Satyajit Ray is regarded as one of the best filmmakers of Indian cinema. His films always had a “secret ingredient” that kept the audience hooked to every single frame. His he had a verydeliberate sense of filmmaking. This is probably the reason why his first movie, Pather Panchali, in itself was such a huge success. The introduction to the world of Apu not only engaged the Indian audience but managed to garner international attention. A lesser-known fact about this luminary of Indian cinema was that he was a talented graphic designer and used to design his own posters, credit titles and publicity material.
Ray came from art and literary lineage. The creative spark in him never died. Though he first studied economics his passion remained in the fine arts. In 1940, after the constant insistence of his mother, he went to Visva-Bharathi University in Santiniketan. Here he developed his own artistic sensibility under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. Following this, he began his career as a designer in an advertisement agency. He used creative typefaces and integrated traditional Indian designs with contemporary artwork to create motifs for various brands. He soon left his job and went to Signet press to create the cover art for all the books being released by the publishing agency. This is where he was introduced to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s children’s version of Pather Panchali. The process of illustrating the book and the cover deeply influenced the way Ray would make his film.
The process of visualisation that Ray developed in the years of working as a designer was the beginning of his journey as the filmmaker that we all know him for today. He was influenced by minimalist art. He combined traditional and pop art to form images that conveyed the message while holding and catching your attention. He believed in playing around with the typeface and was interested in calligraphy. He used his talent to convey messages through the text.
In an industry where individualism was hard to find Ray paved the way for his own idea of creative expression. He would take a long period of time just setting up shots in order to ensure that every shot and detail was perfect. The other filmmaker know for this sort of meticulous precision was the infamous Alfred Hitchcock. He is said to have sketched out every scene before shooting them. This technique was used to ensure that every detail in the shot would draw the audience into the movie and make them believe it as reality. The aesthetic layering and systematic understanding of the effect of details can only be traced back to his talent as a designer.
At the time when the poster was used as an advertisement of the cast of the movie, Ray used his posters to give the audience an idea of what the movie was about. He blended his love for photography and graphic design to come up with condensed versions of the essence of the story of the movie. He was creatively a very inquisitive person and worked on different techniques ofmaking message reach the audience while appealing to various visual stimuli. He worked on very simple themes and added details to translate the message.
The poster for the movie Pather Panchali was created from a snapshot from the film. In the scene used the protagonist Apu is in the frame with his mother smiling at him and sister Durga, combing his hair. The mundaneness and routine action are shown in the poster immediately provide the audience with a sense of home. Ray then uses a circular design like seen in folk art to frame the image. He added simplistic motifs looking like they were hand-drawn of the sun, a fish, and a bird on the image. This helps us connect to the character of Apu and understand his childlike nature. Even this well thought out the poster was not enough to impress Satyajit Ray because he wanted absolute perfection. This led to him designing another poster which had a neon Apu and Durga running against the backdrop of a busy city. This creative process in itself shows the different ways in which Ray’s brilliance worked and the point of views he had.
When discussing the typeface in his work we can take various examples from his posters. One such movie is Joi Baba Felunath. The title is written in a way that there were sparks forming a triangle coming out of the Bengali letter ‘la’ that became a gun. The poster of the movie Devi with an eerie and powerful image of Sharmila Tagore drawing parallels to the goddess Durga. the word ‘Devi’ being surrounded by a traditional temple.
His work is nothing but a masterclass on minimalism. A simple calligraphic outline of the protagonist is seen in the poster of Charulatha. The poster uses only the simple technique of brushstroke and manages to evoke the sadness and longingness of the character. The poster draws you in with its simplistic depiction of pathos.
Considering the time at which they were created all these posters were hand-drawn. This was done during the post-production time of the film. His son recollects numerous instances in which Ray would resign himself to his quarters to allow him to be completely invested in the process. He would surround himself with Bengali literature and Italian art and used various mediums to create the effect he wanted.
His designs might not be what he is remembered for but amongst design aficionados, this legend will always be regarded as the country’s first graphic designer.