Cultural power surpasses the transient aggregation of political heft in West Bengal. In the natural order of things, there is a rise and a fall of political leaders and political parties, and power waxes and wanes in proportion to the will exercised by the people as voters. Ousting a cultural icon from his, and more rarely her, space in the pantheon of secular deities is an entirely different matter; it has not happened in recent memory.
The deification of the creative genius is a metamorphosis that is imperceptible but very real. There are two pantheons in Bengal. The first is the conventional pantheon of the divine, crowded by so many avatars of the goddess or gods that only the cognoscenti know the difference. The second is the pantheon of cultural deities, reflecting a particular aspect of the Bengali sensibility, an eclectic array of political leaders, litterateurs, artists, musicians, performers and filmmakers, almost anyone who the Bengali considers to be uniquely gifted and on whom is bestowed the status of an icon.
Satyajit Ray is part of the second pantheon. His centenary year, which begins from May 2, is a moment when the process of this metamorphosis will be visible. In these pandemic times, the homage, the tributes, the celebration and the cultural programmes may have to be in a virtual space, but that will not deter devotees of Ray’s genius from honouring him by revisiting his work and his creativity in as many ways as possible.
The tributes will not be exclusive offerings of aficionados; the inclusivity of the celebrations will affirm his status as an icon. When Ray died in 1992, even manufacturers of objects as entirely mundane as shovels and construction equipment offered their tribute through advertisements, as a reflection of how significant the filmmaker’s transition was from mere mortal to one of the pantheon. It did not matter that his films were never the sort of blockbusters that appealed to the masses. In the Bengali perception, Ray was an icon; his work was quintessentially Bengali, but his contribution was recognised as India’s gift to world cinema.
It is revealing of West Bengal’s unusual ethos that even the BJP, with its claim to being the world’s largest party, scrambled to deploy Satyajit Ray to increase its appeal to the Bengali intelligentsia. If the BJP government in New Delhi lives up to its promise of an Oscar-like film award in the name of Satyajit Ray, Bengalis may be pleased, but that is impossible to predict.
Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre was not limited to making films, or writing his own scripts, or composing the music for his films. His work is part of the popular imagination. Snatches of his music from the fantasy series, Goopey Gayne Bagha Bayne, have become signatures in the culture of modern West Bengal. His Hirak Rajar Deshe is now the title of an animation series that is a regular satirical take on current politics on a local television channel. The dialogue of his film series featuring the detective that he created, Feluda, is part of the language in which Bengalis think and speak. He pervades the mind and is embedded in the Bengali spirit.
He was not a filmmaker to begin with. He worked as an artist in advertising. He also designed book jackets that are now classics in the world of book design. He created fonts. He created a visual language through his films that is now part of the grammar of filmmaking. The trilogy, the first of which, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), made in 1958, is the one of the greatest films ever made. It was the first of the total of 29 films and five documentaries that Ray made.
He worked with unknowns, including the legendary cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who improvised to create the amazing light in Pather Panchali, and the slew of films including Jalsaghar, Teen Kanya, Charulata, Devi, Mahanagar and Nayak. And through that work, men like Subrata Mitra emerged with their extraordinary talent. Soumitra Chatterjee, the legendary actor who passed away in 2020, was a Ray discovery. As were Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen and even Madhavi Mukherjee, who had worked in cinema before, but never displayed the awesome talent she did in Charulata, which remains her most lyrical performance ever.
There were distinct periods in the work that Satyajit Ray did. His early films — Apur Sansar, Parash Pathar, Jalsaghar, followed by films like Kanchenjungha and Abhijaan, documentaries including the film on Rabindranath Tagore commissioned on the insistence of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Bala, on the great Bharatanatyam dancer Balasaraswati, who performs on the Madras Marina with the wind blowing her hair and snatching at her sari, are masterpieces.
The last three films by Ray — Ganashatru (Enemy of the People), Shakha Proshakha and Agantuk — were very different. These were bold critiques on contemporary social issues, including the conflict between rational science and irrational religion, the idea of the civilised and the primitive, of what is normal and sickness of the mind. Ray did not start out as a filmmaker with an agenda. He was a storyteller. But he responded to the shifts and changes in the world at large and his conclusions were sharp, critical and almost a call to action.