Satyajit Ray was an Indian filmmaker, screenwriter, music composer, graphic artist, lyricist and author, widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Ray was born on 2 May 1921 in Calcutta into a Bengali family which was prominent in the field of arts and literature.
Satyajit Ray’s family had acquired the name ‘Ray'(originally ‘Rai’) from the Mughals. Although they were Bengali Kayasthas, the Rays were ‘Vaishnavas’ (worshippers of Vishnu) as against majority Bengali Kayasthas who were ‘Shaktos’ (worshippers of the Shakti or Shiva)
In 1943, Ray started work at D.J. Keymer, a British-run advertising agency, as a “junior visualiser,” earning eighty rupees a month. Although he liked visual design (graphic design) and he was mostly treated well, there was tension between the British and Indian employees of the firm. The British were better paid, and Ray felt that “the clients were generally stupid.”
Later, Ray worked for Signet Press, a new publishing house started by D. K. Gupta. Gupta asked Ray to create cover designs for books to be published by Signet Press and gave him complete artistic freedom. Ray designed covers for many books, including Jibanananda Das’s Banalata Sen, and Rupasi Bangla, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar, Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India.
He worked on a children’s version of Pather Panchali, a classic Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, renamed as Aam Antir Bhepu (The mango-seed whistle). Designing the cover and illustrating the book, Ray was deeply influenced by the work. He used it as the subject of his first film, and featured his illustrations as shots in his ground-breaking film.
Along with Chidananda Dasgupta and others, Ray founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. They screened many foreign films, many of which Ray watched and seriously studied.
He befriended the American GIs stationed in Calcutta during World War II, who kept him informed about the latest American films showing in the city. He came to know a RAF employee, Norman Clare, who shared Ray’s passion for films, chess and western classical music.
In 1949, Ray married Bijoya Das, his first cousin and long-time sweetheart. The couple had a son, Sandip Ray, who is now a film director.
In the same year, French director Jean Renoir came to Calcutta to shoot his film The River. Ray helped him to find locations in the countryside.
Ray told Renoir about his idea of filming Pather Panchali, which had long been on his mind, and Renoir encouraged him in the project.
In 1950, D.J. Keymer sent Ray to London to work at its headquarters office. During his six months in London, Ray watched 99 films. Among these was the neorealist film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, which had a profound impact on him. Ray later said that he came out of the theater determined to become a film-maker.
After unsuccessful attempts to persuade many producers to put up the money needed for the Pather Panchali project, Ray started shooting in late 1952 with his personal savings and hoped to raise more money once he had some passages shot, but did not succeed on his terms.
He refused funding from sources who wanted a change in script or supervision over production. He also ignored advice from the government to incorporate a happy ending, but he did receive funding, a loan from West Bengal Govt that allowed him to complete the film
As a result, Pather Panchali was shot over two and a half years, an unusually long period.
It was released in 1955 to great critical and popular success. It won eleven international prizes, including the inaugural Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
A film still used on the original poster for the movie featured in The Family of Man, the Museum of Modern Art exhibition that was seen by 9 million visitors. It is a low-angle shot of the hero Apu having his hair brushed by his sister Durga and adoring mother Sarbojaya. Of the thirteen images the exhibition depicting India it was the only one made by an Indian photographer. Curator Edward Steichen credited it to Ray, but because Ray was not known to be a photographer, it is likely the author of this photograph, of a scene directed by Ray, was the film’s cinematographer, Subrata Mitra
Ray’s international career started in earnest after the success of his next film, Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
Aparajito won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, bringing Ray considerable acclaim.
He finished the last of the trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959. Ray introduced two of his favourite actors, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, in this film.
Ray wrote his memoirs during his filming of the Apu Trilogy which has been published as My Years with Apu: A Memoir
Before completing The Apu Trilogy, Ray directed and released two other films: the comic Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), and Jalsaghar (The Music Room).
Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts.
He was also a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, calligrapher, music composer, graphic designer and film critic.
Ray created two popular fictional characters in Bengali children’s literature—Feluda, a detective, and Professor Shonku, a scientist.
His short stories were published as collections of 12 stories, in which the overall title played with the word twelve (for example Aker pitthe dui, or literally “Two on top of one”).
Ray wrote an autobiography about his childhood years, Jakhan Choto Chilam (1982), translated to English as Childhood Days
He also wrote essays on film, published as the collections: Our Films, Their Films (1976), Bishoy Chalachchitra (1976), and Ekei Bole Shooting (1979).
During the mid-1990s, Ray’s film essays and an anthology of short stories were also published in English in the West. Our Films, Their Films is an anthology of film criticism by Ray.
