Ray’s home, Ray’s world: Calcutta


back to issue

Satyajit Ray’s connections with the city of Calcutta were many – geographical, historical, cultural and, indeed, umbilical. It would be no exaggeration to say that the city made him what he was – a film maker of great significance and an artiste of unusual versatility and intelligence. The impact of his physical environment, which also indirectly nurtured his mental and spiritual health, was as great as his genetic inheritance.

His grandfather, Upendra Kishore Ray Choudhury, came to study at Presidency College, Calcutta from Mymensingh in East Bengal, married and founded U. Ray and Sons in 1895, a printing press unique in the annals of Bengali literature. He was also the inventor of the halftone block, did a superb translation of The Mahabharata and The Ramayana into Bengali for children, played the violin with competence, and founded the delightful children’s magazine Sandesh. His son Sukumar, Satyajit’s father, died at thirty six in 1923. In his all too short life he was acknowledged as a nonsense writer of the stature of Edward Lear and Lewis Caroll. The three generations of Rays, not to forget Satyajit’s talented son Sandeep, have been shaped and formed as artistes and human beings to a fair extent by the city of Calcutta and its everchanging social and political moods.

The city first appeared very briefly but with telling effect in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), the final part of the trilogy. Aparna, Apu’s adolescent bride, gazes out of the window curiously at the smoky railway yard down below. This encounter does not shock her but serves in helping her mature before our very eyes. Such fruitful cinematic condensation of time is indeed very rare. Almost magically Aparna makes her transition to fullblown womanhood. No doubt in an oblique way this sequence corroborates what Ray had always thought of his beloved city, that aesthetic pleasure and creative inspiration were both available generously despite the surrounding squalor. Aparna in the film reverses the traditional cliché by conceiving a child happily in near privation in the city and going back to her well-to-do, comfortable home in the village to give birth to a son and die in the process.

Ritwik Ghatak had always maintained that nature was a receptacle of all human emotion. Ray too believed this and proved it in films like Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road, 1955), Kanchenjungha (1962), Aranyer Din Raatri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970) and to a fair degree in Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974). Such an exercise was necessary more to fulfil the demands of the script than purely an artistic credo. Instead, he turned to the city (in his case mainly Calcutta) to prove his point. The city could mirror all human hopes and aspirations.

Ray in a most uncanny manner reflects the mood of the times in all his films about contemporary Calcutta. The rise of the Naxalites in the late sixties and their influence, direct and indirect, upon the social and political life of the metropolis is captured with great verve and understanding in films like Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddba (Company Limited, 1971). The attitudes and aspirations of the characters are also visually reflected in the environment of the films. In The Adversary, the protagonist Siddhartha is not only betrayed by his own fate as exemplified by the climate of the times, he is also surrounded by fickle or weak women. Both his fiancée and sister are more interested in financial and emotional security rather than idealism and fidelity, living as they do in very turbulent times.

The only real contact he has with a woman is a fleeting one, with a part-time prostitute who works as a nurse during the day. The futility of Siddhartha’s existence is also seen in the images of the city in the film, symbolically reminiscent of the dark, crumbling city of Berlin of the twenties with stark poverty and moral decay going hand in hand with a numbing lack of political will.


In Company Limited the political violence in the city is kept in the background except in one scene when Syamal, the rising young executive, actually and with deliberation commits a mendacious act to quell a strike in his company. With characteristic indirectness worthy of Lubitsch, Ray keeps the action within comfortable apartments, cosy upper-class clubs and a brief but telling scene on the racecourse. Calcutta, its class structures, political and business modes and the people who operate within them come vividly to life to illustrate a particular time in the histories of individuals and a city and, by association, a nation. In the two films, Calcutta is peopled by angry, foolish young men and political and corporate opportunists. A far cry from the times when writers and artistes of a semi-pastoral disposition found refuge here.


Till well after the partition into the mid-fifties, Calcutta had strong links with the surrounding countryside, not just in terms of food grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry and fish and cheap labour for menial jobs but also a real one; a means for spiritual and aesthetic sustenance. After all the city had produced Gopal Ghosh, the most passionate landscape painter this country has produced with the exception of perhaps Sailoz Mookerjee. It was not unusual those days for aspiring artists to take a quick trip out of the city on the Burn light railways for a day’s sketching and painting. It was also not unusual for writers and poets to go out of Calcutta for a weekend trip to nearby rural environs.

It was this cultural climate that produced Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, the writer of the magnificent pastoral novel Pather Panchali, on which Ray’s first film is based. Although born in Birbhum in rural Bengal, Bibhutibhushan spent a considerable part of his adult life in the city and its suburbs. Satyajit Ray in contrast, was completely city-bred but had made a few trips out in his childhood and adolescence with relatives to the verdant areas of East Bengal and in his youth to Santiniketan (situated in Birbhum district in close proximity to the land of the highly creative Santhal tribals) to study painting under masters like Nandalal Bose and Binode Behari Mukherjee, who considered nature to be the wellspring of all art. His experiences enabled Ray to become in Indian cinema, and possibly in world cinema, an interpreter of rural and urban modes of living, although he did not intend it to happen that way. It was this generous impulse inherited from his family, principally from his mother Suprava Ray, and also the ambience of his native city that pushed him into this role.

