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100 reasons to love Ray

Satyajit Ray would have turned 100 on 2 May. To mark the centenary, we reached out to film-makers, critics and collaborators to give you 100 reasons why he's so special


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  1. His presence behind the camera, by Sharmila Tagore
  2. His aura, by Shabana Azmi
  3. His love of microcosms, by Mark Cousins
  4. His side characters, by Sandip Roy
  5. The Ray close-up, by Nasreen Munni Kabir
  6. His understanding of childhood, by Shrabonti Bagchi
  7. His bag of tricks, by Uday Bhatia
  8. His quirky sense of humour, by Somak Ghoshal
  9. Seeing the world in a grain of Bengal, by Sohini Chattopadhyay

10. His visionary design sense, by Pinaki De

11. His Professor Shonku short stories, by Bibek Bhattacharya

12. The droll comedy of city-returned fop Amulya’s meeting with a prospective bride’s family in Samapti—and how the things he is most proud of, such as his dapper Oxford shoes, are used to undercut his pretensions.

13. The extraordinary use of Varanasi as both setting and state of mind in Aparajito, from the quiet mysteriousness of the scene where young Apu watches a man exercising on the ghat to the plaintive use of the shehnai in Ravi Shankar’s score in the build-up to Harihar’s death.

Ray painting 'Joi Baba Felunath’s Bengali title on the Darbhanga Ghat in Varanasi, 1978. Image courtesy DAG
Ray painting 'Joi Baba Felunath’s Bengali title on the Darbhanga Ghat in Varanasi, 1978. Image courtesy DAG

14. For the many glimpses of Ray multitasking and bantering on set in the Shyam Benegal-directed documentary Satyajit Ray—professional, father-figure and jokester all at once, involved with every aspect of the film-making process.

15. How the famous scene where Charulata moves from window to window, using her binoculars to track the fat man walking outside, manages to be both languid (as a sign of her boredom) and urgent (it feels like a metaphor for something that is forever eluding her, moving out of sight just when she thinks she has a grasp on it).

16. For the utter believability of Chhabi Biswas’ performance as the music-loving zamindar in Jalsaghar despite the fact that the actor was tone-deaf in real life— and how this was facilitated by Ray’s use of small gestures and perceptive editing to convey the sense of a man completely attuned to the music he is listening to.

17. The look of delight on Goopy’s face when he realises that the king of ghosts really has given him the boon of a magical voice—and the general infectiousness of Goopy and Bagha’s wonder and excitement at their many adventures.

18. In Charulata, the kinetic power of the storm scene that heralds Amal’s first appearance: Charu lolling on the bed, the sudden shift in light as the room grows dark, the urgency in the close-ups of clothes and bird-cage trembling in the strong wind, and finally Amal’s appearance, filling the screen as he rushes towards his sister-in-law.

19. The sudden, visceral image of the spider scuttling across a dusty portrait in one of Ray’s most visually showy films, Jalsaghar—a Gothic element in a story about the fading of old things.

20. The upwardly mobile protagonist’s long, increasingly lonesome climb up the stairway at the end of Seemabaddha—an instance of symbolism used to pitch-perfect effect in an otherwise straight narrative.

21. How the irreverent black humour of Jana Aranya provides the perfect set-up for the deflating ending, where the carpet is pulled out from under the viewer’s feet.

22. The shift from black and white to colour as the boy draws in his sketch-pad—and the realisation that we are about to watch an adventure tale—in the quietly enchanting opening scene of Sonar Kella.

23. The many visual nods to world-cinema classics in Nayak— how, for instance, the upright position of Arindam’s hand as he awakens from a claustrophobic nightmare evokes a similar gesture in the opening of Federico Fellini’s .

Dhritiman Chaterji in 'Pratidwandi'
Dhritiman Chaterji in 'Pratidwandi'

24. How Dhritiman Chaterji’s sensuous, dreamy-eyed face permeates Pratidwandi.

25. How Ray’s own synthesiser-distorted voice gives a darkly poetic timbre to the Ghost King’s appearance in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

26. The dimly lit indoor compositions of Devi. How mosquito net-covered beds suggest otherworldly shrouds or cocoons in which the protagonist is trapped.

27. Uttam Kumar’s eyes in Nayak.

28. Sharmila Tagore’s stillness in Devi.

29. The way the blacks and whites enrich each other in Subrata Mitra’s cinematography in Devi.

30. The way that Goopy and Bagha are like little boys, like Laurel and Hardy.

31. The tenderness of the human attachment in The Postmaster.

32. The urban buzz of Mahanagar.

33. The reversal imagery in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

34. The languor of the afternoons in Aranyer Din Ratri.

35. Sharmila Tagore’s glasses in Nayak.

36. The shock of hearing Tamil in a Bengali film: one of the many dissonances in Seemabaddha.

37. The times when Kapurush becomes a noir: shadows, jagged lighting, sinuous score, flashbacks cutting up the action, an air of pessimism and the possibility of crime.