He authored several short stories and novels, meant primarily for young children and teenagers. Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist in his science fiction stories, are popular fictional characters created by him.
Ray did the scripting, casting, scoring, and editing, and designed his own credit titles and publicity material.
Satyajit Ray is a cultural icon in India and in Bengali communities worldwide. Satyajit Ray’s influence has been widespread not only in Bengali cinema, or Indian cinema but globally.
Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Kazan, William Wyler, François Truffaut, Carlos Saura, Isao Takahata, Wes Anderson, Danny Boyle Christopher Nolan and many other noted filmmakers from all over the world have been influenced by his cinematic style, with many others such as Akira Kurosawa praising his work. Gregory Nava’s 1995 film My Family had a final scene that repeated that of Apur Sansar. Ira Sachs’s 2005 work Forty Shades of Blue was a loose remake of Charulata. Other references to Ray films are found, for example, in recent works such as Sacred Evil, the Elements trilogy of Deepa Mehta.
He died on 23 April 1992
Ray received many awards, including 32 National Film Awards by the Government of India, and awards at international film festivals.
In 1993, UC Santa Cruz established the Satyajit Ray Film and Study collection, and in 1995, the Government of India set up Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute for studies related to film.
Together with Madhabi Mukherjee, Ray was the first Indian film figure to be featured on a foreign stamp (Dominica).
At the 11th Moscow International Film Festival in 1979, he was awarded with the Honorable Prize for the contribution to cinema.
At the Berlin International Film Festival, he was one of only four filmmakers to win the Silver Bear for Best Director more than once and holds the record for the most number of Golden Bear nominations, with seven.
At the Venice Film Festival, where he had previously won a Golden Lion for Aparajito (1956), he was awarded the Golden Lion Honorary Award in 1982.
That same year, he received an honorary “Hommage à Satyajit Ray” award at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
Ray is the second film personality after Chaplin to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University.
He was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1985 and the Legion of Honor by the President of France in 1987.
The Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 1965 and the highest civilian honour, Bharat Ratna, shortly before his death.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Ray an Honorary Oscar in 1992 for Lifetime Achievement. He became the first Indian to receive an Honorary Academy Award.
It was one of his favourite actresses, Audrey Hepburn, who represented the Academy on that day in Calcutta. Ray, unable to attend the ceremony due to his illness, gave his acceptance speech to the Academy via live video feed from the hospital bed.
In 1992 he was posthumously awarded the Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing at the San Francisco International Film Festival; it was accepted on his behalf by actress Sharmila Tagore.
Participants in a 2004 BBC poll voted him thirteenth of the “Greatest Bengali of all time”.
In 1992, the Sight & Sound Critics’ Top Ten Poll ranked Ray at No. 7 in its list of “Top 10 Directors” of all time, making him the highest-ranking Asian filmmaker in the poll.
In 2002, the Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll ranked Ray at No. 22 in its list of all-time greatest directors, thus making him the fourth highest-ranking Asian filmmaker in the poll.
In 1996, Entertainment Weekly magazine ranked Ray at No. 25 in its “50 Greatest Directors” list.
In 2007, Total Film magazine included Ray in its “100 Greatest Film Directors Ever” list.
The Academy Film Archive has preserved a number of Satyajit Ray’s films: Abhijan in 2001, Aparajito in 1996, Apur Sansar in 1996, Charulata in 1996, Devi in 1996, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in 2003, Jalsaghar in 1996, Jana Aranya in 1996, Joi Baba Felunath in 2007, Kapurush in 2005, Mahanagar in 1996, Mahapurush in 2005, Nayak in 2004, Parash Pathar in 2007, Pather Panchali in 1996, Seemabaddha in 2001, Shatranj ke Khilari in 2010, Sikkim in 2007, Teen Kanya in 1996, and the short film Two in 2006.
The Academy Film Archive additionally holds prints of other Ray films as part of its Satyajit Ray Collection.
Ray also a graphic designer, designed most of his film posters, combining folk-art and calligraphy to create themes ranging from mysterious, surreal to comical; an exhibition his posters was held at British Film Institute in 2013.
A workaholic, heavy-smoker and teetotaler, Ray valued work more than anything else in the world. He worked 12 hours a day, usually getting to bed at two o’clock in the morning. He loved collecting archival, antique materials, manuscripts, rare gramophone records, paintings and rare books. He was a superb illustrator, mastered every styles of visual art, and could mimic any painter, as evidenced in his book and magazine covers, posters, literary illustrations and advertisement campaigns.
Satyajit Ray designed four typefaces for roman script named Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Daphnis, and Holiday script, apart from numerous Bengali ones for the Sandesh magazine. Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre won an international competition in 1971.