My Years With Apu, A Memoir reflects the lucidity, compassion, and humility of the versatile and immensely talented humanist filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. The book is prefaced by his wife, Bijoya Ray, who describes her attempts to faithfully recapture Ray’s memoir from his first draft, after his final draft was stolen at a hospital shortly before his death. Ray recounts with self-effacing modesty his initial exposure to the Bengali novel Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhusan Bannerji while seeking employment at a British advertising agency. Ray made the acquaintance of an erudite company manager named D.K. Gupta who later tasked Ray to illustrate the abridged version of the novel for his own publishing company, Signet Press, and suggested the suitability of adapting the story to film. As a result, Ray began to devise creative ways to shoot his envisioned low budget, independent film: nonprofessional actors, natural lighting, no makeup, location shooting. His approach would later be validated after seeing Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist film, The Bicycle Thieves.
Ray’s affection for “serious” cinema led to the creation of the Calcutta Film Society in an attempt to elevate the artistic and technical standards for the Indian film industry. In his article for the Statesman entitled What is Wrong With Indian Films?, Ray remarks:
It should be realized that the average American film is a bad model, if only because it depicts a way of life so utterly variant with our own. Moreover, the high technical polish which is the hallmark of the standard Hollywood product, would be impossible to achieve under existing Indian conditions. What the Indian Cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium.
Ray’s desire to instill cultural pride through the creation of a distinctive, native cinema and develop his own knowledge on the potential of film as an artistic medium were further cultivated during a sought after meeting with revered humanist director, Jean Renoir (who visited India in 1949 in order to scout locations and interview actors for the filming of The River), where the awestruck Ray instinctively remarked that he was working on the Pather Panchali film project. This non-binding declaration to his hero and cinematic mentor, followed by a subsequent traveling foreign film festival, which featured such classics as Miracle in Milan, Open City, Rashomon, and Jour de Fête, cemented Ray’s commitment and determination to become a filmmaker. After taking a leave of absence from his employer, Ray embarked on the filming of the historic masterpiece that would launch his life’s work and propel him to international acclaim – the first installment of what would evolve to be a chronicle of the life and travails of a poor Bengali boy named Apu at the turn of the century – The Apu Trilogy.
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