Portrait of a Director, Marie Seton’s definitive biography of Satyajit Ray, was first published in 1971.
The book was subsequently revised to include Ray’s later films. The last revised edition dates back to
1978; this edition has never been available in India. The book has now been out of print for some
It is a privilege to bring Portrait of a Director back into print for the many aficionados of
film who still rate this book as the most detailed and incisive study of Satyajit Ray’s work.
This new edition of the book contains the complete text of Marie Seton’s final revised
edition, dating back to 1978. In addition, it includes two previously unpublished pieces by Marie Seton,
and a Chronology, Filmography and List of Awards updated to include Ray’s last film.
Satyajit Ray passed away in 1992. Between 1978 (when this book was last revised) and 1991
he made nine films. These are films that Marie Seton was not able to comment on, but a biography of
Ray as filmmaker remains incomplete without some mention of his later work. An Afterword by Indrani
Majumdar, who has been researching and writing on Ray’s films for over two decades, brings the story
of Ray’s film-making up to date.
Portrait of a Director was written in the late 1960s, and its text is necessarily rooted in the
milieu in which it was composed. Information relating to people and films in the text as well as the
Who’s Who was correct at the time of Marie Seton’s original composition; the original text has not
been revised or updated in view of future developments.
Penguin India is thankful to Pamela Cullen, the executor of Marie Seton’s estate, for
allowing the book to be brought back into print and for writing a Preface, to Indrani Majumdar for
writing the Afterword and compiling the Chronology, filmography and List of Awards, and to Sandip
Ray, Satyajit Ray’s son, for writing a Foreword.
I first met Marie Seton as a child. She was keen to meet my father soon after she had seen Pather
Panchali. So she came to Calcutta and visited us at our flat in Lake Temple Road. At the time, my
grandmother (Suprabha Ray) and a great-uncle (Subimal Ray) were both alive. Marie therefore got the
chance to talk to not just Baba and Ma, but these other older members of our family as well. I still
remember her recording her conversations with my great-uncle in particular. She would then set up her
typewriter in my room and type away for hours. She also had innumerable conversations with Punyalata
Chakravarty (my father’s aunt) and her two daughters, Kalyani Karlekar and Nalini Das. It was for this
reason that Marie could produce authentic and accurate details of our family background, and describe
so well the atmosphere in which my father grew up.
When Portrait of a Director was first published in 1971, we could see immediately what a
dedicated piece of work it was, written in a style that was both interesting and intimate. It was-and, I
think, still remains-something of a landmark in that genre of writing. When writing a biography, it is
easy to litter every page with too many facts and figures and turn ever a very interesting subject into
something dry, flat and boring. Marie had the experience, and the judgement, to know where to draw the
What makes this book very special is that much of the text is peppered with anecdotes
collected while Marie first watched my father shoot a film, and then sat in the editing room, observing
all the details of post-production. I remember Baba explaining the process of editing to her, pointing
out the subtlety and sensitivity with which the task had to be handled.
One particular day stands out in my memory of the time when Marie was in Calcutta. We
were all in the editing room when my father received news that the famous actor, Chhabi Biswas (who
had acted in three of his films), had died. Within minutes, all studios in the city stopped working.
Everyone wanted to pay their last respects to the actor. Marie was so much a part of that day. I think she
has mentioned this incident in her book.
One question that I have heard people ask when talking about Marie’s book-and other
biographies of my father that were subsequently published in the West-is what he himself thought about
them. The truth is that her rarely spoke of his feelings; but I do know that he often got irritated if anyone
commented on his work without sufficient knowledge about the subject on which they chose to speak. I
remember him telling a few people that if they were to talk about, and pass judgement on, Bengal and
the culture of Bengalis, then they should take the trouble at least to learn the language. Perhaps that was
what prompted-or provoked-him to write the now famous article ‘Under Western Eyes’ in sight and
I do not know how much Bengali Marie managed to learn. Indeed, when he had been through
the book, my father did point out a few spelling mistakes to her! But, in spite of these errors, I think
Portrait of a Director is the only book which puts Satyajit Ray in a true historical context. It does not
just help one to get to know the man, his films and his style of working, but it also puts the focus on the
Bengal film industry of that time.
