Probably the best known and most respected Bengali film director, Satyajit Ray is his country’s equivalent of Japan’s Akira Kurosawa. A directors’ director, and something of a cultural totem in his native land, his exposure certainly deserves to be more extensive than it currently is. Possibly in the wake of a comprehensive season held by the NFT in 2002, his films and his name have started to regain a certain degree of popularity.
Andrew Robinson’s biography of the director, Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, is something of a mixed blessing. Whilst including every bit of information you’ll ever need about the man and the artist, it makes for rather convoluted reading.
Robinson’s main sin is his stilted use of language, which is strangely at odds with Ray’s own cinematic vision. Ray was erudite and passionate about Western classical music, and he also composed most of the scores for his own films. But there’s an essential difference between erudition and affectation.
There are enough aspects of the book to make it recommendable, though. First, the sheer size and depth of the volume makes it worthwhile, with practically every detail of Ray’s life and background included. It also includes a group of appendices with his filmography, un-made projects and, curiously, even a glossary of the Bengali words sprinkled throughout the text.
Another praiseworthy aspect of this volume is the way in which the information is organised. Robinson introduces the book with a generous biographical preface and then takes us through the story behind all of Ray’s films, one by one. For this reason, the reader doesn’t have to plough through all the information thanks to its encyclopaedia-like format.
Ray was born in Calcutta and started his career in the 1940s as a commercial artist before getting involved with the Bengali film scene, first as a consumer of films via a film club he helped run. In that formative period he gained access to Italian neo-realism and the works of people like Jean Renoir, who Ray helped out when Renoir visited Calcutta in search of locations and actors for his film The River. His trajectory thus mirrors that of the Novelle Vague gang who successfully made the transition from film buffery to film praxis.
His most famous films include The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959), which follows the eponymous hero through three films: Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu. These films established Ray as a Bengali auteur more concerned with realism and poetry than what was practised in his country in those days. Other films which are normally mentioned as his most accomplished are The Music Room (1958), The Goddess (1960), Days and Night in the Forest (1969), The Adversary (1970), The Chess Players (1977) to name but a few (The Inner Eye in the book title was taken from a documentary made in 1972). He won a Life Achievement Oscar in March 1992, just before his death in April of that same year.
The book gives you the impression that he was a more demure and gentle kind of character than his European counterparts. In his private life he was a dedicated father and husband, and you could say quite traditional in his personal dealings. But his passion for the art of cinema and his vision certainly put him on a par with the great European directors that revolutionised cinema as an art form in the late fifties and early sixties.
Robinson sums up Ray’s legacy well when he quotes Naipaul, who said of Ray and Kurosawa in the 80s: ‘They are not, like Americans, looking for a property. They are doing on film what the old novelists of the nineteenth century did. They are describing their societies, their cultures, in the modern medium. Their work hangs together; it’s about their view of the world, being given in different ways at different times.’