Filmmakers

Childhood Days: A Memoir by Satyajit Ray

Childhood Days: A Memoir is a compilation of a series of articles for the children’s publication, Sandesh, and best serves as a supplement to his autobiography, My Years With Apu or the Introspections interview by K. Bikram Singh. Ray’s memoir flows like a contemplative, familiar, and accessible stream of consciousness of fond memories and fascinating experiences. Although Ray does not directly cite his inspirations for his films, specific personal events clearly influenced Ray’s incomparable body of work.

The first half of the book deals with his childhood. Ray was born into a prominent family of intellectuals and artists. His father, Sukumar Ray, a renowned satirist and writer, was already ill when Ray was born, and died when Ray was only two years old. His grandfather, Upendra Kishore Ray-Chaudhary, was a prominent writer of children’s literature who passed away before Ray was born. In fact, it was his grandfather who created Sandesh, which evolved as part of the family’s printing and block-making business. Ray lived in his ancestral home until the age of six, when his family left North Calcutta.

The latter half of the book are recollections and anecdotes on the filming of The Apu Trilogy and the children’s stories (such as The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha and The Elephant God). Pather Panchali, his first feature film, took 2-1/2 years to complete, primarily due to lack of funding. Essentially, Ray and his film crew would shoot until the money ran out, then go on fundraising activities, then return to the film. This sporadic funding presented several problems: (1) the critical storm sequence with Durga and Apu was delayed due to late funding, causing them to miss the monsoon season; (2) the death of the actor who played the candy vendor, Chinibash, during the course of the extended shooting (his scenes were intercut with back views of a stand-in); (3) the changing seasonal topography and regional setting (Ray recounts an amusing episode regarding the exquisite kash-filled meadow scene. After returning to the field a week later, the crew found that the kash flowers had all been eaten by cows. Ray had to wait another year for the flowers to re-grow in order to complete filming the scene.)

Observations:  The untimely death of his father, and his mother’s determination to provide Ray with a well-rounded education clearly influenced Ray’s compassionate portrayal of the strong, resilient women in his films. The themes of loss of heritage and cultural transition in The Apu Trilogy are invariably tied to Ray’s own experiences with leaving his ancestral home (especially, Pather Panchali). His early involvement in the family business is reflected through (1) Ray’s great love for publishing and graphic arts, as symbolized by the characters’ fascination with the printing press in films such as Aparajito (Apu) and Charulata (Bhupati); and (2) his fondness for adapting children’s literature, such as The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha and The Elephant God to film. Overall, what emerges from Ray’s animated passages is a great love for the arts, knowledge, and humanity. It is this passion that defines his simple, yet profoundly moving films on the quiet observation of life.

Acquarello, 2001 [reprinted]

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