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A recent sojourn led me down memory lane. I found myself in a Darjeeling Limited of sorts, with a
co-passenger—the grand master of auteur cinema, Satyajit Ray himself.
In a world fuelled by audio-visual communication & viral, hyper-individualized media, it’s easy for digital communication enthusiasts to distinguish between major directorial styles in filmmaking. These styles become akin to filters used on platforms like Instagram. One just has to slip on a lens to fuse parallels between Quentin Tarantino movies & real life, or to slide into a kitschy Karan Johar rom-com for a few stolen minutes.
Recently, as I sat by a window of the Rohilla Express on a trip back from Jaipur to Delhi, I watched a gaunt boy selling tea to a young British traveler across from me. As my eyes took in the scene, the oeuvre of two legendary filmmakers colored my field of vision:The intimacy & pathos of Satyajit Ray lay in the worn fibers of the boy’s shirt, the dirt under his fingernails, his unkempt hair, & chapped tobacco -stained lips. He watched the British gentleman gingerly pluck the chai cup & take a sip after handing him triple the price he’d have asked me. A thick, unsettling irony à la Wes Anderson stole between us with the rising steam. My silence enabled this trivial act of extortion as I sat face-to-face with the legacies dividing our unlikely trio, & the chasms of opportunity between us.
Later reflecting on how my reverie had combined two distinct narrative filmmaking styles, I settled down to read. Soon, I fell into a stupor only a train journey can induce. In this hazy dreamscape, I witnessed an unlikelier meeting: Satyajit Ray, the legend himself, was speaking in low tones to a cameraman. I walked closer till I could see the cameraman’s face. Straggly bangs & striped headband erased any doubt…it was Wes Anderson. I couldn’t hear their exchange.
Now contemplating the meaning of the scene from a more academic perspective, this evocative dream doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Both Ray & Anderson have built distinct dictionaries of design & artistic treatment in their audio-visual explorations. Satyajit Ray is the historical & canonical maverick & grand old man of Indian cinema. Wes Anderson has made cult films since his first, Bottle Rocket, 1996.
Ray’s legacy spans three decades from the 1950s onward, with adaptations of Bengali classics by Rabindranath Tagore & Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay like Pather Panchali, Hamar Shona Bangla & Charulata. He also made the feature-length film Shatranj ke Khilari, Nayak & films based on his screenplays like Feluda Mysteries.
Roger Manwell said:“He (Ray) takes his timing from the nature of the people and their environment; his camera is the intent, unobtrusive observer of reactions; his editing the discreet, economical transition from one value to the next."
Satyajit Ray was a pioneer in the Indian filmmaking industry. When it came to visual expression, Ray was the first to use
He applied a method called bounce lighting before its formal invention. Ray would storyboard his frames before shooting. Often his natural camera work was so precise that it required minimal editing. Ray used an Arriflex camera to infiltrate personal space, shooting scenes with his head covered in black cloth to make the actors more comfortable. While Ray had trusted friends like Ravi Shankar building his music compositions, he soon began composing a global sound better adapted to his ambitions for audio-visual communication in his scenes.
During his time at Shantiniketan, Nand Lal Bose influenced him as did naturalism. Ray admired Stanley Kubrick (A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining) and William Wyler (Roman Holiday). His father was a nonsense poem writer who died when he was three. Perhaps this strengthened Ray’s ability to convey strong abstraction with the use of minimal dialogue & unique comic elements. Take the following excerpt from an article written for the New York Times in 1972 by Nick Canby about a scene from Ray’s film, The Adversary (1970):
"Do you like flowers?" he is asked by a prospective employer at the botanical gardens. "Not unconditionally," says Siddhartha. "Who was Prime Minister at the time of independence?" the employer goes on. "Whose independence?" the young man answers. 
Wes Anderson is known for his idiosyncratic style of confrontational, aesthetically brave cinema, experimental use of digital media & eclectic characters. Few directors can demonstrate design fundamentals in symmetry, color palette & print within mise-en-scene as well as Anderson. Semiotic analysis reveals an oddly thoughtful, almost self-conscious deconstruction of sign theory into audio-visual communication, with use of
Add to this Anderson’s habit of jumping from one genre to another within one film to express himself/his character’s emotions & recollections, his use of architectural montage, & evocative parallels of cult classics (like the dance sequence in Moonrise Kingdom which could have been drawn from scenes in Badlands, Pulp Fiction or even Skins) & “Andersonian” cinema becomes a multiverse of metanarratives.
Satyajit Ray was an autodidact, a polymath & a designer. In his youth, he worked as an advertising artist & designed book covers. His first encounter with Pather Panchali’s Apu happened through the book design of its adaptation for children.Perhaps the depiction of children is where Ray’s influence on Wes Anderson is most apparent.Ray’s treatment of children is discerning. He treats Durga & Apu as salient individuals with foresight & survival instincts. Yet captures their innocence. (Appu yells “Chitthi! Chitthi!” joyously as he brings a letter from his father to his mother & later protects the memory of his late sister by removing the evidence of old wrongdoing) A similar self-awareness is engaged in Ray’s silent short film Two, between boys from polar economic backgrounds.
Adults in Anderson’s films combine real people from his past or are autobiographical caricatures. Protagonists struggle with their repressed inner children. Children, however, are solid, knowing & assertive humans, more aligned with their true selves. The twins in The Royal Tenenbaums are conduits connecting their grandfather Royal, to his inner child.
Still, when it comes to oeuvre, where Wes Anderson shuns a stylistic theme, Ray didn’t fight his mold.
