Author Anwer Mooraj in a recent article in DAWN (Karachi, Pakistan)
had lamented that Satyajit did not rank even as an "also ran" in
the rankings of "Great Bengalis" by BBC listeners. He wasn't quite
right - Satyajit Ray was number 13 on the list.
"Great Bengalis" as ranked by BBC Listeners:
1. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
2. Rabindranath Tagore
3. Kazi Nazrul Islam
4. A. K. Fazlul Haq
5. Subash Bose
6. Begum Rokeya
7. Jagadish Chandra Bose
8. Ishwar Chandra Bidyasagar
9. Maulana Bashani
10. Raja Ram Mohon Roy
12. Lalon Shah
13. ***** Satyajit Roy *****
14. Amartya Sen
15. Language Movement Martyrs
16. Dr. Muhammad Shahidulla
17. Sawami Vivekanada
18. Atish Depankar
19. Ziaur Rahman
DAWN, Karachi, Pakistan
26 April 2004 Monday 05 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1425
Who is the greatest Bengali?
By Anwer Mooraj
..... for a non-Bengali like myself, who was weaned on the romantic
fatalism of Marcel Carne and nurtured on the exuberant surrealism of
Luis Bunuel, I was truly astounded to learn that in the survey, one of
Calcutta's greatest sons, who happens to be one of the world's
greatest film directors, did not even figure as an "also ran".
I am referring, of course, to the late Satyajit Ray, who is frequently
mentioned in the same context as Renoir, Kurosawa and Bergman, and is
frequently compared to Pagnol, Cocteau and de Sica. Ray certainly has
his admirers in Karachi, and I am sure if the lads from the BBC had,
in their quest, ventured to this neck of the woods, they would have
acquired a different set of preferences.
In fact, on July 20, 1992, Hameed Haroon, one of the city's cultural
giants, ably assisted by Rehana Saigol, paid tribute to the great
Satyajit Ray. In a 60-minute illustrated lecture at the PACC, he
presented a series of vignettes culled from some of the master's more
accessible works, interspersed by crisp, informative and intelligent
Unlike Hameed Haroon, I never had the honour of meeting Satyajit Ray.
But I understand from reading Andrew Robinson's excellent biography of
the great director (which was more exhaustive than Marie Seton's
earlier work) that the latter was an extremely humane person, humble
to a fault - a person who was sensitive to the needs of others and who
always contrived to suggest a life of unruffled serenity.
What made him different from other directors of the western and
eastern persuasion, was that he was equally at home in the West and
the East, whether he was chatting with hikers rambling over a pub
lunch, or in his native Calcutta where in a matter of seconds a
boiling sky could discharge a wilderness of electricity and produce a
tropical downpour of such intensity that life was paralysed for hours.
Though he was not averse to operating out of a bed-sitter in
Paddington, Ray worked best at home in his study ensconced in his
favourite chair - an intermittently functioning telephone within easy
He liked to recline in loose clothes with his bare feet resting on a
convenient low table and work at the red cloth-bound shooting
notebooks that contained literally every aspect of a film.
There was no air conditioning in the study, and sometimes in the
sweltering head of summer he had to close the louvered windows to shut
out the outside world.
The walls of his study were fringed by bookcases crammed with books
and magazines. In a corner a bust of Beethoven stood on a piano under
a photograph of Sergei Eisenstein (director of Battleship Potemkin)
and in a full cabinet, almost spilling out its properties, were
cassettes, records and tapes of western classical music where Mozart
and Bach enjoyed a special position.
Ray often compared the works of Eisenstein to the music of Bach and
the films of Pudovkin to the music of Beethoven. Both directors worked
with unwavering discipline over a wide range of dynamics and colour.
There was no image of Tagore who had influenced three generations of
the Ray family. When Andrew Robinson casually asked Ray why he didn't
display a bust of Tagore, the master chuckled and said" "Such a
Ray, an advertising man, an illustrator, an author, a critic and a
filmmaker directed over 30 films since 1955 and always with a telling
economy of means. He had an almost dilettante quasi-professional
disdain concerning money.
He distilled the urban as well as the rural landscape with equal
felicity, whether involved in a pacy drama about a child from a random
cross section of metropolitan low life, or while painting a grimly
authentic canvas of squalour and destitution in the City of Dreadful
Ray experimented with mood, period and milieu more than any other
director and won almost every major prize, sometimes more than once.
In 1992, he was awarded an Oscar for a lifetime of achievement in
films - a presentation which was made in a Calcutta hospital shortly
before his death.
Thirty years earlier, in 1960, the first American homage to Ray was
presented at the University of California in Berkeley by Albert
Johnson. This Ray programme included the US premiers of The Music Room
and The Goddess.
It was also in 1960 that the Apu trilogy was taken up by an American
distributor, and the United States was introduced to one of the most
prodigious personalities in the history of the cinema.
Akira Kurosawa, director of the Japanese classic Rashomon and The
Seven Samurai, described Ray as a giant of the movie industry. And Tim
Radford of the Guardian who after seeing The Chess Players, a film
about two civilizations, one effete and ineffectual, the other
vigorous and malignant, wrote: "Satyajit Ray seems to be able to
achieve more and more with less and less".
Some of the other reviewers were not quite so generous. After the
screening of Devi one London reviewer wrote: "The story itself is
dauntingly alien." Another felt "it was an exquisite bore. The action
is as remote as one of those Indian temple friezes depicting the gods
about their bloody business."
The reviewer of The Times was a little less patronizing. "The film is
more a matter of uncluttered story telling than of atmosphere and the
loving accumulation of detail." And Bosley Crowther, doyen of the New
York critics, was quite unmoved on the occasion of the US premiere of
Pather Panchali (Ballad of the Road), and found the film amateurish in
Ray had a lot to say about critics particularly the British and the
Americans who insisted on commenting critically on the world of other
people without familiarizing themselves with the latter's cultural and
Once, after reading a particularly unintelligent review of Devi by an
English writer, Ray pointed out that in western religious thinking
dominated by the Jewish and Christian traditions, God is always
represented in male form - whereas in India the female nature of God
is also celebrated.
When the citizens of Kolkata and Dhaka read this epistle, one hopes
they will give this great human being an honoured place among the
other great Bengalis. He certainly deserves every consideration.