Since the death of Satyajit Ray in 1992, three years after receiving the Legion of Honour from French President Francois Mitterrand in Calcutta and a few weeks after being awarded an Oscar for life-time achievement and the Bharat Ratna ("Jewel of India"), India's highest official honour, many more books on him have appeared in English and Bengali. This new volume is the most comprehensive of the posthumous crop and should be acquired by all libraries specialising in cinema or Indian culture, as well as by Ray aficionados around the world.
The editor, Santi Das, a Calcutta theatre actor who first got to know Ray in 1960 (though he was never cast in his films), has worked on the project for some years and benefited from the help of Ray himself and, latterly, his family. He has commissioned contributions covering most of Ray's versatile achievements as a film-maker (personally responsible for everything from script to music), professional graphic designer and illustrator, and best-selling Bengali fiction writer. These articles form roughly the first half of the book. The second half consists of a selection of reviews of Ray's films from 1955-92, a filmography with a partial synopsis of each film, a discography of his soundtracks, a bibliography of his screenplays, fiction and other writings (mainly on cinema) in all languages, a select bibliography of writings about him, and a few other interesting items (but, regrettably, no obituaries). Throughout the book, there are film stills, production photographs (including some fine unpublished ones) and designs and drawings (for scripts, costumes, sets, book jackets, story illustrations) by Ray; even his typeface, Ray Roman, has been used to quite good effect on the jacket, title-page and elsewhere. There is, however, no index.
Unfortunately, in the articles, very little of what is written about Ray himself has not been said before, and said better, often by the same contributors, such as R. P. Gupta and Subrata Banerjee. There are also some errors of fact, including statements that contradict Ray's own. The two pieces by significant artists, the painter K. G. Subramanyan and the film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, which I began with a sense of expectation, are not illuminating. Only the long article on "The literary works" by the critic Saroj Bandyopadhyay feels fresh. Though it is a bit long-winded, and suffers somewhat from being a translation, this is the first worthwhile analysis of Ray's total literary output (barring essays): his original short stories, intriguing detective novellas, science fantasies, fairy tales and dextrous nonsense translations; it suggests why Ray, a master of wordplay, has come to enjoy popularity in Bengali second only to that of Rabindranath Tagore.
The selected reviews include some first-rate ones by critics such as Pauline Kael, David McCutchion, Kironmay Raha, Gaston Roberge and Iqbal Masud (both writing on Ray's swansong film, The Stranger), and a little-known, passionate Bengali review of Pather Panchali written at the time of the film's release in 1955, which proves its impact in Bengal before it was lauded at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 (contrary to a long-held canard that western appreciation came first). But there are too many averagely written reviews and not a few thoroughly crass ones, for example on The World of Apu and Three Daughters. Obvious omissions include Lindsay Anderson's enraptured 1956 report from Cannes in The Observer, Arlene Croce's reviews and Jyotirmoy Datta's subtle review in Quest of Kanchenjungha; inexplicably, there is no review at all of this film (ditto Company Limited and An Enemy of the People).
As for the reference sections, the impression is of usefulness but incompleteness, with some worrying inaccuracies (eg the wrong cinematographer given for three films). For each film, a total, rather than a selective cast list is a necessity in a book of this kind; along with a full synopsis, written in the factual style of the old BFI Monthly Film Bulletin. Serious omissions from the filmography/discography include the superb, digitally mastered videos released by Sony Pictures Classics in the US last year, and Ray's radio talks in Calcutta on western classical music and radio interviews with the BBC; and from the bibliography, the dozen or so introductions that Ray wrote to books by other people (eg Henri Cartier-Bresson in India), as well as his last published article in English, a pithy and touching tribute to Tagore published in August 1991 in The Guardian. The list of interviews with and articles about Ray, though admittedly selective, does not include his fascinating 1983 interview with India Today, which launched the long-running debate about Steven Spielberg's debt to Ray in the creation of E.T. (ironically, the skimpy chronological "biographical profile" fails to mention Ray's first visit to Hollywood, in 1958). Finally, one is surprised to find so few "letters to editors" listed; Ray was a prolific, courteous correspondent.
"This volume," writes the editor with engaging modesty, "inadequate and imperfect on many counts, is only a step towards the accomplishment of the ultimate project - a complete documentation I of the life, works and achievements of Satyajit Ray." While I strongly sympathise with Das's aim, it has to be said, on the evidence of this book, that he has a very long road ahead.
Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES, is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye.
Satyajit Ray: An Intimate Master
Editor - Santi Das
ISBN - 81 7023 748 3
Publisher - Allied Publishers, New Delhi
Price - Rs650.00
Pages - 283