A new Hindi anthology series aims to bring Satyajit Ray’s legacy to the Netflix generation. Will this be our version of the 21st century Sherlock Holmes tale?
In one of the most famous quotes in the world of cinema, Akira Kurosawa once said: “Not to have seen Ray’s cinema means to exist in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.
Bengal author Satyajit Ray, whose centenary year we continue to celebrate, put Indian cinema on the world map in the mid-1950s when his first film Pather Panchali visited major global film festivals including Cannes, Berlin, San Francisco, Rome and BAFTA to name a few. It was a time when the world did not yet have a lasting impression of “Indian cinema”.
Satyajit Ray synonymous with Indian cinema
With Pather Pachali and the following films from the Apu Trilogy, for film fans in Europe and the United States in particular, Ray’s work has become synonymous with Indian cinema. Pather Pachali, for example, toured in a New York theater for eight months. “Bollywood”, as a phenomenon, had not yet seen the light of day. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the term was coined to define the conventions of Hindi commercial cinema.
Ray’s cinema was a complete antithesis to the larger than life, bright, simplistic, melodramatic, noisy world of Hindi cinema, with the rare exceptions of Guru Dutt. Pyasa and Kagaz Ke Phool or Bimal Roy’s Make Bigha Zameen. Despite Ray’s international fame, he was strapped for cash, worked with modest equipment and limited resources, and avoided “stars” unless the role required a gigantic character. Ray has worked with inexperienced crews and amateur actors, sometimes literally tripping over them while walking the streets of Kolkata. It was a neo-realistic world of humanism and hope, of its characters’ internal journey rather than external props. Bollywood was on the show while Ray was closer to life.
Ray’s resurgence in Hindi cinema
It was in the parallel Hindi cinema that emerged in the 1980s from creators like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza and more that the echoes of Ray’s film school were first felt.
Their films have come to be defined by their realism, political radicalism and liberal humanism. The stories were simple in terms of scale, the artistic camera movements, the themes dealt with social issues hinting at the political climate of the country and characterized by the glaring lack of elaborate songs and fight sequences. Think of Benin Mandi (1983), Ketan Mehta Mirch Masala (1987), by Saeed Mirza Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), by Sagar Sarhadi Bazaar (1982), and many others.
But as Bollywood continued to grow into a gigantic force of celebrities and money spinners, the parallel film movement gradually weakened due to lack of funds and low box office numbers. Hindi cinema audiences yearned for Bollywood escapades and showed little appetite for the realism of independent cinema. In the 1980s, veteran superstar Nargis even criticized Ray for earning credit overseas by portraying India’s poverty. You could say it was a cruel simplification of what Ray stood for.
Ray in Hindi cinema – the new wave
Despite the omnipotence of Bollywood, cinephilia in India cannot be separated from Ray. Another wave of Hindi cinema began to emerge in the early 2000s, and its supporters were filmmakers who grew up on a diet of Satyajit Ray films. Filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Mira Nair, Neeraj Ghaywan and Ritesh Batra have started to stand out. The language of Hindi cinema began to see more nuance.
Neeraj Ghaywan once said that when he grew up TV channels would only broadcast Benegal and Ray movies. Anurag Basuhis parents would indeed allow him to watch only author films. Deepa mehta, who rose to fame with his daring and groundbreaking films Fire and The water, would have said that Charulata is the film that always inspires her every time she shoots a film about women. And before you shoot Lootera, Vikramaditya Motwane observed Ray’s camera movements. His initiation into the world of the master is marked by Devi, and he was won over by the way Ray created a world and the protagonist’s relationships within the house, both Devi and Jalsaghar. Some have observed a tenuous connection between the rain of notes scene in Vishal Bhardwaj‘s Kaminey and the iconic sequence of Nayak (1966). When asked about it, the director called it not an overt influence, but something that could come from his subconscious.
Ray had a distinct style of building the backdrop for the city, through the interactions of his characters. The way in which Sujoy gosh deals with the middle of a city in his films reminds us a little. He doesn’t romance Kolkata in Kahaani. Instead, he uses the backdrop almost like a character in the scheme of things and builds the city through the interaction of main protagonist Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) with those around him. Shoojit Sircar once said in an interview to Press Trust of India, “You won’t notice that I am copying but I know what I am copying. I do it in any movie I make. It’s the Bible of my life. Dibakar Banerjee, who adapted one of Ray’s short stories Potol Babu, movie star for the anthology film Bombay Talkies (2013), was, I admit, deeply affected by Ray’s literature for adolescents and pre-adolescents. “I knew him as a writer before knowing him as a filmmaker,” he said. Reuters in an interview. And it was also from Ray that Banerjee learned the art of making films on the cheap, so that the process was sustainable for his producers.
Mira Nair shared a special relationship with Ray. The two had exchanged letters, and she had even screened her documentary So far from india for him on a makeshift projector on the balcony of his home in Kolkata. Ray’s mark of social realism can be felt in Nair’s Monsoon wedding, which she calls “a Bollywood film in my own words”, while Namesake echoes the early days of Ray’s cinematic atmosphere, in the charm of simple courtship and subtle depictions of the Calcutta era.
A little ray of hope, but a long way to go
Ray’s cinema is presented as a classic – a gold standard to love and to aspire to. His art of deploying emotions remains unmatched to this day, not only in India, but arguably in world cinema as well. Yet when it comes to Hindi cinema, we have yet to see any filmmakers really revitalizing the tradition that Ray came from. Maybe on some level there are filmmakers who consciously or unconsciously pay homage to Ray in the works they create – we see echoes of his way of writing the dialogue, of moving the camera. , but it still remains difficult to identify the distinct heirlooms of a Ray stamp.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui lamented this reality in a recent interview. The actor, who was introduced to Ray’s work at the National School Of Drama, said he would watch his films to realize the power of cinema. He observes some traces of Ray in the films of Ritesh Batra, with whom he did The lunch box and Photograph, in the way it humanizes the plot and focuses on the emotions of the individual. However, in the world as it exists today, fueling a film industry largely preoccupied with posture, there is little room left for Ray’s pure and unassuming film brand to flourish, Nawaz believes.
The other problem is that the younger generation of audiences are gradually moving away from this heritage. Mark Twain once said, “A classic is something that everyone wants to read, but nobody reads. Ray’s cinema experiences a similar fate when it comes to young moviegoers in India. The new anthology Ray, which is presented as a Black mirror-esque spin on four of his short stories, aims to bring his legacy to the Netflix generation. Will this be our version of the 21st century Sherlock Holmes tale? It remains to be seen; but while it’s not quite basic, it will be interesting to see how at least some aspects of Ray survive in generations to come.
Ray will be released on Netflix on May 25.