Ray covered a host of genres in his lifetime – from psychological, urban dramas to satirical comedies and musicals, from political films to children’s fantasies, from historical epics to detective movies, from noirish tales to simple fables, from road movies to buddy films – he covered ‘em all. In Jalsaghar (The Music Room) you have Chhabi Biswas as an aristocratic zamindar who is ready to loose everything for the sake of pride and honour. In Abhijaan (The Expedition) you have the prototype for Robert De Niro’s Tavis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Taxi Driver – a cynical cab driver (played expertly by Ray’s favourite lead and regular Soumitra Chatterjee) who falls for a woman he is destined to loose. On the other hand he made Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) where the effervescent and inimitable Tulsi Chakraborty plays someone similar to R. K. Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ who accidentally stumbles upon a piece of stone with the power to turn base metal into gold. Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and Nayak (The Hero) are two of my favorites. The former about an eclectic group of Calcutta youths and friends on a holiday, and the latter about a movie superstar (played by the then Bengali screen idol Uttam Kumar) besieged by his inner demons, are both fascinating albeit deeply unsettling character studies. And they both have an enigmatic female character as a central character, played by Ray discovery Sharmila Tagore.
Ray didn’t just make double bills like Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward & the Holy Man) – the former being a dark romantic noir, while latter being in the genre of satire and high farce; he also made triple bills (if you can use that term). His Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) comprised of three short movies – a tragic drama (Postmaster), a supernatural/horror tale (Manihara) and a romantic comedy (Samapti) – with each being based on the respective short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. In fact he adapted a number of Tagore’s works to screen, including what Ray called his personal favourite – Charulata (The Lonely Wife), a sensitive tale about the forbidden friendship between a political intellectual’s beautiful wife and his arty, lotus-eater younger brother. To divert a bit, Ray’s association with and deep reverence for Rabindranath Tagore (poet, novelist, composer, songwriter, playwright, painter, critic, nationalist, educationist and humanitarian) preceded his filmmaking career. Courtesy Tagore’s friendship with Upendrakishore, Ray’s grandfather, he knew the Nobel laureate and the legendary Renaissance Man of Bengal (fondly known by the sobriquet ‘Kobi Guru’ or Great Teacher/Poet) from an early age. He even studied for a while at Visva Bharati, the university Tagore had founded at Santiniketan. Ray was always in awe of him and was greatly influenced by his enormous body of work.
Interestingly Ray tried his hands in sequels, movie franchises and trilogies as well. He brought to screen the characters Goopy and Bagha, which were created by his grandfather, in the unforgettable children’s fantasy (and a deeply anti-war movie) Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, and he followed this up with its sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds) – a scathing political satire in the garb of a good-versus-evil tale. The two movies were also musicals, and Ray himself wrote the lyrics and composed music for each of the songs, which, needless to say, were all brilliant – more so for having composed songs so grounded in Indian traditions even though he had grown up on Western Classical music. And apart from his Apu Trilogy, he made another trilogy, albeit less lyrical and more disturbing, popularly known as the Calcutta Trilogy, which comprised of tales based on contemporary 70’s Calcutta. With Seemabadha (Company Limited), Pratidwandi (The Adversary) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) he depicted the three distinct faces of the city – her swanky corporate echelons, her strong political affiliations towards Marx and Che Guevera inspired Leftism, and her seedy underbelly.
The last few movies in Ray’s career are considered perhaps the weakest among his exceptional oeuvre. This was a time marked by rapidly deteriorating physical health and so he had to be contented with in-house dramas, which were in direct contrast to the outdoor shoots he begun his career with. However, the great artist that he was, he managed to have a great swansong nonetheless. His last feature Agantuk (The Stranger), had Utpal Dutt, who I consider the greatest actor India has ever produced, playing a wanderlust who one fine day ends up at the home of his married niece leading to a terrific psychoanalysis and deconstruction of the human society.
Ray, in a way, was blessed to have among his contemporaries two great filmmakers – the mercurial Ritwik Ghatak and principal provocateur Mrinal Sen. The three formed a troika of sorts, and along with D’Artagnon (Fourth Musketeer) Tapan Sinha, ushered in the golden age for (non-mainstream) Bengali cinema during the 60’s and 70’s. However unlike Ray, Ghatak and Sen rarely managed to enrapture critics and audiences alike as their movies were not as easily accessible or covered as many genres and themes as Ray’s. Consequently they still remain largely ignored and/or unknown to the Western audience despite having made some truly great cinema. Their rivalry took them to truly exalted and rarefied heights as auteurs.
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