{ Page-Title / Story-Title }

Article Bengali

Satyajit Ray and his equations with contemporary Bengali filmmakers – Birth anniversary special

The great filmmaker, who was born on 2 May 1921, was a man of strong likes and dislikes.

Roushni Sarkar

A student of Rabindranath Tagore's Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan, legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s ideas were based on the humanism of the 19th century, even though he left his course midway. Therefore, he could hardly relate to the films of the 1930s and 1940s that were mostly based on mythological and religious content.

According to Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, former professor of film studies at Kolkata's Jadavpur university, "Films based on mythological stories were primarily dialogue-based. Ray wasn’t really fond of those films and, as a result, he made Pather Panchali (1955), which was almost a silent film. Ray believed that the story of a film should be narrated through images, not dialogue."

Among his contemporaries, Ray preferred the works of Nirmal Dey a lot. He picked Basu Parivar (1952), Sharey Chuattar (1953) and Champadangar Bou (1954) as Dey's most remarkable works.

About Dey, Ray once commented, “Dey knows how to make films.” Coming from the master, that was high praise indeed.

"Ray might not have referred to the artistic aspects of his films," said Mukhopadhyay. "However, to receive such a compliment from him was not a small thing."

Another of Ray’s favourite contemporary films was Ajantrik (1958) by Ritwik Ghatak, who is often considered his rival. "Interestingly, among the directors from the previous generation, Ray admired the works of Debaki Bose while Ghatak liked Pramathesh Barua more," said Mukhopadhyay.

"Ray was impressed by Ghatak’s work in Ajantrik and considered the film to be very important. He praised it so much that his editor, Dulal Dutta, felt compelled to watch the film. Though there are multiple versions about their personal equations, Ray had a lot of respect for Ghatak and genuinely felt that if Ghatak had not been an alcoholic, he could have explored his potential much more.

"Also, according to Dulal Dutta, Ghatak was the only director whom Ray considered to be similarly competent," added Mukhopadhyay.

“It is widely believed that Ghatak did not like Ray," the professor continued. "However, in reality, when Ghatak used to teach at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune around 1966, he used to deliver lectures on Ray’s Aparajito (1957). He regarded Aparajito to be the best film ever made in Bengali cinema. He ranked Kanchanjungha (1962) second and considered Pather Panchali to be Ray’s third best film, strangely!”

When Ritwik Ghatak teamed up with Asrani and Subhash Ghai

Ghatak also felt that the use of the flute in Pather Panchali’s background score was an unprecedented work in Bengali cinema. Though Ghatak sometimes expressed his resentment at Ray’s apolitical stance, both did respect each other. Ray’s speech after Ghatak’s death in his memory is proof of that.

On the other hand, playwright Gowri Ramnarayan has elaborated in a blog article titled 'World Within, World Without' on the tumultuous relationship between Ray and his other great contemporary and rival, Mrinal Sen. In 1979, Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin generated much controversy as the film did not offer adequate explanation on the disappearance of the character of a young woman for an entire night. Even Ray was compelled to write to a friend that “never before had a filmmaker shown such ignorance about characters authored by him”.

Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray

Gowri wrote, 'Such barbs were part of the Ray-Sen bond. They circled each other like wary lions, snapping and roaring at intervals, but knowing that they belonged to the same fraternity they longed for the approving nod from each other. Sen gave it unreservedly for Ray's Aparajito, calling it a rare masterpiece for being so localized in its village mother-son relationship but universal in emotional appeal.

'However, when it was reported that Ray was visibly happy to note how "Mrinal Sen came up to me after the screening of Agantuk (1991) and said it was wonderful", the younger filmmaker retorted, "I mentioned only the dialogue, not the whole film."

'Their polemics included a two-month exchange of letters in 1965 (Sen calls them bombs and missiles) in the columns of The Statesman over Sen's tragi-comic Akash Kusum (1965), where a young man spins lies about his wealth to a girl.'

Mrinal Sen: The filmmaker as ideologue

According to a blog post by Rohan Choudhury, Ray wrote a letter to the editor of The Statesman newspaper on 10 August 1965. It went thus:


Mr Burman [Ashish Burman, writer of Akash Kusum], writing about his film story Akash Kusum in his letter in The Statesman 3-4 August, lays much stress on the topicality of his theme.

May I point out that the topicality of the theme in question stretches back into antiquity, when it found expression in that touching fable about the poor deluded crow with a fatal weakness for status symbols?

Had Mr Burman known of the fate of this crow, he would surely have imparted this knowledge to his protagonist, who now acts in complete ignorance of traditional precepts, with — need I add? — fabulous consequences.

– Satyajit Ray, 10 August 1965

"The row continued for long and the two filmmakers exchanged 19 letters on The Statesman, until the publishers decided to put an end to it. Till date, it is regarded as the most heated public debate between two directors," recalled Mukhopadhyay.

Gowri added, 'Sen's arguably best-known, best-loved film Bhuvan Shome (1969) was dismissed summarily by Ray for its conventional wish fulfilment theme as "Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle".'

Director Tapan Sinha

Ray had a cordial relationship with another noted director of his time, Tapan Sinha. Once Bidhan Chandra Roy, the first chief minister of West Bengal, mistakenly said at an occasion, “Two Bengali filmmakers are making us proud these days. Tapan Sinha has made Pather Panchali and Satyajit Ray, Kshaniker Atithi (1959).” To this, Ray joked to Sinha, “Congratulations for making Pather Panchali!”

Ray is also known to have been considerate towards younger filmmakers. As he was a gentleman and very courteous, he hardly criticized any of them directly. “It is true that he had to watch many films against his wishes, but he consciously stayed away from giving any negative view," said Mukhopadhyay. "He was not really hopeful of filmmakers of the future generation, but he never discouraged them. He liked Goutam Ghose, and on his request, he contributed to the establishment of Rupkala Kendra, an institution of digital filmmaking in Kolkata."

It is true that Ray kept a distance from the commercial film scenario of Tollygunge, but he maintained healthy relationships as far as possible. More importantly, both Ray and Ghatak used to watch each other’s films with much dedication.