Tracing Satyajit Ray's influence on Hindi cinema; Netflix anthology on auteur's short stories is only a drop in the ocean

·7 min read

In one of the most famous quotes to emerge from the world of cinema, Akira Kurosawa once said, "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon."

Satyajit Ray, the auteur from Bengal, whose centenary year we continue to celebrate, put Indian cinema on the world map in the mid 1950s, when his debut film Pather Panchali toured the major global film festivals including Cannes, Berlin, San Francisco, Rome, and the BAFTA to name a few. This was a time when the world was yet to form a lasting impression of 'Indian cinema.'

Satyajit Ray synonymous with Indian cinema

With Pather Pachali and the subsequent films of the Apu Trilogy, for cinephiles in Europe and the US especially, Ray's work became synonymous with Indian cinema. Pather Pachali, for instance, ran in a New York theatre for eight months. ''Bollywood,' as a phenomenon, was yet to come into being. It was not until the 1970s that the term was coined to define the conventions of commercial Hindi cinema.

Still from Pather Panchali
Still from Pather Panchali

Still from Pather Panchali

Ray's cinema was a complete antithesis to the larger-than-life, glossy, simplistic, melodramatic, and loud world of Hindi cinema, barring rare exceptions of Guru Dutt's Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool or Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen. Despite Ray's international acclaim, he was cash-strapped, worked with modest equipment and limited resources, and steered clear of "stars," unless the role demanded a gigantic persona. Ray worked with inexperienced crews and amateur actors, sometimes literally stumbling upon them while walking on the streets of Kolkata. His was a neo-realistic world of humanism and hope, of the internal journey of his characters rather than external props. Bollywood was about spectacle while Ray was more close to life.

Resurgence of Ray in Hindi cinema

It was in the parallel Hindi cinema that emerged in the 1980s from creators like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza and more, where echoes of Ray's school of filmmaking were first felt.

Their films came to be defined by their realism, political radicalism, and liberal humanism. The stories were simple in terms of scale, the camera-movements artistic, the themes dealt with social issues alluding to the political climate of the country, and were characterised by the prominent lack of elaborate songs and fight sequences. Think Benegal's Mandi (1983), Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala (1987), Saeed Mirza's Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), Sagar Sarhadi's Bazaar (1982), and many more.

Still from Mandi
Still from Mandi

Still from Mandi

But as Bollywood continued to grow into a gigantic force of stardom and money spinners, the parallel cinema movement progressively weakened owing to lack of funds and feeble box-office numbers. Hindi film audiences craved for the escapades of Bollywood, and showed little appetite for the realism of independent cinema. In the 1980s, veteran superstar Nargis even chided Ray for earning merits in foreign lands by depicting the poverty of India. One might say that that was a cruel simplification of what Ray stood for.

Ray in Hindi cinema - the new wave

The omnipotence of Bollywood notwithstanding, cinephilia in India cannot be separated from Ray. A different wave of Hindi cinema started to emerge in the early 2000s, and its proponents were filmmakers who grew up on a diet of Satyajit Ray films. Filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Mira Nair, Neeraj Ghaywan, and Ritesh Batra started coming to the fore. The language of Hindi cinema began to see more nuance.

Neeraj Ghaywan once said that when he was growing up, the TV channels would show only Benegal and Ray movies. >Anurag Basu's parents in fact would allow him to watch nothing but the auteur's films. >Deepa Mehta, who shot to fame with her bold, revolutionary films Fire and Water, reportedly said that Charulata is the film that always inspires her whenever she makes a film on women. And before shooting Lootera, >Vikramaditya Motwane observed Ray's camera movements. His initiation into the master's world was marked by Devi, and he was taken in by how Ray created a world and the protagonist's relationships inside the house, in both Devi and Jalsaghar. Some have observed a tenuous link between the shower-of-notes scene in >Vishal Bhardwaj's Kaminey and the iconic sequence from Nayak (1966). When quizzed on it, the director called it not an overt influence, but something that may have stemmed from his subconscious.

Ray had a distinct style of building the backdrop of the city, through the interactions of his characters. The manner in which >Sujoy Ghosh treats the milieu of a city in his films is somewhat reminiscent of that. He does not romanticise Kolkata in Kahaani. Instead, he uses the backdrop almost as a character in the scheme of things, and builds the city through the lead protagonist Vidya Bagchi's (Vidya Balan) interplay with those around her. >Shoojit Sircar had once said in an interview to Press Trust of India, "You won't notice that I am copying but I know what I am copying. I do it in whatever film I do. It is the Bible of my life." >Dibakar Banerjee, who adapted one of Ray's short stories Potol Babu, Film Star for the anthology film Bombay Talkies (2013), was self-admittedly, profoundly affected by Ray's literature for teens and pre-teens. "I knew him as a writer before I knew him as a filmmaker," he told Reuters in an interview. And it was also from Ray that Banerjee learned the art of making films for cheap, so that the process is sustainable for his producers.

Mira Nair shared a special relationship with Ray. The two had exchanged letters, and she had even screened her documentary So Far From India for him on a makeshift projector in the balcony at his home in Kolkata. Ray's brand of social realism can be felt in Nair's Monsoon Wedding, which she calls "a Bollywood film on my own terms," while The Namesake echoes the early days of Ray's cinematic atmosphere, in the charm of a simple courtship and the subtle depictions of the then-Calcutta.

A tiny Ray of hope, but long way to go

Ray's cinema is heralded as classic €" a gold standard to be loved and aspired to. His craft of unfolding emotions remains unmatched to this day, not just in India, but arguably in world cinema too. Yet, as far as Hindi cinema goes, we are yet to see filmmakers really revitalise the tradition from which Ray came. Perhaps on some level, there are filmmakers consciously or unconsciously paying obeisance to Ray in the works they create €" we see echoes of his way of writing dialogues, moving the camera, but still it remains hard to identify distinct legacies of a Ray stamp.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui lamented this reality in a recent interview. The actor, who was introduced to Ray's work in National School Of Drama, said that he would watch his films to make himself aware of the power of cinema. He observes some traces of Ray in Ritesh Batra's films, with whom he did The Lunchbox and Photograph, in how he humanises the plot and focuses on the individual's emotions. However, in the world as it exists today, feeding a film industry largely preoccupied with posturing, there remains little space for Ray's brand of pure, unassuming cinema to flourish, feels Nawaz.

The other problem is that the younger generation of audiences is progressively getting further away from this legacy. Mark Twain once famously said, "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, but nobody reads." Ray's cinema is seeing a similar plight as far as young movie-watchers in India are concerned. The new anthology Ray, which is being touted as a Black Mirror-esque spin on four of his short stories, aims to bring his legacy to the Netflix generation. Will this be our version of the 21st century retelling of Sherlock Holmes? That remains to be seen; but while it is not quite elementary, it will be interesting to see how at least some aspects of Ray live on in the generations to come.

Ray will release on Netflix on 25 May.

Also See: Ray review: Netflix India's attempted love affair with Satyajit Ray is painfully one-note, sans any nuance

'Went in with reverence, never held back what we wanted to express': Ray directors, cast on adapting Satyajit Ray's works

Before Ray debuts on Netflix India, a guide to the four-part series based on Satyajit Ray's short stories

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