Satyajit Ray: The face of Indian cinema for a generation of global cinephiles

Satyajit Ray

With a vast body of work spanning feature films, short films and documentaries, Satyajit Ray redefined Indian cinema for a global audience, back when the whole world had a picture of India far removed from reality.

A lot of his work centered on the depiction of the prevalent culture in Bengal, (and indeed, India,). While his immense contribution to world cinema, earned him an honorary Academy Award in 1992, his most well known piece remains his first ever film, Pather Panchali. The making of Pather Panchali, though, is a tale unto itself.

Satyajit Ray’s Inspiration

In the 50s, after pursuing a career in graphic design for over a decade, (all the while being fascinated with cinema,) it was Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves that finally prompted him to take the plunge into making his own film – an adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s autobiographical novel, Pather Panchali.

Even though he had etched out in detail how he intended to treat his film, Ray wasn’t able to find financiers for his film. He borrowed as much money as he could, to finally begin shooting a few test scenes with his cast and crew in late 1952. He had also been forewarned against shooting in actual locations, advised, instead, to shoot in a controlled studio, as was the norm in those days.

No compromises with vision

He stuck to his vision and began shooting at a chosen location on the outskirts of Calcutta. Since he still held his job then, he had to make do with shooting on Sundays.

The first scene he ever shot was one of the most famous scenes from the film – a scene where the little protagonist Apu and his sister Durga see a train for the first time. The scene was shot in a field with white flowers. Ray revealed later that he learnt more on that first day of shoot with a camera and actors, than he had ever learnt through the books he had read on cinema prior to that.

“Never say die” attitude

However, his first true exposure to the hurdles one faces while making a film came the very following Sunday, when he and his crew returned to film the rest of that scene. To his dismay, cattle had devoured the white flowers which were there barely a week ago. He had to wait for a whole season for the flowers to grow back, so he could complete that scene.

Despite many such obstacles in his path, he managed to compile some test footage together, which led to finding a producer; but that was certainly not the end of his woes. Even as he resumed shooting his film, he ran out of funds often. After numerous breaks in shooting, (one lasting as long as a year,) a number of production problems, and with the constant worry that his younger cast members would age too soon and the older cast members would be indisposed, he finally finished his film in 1955.

Pather Panchali eventually went on to win global acclaim and instantly cemented Satyajit Ray’s place as a filmmaker to watch out for. Pather Panchali was the first of Ray’s renowned Apu Trilogy, which holds a place of pride in his filmography. Yet, the story of how he battled the odds to make his first film remains a guiding light for aspiring filmmakers the world over.

Action Summary:

  • Doing is learning. There is only so much that books can teach you. True knowledge is obtained when you step out of your comfort zone and ‘do’.

  • Don’t ever let hardships hinder you. Obstacles will only make you stronger; the hurdles will only help you see your goal clearer. Treat them, not as hindrances, but as milestones that you need to clear on your path to your goal.

  • Stand by your vision, because it is yours and yours alone. Others may not see it initially, but it is only your passion, conviction and effort that can win over the disbelievers.

~ Pradeep Menon