If Satyajit Ray were still alive, he would be 92 tomorrow. More importantly, he would very likely still be writing, if not directing and composing as well. A new “Feluda” book would come out every other year, or maybe a collection of short stories. And quite a few generations of readers — who had all at some point fantasised of visiting the labs of Professor Shonku or assisting in solving a Feluda murder-mystery case — would line up outside book stores in Bangladesh, the way “Harry Potter” books were sought after when they would come out.
However, it is more as a filmmaker than an author that the world remembers “Manik’da” — Satyajit’s nickname among his friends. His directorial debut, “Pather Panchali” (1955), took the world by storm; 11 international prizes lined up on Satyajit’s showcase, the centerpiece being the Cannes for “Best Human Documentary”. The shoestring-budget (Rs 1,50,000) film — based on a classic Bibhutibhushan story — featured mostly amateur actors. Funded by the West Bengal government, which was granted allegedly from the Roads and Highways Development fund (because the government officials apparently took the title too literally), it is, till date, considered one of the greatest films ever made.
Satyajit’s own perception of Italian neorealism — that inspired him to start filmmaking in the first place — continued to blossom on celluloid after that. Apu’s journey continued through a trilogy, with “Aparajito” coming out in 1956 and rising into a beautiful crescendo in “Apu’r Sangsar” (1959). On the one hand, there were documentaries — one of them on Rabindranath Tagore (1961), and on the other, there were experimental shorts — one of them being “Two” that was not scripted in any spoken language. “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne”, “Aranyer Dinratri”, “Ashani Sangket”, “Sonar Kella”, “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (Hindi),” Jai Baba Felunath”, “Ghore Baire” and “Agantuk” extended Satyajit’s trailblazing filmmaking to five decades.
But while the world knows him as the filmmaker who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries, his true Bengali fans know that Satyajit was more of a polymath. Born with the genes of two of the brightest names in Bengali literature — Sukumar Ray and Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury — and under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose and Benod Behari Mukherjee, Satyajit was a fiction writer-composer-graphic designer-calligrapher-illustrator and publisher. From reviving his grandfather’s literary magazine ‘Sandesh’ to creating the chill-down-the-spine intro music of the “Feluda” TV series to the bold, strong-lined illustrations to his short stories, Satyajit Ray was a man who could do no wrong.
While it is saddening to see many of today’s adolescents immersed in the internet, console gaming and smartphones — utterly oblivious of the treasure-trove that is in their household bookshelf, it is at the same time a feeling of great privilege to have had the awesome world of Satyajit Ray when we grew up.