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Connecting to the origins of Satyajit Ray: A Young Perspective

Satyajit Ray

As part II of the Satyajit Ray Season continues in earnest at the British Film Institute, Rupanjana Vivekanand, looks at Ray's importance in the lives of young Bengalis, and has a word of advice to Shootjit Sircar.

I read that if all goes well, Aamir Khan will star as Feluda in Shoojit Sircar's Hindi adaptation of Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella.

My first great BONG reaction? 'Feluda was TALL. Get your basics right Shoojit!'.

Probably a very trivial point, given Khan's superb acting skills, but for a Bengali, who has grown up idealising Feluda as her ultimate hero (not necessarily in a Romantic way) Feluda is a tall, dark and handsome man, with piercing eyes, and has the IQ of Albert Einstein.

To my British friends, let me explain who Feluda is.

If you by any chance don't know how Bengalis (and by this I mean the Indian ones) are, they have an untold knack for comforts; we live to eat, give a significant amount of importance (a little too much for sanity) to educational qualifications, swear by Satyajit Ray's movies and worship Dada (Sourav Ganguly), Robi Thakur (Rabindranath Tagore) and Netaji (Subashchandra Bose).

A Bengali man usually would be a little nerdy, definitely with an outstanding report card, a very strong political alliance but physically perhaps no taller than 5'5", a bit stout, round face and a happy belly.

Feluda (or Pradosh Chandra Mitra) though is akin to a Greek God; almost 6 feet tall; the 'Bond' amongst 'Bongs'; can shoot better than 007; and can solve cases quicker than Holmes.

Feluda first made his appearance in 1965 in a Bengali children's magazine called Sandesh which was edited by Ray and Subhas Mukhopadhyay, the renowned Bengali poet.

He has a secretary and companion, a male cousin Topshe (like Dr Watson) and a friend (or rather a comic relief) Lalmohon Ganguly, a writer who goes by the pseudonym 'Jatayu'.  Together they go on to solve cases at some exotic locations, in and outside India, which later find anecdotes in Jatayu's thriller novels.

The Feluda series is written from Topshe's perspective, though it is strongly believed that Feluda in reality would be Ray himself (though I am pretty sure that he never thought of becoming a private investigator).

I remember meeting Ray in person, when I was barely four or five years of age, at a family wedding.

He was a tall man, with hypnotic eyes - bright and glowing.  I was later told he was THE Satyajit Ray, the extraordinary film maker, author, graphic designer, calligrapher, illustrator, screenwriter, musician, publisher and film critic.  Made no sense to me then.

I could barely read and films, except for cartoons, made no sense to me.

But when I was eight or nine, my mum took me to see the printing press that Ray and his family ran and the children's magazine 'Sandesh' that they would periodically publish.  And as I gobbled up Ray's Feluda and Professor Shonku novel series in my leisure time (between a harsh regime of acquiring potential educational glory), I was awestruck with the very realisation that I was in Ray's family home in South Calcutta. In fact later I would play a detective like the great 'Felu Mittir' in my make-believe world and would even be joined by some local friends in our 'Felu like' adventures.

For my parents, Satyajit Ray signified something greater.  It was his films like Apur Sangsar, Aparajeeta, Teen Konya, Charulata and Devi that made them what they are.  But our generation, one that wasn’t even born during the making of some of Ray's great films and grew up with directorial geniuses like Rituporno or Gautam Ghosh, still feel that Ray's films are the greatest things they could ever relate to.

In fact it is believed that Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie ET is allegedly based on a script actually written Ray himself and which was originally titled 'The Alien'!  In 1962 Ray wrote a short Bengali science fiction story titled 'Bankubabur Bandhu' which was published in Sandesh.

The story revolves around a spaceship that lands in a pond in some part of rural Bengal and the villagers begin worshiping it as a temple which has risen from the depths of the Earth.  The alien, however, establishes contact with a young village lad named Haba through dreams and in the course of its short stay on the planet the alien also plays a number of harmless pranks on the village community.  It is a storyline that perhaps inspired Spielberg to make his unforgettable children's classic.

