The general impression of Satyajit Ray is that of an understated, subtle film-maker. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote of his “austere delicacy”. American critic Pauline Kael, one of his biggest supporters outside India, wrote that “his simplicity is a simplicity arrived at, achieved”. Akira Kurosawa said, “His work can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river.” This view of Ray's cinema, while not inaccurate, sometimes obscures the vast array of cinematic tricks he employed to achieve his ends.
Even though the abiding impression Ray’s films give is one of calm, there are moments of memorable agitation. His 1970 film Pratidwandi, far from flowing composedly, careens forward like a raft on rapids. The anger and frustration of its young leads is reflected in the technique: shock edits, freeze frames, flashes of photonegative film—all aimed to unsettle. In one scene, Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chaterji) calls on his sister’s rich boss in his house. When the man shows up, Siddhartha jumps up and shoots him four times. Ray films this at a canted angle, like a B-movie. Barely is the shock over than it’s revealed to be a figment of Siddhartha’s imagination.
Dream sequences show up in several Ray films, and allow him to try out his more outré ideas. The one in Nayak, with Arindam (Uttam Kumar) running through a sea of cash, is perhaps the only Ray scene that could have been directed by Fellini. Compare this with the fever dream of Devi, the father-in-law having a vision of the three eyes of goddess Kali superimposing on Dayamoyee’s face, or with the dance of the ghosts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, six astonishing minutes of cinema trickery combining choreography, stark design, shadow animation and a host of camera effects.
The tag of “simplicity” belies Ray’s fondness for incredibly complex shots. Take the scene in the restaurant in Mahanagar where Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) spies on his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee)—who is having tea with another man—from behind a reflecting pillar. As the camera leaves her table and pans slowly towards Arati, we see her companion and the back of her head reflected on this pillar, and next to that, reflected from another angle, a worried-looking Subrata, the paper he’s reading filling the remainder of the screen. It’s a stunt of a composition, brilliant but not strictly necessary, and one imagines it pleased Ray to be able to pull it off.
The agitprop visual interjections of Pratidwandi find a comic counterpart in the animated character maps of Mahapurush and Seemabaddha, with faces appearing in bubbles and the relationship between them explained like a cartoon. Similarly playful is Shatranj Ke Khilari, which has a potted history lesson narrated by Amitabh Bachchan in which a cartoon Lord Dalhousie eats cherries and the camera zooms in on details in a painting.
While directors, even great ones, often farm out title and credits sequences, Ray channelled his interest in design, illustration and lettering to make his own ones distinctive. At the start of Nayak, horizontal and vertical bars appear, vanish and reappear, forming patterns, to the accompaniment of crashing cymbals and an insinuating, vaguely east Asian theme. It could be the start of a Kurosawa film. But Ray also knew when a simple, direct idea would work best, like in Mahanagar, where the camera follows a single Kolkata tram cable for the entirety of the sequence, or Seemabaddha, where a screen divided down the middle between prosaic moving images and credits anticipates the compartmentalised, time-strapped corporate world we're entering.
There are large and complicated tricks, and small ones that are impossible to forget. Years before Indian censors started slapping tobacco advisories on films, there were two perfect smoke rings in Seemabaddha. The first lingers impertinently in front of Barun Chanda’s face, then seemingly changes its mind and heads back in the direction it came from. The second, blown in retaliation, wafts towards his rival and explodes on his coat sleeve. Volumes have been written about Ray’s humanism and craft, but, like all great artists, he also knew the value of a good parlour trick.