So what would Satyajit Ray, the behemoth of black & white cinema, a harbinger of multidimensional characters, maestro of audio-visual communication, & doyen of the moving image have to say about Wes Anderson’s cinema? Let’s explore, so we can hazard a guess!
Anderson, who once dreamt of being an architect, treats space like Ray—as an extension of personality, mood & situation. Let's take a look at how he makes the elements of a film his own:
STORY: User-centric design which challenges the viewer with pace, content & symbolism
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Set design compliments the interior atmosphere of human exchange, status & story
COLOR: Like a Studio Ghibli film, pastel, vintage, use of black and white for flashbacks
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Symmetry, juxtaposition, disruption, combination
EDITING: Rhythmic & choreographed with distinct beats & tempos in visual communication & scene length
MEDIA: Form follows the intended function of narrative with stop motion, 2D animation & absurdist media exploration
SOUND DESIGN & MUSIC: ASMR, folk, euro rock, music as an extension of characters’ emotions (Needle in the Hay by Elliot Smith in The Royal Tenenbaums).
What then have such larger-than-life directors given to art, design & visual communication?
All Anderson & Ray films are like poetry in motion. As I have tried to illustrate in this article, “eccentricities”, risks & design thinking have been applied to overcome autuerial challenges to expression. Anderson added layers of movement to the stop motion by using goat hair for the character models in his naive experiment Fantastic Mr. Fox. Ray hadn’t ever directed a scene on the first day of shooting Pather Panchali.But where Anderson’s 4th wall is self-conscious, Ray’s 4th wall is a revelation. Anderson’s frames place audiences as intruders in scenes not meant for witnesses. This “new sincerity” of Andersonian drama is intimate & childlike. Actors portray put-together humans who take their masks off in front of the camera as they fall in & out of the sentimentality of naturalism. There is an innocent dismantlement of control, an uncovering of what’s raw & traumatic in life.
As in Ray’s portrayal of a family in Kanchenjunga, families in Anderson's films are teams with no common goal. The Royal Tenenbaums originated after Anderson attempted to write about his own family. While he avoids being type-cast, Anderson can only run so far away from himself. His directorial fingerprints lie in meticulous constructivism & shaky camera pans that spill realism into his angles. Where Ray could color his work with his compassionate gaze, Anderson seems to ask for it.
Perhaps this is a form of wish fulfillment. His characters cannot always help themselves out of situations or mindsets, Anderson asks us to suspend judgment till they accept their flaws & life’s imperfections & thus seem to be transformed by it.
So whether a narrative presents itself as a book, a play, a building, or a film within a film, the means are secondary to the story itself. And each story holds special meaning for Anderson. The French Dispatch is an ode to The New Yorker, a magazine Anderson grew up reading. A childhood film, Reitherman’s Robin Hood, influenced Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson filmed Rushmore in his old school.
Anderson is very much a co-inhabitant of his work. He is a present storyteller, sometimes speaking to the camera (in The Darjeeling Limited he takes a call in the film). He is also a character within the scenes, making his presence felt in BTS, intruder-like actions taken by the characters in immaculately symmetrical scenes using planimetric composition or through symbolic objects around them.
Both Ray & Anderson use global, classical music. Anderson has used Satyajit Ray's “Ruku's Room" from Joy Baba Felunath (1979) and "Charu's Theme" from Charulata (1964) in The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
Semiotic analysts would lose their voices over the iconography used by both directors. The idol of Ganesh protecting Apu’s family during the storm, or the snake entering the abandoned family home, are laden with a plurality of meaning. The transparency of dialogue also makes room for intersectional commentary.
Anderson’s undisguised, postmodernist anti-naturalism is fanciful enough to deal with heavy topics like death & colonialism in indirect ways. In The Darjeeling Limited, three white brothers look haplessly out of place, searching for a mother who doesn't seem to want them. The death of a little Indian boy transforms them, about which even Mulk Raj Anand may have had a lot to say.
Both Ray & Anderson are terrific filmmakers who let their subjects converse with their lens. The male gaze here seems to take a backseat, almost as if it is standing outside itself, disembodied, voyeuristic & watchful as always but also watching itself in its complete hypocrisy. It is this responsive & reflexive aspect of both their films that stands to combine their world view, be it in my dreams or in Ray’s influence on Anderson’s technique.
If I were to hazard a guess at what Ray would be whispering into Wes Anderson’s ear behind the camera? I’d imagine it being along the lines of “You’re doing good, son, keep going.”
Auteur: theory of director as visual author introduced by French New Wave cinema
Camera-stylo: New Wave term for the director is a visual writer & the camera as the pen (stylo)
Naturalism: the equivalent of realist painting in filmmaking
Metanarrative: a self-exploratory style that reflects on intentional, communication design behind narratives
Mise-en-scene: the term used to refer to the combined theatrical devices of visual narration
Swish Pan: horizontal movement of camera imitating eye movement
Montage: a composite scene made of several quick cuts
Planimetric Composition: David Boardwell critic 2D flat plane filmography & composition characters moving through like disruptions
Compass Point Editing: (90 degree increment panning, cuts in 180 degrees)
Flatlay: bird’s eye view of carefully arranged objects on a flat surface
4th Wall: theater convention that assumes a an invisible wall exists between the the audience & the actor, even in digital media
FURTHER RESOURCESCheck out:The Making of “The Darjeeling Limited: A Documentary by Barry Braverman offering insight into Anderson’s style.Two: Short film by Satyajit Ray How Satyajit Ray Directs a Film | The Director's Chair: Featuring Wes Anderson
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