On his 88th birth anniversary, a rare interview with the late Satyajit Ray by Shyam Benegal in Mint Lounge
He was not a radical artist who shocked or startled audiences into his world. Satyajit Ray’s greatest achievement was his celebration of the commonplace with lyricism and humanity. The pioneer of a new wave of realistic cinema in India, he is the most recognized Indian director in the world. In 1981, film-maker Shyam Benegal, an ardent fan of Ray, directed a memorable, now rare, documentary on the Oscar-winning director. In an extended interview, Ray talked in detail about his relationship with his mother, how he became a film-maker, and why he didn’t believe in gimmicks. To commemorate the auteur’s 88th birth anniversary, we reproduce excerpts from the interview :
What are some of the most vivid memories of growing up in Calcutta?
I was born in a place called Garpar Road in a huge building that housed a printing and block-making press, which my grandfather had started. I was born there in 1921 and I spent the first six years of my life in that place. I think the most favourite memory from that time is spending my afternoons at the press.
There used to be a compositing department where I used to walk in. They had a process camera which used to fascinate me a great deal. I would take little drawings with me, and doodles, and tell the block-making chaps to make a block of them for Sandesh, a children’s magazine which my grandfather edited. Another memory is the smell of turpentine in the press. Once, when I was in advertising, I had to go to a press, which also smelled just the same. Immediately, all the memories of Garpar came rushing back.
Here in India, films about poverty used to cause great offence. But not Slumdog Millionaire. Ian Jack in The Guardian:
The first director is Louis Malle, whose documentary series, Phantom India, examined some indisputable truths about so much of Indian life. The second is Danny Boyle, whose Slumdog Millionaire, pictured below, takes some of the same truths, dramatises and exaggerates them inside a fantastical story – which slum boy is going to jump into an oozing latrine, even for the autograph of Amitabh Bachchan? – set to Bollywood melodies. Something has happened in the years between these films, to western as well as to Indian sensibilities. The reasons are complicated, but perhaps the main ones are that Indian society is a thousand times more confident, that the word “vulgar” has vanished from the critical lexicon, and that the world has grown very small.
India has always had a difficult relationship with its easily observable poverty. Thirty years ago, the government’s PR departments would express a sullen disappointment that foreign writers were so “obsessed” by it. Its depiction abroad was seen, with just a little justice, as a plot against national ambition.