Browsing through my collection of old magazines, I came across an interview of Subhash Ghai. He was trying to explain the cross borne by the ‘commercial’ film-makers, who have to make films for the box-office. This, he pondered, took away the luxury of making films for international awards – which seemed to be available to directors like Satyajit Ray.
Satyajit Ray, it is generally felt, was an award-winning filmmaker who survived on the plaudits received at international film festivals and his films routinely sank at the domestic box office.
Quite interestingly, this is almost diametrically opposite of the reality – as Ray, the director, was completely focused on the box office returns of his films without transgressing the boundaries of the genre he chose to depict or compromising the realism of the depiction.
Admittedly, his films never broke collection records but the maker never lost sight of the audience while making them.
Actually, they did… and even today, Gupi Gayin Bagha Bayin (released in 1968) still holds the record for the longest first-release run for a Bengali film.
His focus on the commercial success of his films was necessary for no other reason except that there was no support of any state-sponsored film-financing institutions for the majority of his career and Ray had to depend on private producers for whom the box-office returns were of paramount importance. It was only towards the end of his career that Ray turned to state financing (NFDC, Doordarshan etc) and international backing (admirers like Gerard Depardieu).
Ray’s first film – Pather Panchali – was a runaway hit in Bengal and that was the sole reason why Ray managed to find financiers for his subsequent films.
Freshly buoyed by the success of Pather Panchali, Ray started work on his second film, Aparajito – which critics consider an even better piece of art than its prequel. However, Aparajito failed quite miserably at the box office – as the audiences failed to digest the ruthless depiction of a son’s apathy towards his mother. On the other hand, the critical appreciation took off from where Pather Panchali left and Aparajito was a resounding success on the festival circuit (winning, among others, the top prize at Venice).
Despite all the international recognition, Ray never lost sight of the fact that his home market was unmoved by the film and in order to restore his reputation as a commercially viable director, he started looking for subjects that would be acceptable to the film-going public.
He felt that music and comedy are two such elements and he chose stories for his next two films so that loads of both can be used – legitimately! Jalshaghar remains one of the greatest examples of situational use of music in cinema and Parash Pathar is one of the most sophisticated comedies to have been made.
Apart from choosing stories and themes of appeal, Ray has made several references in his memoirs to indicate his constant concern for a great experience for the viewer.
In a poignant scene of Pather Panchali, where Indir Thakurun is taken to the cremation grounds, he had Indir’s theme song sung in the background instead of using the death chants that normally accompany such a procession. He had noted that every time the first part of the Bengali death chant (“Bolo Hari…”) is heard on the screen, frivolous members of the audience can never resist completing it (“Hari Bol…”). In order to preserve the melancholy nature of the scene, he decided to do away with the chants and use the music instead.
Later on in his career, he tried to time his releases to happen in the winters of Calcutta so that the noisy fans in the theatres need not be on to disturb the delicate sound recordings of some of the key sequences.
With his multi-faceted genius, Ray engaged the viewer right from the beginning – with brilliantly designed posters to fuel curiosity and build up mood. Without leaving the publicity to his producers or distributors, Ray himself designed his posters and timed the pre-release campaigns with a lot of thought.
His advertising background came handy as all his films were preceded with a classical teaser and theme campaigns. In fact, Pather Panchali was definitely the first film and one of the earliest Indian advertising campaigns to have a teaser.
His design of posters, publicity material and credit titles deserves a separate post of its own!
Ray chose not to be a businessman and explore avenues of commerce that were open to him as a filmmaker of international repute. Otherwise, he could have minted money – for he had revenue options that have opened only recently to Bollywood.
The overseas market, for example. Pather Panchali is the highest foreign exchange earner for the West Bengal government ever and there was a heavy demand for his films in the international market post the release of his first few films. He chose not to work for that market and depended on irregular (and sometimes insufficient) funding in his home state to make his films on a shoestring budget. Offers from top Hollywood studios were rejected because they came with the attendant problems of interference from the studio bosses.
Another major revenue generator for Ray’s films has been the home video market – with his films being part of the staple shopping list of non-resident Bengalis and Indians alike. In fact, it is a constant scam that Ray films on video discs are priced at least 40% higher than standard titles – and they still manage to have a steady sale. On value sales of home videos, I wouldn’t be very surprised if Ray brushes shoulders with the Chopras and Johars in the highest selling Indian directors!
While Bollywood made its first sequel in 2006, Ray did so with his very second film (way back in 1957) and made it into a Trilogy (which is probably the most famous ever).
In his lifetime, he extended three different ‘properties’ into sequels and left behind enough material for two of them (Feluda and Gupi-Bagha) to be extended into series of great popularity. Each one of these films – made by him or later – has enjoyed tremendous box-office runs. In fact, after the stupendous success of the last Feluda film (Bombaiyer Bombetey), the makers have been enthused enough to finance the next one, which is being filmed in Hong Kong for a major part and is being eagerly awaited by the audience and distributors alike.
India’s most famous director continues to make money – 14 years after he passed away. Not a commercial success replicated that have been replicated by the so-called Box-Office Badshahs!
Note: Very frivolous. Knocked off 1000 words because I felt angry with Subhash Ghai. Ray deserves far more in-depth research than this!