Ray Isn’t Just a Remnant of Past. His Documentaries Attest to His Universality

On the maestro's 102nd birth anniversary, here's a look at why his documentary-styled films crown his filmography.

5 min read
Hindi Female

(Note: This piece was originally published on April 25, 2023 and is being republished on the occasion of Satyajit Ray's birth anniversary)

Satyajit Ray’s ‘feel’ for the documentary format may perhaps be traced back to his work with Harisadhan Dasgupta when Ray penned the screenplay for Dasgupta’s A Perfect Day in 1948. This was an ad film shot in the documentary style. It unfolded a day in the life of a smoker who buys a pack of cigarettes in the morning. The camera follows him till the end of the day when the packet is empty.

Ray’s rapport with Dasgupta continued through a few more ad and corporate films. He scripted the latter's Tata Iron and Steel and wrote the musical score of Quest for Hell made for Sandoz. They produced two films jointly. One, made for the Dunlop group, was titled Our Children Will Know Each Other Better and the other, The Brave Never Die, was for the West Bengal State government on floods.

“He could have created a storm even if he had made documentaries alone,” said the late Harisadhan Dasgupta, a friend of Ray and a brilliant documentary filmmaker.

If Ray’s documentaries on Tagore, Binode Bihari Mukhopadhyay, and his blind painter-teacher from Santiniketan are examples, if his short film Two for French television and Three Daughters (Teen Kanya) are illustrations, then Dasgupta’s comment was simply a statement of fact without exaggeration.

Ray’s Documentaries Are a Revelation of Their Own

Rabindranath Tagore, Ray’s first documentary with a running time of 54 minutes marks the filmmaker’s venture into composing the music for his films. It has been called “the best biographical film yet made in India,” wrote Chidananda Dasgupta. “In a mélange of still photographs, live shooting of re-acted scenes from the poet’s early life, newsreel clippings, drawings, shots of landscape, paintings, songs, an evocation of political events, constantly moving by means of quick dissolves and held together by a narration written and read by Ray himself, he created a massive tribute."

The film is rich in its historical perspective and magnitude. Ray did not interpret Tagore in and through the film but took views from scholars and commentators, informed with narrative clarity and a quiet sense of reverence that was uniquely Ray’s own. The film won the Swarna Kamal at the National Awards (1961) and the Golden Seal for The Best Documentary at the Locarno International Film Festival the same year.

Commissioned by the Films Division in celebration of Tagore’s centenary in 1960, the documentary is a milestone in the world of biographical documentaries across the world. It is amazing to discover that Ray shot this documentary simultaneously with Teen Kanya, made in the same year which was a three-part feature film based on three short stories by Tagore —Postmaster, Monihara, and Samapti. The film premiered on 5 May 1961, in Delhi. Ray said, “I put in as much work on it as I did on my three feature films. My approach to the biography was to stress Tagore as a human being and patriot.”


Ray’s Tribute to Tagore Lies in His Unique Treatment

His painstaking research produced a wealth of material in the form of manuscripts, books, conventionally posed photographs, Tagore’s works of Art and graphics. Tagore was no more so the material was static. Ray’s main issue was how to invest the documentary with fluid movement demanded by the audio-visual medium of cinema.

He did not write a script but prepared a visual continuity plan that took him around a month. The opening voice-over says, “On 7th August, 1941…in the city of Calcutta….a man died. His mortal remains perished but he left behind him a heritage which no fire could consume,” without naming the great man that was the subject of the film.

The newsreel archival footage revealed five shots of the dead Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore being borne through the streets of Calcutta in a hearse spilling over with white floral bouquets to the burning ghat.

Ray used 14 different songs composed by Tagore to fit into his conception and idea of presenting Tagore as an institution and as history. The first song, nobo arunodayo joyo hoke is used on the soundtrack in chorus while the visuals depict a portrait of Tagore rising from the flames of the funeral pyre suggesting the rising of a new sun.

The second song amar mukti aloye aloye ei akaashe strongly suggests the boy Tagore’s claustrophobia within the conventional rigidity and discipline in the Tagore home, learning by rote lessons taught within the four walls of the school classroom, from where he wanders off with his father to Punjab and the hills of Dalhousie while the skies resound with the echoes of 'freedom within light’ investing the visuals with brilliant mood music created by the subject of the film.


Making Sense of ‘Nonsense Literature’ in an Ode to Father

Sukumar Ray (1987) was a documentary Ray made that was produced by the Government of West Bengal as a celluloid tribute to his father, the late Sukumar Ray, a multi-talented person who was a London-educated printing technologist and upon his return to Calcutta, took over the reins of his father Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury’s children’s magazine Sandesh.

To this day, Bengali literature is yet to find a parallel to the nonsense literature and rhyme compositions of Sukumar Ray published in book form as Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law and Abol Tabol respectively with graphic illustrations done by him. He also wrote intelligent, sharp, and funny satires on formal school education and is famous for his series of stories under the title Pagla Dashu.

The film featuring all these with the voiceover by Soumitra Chatterjee, is infotainment at its best. The music composed by Satyajit Ray is low-key, melodious, and beautiful. Ray has drawn generously from source material like archival black-and-white photographs, print fonts, graphics, cartoons and drawings by his father, and a few dramatic reconstructions to bring across the satire in some of his creative works.

Few have had the opportunity of watching this film because it remains in the cold storage of the archive. The film also touches upon the harmony in Sukumar’s family when he grew up among five brothers who remained united till the end. His sisters Sukhalata and Purnalata were also noted writers. Within its 30-minute span, Sukumar Ray holds up a mirror to the historical evolution of the Bramho Samaj—the youth wing of which Sukumar Ray was the leader.


Ray’s Few Misses That Drew Critique

His only ‘bad’ documentary, if one dares to qualify it thus, was Bala (1976) on Danseuse Bala Saraswati. Ray’s camera here is almost static. The dancer is photographed against a flat white backdrop, wearing a red-bordered white sari during the demonstrations. There is no attempt to probe into the psychological process of the artiste’s coping with her mastery over abhinaya in Bharata Natyam, the form of her choice. There is no attempt to explore the power relationships that evolve between an artiste and her art, between the danseuse and her audience, and between the guru and her disciple.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay in Firstpost, (14 January 2018) in Satyajit Ray’s Bala provides a fascinating study of the great dancer, a priceless archive for posterity wrote: “The recital by Bala, given on a seashore with the waves of the majestic ocean in the background, was frowned upon by many experts and exponents of the artform, and not without reason.” Criticism ranged from the argument that the rhythm of the waves was a jarring distraction to the rhythm of the piece itself, to the fact that the presence of the ocean in the background was an unnecessary attempt to offer an ‘explanation’ to the piece — which is the primary responsibility of the dancer, and not the filmmaker. One can only ask – why? And let the question hang in the air till eternity. Ray is no longer around to answer it.

(Shoma A Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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