Name-Dropping Satyajit Ray: A Bong’s Greatest Accessory

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Name-Dropping Satyajit Ray: A Bong’s Greatest Accessory

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

There’s a running joke about Bengalis that never seems to lose its charm for almost every non-Bengali friend or acquaintance that I’ve come to know. It goes something like this: “So after you are born, the first words that any Bengali utters are ‘Satyajit Ray’, na?” More often than not, this icebreaker is followed by raucous laughter from the joke-cracker and a sheepish smile from the subject of the joke.

I’ve heard this quip on the first day of college, on a drunken night out with friends, and at press shows where the presence of rapidly multiplying Bengali film critics never ceases to amaze anyone. And, yet despite the impreciseness of the wisecrack – I’m certain the first two words of any Bengali are “Bhaat khaabo” (I will eat rice) – I find myself unable to contradict or take offence to it. Because jokes like these are a result of “kalchaar-ed” Bangali bhodrolok’s own doing. It’s actually the very impression we strive to achieve.

Bengalis love Satyajit Ray and his work nearly as much as we love boasting about our impeccable knowledge about the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, screenwriter, author, graphic artist, music composer, and universal Bengali inspiration’s incredible existence. The fact that some of us might have watched the sum total of one Ray film – Pather Panchali, obvs – and the trailer to Apur Sansar and Aparajito, is hardly enough to deter us in our dedicated crusade of ensuring that no discussion on Indian cinema passes without a mention of Satyajit Ray.

Invoking Ray, whose birth anniversary it is today, in conversation, argument, and discussion is every Bong’s greatest accessory. It comes as naturally to us as praying to Tagore, staking a claim over India’s best biryani, and slathering Boroline over everything. For the world, Satyajit Ray is nothing short of a religion for Bengalis. For us, however, he is more like a meal-ticket; a hall pass that cements our superiority over anyone and everyone. Take for instance, the wilfully ignorant Bengali sharing the photoshopped telegram of Sukumar Ray announcing the news of Ray’s birth on Facebook today. Being undesignated PR army for Satyajit Ray is now our birthright.

For us, however, he is more like a meal-ticket; a hall pass that cements our superiority over anyone and everyone.

The auteur’s incredulous body of work is our gold standard, against which, everyone comes up short. Oh, you thought Steven Spielberg’s ET was a classic? Wait until the Bengali Brigade schools you by letting you know that the film’s plot was in fact inspired/copied from an unproduced Ray film called The Alien. It’s why we see a Ray-style filmmaking opportunity even when there’s a casual downpour. “Pretty sure if Satyajit Ray shot rains, it’d look much more poetic than actual rains,” is a legit belief most of my filmmaker friends hold. It’s also the same reason we begin most of our opening remarks with, “If Satyajit Ray were still alive…” and end them with “Satyajit Ray should have been alive…” when we opine about the state of the Indian film industry. (I’ve seen the same people unable to tell Ray and Ritwik Ghatak apart.)

Of course, what is a regular Bengali to do? There are tons of Feluda and Professor Shonku stories to read, Ray’s advertising work to brush up on, the minutiae of his meetings with Vittoria Di Sica and Akira Kurosawa to remember. The pressure to be a gatekeeper of the Ray nostalgia is immense, even if you were born two years ago or can’t tell Mahapurush and Mahanagar apart.

Even if it’s impossible to familiarise yourself with all of Ray’s work, it’s imperative that you don’t publicly confess to it.

Sometimes, it’s okay to fake our way through Ray, because like he said, “The only solutions that are ever worth anything are the solutions people find for themselves.”