In fond remembrance of the colossus of Bengali cinema
Dear Satyajit Ray:
Happy 100th birthday, maestro.
The Bengali cultural firmament has no dearth of stellar figures—I always think of Rabindranath Tagore as the affectionate paterfamilias of modern Bengali literature—but I have felt a particular kinship with you.
Perhaps this was because I was deeply attracted to your work at a time when you were living. Somehow that made you a more intimate presence.
Of course, there is so much to like about you. A world-class filmmaker, juvenile story-teller, composer, typographer, illustrator, graphic artist, you had a keen intellect and an avid curiosity, with a formidable command of both English and Bengali—you were a true renaissance man.
There was another parochial reason. I took particular delight in the fact that your ancestral home was in East Bengal. Your grandfather Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, juvenile storyteller extraordinaire, was from Mymensingh, the land of the storied folk treasury of maimansingha gitika (Mymensingh ballads).
We have always adored you in Bangladesh. In the 1960s, when your film Mahanagar (The Big City) was screened briefly, people queued all night to get tickets.
Within a few years after independence in 1971—I was still a schoolboy then—the full force of your talent hit me. Foremost, obviously, were the films—extraordinarily difficult to see in those days, because this was before the age of streaming or even video.
Then there was your juvenile fiction: the incomparable sleuth Feluda, the whimsical scientist Professor Shanku and the delightful hamper of short story anthologies, embellished with your beautiful illustrations.
Later I came across your prose for adults. Bishoy Chalachchitra and Their Films, Our Films are two collections of your musings on film. Offhand, I am hard-pressed to think of anybody else who wrote both Bengali and English with such felicity of prose, such fluid, elegant diction, and such ease of command (the deceased West Bengal economist Ashok Mitra comes to mind).
Your cinematic oeuvre presents a rich, multi-layered contemplation of the Bengali condition.
The Apu trilogy is a lyrical paean to rural Bengal. It follows adorable little Apu, his Brahmin storyteller father Harihar, impecunious but with a heart of gold, the long-suffering, graceful Sarbajaya, the older sibling Durga. We follow Apu all the way to his adulthood and ill-fated marriage.
Mahanagar takes us into the life of a traditional urban middle class family whose old-school patriarchal values clash with modernity as a housewife steps outside home to pursue her dream of emancipation. Seemabaddha (Company Limited) is an incisive look at life at the top of the corporate ladder with both its glitzy accoutrements and moral pitfalls. Nayak (The Hero) is a haunting reflection on the fickle, insecure world of movie celebrity.
Your delightful forays into Tagoreana include your own particular favourite Charulata, which has a distinctly Chekhovian air, while Teen Kanya presents three delightful vignettes from Tagore's short stories.
I loved the fact that you were such a dyed-in-the-wool Bengali. Many decades ago, the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India asked a number of illustrious Indians what made them proud of being Hindus. Your answer was that you were neither a Hindu, Muslim or Christian—you were a Bengali.
It's a deeply personal cultural statement as well as a reflection of your tradition. I consider you to be one of the last and finest exemplars of arguably the most enlightened cultural-intellectual traditions of Bengal—the Brahmo Samaj.
The Brahmo Samaj imbibed the values of European enlightenment to develop a modern Bengali sensibility. From women's emancipation to promotion of rationalist thought to a tolerant, ecumenical approach to faith (Girish Chandra Sen translated the Quran into Bengali), the Brahmo Samaj was the Bengali intellectual tradition at its most enlightened.
Many of your forbears—and you as well—followed that fine example. Your grandfather Upendrakishore owned a printing press, your father Sukumar was inspired by the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll, and yet in their work and their ethos they were utterly Bengali.
You, of course, mastered that most modern, difficult Western art form of all—the cinema—and crafted films that were imbued with an ineffable Bengali sensibility.
Brahmo Samaj values were reflected in your temperament. You were rationalist, curious, compassionate, and above all had a grace and gentleness of demeanour and spirit. You were a genuine Bengali bhadrolok, a perfect gentleman.
It's been nearly three decades since you have left us, Satyajit-babu. Yet you are still a vivid presence in my life. (I'm not alone. Your books still hit the bestseller lists in Kolkata's Anandabazar daily.)
Even now, re-reading a Feluda thriller or reading one of your short stories again is a much beloved guilty pleasure. Recently, I saw your Kanchenjungha again. This was your first colour film, made in 1960. I was struck by how contemporary the filmmaking style seemed. Instead of a boy-meets-girl tale, the stock-in-trade of commercial Indian potboilers, the film moves simultaneously yet effortlessly through the lives of a number of characters, all part of an extended upper-crust family from Kolkata on vacation, controlled by a ferocious patriarch, played by the inimitable Chhabi Biswas. There are wheels within wheels, and the film cross-cuts through the various subplots as they are all developed in the film. I saw the film and marvelled again at the fact that decades after you've left us, your work continues to give us such joy.
Your birth centenary is just a date for me. My deep affection and admiration for you has no sell-by date. Your place is secure in my heart.
To borrow a refrain from a fetching song you wrote and composed for your delightful children's film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha): "Maharaja, tomaray selam" (I bow to you, emperor).
Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.