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September 03, 2019

Revisiting Satyajit Ray’s Lesser-Known Side

Text by Ranjabati Das. All Images © Ray Estate and Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. Source of Images: Looking Beyond: Graphics of Satyajit Ray, Roli Books

Master auteur Satyajit Ray is remembered as a director, music composer, translator and writer. His artistic identity, however, is relatively lesser-known outside of Bengal, where his illustrations and design work have left a lasting impression. His futuristic aesthetic and disruptive style add a most nuanced layer of narrative to his rich corpus that continues to remain relevant across age groups and cultures even more than half a century later

Even those remotely interested in films might have heard of E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), both from the Steven Spielberg stable, both uncannily similar to Satyajit Ray’s Alien — an unrealised script that was picked up by Columbia Pictures and slated to star Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers. It was loosely based on a Bengali sci-fi story he had written for Sandesh, a legendary children’s magazine originally published by M/s U. Ray and Sons, a firm started by his grandfather and celebrated writer Upendrakishore Ray, who also functioned as its editor. And when Bollywood ventured into alien territory with Koi… Mil Gaya (2003), Ray fans once again noticed similarities in the storyline.

The covers of the literary magazine Ekshan (co-edited by actor Soumitra Chatterjee) saw Ray experimenting variously with the three letters that make up the spelling of the title in Bengali.

Cover design of Sera Sandesh, 1961-’81 (translating to ‘The Best of Sandesh’).

His choices in his youth demonstrate his wide range of interests. Ray studied economics and then painting at Tagore’s Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee (years later, he would direct a documentary, The Inner Eye, about Mukherjee). In 1943, he joined DJ Keymer, a British-run advertising agency (present-day Ogilvy & Mather), where he developed his own style as a junior visualiser while working on campaigns for an assortment of products — biscuits, musical instruments, cigarettes. Ray also designed over 200 book covers including Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar, Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India for Signet Press, a new publishing house started by a senior colleague at Keymer. Argued to be India’s first graphic designer, Ray together with Signet was instrumental in changing the look and feel of Bengali books. It was while designing the cover for and illustrating a children’s version of Pather Panchali, a renowned Bengali novel by Bandyopadhyay, that its cinematic potential struck Ray. In 1950, he was sent by the ad agency to work at the London headquarters, an opportunity that granted him access to world cinema. He would finally write the script for Pather Panchali or Song of the Little Road (1955), his ground-breaking debut, at sea while he was on his way back to India. And he later acknowledged that his own artworks had helped him greatly in the process.

The poster of Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979). Frequent collaborator Soumitra Chatterjee reprised his role as private investigator Feluda in the film based on Ray’s novel of the same name. The Feluda detective series by Ray comprised 35 stories in all; the first appeared in Sandesh in 1965, under the editorship of poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay and Ray.

Ray revived and designed the cover for Sandesh in 1961. The first Ray story published in the periodical was Banku Babu’r Bondhu (Banku Babu’s Friend), a sc-fi story about a friendly alien.

Satyajit Ray, Ray designed the book cover for his first Feluda novel, Badshahi Angti (The Emperor’s Ring).

Set design by Ray for Devi (The Goddess, 1960) starring Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee and Chhabi Biswas. The film won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Film.

The poster for Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991). Ray’s last film picked up two National Awards, for Best Film and Best Feature Direction, apart from a special mention for actor-dancer Mamata Shankar. Ray directed 37 films in all, including shorts and documentaries, and won a record number of 32 National Awards, besides an array of international awards.

His circle of influence extended to stalwarts Kurosawa and Hitchcock and, like them, Ray perfected the art of storyboarding, at a time when the technique wasn’t rampant in India. His drawings of costumes were down to the very last detail, and he even devised props and furniture for some of his sets. He designed award-winning Roman fonts (Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre), and several in Bengali as well, alongside publicity material and logos (including those for the Sahitya Akademi Award and Rupa Publications). His years in advertising, particularly his understanding of layout, lettering and target audience, no doubt came in handy.

Drafts of his final logo for the double bill Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and The Holy Man, 1965)

The cover design for Panchish Bacharer Premer Kabita (Love Poems of 25 Years, 1956) by Abu Sayeed Ayyub displays a treasured Ray trait: restraint.

The fitting end-credits sequence in Sonar Kella or The Golden Fortress (1974), supposedly depicting the young protagonist Mukul’s child-like drawings and perspective, were in fact sketched and coloured in by him. It’s a well-known fact that Ray enjoyed working with non-professionals, especially children, who he would treat like adults. Sharmila Tagore and Jaya Bhaduri (now Bachchan) were in their early teens when they debuted in Ray films at 13 and 15 respectively. In Alien too, a young boy (Haba, meaning ‘dimwit’ in Bengali) was to befriend the extraterrestrial. One of Ray’s biographers described the titular character Ray had been encouraged by fellow sci-fi fan Arthur C. Clarke to develop: ‘a large head, sunken cheeks…. It was supposed to look like a ‘cross between a gnome and a famished refugee child…spindly legs, a lean torso’. The friendly alien (gender unknown) could sprout flowers and heal wounds and in Ray’s early sketches, it was devoid of ears, just like E. T. What it did have was a whole lot of heart.

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