It was not just Ray's conceptualisation of situations or the cinematographic magic, the ideology, the subtle feminism through the brilliant characterisation of his beautiful heroines (he launched actresses Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen).  Ray was a story teller and a visionary of a different genre.  He was creator of an enigmatic era, a man much ahead of his time.

Discussing the Satyajit Ray Retrospective at the Southbank Centre and Ray's popularity amongst our generation, Titli Datta, 31, a Mumbai-based lawyer said: "There was always a culture of watching Bengali movies in my family and it included Ray's movies. I can feel the influence not only in my choice of movies, my opinion of performances but also in my value system.

More than anything else, I think its honed my discerning quality.

My favourite films of Ray would be Seemaboddho and Nayak.  Both were profound, multi-layered and extremely futuristic.  They were relevant in the past and relevant now and will continue to be so in future.

Seemaboddho - no other movie has explored the pitfalls of corporate captivity more than this one.  That a person can be a well rounded personality but yet be trapped in his self created corporate image because of social pressures is very well portrayed.  Excellent performances and actor Sharmila Tagore's dilemma throughout the movie is very relatable.

Nayak - every time I watch the movie I discover something new (in fact this is true of all Ray movies).  When I had watched it as a child I thought the protagonist was a rude arrogant narcissist who was just used to having his own way.

With every successive viewing, I have discovered new facets to his personality.  The last time I watched it, I really warmed up to him. I felt I could finally pin him down. And the climax is one of the best ones of all time. There couldn’t possibly be any other culmination for such a relationship which involves two people from such different worlds. So practically yet evocatively explained.

I feel Ray was very conventional (not traditional) in his portrayal (or non-portrayal) of women in his movies and books.  Not very experimental.  He probably wanted to show certain set archetypes and then explore their inner feelings. Mostly, women stuck in the confines of home and trying to break free in their own way.  There were exceptions of course."

Ananya Sanyal, 30, another legal professional, based in Bangalore had this to say:  "I loved watching Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Pather Panchali, Teen Kanya, Hirok Rajar Deshe, Shonar Kella and Jaibaba Felunath to name but a few.

I loved Shonar Kella - because it made me fall in love with Feluda... still my most perfect man.  I loved the subtle expressions in his films.  I still remember Apu hiding the necklace stolen by Durga after Durga's death, running behind the palki, those are haunting moments.  Ray was definitely more open minded than his peers."

27-year-old Abhiroop Sengupta, a Management student at IIM, Kolkata, told me: "The First Movie I had ever watched in a cinema hall was Ray's great creation - Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne (which was re-released after he was awarded the Academy Award) and the second being Hirok Rajar Deshe.  I was also greatly influenced by the soundtracks of his movies and his song-writing skills.  Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is my favourite because not only is it a balanced piece of art but the soundtrack and lyrics are just mind blowing.

The effects, which were executed on a shoe string budget and yet they had a mystic influence on the minds of the audience. The socio-political message it depicted through satire has never ever been replicated.

My favourite bit is undoubtedly the Ghost Dance sequence from this masterpiece.  I also greatly admired the swing scene from Charulata were the camera moves with the actress and thus makes the audience more involved in the film.  It should be noted that one of Ray's great contributions to the field of cinematography was the usage of "Bounce Lighting", a technique he co-introduced with Subrata Mitra.

Ray indeed believed in feminism and paid great importance to understanding the mind and the psychology of a female, as evident in Charulata, Ghare Baire and his other movies.  Coming from Bengal, where the feminine force is respected as the "Source of all Energy and Creation", it is obvious that Ray gave female characters a great deal of importance in his movies; be it the way their mind works, the way they look at life or the way they can change or influence society.  The integration of this aspects really makes Satyajit Ray a believer in feminism.

It's significant that the Satyajit Ray Festival is taking place in London where he watched some 99 movies, it is said, during a three-month span during his stay in the city in 1950.  Among them was, of course, The Bicycle Thief, which left an everlasting impact on him which in turn led him to incorporate Italian Neo-Realism in his movies.  So by watching a Ray movie in London one could connect to his origins as a Film Maker."

- Rupanjana Vivekanand

Ms Vivekanand, a lifelong Satyajit Ray fan, is the Associate Editor of The Asian Voice.

The Satyajit Ray Season at the British Film Institute continues until 05 October.  For listings, visit www.bfi.org.uk.

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