Satyajit Ray, or Manikmama

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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.
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Suchitra

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In my childhood, there weren’t too many Bengali women who had made it big enough to attain celebrity status. But there was Suchitra Sen, goddess of cinema.

Her films, usually with Uttam Kumar, were wildly popular in Kolkata.

To me, Sen was the ultimate beauty. She had a certain Bengaliness about her. She was feminine but strong. She had a “no-nonsense gravitas to care out a persona that has never been matched, let alone surpassed in Indian cinema,” film critic Saibal Chatterjee told the BBC.

I just remember my older cousins talking about her. They referred to her with only her first name. Like Greta. Or Marilyn. Legends don’t require a surname. In fact, it’s been said that idols of Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) and Saraswati (goddess of knowledge) were modeled after Suchitra. Now, that’s some star power.

In all, Suchitra acted in 52 Bengali films and seven Hindi films. The first movie of hers that I saw was “Kamal Lata,” based on a story by famed Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattapadhya. I was riveted by her performance, made all that much intense by the power of black and white imagery. I gazed into Suchitra’s big eyes and wanted to be like her one day. Talented, smart, strong, beautiful.

Suchitra died today in Kolkata — at the same hospital where my mother died.

Thank you for the hours of entertainment but mostly for inspiration, Suchitra. Rest in peace.