There was a moment in Charulata, the opening scene in fact, where the “lonely wife” who makes up the central protagonist in both Tagore’s original story (Nastanirh) as well as Ray’s film, restlessly flitting around the house, after putting down some knitting work, eventually takes out a pair of binoculars from a cupboard and proceeds to view the world outside her window, following, as it were, the lives around her, a man walking with an umbrella, street utensil vendors lugging their wares about and so on, when Bhupati, her husband, arrives. This opening scene ends with her being ignored by him, as he seems to peruse a book while walking about the house; placing the binoculars in front of her again, she resumes viewing, this time following the course of her husband inside this very house. In such a beautiful way, the distance she feels from him, the nearness she clamours for, all fall into play in this opening sequence. No dialogues are spoken between them, but all that had to be said, is said. By this time, Satyajit Ray was a decade into filmmaking, and his visual craftsmanship was only jumping from strength to strength. Speaking to some of my older relatives, I realise, that to some of them, who were not aware of his advertising work, one day there was no man known as Satyajit Ray, and the next day there was no one else, but him. My Years With Apu charts the journey before this name, in so many ways, emerged.
Ray’s memoir begins with his ruminations on his ancestors, and proceeds to build-up to struggles and disconcerting experiences that he had to undergo in his attempts to make Pather Panchali, and the subsequent struggles to follow in his early career. But what interested me the most, when I picked up the book, I just happened to come across at my local newspaper vendor was the preface to the memoir. The first lines in Bijoya Ray’s preface caught my eye immediately:
“The final draft of My Years With Apu was stolen when my husband was in the nursing home fighting for his life.”
The book that we see in front of us was painstakingly reconstructed over a span of two years by Bijoya Ray, who scoured endless documents, scripts, and notebooks, scattered around the house, after finding the first draft of his memoir a few weeks after his passing away. But she seems to lament at the fact that she could not get the “final draft”, the draft that “would have been a joy to read in his wonderfully lucid, polished and impeccable English”, the draft that was stolen from his bedside table. It’s true that there are several leaps one makes in the narrative of this memoir, one narrative flowing into the other seemingly disconnected one with a break of an asterix, but the movements feel strong and completely cohesive. There are several carefully curated photographs at the center of this book, which seem to anchor the characters, and people one encounters in Ray’s narrative, and they bring a certain sense of familiarity that only good writers can achieve. One is very used to conspiracy theories regarding Ray, his writing of the script for The Alien based on the story he had published in the children’s magazine Sandesh which would be passed on from one Hollywood studio to the next, and eventually become Steven Spielberg’s ET, being another one. But this one, of the existence of a final draft of Ray’s memoir excited me like nothing else, before I moved on from the preface to the main body of the text, as it were. His words, however, sucked me in. This memoir, strangely enough, reads like a thriller. From his encounters with fellow like-minded film buffs in Calcutta of the ‘50s to encountering Jean Renoir, to looking for funding for his films, each meeting, each encounter breaks the mould of mundanity and lends itself to an almost palpable suspense like trajectory. I knew the Apu films were eventually made, I did grow up watching Ray’s films, but how he made them, gave it an air of an acrobat walking the tightrope, one wrong gesture could’ve meant disaster. This is the sense of the fantastic that one gets from his writing. But isn’t this life itself? Each step one takes could mean eventual disaster, but one walks on nonetheless, as long as each step gives the one walking satisfaction, a sense of doing what feels right, instead of the obverse? One would only be able to judge, in retrospect.
In incredibly simple terms, this book takes the reader through the journey of the filmmaking processes behind some of the most iconic cinematic experiences to come out of what we now tend to call “Indian Cinema”, and in that sense it is indeed a wonderful addition to the history of the evolution of said cinema. In another way, this is very clearly a behind the curtain look at the director Satyajit Ray’s legacy, brought to the fore by his wife. But the idea of the memoir in all of this is what interests me the most. The ‘I’, rather than the ‘My’ in the title, brings together the hopes and insecurities of every person who is scared to pursue their hidden ambitions, and it is the ‘I’, therefore, of a Satyajit Ray no less, that lends strength, to not just the budding filmmaker, just starting out, but every person who resolves to leave their nine to five workplaces, and follow their passions to the ends of the Earth, and even beyond.
The choice of compromises he, both, made and didn’t, shape the Ray we know of today, but what felt important to him was trying, at the very least to follow his dreams: “If it (his dream of being a filmmaker) didn’t work, I could get back to my desk at Keymer’s, tail between my legs. But if it did work, there would be not stopping me. The question was how to go about it.” This is the memoir of a man, who did not go back.