Satyajit Ray (2 May 1921 – 23 April 1992) was an Indian film director, scriptwriter, documentary filmmaker, author, essayist, lyricist, magazine editor, illustrator, calligrapher, and music composer. He is celebrated for works such as The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), The Music Room (1958), The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964). Satyajit Ray was born in Calcutta to renowned writer Sukumar Ray who was prominent in the field of art and literature. Starting his career as a commercial artist, he was drawn into independent filmmaking after meeting French film-maker Jean Renoir and viewing Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves (1948) during his visit to London.

    Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts and authored several short stories and novels, primarily for young children and teenagers. Feluda, the sleuth, Professor Shonku, the scientist in his science fiction stories, Tarini Khuro, the storyteller and Lalmohan Ganguly, the novelist are popular fictional characters created by him. In 1978, he was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.

    Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali (1955), won eleven international prizes, including the inaugural Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. This film, along with Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959), form The Apu Trilogy. Ray did the scripting, casting, scoring, and editing, and designed his own credit titles and publicity material. Ray received many major awards in his career, including 36 Indian National Film Awards, a Golden Lion, a Golden Bear, 2 Silver Bears, many additional awards at international film festivals and ceremonies, and an Academy Honorary Award in 1992. The Government of India honoured him with the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian award, in 1992. Ray had received many notable awards during his lifetime.

    Satyajit Ray’s ancestry can be traced back for at least ten generations. His family had acquired the name ‘Ray’ (originally ‘Rai’) from the Mughals. Although they were Bengali Kayasthas, the Rays were ‘Vaishnavas’ (worshippers of Vishnu) as against majority Bengali Kayasthas who were ‘Shaktos’ (worshippers of Shakti or Shiva).

    According to the history of the Ray family, one of their ancestors, Shri Ramsunder Deo (Deb), was a native of Chakdah village in Nadia district of present-day West Bengal, India. In search of fortune he migrated to Sherpur in East Bengal. There he met Raja Gunichandra, the zamindar of Jashodal, at the zamindar house of Sherpur. King Gunichandra was immediately impressed by Ramsunder’s beautiful appearance and sharp intellect and took Ramsunder with him to his zamindari estate. He made Ramsunder his son-in-law and granted him some property at Jashodal in Kishorganj District. From then on Ramsunder started living in Jashodal. His descendants migrated from there and settled down in the village of Masua in Katiadi upazila of Kishoreganj district.

    Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, was a writer, illustrator, philosopher, publisher, amateur astronomer, and a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a religious and social movement in 19th-century Bengal. He also set up a printing press by the name of U. Ray and Sons, which formed a crucial backdrop to Satyajit’s life. Sukumar Ray, Upendrakishore’s son and father of Satyajit, was an illustrator, critic, and a pioneering Bengali writer of nonsense rhyme (Abol Tabol) and children’s literature. Social worker and children’s book author Shukhalata Rao was his aunt.

    Satyajit Ray was born to Sukumar and Suprabha Ray in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Sukumar died when Satyajit was barely three, and the family survived on Suprabha Ray’s meager income. Ray studied at Ballygunge Government High School in Calcutta, and completed his BA in economics at Presidency College, Calcutta (then affiliated to the University of Calcutta), though his interest was always in the fine arts.

    In 1940, his mother insisted that he study at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Ray was reluctant to go, due to his fondness for Calcutta and the low regard for the intellectual life at Santiniketan. His mother’s persuasiveness and his respect for Tagore finally convinced him to try. In Santiniketan, Ray came to appreciate Oriental Art. He later admitted that he learned much from the famous painters Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. He later produced a documentary, The Inner Eye, about Mukherjee. His visits to Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta stimulated his admiration for Indian Art.

    In 1943, Ray started working at D.J. Keymer, a British advertising agency, as a junior visualizer, earning 80 rupees a month. Although he liked visual design (graphic design) and he was mostly treated well, there was tension between the British and Indian employees of the firm. The British were better paid, and Ray felt that “the clients were generally stupid.” Later, Ray worked for the Signet Press, a new press started by D. K. Gupta. Gupta asked Ray to create book cover designs for the company and gave him complete artistic freedom. Ray designed covers for many books, including Jibanananda Das’s, Banalata Sen, and Rupasi Bangla, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar, Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. He worked on a children’s version of Pather Panchali, a classic Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, renamed as Aam Antir Bhepu (The mango-seed whistle).

    Along with Chidananda Dasgupta and others, Ray founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. They screened many foreign films, many of which Ray watched and seriously studied. He befriended the American soldiers stationed in Calcutta during World War II, who kept him informed about the latest American films showing in the city. He came to know a RAF employee, Norman Clare, who shared Ray’s passion for films, chess and western classical music.

    In 1949, Ray married Bijoya Das, his first cousin and long-time sweetheart. The couple had a son named, Sandip Ray, who is a film director. In the same year, French director Jean Renoir came to Calcutta to shoot his film- The River. Ray helped him to find locations in the countryside. Ray told Renoir about his idea of filming Pather Panchali, which had long been on his mind, and Renoir encouraged him in the project. In 1950, D.J. Keymer & Co sent Ray to London to work at their headquarters. During his six months in London, Ray watched 99 films. Among these was the neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, which had a profound impact on him. Ray later said that he walked out of the theatre determined to become a filmmaker.

    In 1983, while working on Ghare Baire (Home and the World), Ray suffered a heart attack which limited his productivity in the remaining 9 years of his life. Ghare Baire, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, was completed in 1984 with the help of Ray’s son, who served as a camera operator from then-onward. It is about the dangers of fervent nationalism; he wrote the first draft of a script for it in the 1940s. Despite rough patches due to Ray’s illness, the film did receive some acclaim; critic Vincent Canby gave the film a maximum rating of five stars and praised the performances of the three lead actors. It also featured the first kiss scene portrayed in Ray’s films.

    In 1987, Ray recovered to an extent to direct the 1990 film Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree). It depicts an old man, who has lived a life of honesty, and learns of the corruption of three of his sons. The final scene shows the father finding solace only in the companionship of his fourth son, who is uncorrupted but mentally ill due to a head injury sustained while he was studying in England. Ray’s last film, Agantuk (The Stranger), is lighter in mood but not in theme; when a long-lost uncle arrives to visit his niece in Calcutta, he arouses suspicion as to his motive. It provokes far-ranging questions in the film about civilisation. Critic Hal Hinson was impressed, and thought Agantuk shows “all the virtues of a master artist in full maturity”.

    A heavy-smoker but non-drinker. Ray valued work more than anything else. He would work 12 hours a day, and go to bed at two o’clock in the morning. He also enjoyed collecting antiques, manuscripts, rare gramophone records, paintings and rare books. In 1992, Ray’s health deteriorated due to heart complications. He was admitted to a hospital but never recovered. Twenty-four days before his death, Ray was presented with an Honorary Academy Award by Audrey Hepburn via video-link. He was in a gravely ill condition, but gave an acceptance speech, calling it the “best achievement of [his] movie-making career.” He died on 23 April 1992, 9 days before his 71st birthday.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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