38. The kiss at the end of Ghare Baire: Ray, for once, allowing passions to boil over.

39. Figures sped-up like a silent comedy, moving to the rhythm of Ravi Shankar’s score at the start of Parash Pathar.

40. In Jalsaghar, the contrast between the utter artistry of the performers and the louche, drunk, dissolute men in the audience.

Ray shooting 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' in front of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, 1977. Photo courtesy DAG
Ray shooting 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' in front of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, 1977. Photo courtesy DAG

41. In Ray’s short story The Emperor’s Ring, the detective Feluda sings a line from a thumri by emperor Wajid Ali Shah: Jab chhor chaley Lucknow nagari/Kahen haal ke hum par kya guzri. Years later, in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, Amjad Khan, playing Shah, sings the same lines.

42. The details in the memory game from Aranyer Din Ratri: the very Bengali mix of political and literary figures; the camera jumping from one participant to another as the competition heats up, Jaya willing on her object of affection, Aparna’s graceful surrender to save Ashim’s feelings.

43. Apu telling a friend about his planned novel, about a promising young man who doesn’t end up succeeding, but still lives a fulfilling life. One of the most beautiful paeans to failure cinema.

44. Om Puri and Smita Patil giggling while dubbing as Ray stands behind them puffing on a pipe in Shyam Benegal’s documentary on the director.

45. Ray’s unique status as a one-man cottage industry in Indian publishing.

46. Bhupati in Charulata saying, “My favourite smell—that of printing ink”; Ray channelling his childhood memories of his grandfather’s printing press.

47. Hydrolysis, hexahydroxidiamino and a harmonium in Mahapurush.

48. Vicky Redmond, affectless and touching as the rabble-rouser Edith in Mahanagar.

49. The notion that a scene in Apur Sansar—Apu, with a heavy head, in a field of flowers—could inspire a similar one in Easy Rider.

50. Apu’s mother seeing fireflies gather above the lake as her strength slowly gives way.

51. Durga stumbling and falling, watching Apu race all the way to the railway tracks in Pather Panchali—a foreshadowing of their respective futures.

52. “Do you like flowers?” “Not unconditionally.” The interview in Pratidwandi.

53. When Arati’s colleague Edith teaches her to apply lipstick in the office bathroom in Mahanagar. The mirror catches the unexpected friendship between a bhadralok schoolmaster’s daughter-in-law and an Anglo-Indian “office girl”.

54. When Shamalendu offers his shades to Tutul, his sister-in-law, at the races in Seemabaddha, and she promptly accepts. This moment captures the camaraderie of the jamai and sali, a traditionally flirtatious relationship in Indian kinship.

55. When Charu's husband, in Charulata, walks past her in a corridor reading a book without noticing her, and she brings the binoculars to her eyes to watch him as he goes down the stairs. Is he as distant from her as the stranger with the black umbrella she watches on the street below?

56. When Aparna tells Ashim in Aranyer Din Ratri that she thoroughly enjoyed watching him making a drunken spectacle of himself one night. Within seconds, the conversation will take a turn from the flirtatious—did Ashim think about what might happen to the watchman’s job when he bribed him?

57. When Amal realises his sister-in-law Charu, sobbing like a baby in his arms, is in love with him. Soumitra Chatterjee’s lucent face looks like a bomb has struck his heart.

58. In Apur Sansar, when Aparna wakes up and steps out of bed, her sari fanning out behind her, its end still tied to Apu's dhuti. Their love follows the traditional Indian template of an intimacy found after the wedding, but their bond is forged several births ago like a human.

59. When Bishuda ribs Somnath in Jana Aranya that he is a Brahmin’s son after all, he can beg for alms but doing business is unthinkable, it reflects the divide between Bangaals (Bengalis from Bangladesh) and Ghotis (West Bengal Bengalis), and the Bengali obsession with salaried jobs over self-employment.

60. When Sidhu jaetha tells Feluda in Sonar Kella that he could have done many things if he wanted to, therefore he does nothing—a gentle critique of the Bengali bhadralok.

61. The famous ghost dance in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which Ray meticulously planned, as evident from his rough drafts, which run to almost a hundred pages.

A Ray-designed poster for 'Mahanagar'
A Ray-designed poster for 'Mahanagar'

62. The masthead Ray designed for the iconic Bengali literary magazine Desh and popular Bengali newspaper Aajkaal, both still in use today.

63. Ray’s revival of Sandesh, the magazine once edited by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and father Sukumar Ray. He remained its editor for almost 30 years and created more than 1,000 illustrations for it.

64. Ray co-founding the Sci-Fi Cine Club in 1966 in Kolkata, and designing its brochure and logo.

65. His reinforcement of Vilayat Khan’s sitar score in the last scene in Jalsaghar with notes by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, played backwards.

66. His use of the Gregorian chant Kyrie Eleison in Sakha Proshakha, as if to suggest only the Lord can heal the dysfunctional family depicted in the film.

