used arresting images to elicit the symbolism of a new nation and Nehruvian industrialism in the background of war. Spectacular scenes of Durga and Apu encountering for the first time a telegraph pole and a train contrast with the death of their old aunt and, a little later, of the girl herself. In the end, when the family travels away from their ancestral home, it signifies the birth of a new dawn, the beginning of an aspiration.
"Pather Panchali" for all its brilliance had a terrible start. In Kolkata, the then West Bengal Chief Minister, B.C. Roy, after wondering whether the film was a documentary felt that the end was not positive enough in keeping with the spirit of the times.
However, despite a strong opposition to "Pather Panchali", it was sent to Cannes in 1956, largely at the intervention of Jawaharlal Nehru. But in the French Riviera it ran into trouble: its screening clashed with a reception for a movie by Akira Kurosawa.
Those who managed to watch Ray's work — Andre Bazin and Luis Bunuel among others — were annoyed. Luckily for Ray, a second screening did justice, and "Pather Panchali" got a Special Prize for the Best Human Document. A masterpiece of a poem was discovered at Cannes.
Two decades later, Kurosawa exclaimed: "I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing `Pather Panchali'. I have had several more opportunities to see the film since then and each time I feel more overwhelmed. It is a kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river."
Ray achieved this and much more through sheer humility and dedication. He could never have made "Pather Panchali" in a studio; he had to get on to the dust, even pawn his wife's jewellery, to create a song that continues to light the screen with its mesmeric qualities.
"Pather Panchali" was undoubtedly a turning point in Indian cinema, a force that drove — and still drives — some to look at movie making with greater feeling and commitment. Sadly, though, not enough efforts are being made to reach Ray's pinnacle of success.
Today, there is a strong section of people, both in the cinema industry and outside, that tends to dismiss Ray's work. He had his critics even when he was living who were quite apprehensive of his later movies, even some of his early ones.
Obviously masters do not produce masterpieces every time they get behind a camera or confront a canvas. Ray has had his failings, but they were, in my opinion, extremely insignificant to be taken note of at all.
Ray's large collection — some of which still lie in neglect — must be preserved for posterity. For, it can serve as light in the gloom that cinema often manages to create, albeit through sheen and superficiality.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated September 5 2004)
Designed & Maintained by PPP Infotech Ltd.