The contribution of Satyajit Ray to Bengali and Indian cinema at large has remained unmatchable even to this date, when we are celebrating his birth centenary. Hailing from the illustrious Ray family which played a critical role in the 19th century Bengali Renaissance, Ray’s works imbibe a humanistic fusion of the East and West. He was the first (and only) Indian to receive an Academy Honorary award in 1992 and his influence continues in the social fabric of Bengal.

Satyajit Ray in New York

Western Influence

One major factor appears to be that Ray had learnt his art mainly from Western cinema, the US in particular. The directors he repeatedly referred to while talking about filmmaking include Hitchcock, John Ford, Capra among others. Ray’s journey started with his landmark movie Pather Panchali (1955), the first film of the Apu trilogy.

It took years to procure enough funds to complete the masterpiece and with a crew who hardly had any experience in the business. The film was a complete breakaway from the usual melodramas churned out by contemporary Indian cinema and failed to garner any interest in the two main epicenters, Calcutta and Bombay. It was only after the film’s screening at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that it gathered international attention, and the rest is history. His struggle to introduce India to parallel cinema has been succinctly documented recently in Anik Dutta’s movie Aparajito (2022).

A true polymath, Ray often wrote his own screenplays, directed, designed, composed and handled the cinematography. This ensured all his films had a distinct touch and style. In contrast, Hollywood was known for the scale of operations, and focused on optimization and efficiency with military discipline.

Global Influencer

Ray has continued to inspire generations of American filmmakers, most importantly Martin Scorcese. Scorcese says Ray’s Apu trilogy was “one of the greatest bodies of work in the history of cinema.”

Scorcese’s film Taxi Driver bears a strong resemblance to Ray’s Abhijan. It was Scorcese who supposedly pushed for Ray’s Academy Award, and over the years, attempted to restore many of Ray’s films.

William Wyler described Devi as poetry on celluloid—a view echoed by Francis Ford Coppola as well to be a major influence in his life.

Meryl Streep was in awe of how Ray portrayed women in his film, especially in Charulata (1964). She believed that it was a lesson for any director in the world.

Wes Anderson dedicated his film The Darjeeling Limited (2007) to Ray with themes from his films, serving as metaphors in Anderson’s movie. Keanu Reeves believes that he got to know India only through Ray’s works—a country that’s “real, warm and unaffected.”

Elia Kazan noted, “If he (Ray) were in Hollywood, he would have proved a tough challenge for all of us. The simplicity of Pather Panchali, the poignancy of Devi and the aesthetics of Charulata haunt me as well as many other filmmakers of the West.”

Plans For Hollywood

Indeed, Ray landed very close to landing up in Hollywood in the 1960s. Ray prepared the script for The Alien based on his short story Bankubabur Bondhu (Banku Babu’s Friend), which he wrote in 1962 for his own Bengali magazine Sandesh.

Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando were cast as leads, and Columbia Pictures was chosen as producers in the Indo-US co-production. However, due to script complications, Brando dropping out and worsening political situation in India, the project didn’t take off finally.

Almost 15 years later, Stephen Spielberg made his landmark movie E.T., whose plot was surprisingly similar to The Alien. Ray famously remarked that Spielberg’s E.T. would not have been possible without “my script of The Alien being available throughout in America in mimeographed copies.”

Inimitable Style

Ray’s way of straight storytelling meant for everyone in the audience was different from the new wave of European directors who believed in subtlety. At the same time, his films were different from contemporary oriental films.

Barring few cases where he was accused of “selling” poverty, Ray’s films received strong appreciation and awards across festivals in US. Films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968) often had layers which could mean different themes to different strata of society and even across ages, without being preachy.

Global Appreciation

When Ray approached Richard Attenborough for a small role in his Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), the British legend remarked, “I would be happy to recite even the telephone directory for you.” After having worked with Ray, Attenborough compared his genius with that of Chaplin.

Ray thereafter planned to make an English film starring Brando, Shashi Kapoor and Audrey Hepburn. The film, to be produced for Twentieth Century Fox, however sadly never hit the floors as Ray’s health started to fail.

Ray’s influence continues even to this date although, sadly, the genre of parallel cinema failed to sustain the momentum post his death.

Even till his last film Agantuk (The Stranger, 1992), he remained a truly “glocal” citizen—local in his medium of work but effortlessly global in its appeal. The endings of Ray’s film often symbolized the humanism and hope as unique creative forces.

As Akira Kurosawa mentioned “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” 

Dr Kallol Basu is passionate about Bangla heritage and has been writing about it for many journals . When he is not executing duties as a business transformation consultant - with a IT service major -...