67. The high notes of a taar shehnai conveying Sarbajaya’s grief as she tells her husband their daughter is dead, in Pather Panchali.

68. The end credits of Sonar Kella, with the child-like drawings and calligraphy in keeping with the boy’s perspective.

69. The brilliant covers he designed for Signet Books, from the bullet entering a tiger’s body and coming out of the back for Man-Eaters Of Kumaon to the wrap-around Vaishnav Namavali design for a book on Sri Ramakrishna.

70. The posters he designed for his films: Aparajito, the letters bold against a star-studded night sky, the wedding-style alpana pattern framing the young couple of Apur Sansar, the silhouetted woman and her shadow poised in the doorway of Ghare Baire while a fire rages.

71. “The Alien”, the most famous film Ray never made. Its script may or may not have inspired E.T.

72. The sweet-seller in Pather Panchali, followed by Durga and Apu and a stray dog, a shot that took 11 takes because of the dog.

73. The kheror khata, or the red cloth-bound books, with his sketches for his films, costumes, art direction, cinematography—a veritable treasure trove for cinema-lovers.

74. Lalmohan babu’s camel ride through the desert in Sonar Kella.

75. Reba Muhuri’s sublime backing vocals in Joi Baba Felunath.

76. Getting Begum Akhtar to sing a thumri in Jalsaghar.

77. Chunibala Devi’s outstanding performance as the octogenarian aunt Indir-thakrun in Pather Panchali.

78. The Inner Eye, a beautiful documentary Ray made as a tribute to artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, who was his teacher at Santiniketan.

79. Ray’s retelling of the stories of Mullah Nasruddin for children, in Bengali

Ray edits ‘Ganashatru’, flanked by editor Dulal Dutta (to Ray’s right) and son Sandip (behind Ray). Photo courtesy DAG
Ray edits ‘Ganashatru’, flanked by editor Dulal Dutta (to Ray’s right) and son Sandip (behind Ray). Photo courtesy DAG

80. The smooth transition from cinema screen to tonga window in Apur Sansar.

81. Utpal Dutt as the villain Maganlal Meghraj in Joi Baba Felunath.

82. The heady influence of Ingmar Bergman on Ray’s first colour film, Kanchenjungha.

83. The world of ants in the short story Sadanander Khude Jogot, in which a lonely boy animates an ant colony he spends hours observing with imagined drama

84. “Unt ki kaanta bechhe khaye (do camels pluck the thorns out before eating)?” asks Lalmohan babu in Sonar Kella, on being told camels subsist on thorn bushes. It is a question any Bengali fed on fish would ask.

85. “Ah”. In the short story Potol Babu, Film Star, Potol rehearses this single word again and again, imbuing it with all his aspirations of being an actor.

86. That moment in Agantuk when Anila, after hesitating for a bit, joins the Santhali women in their dance.

87. “Mogojdholai” (brainwashing) in Hirok Raja’r Deshe, a trenchant satire on authoritarian politics, standing in for the ways in which politicians continue to create narratives that keep gullible citizens loyal and unquestioning.

88. The scene in Joi Baba Felunath where Maganlal Meghraj orders the former circus performer to demonstrate his skill by throwing knives at Lalmohan babu.

89. “Well, it certainly has the virtue of brevity. What the hell does it mean, if anything?” General Outram’s outburst at an attempt to “explain” an Urdu sher in Shatranj Ke Khiladi captures succintly the British scorn for Indian royalty.

90. Mist-shrouded hill roads interspersed with sunny vistas make Kanchenjungha as much a cinematic study of light and shade as a character study of a vacationing Bengali family.

91. The exquisite body horror of the short story Khagam, where a man slowly turns into a snake.

92. The sparkling translations of Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury stories in the anthology Braziler Kalo Bagh.

93. The mounting dread in the short story Gagan Chowdhury’r Studio, where an old painter creates portraits of ghosts.

94. The scene from Joi Baba Felunath where Feluda and Topshe take a walk at night through an alley in Banaras, while a murder is taking place in a neighbouring alley.

95. The wry comedy of the Professor Shonku short story Raktamatsya Rahasya, where Shonku tests his new invention, a universal translator called Linguagraph, by translating three different “meows” of his cat, Newton.

96. All that delightful train travel in Sonar Kella. A direct influence on Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.

97. The train scene in Mahapurush where Birinchi Baba apparently makes the sun rise. Scathing satire at its best.

98. The terrifying final scene of Monihara from Teen Kanya. I will say no more.

99. Soumitra Chatterjee lip syncing to Kishore Kumar singing the Rabindrasangeet Bidhi’r Badhon in Ghare Baire. Bengali dreams are made of these.

100. The dream sequence in Nayak where Uttam Kumar drowns in a sea of cash.

Shorter reasons contributed by Jai Arjun Singh, Mark Cousins, Shrabonti Bagchi, Somak Ghoshal, Sohini Chattopadhyay, Bibek Bhattacharya, Pinaki De, Sandip Roy and Uday Bhatia.

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