Satyajit Ray, or Manikmama



A few weeks ago, I went to see “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” a riveting documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. It’s well worth your time.

On the way out, I picked up a Midtown Art film calendar that had Apu’s face on the cover. Apu as in Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy, the highly acclaimed series of films about a free-spirited Bengali boy who grows into a man of the world.

Ray was my mother’s cousin and I always knew him as Manikmama. Manik was his nickname; mama means mother’s brother.

Ray directed more than 30 films and went on to gain international fame. But he also wrote books and made movies aimed at children. I grew up with tales of Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist who spoke 69 languages.

But it was film, and specifically, “The Apu Trilogy” that catapulted Ray to international fame.

satyajit-ray-003-at-work-in-his-study-at-bishop-lefroy-road-calcutta“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon,” declared Japanese director Akira Kurusawa. That was a quote often recited in my hometown, Kolkata. Ray was such a point of pride, along with Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Bengalis hailed him as a hero for the fame he showered on his people but many shied away from his work. His films were too negative, someone once told me. They were too real.

Yes, too real for comfort in a country still struggling to lift all boats. Ray’s movies were the opposite of Bollywood and had little to offer to the masses who wanted to escape at the cinema, not see their own reality.

“Pather Panchali,” which means Song of the Path, tells the story of Apu as a boy from a poor family in rural West Bengal. “Aparajito” or “The Unvanquished” follows Apu through his formative years as the family faces crushing poverty. Finally, we see Apu as an adult who marries and faces tragedy in the last of the trilogy, “Apur Sanser,” or “The World of Apu.”

For many years, I told my Western friends to watch Ray’s films to gain a better understanding of the place I came from, for insight into what life was like in Bengal. But the film quality was always poor, especially when the only way to see these films was to rent videotapes from Blockbuster.
But now the films have been digitally restored and the subtitles are clear. If you live in Atlanta, I encourage you to go see the Ray trilogy at the Midtown Art Cinema, playing for a week starting August 14. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVDs or buy them online.
The last time I saw my uncle was in 1992 when I went to visit him at his residence on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata. He was in his usual stance — in repose on a wicker lounger with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A month later, he received an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to receive an Academy Award to date.
Audrey Hepburn presented the award to Ray, who by then had fallen gravely ill and was confined to his bed at a Kolkata hospital.
 I remember watching him on television that night, fighting tears of pride.He died shortly after, on April 23, 1992.
There are many Indians in the world of art who have now made a name for themselves outside their homeland. But Ray, like Rabindranath Tagore in the literary world, was a pioneer.
So many of my mother’s relatives were artistically inclined. They were painters, designers, poets and writers. I can’t help but feel that Ray had something to do with that. Or at least that his spirit guides me from within.


“If they answer not to your call, walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall, open your minds and speak out alone.
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
trample the thorns under thy tread, and along the blood-lined track, travel alone.
If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart
and let it burn alone.”

This is the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore that was set to music and became a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi’s during the struggle for Indian independence. I heard the poetic words of courage first from my mother. She had a big booming voice and loved to sing this song. I also heard this sung by Suchitra Mitra, one of Bengal’s most well-known Rabindrasangeet singers.

There was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when my uncle would organize musical sessions at his house. Mitra would come to lend her voice on sultry Saturday evenings.

She died of a heart attack at her Kolkata home on Monday. She was 86, born the same year as my father. My cousin informed me of her death. She knew how much Mitra’s songs meant to me.

She took music lessons at Viswa Bharati University, where my mother had also gone to hone her skills. My mother filled our house with Mitra’s voice.

She loaned her voice to yet another song that came to represent another struggle for independence: “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My Golden Bengal) played on every radio in Kolkata during the Bangladesh war. It later became the national anthem of independent Bangladesh.

I have a Suchitra Mitra CD playing now and think of my beloved Bengal mourning her death.

For all my Bengali friends, here is the news story in Anandabazar Patrika.

Goddess of strength

Thousands of deities are on their way to the banks of the Ganges in West Bengal today. The immersions have to be finished by Wednesday in the capital, Kolkata.

Ma Durga, the goddess of strength, returns to Ma Ganga, the holiest of rivers.

In the next few hours, murtis or images made from clay, wood, paper mache, bamboo, straw, shell and sand will begin dissolving in murky river waters.

Durga Puja, the biggest Hindu festival in my home state, is culminating this week.

When I was young, Durga Puja was the highlight of my year. Like an American kid looking forward to Christmas.

The five-day festival usually falls in September or October, depending on the position of the stars. We were off from school for several weeks. The streets were filled with fun and food. We wore new outfits for each day of the puja and went from pandal to pandal (temporary structures that housed the images) to see which one was the biggest, the baddest.

Hindu mythology tells the tale of Durga this way: Only a woman could kill the demon named Mahishasur. So the gods got together and each gave a virtue and skill to create the ultimate warrior, the goddess of strength. They gave Durga 10 arms so she could carry weapons in each to slay the Earth’s evil.

And so she did.

As I grew older and Kolkata became more congested, Durga Puja became somewhat of an inconvenience. The crowds, the road closings, the heat, the rain, the mud and muck of the dwindling monsoons. Last year, I almost missed my flight back to Atlanta because it took so long to weave through city streets to get to the airport.

The 15 million people of Kolkata all seem to be out together during Durga Puja. The constant banging of the dhol (drums) and blaring Bollywood music deafens my ears. At the end of every street, on every corner and in the neighborhood parks and schools, clubs fight for best in show. Who will win the prize for the most attractive Durga display? Some images are realistic. Others abstract. Some simple, others so ornate they would make Marie Antoinette gasp.

And when the five days of worship are over, throngs of people parade down the streets behind a lorry carrying their neighborhood Durga to the Ganges, so she can return to the heavens.

Whether you get into the Hindu puja spirit or not, there is something awesome about seeing millions of people fall at the feet of a woman to worship her strength, especially in a country like India, where women still have a long way to go to gain equal standing with men.

Last year, I was walking home from the bank and I stood and watched workers put the finishing touches on their Durga display. The beautiful and mighty woman, steely in body and soul (and loaded with weapons to boot!).

I stared into the eyes of the image. And felt her strength recharge me.

Check out this Web site for more information on the ceremony, rituals and story behind Durga:

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