Editor’s note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
It is a well-known fact by now that Satyajit Ray came from an illustrious family of artists, writers, mathematicians, sportsmen, publishers and musicians – all of whom played important roles in what is now known as the Renaissance of Bengal. His own father, Sukumar Ray, was a luminary of the highest order – a literary mind with a fertile imagination, a fantastic sense of humour, and an undying passion for enriching young minds through children’s literature. When young Satyajit was just two and a half years old, his father passed away at the age of thirty-six, after battling an incurable disease for several long years. In that sense, Satyajit Ray never met his father but if one were to go through the literary and visual works of Sukumar Ray carefully, one can clearly see where his son – inarguably one of the greatest creative minds of the twentieth century – got his artistic genes from. In the year 1987, on the occasion of the birth centenary of Sukumar Ray, his son Satyajit Ray made a documentary film on his life and works, as a tribute to a father he only knew through his writings, sketches and letters.
The documentary begins with a detailed look at Sukumar Ray’s family background, especially at his father – the renowned publisher, writer and entrepreneur Upendrakishore Ray (whose short story ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ was adapted by Satyajit Ray for the screen). From the documentary, we know that Sukumar Ray’s literary ambitions began quite early in his life, and that when he was in college, he had founded a club named ‘The Nonsense Club’ – whose primary objective was the pursuit and perusal of the genre of nonsense literature. It was for the handwritten magazine of this club that Sukumar wrote two famous plays ‘Jhalapala’ and ‘Lakshamaner Shaktishel’. The documentary shows two scenes from the two plays, enacted by such stalwarts of cinema and stage as Utpal Dutt, Soumitra Chatterjee and Manoj Mitra. Laced with subtle humour, wordplay, wit and sarcasm, the two scenes immediately make it evident why Sukumar Ray is considered to be one of the most renowned humourists in Indian literature.
Later, as we are told, Upendrakishore sent his son to London and Manchester, where Sukumar learnt the crafts of photoengraving, chromolithography and litho-drawing over a period of two years. Upon his return to India, Sukumar married Suprabha, and began helping his father publish a children’s magazine named Sandesh. This remarkable magazine is a treasure trove of stories, plays, poetry and articles on subjects as varied as science, sports, mythology, history, geography and the arts – with riddles and puzzles and beautiful illustrations meant to enrich the impressionable minds of young readers. Two years later, after Upendrakishore’s sudden death, the responsibility of running Sandesh came upon Sukumar Ray. Under his care and nurturing, Sandesh became an important milestone for children’s reading in Bengal, with literary contributions from such eminent people as his father’s friend and contemporary – none other than Rabindranath Tagore himself.
Sukumar Ray was also an active member of the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta, and from the documentary, we learn that he played an important role in electing Rabindranath Tagore as an honorary member of the Brahmo Samaj. Among Sukumar Ray’s other achievements was the founding of the Monday Club in Calcutta – whose members were invited and encouraged to hold healthy and erudite discussions on any subject of their choice. It was, without a shred of doubt, a meeting of some of the most brilliant minds of those times to discuss politics, philosophy, science, poetry, literature and art. Yet, they never sacrificed the underlying allegiance to humour, as was evident from the many pamphlets, posters, and flyers designed by Sukumar himself, making important announcements and invitations in the wittiest of ways.
In 1921, the same year that his son Satyajit was born, Sukumar Ray fell ill, and was diagnosed with a severe form of infectious fever, the notorious Kala-azar, for which no cure existed during those days. What is most astonishing to note is that it was while he was battling this fatal disease that he wrote two of his best books – Ha Ja Ba Ra La (inspired by Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) and Abol Tabol. How an ailing man battling for his life could write something so beautiful, so rich and so dense with remarkable ideas and unbridled imagination, and so full of life and laughter – one can only wonder. He had an undying passion to tell children the most wondrous stories from all around the world — of understanding their little minds and letting their imagination run free and of excelling in the serious business of nonsense art. His spirit to fight and write till his last breath and all of these great qualities will endear Sukumar Ray to his readers for generations to come. For here was a man, who in thirty-six precious years of his life, single-handedly did what no other savant in our country could do – ever before, or ever since. He taught children how to dream.
Satyajit Ray’s documentary on Sukumar Ray is a film that everyone must watch. Because through his rich and flowing music, his fondly scripted narrative and the use of numerous photographs, sketches, doodles, illustrations, paintings and poetry by his father, Ray offers a glimpse into the mind of a genius. Five years after he had paid this beautiful tribute, the illustrious son of an illustrious father himself passed away, and that was perhaps, the end of the Renaissance of Bengal.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.