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Interview Bengali

Feluda, Prof Shanku are Satyajit Ray himself: Sandip Ray on his dad, the author

Satyajit Ray was a true-blue Renaissance man. Filmmaker unparalleled, he was also author of science fiction and detective thrillers and creator of uniquely Indian characters that continue to flourish in the digital age. On his 96th birth anniversary, his son, filmmaker Sandip Ray, speaks about the magic, style and legacy of Satyajit Ray, the author.

Roushni Sarkar

Filmmaker Satyajit Ray is also noted for his massive body of literary works. The creator of Feluda and other immortal characters such as Professor Shanku and Tarini Khuro was a pioneering author who popularized detective stories and science fiction among readers in Bengal and India.

Ray's son, noted filmmaker Sandip Ray, spoke to Cinestaan.com about the elements that inspired Ray to come up with ideas that were unique and continue to astonish readers even today, a quarter century after Ray's death. Excerpts from the interview: 

Satyajit Ray’s literary works, be it the Feluda series or other short stories, have been equally popular among children and adults. How did he manage to generate such popularity through his works?

As we all know, my father started writing as the editor of the family magazine Sandesh for its revival in 1961. The readers of Sandesh were mainly young adults. But gradually the readership expanded and everyone in the age group of 8 to 80 cherished Sandesh. Therefore, his approach was consciously such that anyone could relate to his stories.

We have noticed that Satyajit Ray invested a lot of research in etching out the numerous interesting characters in his short stories and works of fiction. How would he work towards that?

As a filmmaker, my father was an observer. Since he always had a fascination for science fiction, he created a lot of fantastic characters and also built up fantastic situations in common life, with ordinary people who are very much like us. Thus, he could create a sense of wonder in the readers. The story of Batik Babu [a maniac] is one such character. Also, he mingled with various kinds of people while travelling. For example, he had actually met the sadhu on whom the character of Imli Baba in Kha Ga Ma is based. The character of Tarini Khuro he conceived since he felt that the age of storytelling is gradually fading away. Therefore, he gave life to such a unique character who keeps narrating adventurous stories, claiming to have experienced them himself.

Talking about Feluda, how did Ray come up with the idea of a detective who is essentially Bengali in his traits and always tries to solve all mysteries armed only with the tool of his intelligence?

He was primarily inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He felt the necessity of the character of a Bengali detective for the readers of Bengal. Also, he wanted to fulfil the purpose of educating the young readers of Sandesh, a trend which was wonderfully explored by my grandfather Sukumar Ray. Initially, he wrote one story [1965], but it became so popular that he started working on the subsequent series.

How did he come up with the idea of Professor Shanku?

Primarily the idea for Professor Shanku came from his love for science fiction. It is also important to mention that it was written [1961] prior to Feluda. It can be said that the character is a synthesis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and a character from his father’s literary work Hesoram Husiarer Diary [The Diary of Hesoram Husiar]. Initially the series was quite lighthearted, but gradually he began incorporating serious issues. Although fantastic, Professor Shanku is never totally hilarious or ridiculous and is very much science based, including the professor’s various inventions and the villains with a very modern approach. Also, he [Satyajit Ray] was very conscious of keeping sci-fi stories free of technicalities so that the content doesn’t appear dry to the readers.

Although, on the one hand bent upon writing stories based on strong science, Satyajit Ray also wrote short stories that are apparently not at all realistic. What was the motivation behind that?

Yes, my father touched upon an array of manifold genres. He wrote stories such as Kha Ga Ma, inspired by Indian mythology, as well as stories such as Fritz that send a chill down the spine of readers. He often resorted to these themes to present them in the most modern context, and to explore the complexities of human psychology. One such story, Indigo, centres on the character of Ratan Babu. The story unfolds the deepest layers of the subconscious mind in the simplest way and presents readers with mirrors to look at themselves. 

Sandip Ray (right) with his father Satyajit Ray

The stories and works of fiction of Ray are visual treats for readers. How does the approach help you when you make films on his literary works?

Naturally it makes my work a lot easier. As he used to write the script and screenplays of his films on his own, he used to follow that precision and clarity in his literary works as well. Most of the time, I have only done the necessary fine-tuning to adapt the stories into a different medium. Otherwise unnecessary alterations on them does nothing but tamper with the essence. It is also important to mention that he has been to most of the places in the Feluda series; and the places he hasn’t been able to go to, he has sent Professor Shanku. That’s why it is often said that both Feluda and Professor Shanku are Satyajit Ray himself.

Banku Babur Bandhu [Banku Babu's Friend] is considered a pioneering sci-fi work in the history of literature. It is believed that Ray wanted to make a film on it, but it never materialized.

Yes, it is true and everybody is aware that my father wanted to make the film Alien (1979) with Columbia Pictures. But later it was copyrighted and the fee was appropriated without his notice. Later, when E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982) was made by Steven Spielberg, Ray found astonishing similarities between the film and his short story.

The most unique feature of Satyajit Ray’s literary work is his unique ideas. Don’t you think the present generation should be more closely acquainted with these ideas that are modern and have a timeless approach?

I definitely do think so and I am very happy to say that the process has started. Apart from being made into films, his works are being translated in every language around the world and comics on his series are being published. It is very pleasing to see that today my father is not only considered one of the greatest filmmakers, but also one of the most influential writers as well.