When Satyajit was growing up Calcutta was a very vital and active city politically and in cultural matters. Rabindranath Tagore had proved himself a writer and thinker of genius. Following him were his gifted cousin, the painter Gaganendranath Tagore and nephew Abanindranath Tagore, an artiste of striking originality. The three Tagores from Jorashankho in north Calcutta had given a fillip to the cultural life of the city. The musical scene too had opened up after Wajid Ali Shah, the exiled Nawab of Oudh had been sent to Calcutta by the British after the mutiny of 1857. In Satyajit’s childhood, great North Indian Hindustani classical musicians (vocalists and instrumentalists alike) came to this city, not only because of bountiful patronage but also of the cognoscenti who inspired them to greater heights.


By the time he was in his early twenties, great Bengali writers like Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay, Manik Bandhopadhaya (who wrote the epic Padma Nadir Majhi/Boatman of the River Padma, filmed recently by Goutam Ghose), Narayan Gangopadhyayay and Narendranath Mitter amongst others had already left their mark. Calcutta was the only city apart from Bombay where western classical music was heard and appreciated, albeit by a small coterie. Leading musicians from abroad came to perform here occasionally and, of course, a wide-range of music was available on gramophone records. Jazz came to India because a sensational Black American pianist from Pittsburgh by the name of Teddy Weatherford came via Alexandria to settle here and become the resident band leader at the Great Eastern Hotel. Ray’s love of western classical music, which he shared with his highly knowledgeable wife Bijoya, is well-known and also their study of it in their formative years.


His liberalness and spirit of enquiry nurtured lovingly in the coffee-house circle comprising people of exceptional substance like Kamal Kumar Mazumdar, an authority of Bengali village life and a writer of genius (whose Antarjali Yatra / The Voyage Beyond, was the source of another of Goutam Ghose’s films), famous art historian Prithwish Neogy, raconteur R.P. Gupta, art connoisseur Shubha Tagore, Chidananda Das Gupta, Bansi Chandragupta (Ray’s brilliant art director and friend) amongst many, found overt expression when he made Paras Pather (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1957). In his choice of locations, from the busy, rundown office district of Dalhousie Square to the poor almost squalid lanes of North Calcutta where the old, impecunious clerk Paresh Dutta lives with his loving wife, and the plush, sedate bungalows of new Alipore in the South where Dutta moves en famille after his discovery of the philosopher’s stone that can turn anything to gold on touch, Ray, one of cinema’s profound humanists, traces with immense empathy, grace and lucidity, the course of a poor, meek, good man’s fantasy, its fulfilment, the disillusion that follows and the cleansing flow of understanding that enables the acceptance of the abiding love for life and things ordinary.

The Philosopher’s Stone in its moral and spiritual dimensions can most easily be set in Calcutta. For Calcutta with its labyrinths, serpentine lanes and unexpected arabesques is best suited to serve this comedy of metaphysical reverberations. No other big city in India – Delhi, Bombay or Madras – has the physical or spiritual ambience necessary. Subrata Mitra’s photography in tandem with Bansi Chandragupta’s art direction captures the moods and textures of real locations and evocative studio sets with an understanding that transcends brilliance and rubs shoulders with wisdom. Chandragupta’s exquisite studio sets (including a very large blow-up of a lower middle-class neighbourhood used with skill and cunning far in the background) and judiciously chosen city locations in Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) are again marvellously complemented by Mitra’s quiet but penetrative camera-work.


Ray’s cinematic depiction of Calcutta also includes its women – most decisively. Arati, the heroine of Mahanagar is the giving and nurturing woman, like the city where sad things happen but hope reasserts itself very quickly and opportunities present themselves for a better life. Arati is wife, mother, daughter-in-law, working woman – and completely successful in all the roles. It is she who gives assurance and hope to her shaken husband after both of them lose their jobs towards the end of the film. Arati is the sort of woman Ray admired most. She has the calm strength and inner radiance of Ray’s grandaunt Dr Kadambini Ganguli who delivered him, Suprava Ray, his talented and giving mother, and his wife Bijoya, who assumed worldly responsibilities while retaining her femininity.

But the optimism of the ’50s and early ’60s had faded completely by the ’70s. Jana Aranya (The Middle-Man, 1975) set in Calcutta in the mid-seventies is about the total degeneration of human values, about circumstances making whores (regardless of gender) out of the meek. Somnath, the idealist middle-class boy turns procurer in the end by inadvertently taking his friend’s sister, newly turned prostitute, to a client who might give him a contract. It has visuals to match. Also shot in black-and-white like its predecessors The Adversary and Company Limited, this film has the grim, rough, almost newsreelish look of some of the Cuban films from the early sixties. The city comes back again in his swan song Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991). Though largely filmed indoors in expressive, muted colours, in one shot in the Calcutta Maidan (park), with the Victoria Memorial in the background and a huge balloon drifting in the sky in the foreground, Ray spells out his code in life and art through his homecoming hero, the elderly Manmohan Mitra, who explains the mystery and adventure of the search for knowledge to his very young friends.


Calcutta, it is said, was a marshland that was willy-nilly tamed over a long period of time. Such places, for not too clearly specified reasons, help things and ideas to grow. Ray, the little boy who had his first ice-cream on a floating restaurant on the river Hooghly, became Ray the master storyteller in film and print over the passage of time. He passed away on 23rd April 1992, days before his seventy-first birthday in this very city of Calcutta where as a very small boy he had received his first lesson in light as he watched entranced a glowing sliver of sun coming in through a crack in the door. It was here as he slowly matured that he understood and completely absorbed his mentor Jean Renoir’s prerequisites for any artist, of learning ‘to see the face behind the mask’ and understanding that ‘every man has his reasons’.


* Reproduced courtesy, Cinemaya (20), Summer, 1993.