Watching Shatranj Ke Khilari on DVD – a Hindi film with good mainstream actors – in my twenties was the first time I recognised Satyajit Ray's cinematic sensibilities. It was a major boost to my confidence that I was able to get his creative vision despite having no exposure to world cinema. He was not a highfalutin director in my mind anymore, but rather a relatable filmmaker with a clear sense of what he wanted to depict.
Having lived near Kolkata all my life, it should have been easy to consider cinema as an art form, but my fascination with Bollywood stood in the way. However, Shatranj Ke Khilari made me realise that Satyajit Ray and his art-house cinema was not esoteric. With an interest in his oeuvre, I tried to pick up some more films to build an emotional connection with his work. The next film on the watchlist was Nayak. I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of a film covering an entire train journey. Ray was now quite appealing to a commercial cinema lover like me. Surely there were certain qualities in his cinema that attracted not only aficionados from niche audiences, but also patrons of commercial cinema and those who wanted to create a new space with middle cinema. Borrowing some of those qualities would help any aspiring filmmaker to reach out to his target audience.
A journey of discovering Ray without reading what the critics had to say and what the experts on cinema had to write about him was challenging but satisfying. Finding those strengths required an inward journey, looking within to understand why Ray films were so endearing to a lay viewer. I was enthusiastic to watch all his films and then measure the overall impact on my taste and preferences. I did not expect to turn into a hardcore art-house film buff after watching his entire body of work.
Ray films offered layers to investigate but my superficial level of viewing his cinema made me love his narrative legerdemain. He could grab the interest of viewers with zero understanding of art-house cinema. Ray films conveyed so much that the wide chasm between art films and commercial cinema was bridged. I began to feel comfortable with his cinema – just as I was comfortable watching Bollywood fare.
I did not grow into an analyst of his cinema but a loyal viewer who liked his cinematic outings. Within a short span of time, I gathered the courage to pick up some more on my plate. Kanchenjungha, Ghare Baire, Shakha Proshakha, Kapurush-O-Mahapurush, Chiriakhana, Pratidwandi, Mahanagar, Seemabaddha, Jalsaghar, Agantuk, Ganashatru, Joi Baba Felunath… After watching these films, I felt fairly qualified to see what Ray called his best: Charulata and the Apu trilogy, including Pather Panchali.
Usually, viewers begin with the best films of a filmmaker, but I did not stick to this rule – although it was not intentional. As mentioned earlier, I had grown quite comfortable with Ray. I did not have to sit and scratch my head while watching his cinema. I was sure I was not getting the depth right, but whatever the film was about, I could figure it out with ease. For me, this was enough, as a viewer during that stage. I was not terrified of art anymore. I could safely consume more art in cinema.
Ray gave the mental strength to me as a viewer to watch more art cinema from India and abroad. His cinematic genius blurred the artificial boundaries in my mind, and I could switch from my comfort zone and slip into the art mode. I could easily talk about Ray films with my friends who still kept him away from the mainstream. I tried to convince them that his cinema was worth viewing by the masses, and that his storytelling was engaging and kept one's interest alive. Surely a big strength of an art filmmaker or a commercial film director was to be able t communicate with viewers from diverse backgrounds.
When I gradually expanded my watchlist to include offshore auteurs, I felt empowered because of having watched Ray films. In hindsight, it was good I did not see Ray movies with any intellectual burden or with any preconceived notions of excellence. Perhaps this is why his cinema never appeared beyond my reach – not even when I was cinematically illiterate. It is precisely the reason that this gentle self-discovery of art cinema has initiated a quest that continues even today at a languid pace.