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Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Discovering Satyajit Ray and Bengali Cinema

I was only 3 years old when the Indian city of Calcutta came to a virtual standstill after its people had heard the tragic news that Mr Satyajit Ray had died at the age of 70.

Throughout my childhood and teens, I was clueless about the fact that a man of such great stature had walked upon this earth and touched the hearts of many through his movies.

Ray is without a doubt one of the greatest auteurs to have surfaced both in Indian and World Cinema. Along with literary great Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Ray can be classified as one of a few whose works to a great extent unify the Bengal region.

Whether you are an Indian Bengali or a Bangladeshi, Ray’s movies make you forget about your politically crafted identity.

The way in which he exemplifies Bengal and Bengali culture in his movies played an instrumental role in making me feel highly appreciative of my heritage (a feeling which I had never experienced before in my life).

I first encountered the name Satyajit Ray on the internet three years ago, while reading a piece on Indian Cinema. I was interested to find out more about who he was and why he enjoyed such a distinguished status within the South Asian continent. 

Hence, I took to a number of websites, where I read about his career as a filmmaker and the degree to which his films have had an impact across the world. I also came across the famous quote that was once uttered by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa where he declared; “not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or moon.”

It was this particular quote that stuck with me and enticed me to try out a Ray film, which ultimately led me to watch his directorial debut Pather Panchali (1955).  I found the film to be poignant and full of realism which intelligently showcases the social conditions of those residing in rural Bengal. 

I subsequently watched the other two instalments of the Apu Trilogy; Aparajito (1957) and Apur Sansar (1959). I consider this trilogy to be ground-breaking and one which strikingly illustrates the transition from boyhood to manhood. By the time I had finished watching Apur Sansar, I had officially transformed into a Ray fan and continued to read about him and view more of his films.

It was Ray’s films which introduced me to two of my favourite Bengali actors; Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore.

Soumitra has been a major part of Ray’s filmmaking journey by starring in the majority of his greatest works.  Though Sharmila is a cultural icon in Bollywood, she was evidently at her finest as an actress in Ray’s films.  Watching their distinguished performances in films like Devi (Goddess, 1960) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969) contributed immensely to my appreciation for Bengali Cinema.

Though I consider myself more a fan of Hindi Cinema, I hold Satyajit Ray accountable for making me a patron of Bengali Cinema.  I had never appreciated Bengali films before and had always considered them to be tedious and imitators of Bollywood. However, once I encountered Ray’s films, I realised that Bengali Cinema does in fact, have a certain uniqueness to it; which is perhaps why it is more revered amongst Westerners in contrast to Bollywood.  I find Bengali Cinema (in particular Ray’s films) to be artistic and bold with regards to its content.

I consider myself thankful that during my early 20s, I was able to discover a towering figure like Satyajit Ray. I only hope that more people from the younger generation will come to love the art and stories which Ray managed to intelligently showcase through his films.

Moreover, it should be emphasised that although Satyajit Ray’s films will be treasured more amongst Bengalis, they will still very much appeal to any man or woman who are open to exploring various forms of cinema. For what Akira Kurosawa once said is indeed true; not to see Ray’s films is like existing in this world without seeing the sun or the moon.

- Bodrul Chaudhury

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

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