Ray review: Goutam Ghose’s documentary on Satyajit Ray is as good as a feature biopic

Release Date: 10 Oct 1999 / 01hr 45min

Cinestaan Rating

  • Direction:

Keyur Seta

Ghose's documentary does not present Ray as just a filmmaker and pays equal attention to his many other talents.

The word ‘biopic’ has been in fashion in India for over a decade now, especially in Hindi cinema. There have been films on freedom fighters, revolutionaries, film stars, sportsmen and so on, all attempting to tell their inspiring real-life stories.

However, one problem with many of these biopics has been that the makers have felt compelled to add commercial elements to such an extent that some of the films have turned out to be more of fiction than reality. Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018) and Om Raut’s Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020) are two prime victims of this tendency. 

More than 20 years ago, filmmaker Goutam Ghose set out to tell the fascinating tale of Satyajit Ray's life, easily India’s best known filmmaker. Ghose's film, simply titled Ray (1999), is a documentary, not a biopic. Yet, it is more interesting, engaging, enlightening and inspiring than most feature ‘biopics’.

Ray the film shows Satyajit Ray's journey from the time of his forefathers. A good amount of footage is given to Satyajit's legendary father Sukumar Ray who was a phenomenal artist and literary figure in the early 20th century.

The very first scene sets the mood for the film to feel more like a feature than a documentary. Satyajit Ray is lying in his hospital bed on 30 March 1992 in Kolkata, clutching his honorary Oscar like a baby and watching the live feed of the Academy awards ceremony on television as legendary Hollywood actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn introduces him. Struggling to speak, Ray, no stranger to awards, describes the honour as “certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career”.

Ray is rightly celebrated as a filmmaker. But Ray the film gives equal importance to his many other talents like sketching, cartooning, musical composition and authorship of enduring children’s books. His excellence at every art is portrayed with as much passion as Ray exhibited in all of them. After watching this film, you will refuse to believe that Satyajit Ray was just a filmmaker.

The movie mostly uses a combination of voice-overs by Ray himself and by actress-filmmaker Aparna Sen along with short clippings from a number of his films like Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), Jalsaghar (1958), Apur Sansar (1959), Devi (1960), Charulata (1964), Nayak (1966), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) and Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977).

Thankfully, the film does not resort to the tried and tested formula of the subject's close associates recounting their memories. This is one reason why Ray does not seem like just another documentary. Another reason, of course, is the excellent use of the brilliant and vibrant visuals of the many sketches and cartoons conceived by Ray.

A lesser-known fact we get to learn is the box-office failure that Ray endured quite a few times in his career. Surprisingly, Aparajito, which is today considered one of his best works, had failed at the box office when it was released. Interestingly, this prompted Ray to make a musical film like Jalsaghar next so that he could add commercial factors like songs and dance to impress distributors.

People of today’s generation will also get a glimpse of the atmosphere in Calcutta when Ray died on 23 April 1992 and the huge crowds that turned up to pay their last respects, almost as if he were divinity. During the scenes of his funeral, we cannot but recall the famous line from his Oscar acceptance speech — “certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career”. Ray never left the hospital bed and died less than a month after he was presented the award.

Ray was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival on 30 January 2020. Ray will also be screened online on Tuesday 5 May 2020 at as part of the Satyajit Ray centenary celebration.

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Mumbai International Film Festival