Satyajit Ray’s passion for films and his struggles | Sunday Observer
My Years with Apu

Satyajit Ray’s passion for films and his struggles

27 December, 2020

Book: My Years with Apu
Author: Satyajit Ray
Publisher: Penguin Books

My Years with Apu is a memoir of Satyajit Ray, one of the great film directors of the 20th century. It describes how he embarked on the film making career, his early struggles in it and how his masterpiece Pather Panchali was made.

When the film Pather Panchali was launched in 1955, Ray was 34 years old. At the time, cinema in Calcutta where Satyajit was born and grown up, mostly gave amusement to the people. They looked at the life at the surface level, and hadn’t any artistic value either. Satyajit Ray is the first to establish artistic cinema, giving insights into the life, not just in Calcutta, but whole India mainly through his trilogy Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959).

Study in cinema

Ray was a visualiser for a British advertising agency called D.J. Keymer & Co. before he came into cinema. Although Ray was not satisfied with a full time job which one has to conform to the whims of clients, he chose it just because of the financial security.

But as things unfolded, it turned out to be a blessing for him because he was able to go to England and study cinema through his job at D.J. Keymer & Co - they sent him to England for their advertising purposes, but Ray used the opportunity for his cinema studies. One of the 99 films that he could see in England during that six months trip to Europe was Bicycle Thief by Italian film director de Sica. This was the film that kindled him to create Pather Panchali:

“The real impact came, however, from Bicycle Thief. Opportunely I had found a wonderful film, moving beyond words, but wonder of wonders, de Sica was doing just the things I wanted to do in my own film and succeeding beyond measure.

Who said you couldn’t use non-actors? Who said you couldn’t shoot in the rains? Who said you had to use make-up? And who said slickness was a criterion? I had heard that Bicycle Thief had been shot with poor quality negative stock, as better material was unavailable in postwar Italy. And yet the flow of the narrative was so smooth, the editing so dexterous that the quality of the stock didn’t matter at all. In fact, perhaps the graininess enhanced the picture of poverty de Sica so sensitively painted.

“Later, we also saw the French films of Renoir which consolidated my admiration for him, but the proof that I sought was there in Bicycle Thief.” (Page 25)

Calcutta Film Society

Before making the Pather Panchali, Ray founded a Calcutta Film Society which also helped in his endeavour to build up a serious Bengali cinema. He regards it as a big event:

“Three events, two of international significance and the third of a purely personal nature took place in 1947-48. India became independent, Gandhi was killed by a fanatic’s bullet and the Calcutta Film Society was born. The last was one of the first steps towards a discriminating film culture, the idea for which had crossed my mind in Shantiniketan.” (Page 14)

However, Ray hadn’t read the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhusan Bannerji until his art director in Keymer’s told him (in 1944) to read it for designing a book cover out of it. Ray candidly mentions this incident too:

“I had not read the original novel. In fact, in my preoccupation with music and films, my reading was largely restricted to books on these two subjects and to light English fiction. To be quite frank, I was even unfamiliar with bulk of Tagore’s writings.” (Page 11)

The most of the space in the book is dedicated to elaborate how Ray found the art director, cameraman, actors and actresses for his film. He describes the event he met his future art director Bansi Chandragupta.

According to Ray, it was “the most important of these” encounters. At first, he thought Bansi was a dancer because of his shoulder – length hair, but then he came to know that he was a good painter who was ready to take any challenge. He came to Calcutta in 1943 from Kashmir with the passion for cinema.

Indir Thakrun

There is an interesting story behind how Ray found the character Indir Thakrun, old aunty of the Harihar’s family, one of the leading characters in it. It was played by 80-years-old retired actress Chunibala who was on stage for 30 years but now was forgotten. She was contacted through another actress who played in the Pather Panchali. When Ray asked about the actress Chunibala, her daughter said:

“Well, well, so you’ve at last remembered my mother.”

Ray described his feelings when he first saw Chunibala:

“Presently she appeared in widow’s white, a bent old woman with sunken cheeks and gray hair cut short, who smiled toothlessly at us.

“’Do take your seats,’ she said and I held my breath as I watched the old woman without saying a word. There were no question of my speaking, as she had already begun to talk about herself – roles she had performed in her halcyon days and how cruelly she had been cast away like a wet rag when she had crossed the age when she could no longer play heroine.” (Page 48)

There were a lot of hardships that Ray faced when he begun the film project. First, he elaborates how the producers rejected him when he presented the proposal. Then he reveals about the difficulties of shooting:

“We also desperately needed a great deal of rain for one scene – Durga’s joyous dance and the children huddled together under a tree, while the camera panned all around. Yes, in the season when the rains were most frequent, which is, at the height of monsoon in July and August, the Government was busy checking our accounts. When the installment did come, the real rainy season was over. It meant that we had to go daily to the location with the children, praying for an off – season downpour.

“It took us three days to take the shots of the natural phenomena which took place in the vicinity in which we sat and waited. Shots of water lilies, dragonflies dancing over the foliage in a pond, banana leaves and lotus leaves swaying in a breeze, all these eventually found a place in scenes which were not in the book nor in my script.” (Page 72)

In the last chapters of the book, he presented the experiences of aftermath of the film. There are many moving stories in it and one of them is as follows:

“Chunibala had broken her hip in a fall shortly before the release of the film, and a special screening of a 16 mm print was arranged for her in her house. She died shortly after winning the award.” (Page 88)