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Everyone says that Sir Richard Attenborough always used the word “darling” because he couldn’t remember names – but there was at least one name he always remembered: Satyajit Ray. Ray was a giant in India, but he also dominated world cinema

Satyajit Ray was born on May 2, 1921, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was just about beginning to lift the freedom struggle and the non-cooperation movement in India to a higher plane. One year later, in early February 1922, Chauri Chaura happened, in the region of Gorakhpur in UP. As people and farmers protested, the police opened fire, killing three people. The people attacked the police. Outnumbered, the police took shelter in the police chowki. The enraged crowd burnt the police station, killing 22-23 policemen and other staffers. Gandhi, shocked as he was at the failure of his nascent strategy of nonviolence, withdrew the movement on the ground that the Indian people were not really prepared to forge a united, unarmed, peaceful struggle against the British.

As many as 228 people were brought to trial, charged with rioting and arson. Of the total number of people charged, six died while in police custody, while 172 were sentenced to death by hanging following conviction after a trial which went on for eight months. The country was outraged by the verdict. Leaders across the freedom movement protested. It is nothing but “legalized murder”, declared, communist leader and scholar, MN Roy. The progressives called for a strike of workers and others in protest across India. One year after the Chauri Chaura incident, on April 20, 1923, the Allahabad High Court gave a fresh judgement — 19 death and 110 life sentences. Others had to face long spells in jail

Indeed, Ray lived his childhood and youth in colonial times amidst reasonable turbulence, especially in the context of Bengal, which was consumed by the signs of western enlightenment, as much as reform movements, like the Brahmo Samaj movement initiated by Rabindranath Tagore (as depicted with such deep intellectual argument in his novel, ‘Gora’), amidst the fire of revolutionary zeal and a radical upsurge, including armed struggles against the British. Ray died on April 22, 1992, in Kolkata, where he spent most of his life, writing, sketching, illustrating, making films – and looking at that tall tree outside his window. He would, as painstakingly diligent and artistic as he was, drew and illustrated each moment of the film, with every little detail, like edited negatives of film rolls in old times

He also edited in his early years an iconic children’s magazine called ‘Sandesh’, worked in advertising agencies, composed fabulous music and listened too to a lot of music (apparently, he had a great collection). Not surprisingly, Ravi Shankar, another legend, composed the music of ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Road), Ray’s first film made on a shoe-string budget (he reportedly sold his wife’s jewellery etc). It was based on an epic trilogy by the great Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhaya.

‘Pather Panchali’ became an international classic, one of the all-time greats in world cinema, followed by two other brilliant renditions of abject poverty, love and separation, the synthesis with nature, childhood’s pure music, magic and romance, even in stark deprivations, relentless tragedy, hunger, migration and exile, the condemnations of exile from their own imagined homeland, and, dying, death and resurrection in the life of a poor Brahmin family. The departure to ‘Kashi’ (Varanasi), was yet another moment of symbolism, even though the cycle of tragedy continued, despite the resilience and stoicism of the characters, especially the mother – Apu’s mother – stunningly dignified and strong, amidst the apocalypse.

The two other films in the trilogy are ‘Aparajita’ and ‘Apur Sansar’, with Sharmila Tagore and Saumitra Chatterjee, shifting the paradigm in the final moments, she dying soon after the marriage, and, he, unable to accept the loss or the child who arrives in the world. In the end, he is walking with the child on his shoulders, after long separations, and there is a glint in his eyes which only a black and white film can capture. The trilogy’s catharsis is that fleeting revelation of hope and joy in his eyes.

Indeed, in terms of understatement, and nuance and subtlety, there is no match to Ray’s finesse in the cinematic craft. And this transcends all aspects of film-making: location, cinematography, sound, editing, music, direction. A death is just about as shocking and heart-rending as birds suddenly fluttering in the sky, the sudden sound of their wings like a nuclear explosion which arrives and disappears as suddenly, shaking your roots. The toothless grandmother, with a tongue as sharp as those of traditional grandmothers, dies in a still and frozen moment, as silently as she lived (despite her tongue). Her dead body moves in the bylane in a kind of fog for just about a moment – the sorrow of her departure not lingering forever. This is Ray’s idea of pain; deep pain which does not have to linger to make it deeper and longer. It is pain, and it stays, even when you don’t dramatise it for effect.

In the same instance, and here it is ‘Pather Panchali’, his first film, as eclectic and refined as it could be. The grasshopper on the pond with Ravi Shankar’s sitar in the backdrop; a moment of infinite, magical, melodious happiness. Intangible, outside materialism, beyond the comprehension of the consumer society

Or, when the man with the ‘misthi’ (sweetmeats) in his earthen pots arrives — you can smell and taste the ‘mishti’ in the village backdrop of a typical ‘Sonar Bangla’ landscape, with the kids chasing him. In one of his later cinematic, comic caricatures, and not all great filmmakers can handle comedy or spoof, Ray, practically, stops a war, as loads of the finest Bengali ‘mishti’ start falling from the sky, making the soldiers run after the delicacies, leaving their weapons and bloodlust behind: there is kacha golla, chomchom, rajbhog, roshogolla, sandesh, you name it. Said Ray, “The director is the only person who knows what the film is about.”

Surely, if you look at another classic and spoof, ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’, one song just about tells the entire story. The two great musicians and homeless wanderers (earlier in ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’, another great musical), singing and travelling through the melodious and sublime Bengal countryside, celebrating eternal ecstasy with the birds, the sky, the cosmos, and the little stream which flows along.

You can catch the restored version of this song on youtube: Aha ki anando akashe baatashe… Guess who is the lyricist and music composer of this classic rendition by Anup Ghoshal, which still plays in every nook and corner of Kolkata and in every pandal during Durga Puja? Satyajit Ray.

There is magic in the song, the music, the landscape; a complete surrender to the symphony and the folk, and the ecstasy unleashed across the zigzag of rural Bengal. If you trace Ray’s ritualistic departures from the Calcutta urban landscape (as in ‘Pratidwandi’), into the rural/tribal interiors (as in ‘Aranyar Din Raatri’, where he makes a ‘fair and lovely’ beauty like Simi into a dark tribal girl), you also can unravel the

contradictions of the city’s hypocrisies, artificialities, shallowness and crisis; how, for instance, they look down at tribal life, even though they themselves are so damned middle class, shallow and limited.

Said Ray, “When I write an original story I write about people I know first-hand and situations I’m familiar with. I don’t write stories about the 19th century.”

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