After Marie’s return to London, we met her there a couple of times. My father loved to meet
all his old friends in London, including Marie and the ‘Sequence’ group of people. The last time we met
Marie was in 1984, when we were returning from Houston after my father’s heart surgery. We stopped
in London for ten days. During that time, Marie would often visit us and have lunch with us. But she
herself was looking very frail in those days, suffering from a bad cold and cough. I believe she had been
a heavy smoker at one time. Unfortunately, she died a year later, in 1985.
Had she been alive today, I am sure it would have given her as much pleasure as it gives me to
witness the re-birth of her book. A book like this should never have into hibernation for so long-it is
over two decades since it was last known to be in print! I have noticed, while talking to some young
people, that even those who know about this book and its author cannot always pronounce her name
correctly, let alone spell it. The tendency is to call her ‘Mary’. Once the book sees new light of day,
hopefully no one will make that mistake again.
I have been fortunate enough to have retained some of my father’s old unit members. Like
me, they are delighted that Portrait of a Director is being published again. Marie and her book will
always occupy a very special place in our hearts-and, I hope, in the heart of every reader who will now
get the chance to read it.
I first me Maries Seton in 1955 when the Indian Ministry of Education, in association with The British
Film Institute, commissioned her to lecture on film appreciation at many of India’s flourishing film
societies. I had on film appreciation at many of India’s flourishing film societies. I had known of her for
some time, having read her book on Paul Robeson and learnt how she had battled and supported
Robeson and his family when the McCarthy witch hunt almost ruined their lives. And of course I knew
her monumental biography of Sergei Eisenstein and how she managed to rescue footage from his Que
Viva Mexico and fashion it into a film of her own: Time in the Sun.
I was apprehensive and extremely nervous about meeting her, particularly because of her
friendship with and devotion to Eisenstein, one of the greatest masters of film, and also because she was
known as a very feisty, formidable lady who didn’t suffer fools gladly. I was surprised to find her
physically very frail, nevertheless through a haze of her cigaretee smoke, and over an agreeable lunch, I
discovered she was an extraordinary, stimulating, witty person with words and ideas tumbling out of her
lips with hardly a pause.
She told me that she had always had a fascination for India and as a young woman she had
been introduced to India’s fight for independence by one of India’s greatest political figures, Krishna
Menon, who was then a struggling lawyer in London. She also had family associations with India through
her father, who had served as an officer in the Indian Army and been seriously wounded during one of
the many uprisings of the period. She loved him deeply and was distraught when he died in London some
years later from the effect of his wounds.
She also told me that as a very young girl she had met Mahatma Gandhi in London and had
somehow engineered a brief conversation with him, much to the surprise and irritation of the so-called
dignitaries who had gathered to meet him!
During her first Indian lecture tour she struck up a lasting friendship with Pandit Nehru and
Indira Gandhi. This friendship, and her fascination with India’s political scene, prompted her to write a
biography of Nehru called Panditji.
Later, having met Satyajit Ray, whose genius as a film-maker she immediately recognized,
she championed his first film, Pather Panchali, until it received international recognition.
Marie set out to get key film journalists to know the young filmmaker and I recall the times
when I told Satyajit that Marie was arranging a party for him at her house in Kensington, during his visits
to England. He would exclaim: ‘Oh my god, not a party. Please, please get her to put it off!’ it was even
worse at official film receptions I had organized at the Indian High Commission. I would frequently find
him trying unsuccessfully to hide behind a potted palm or one of the marble pillars. All this came about
because in his early days as an up-and-coming of persuasion to inveigle him into meeting film
journalists, film-makers and distributors at her home. Indeed he was often accused of being haughty and
difficult to approach by those who were not aware of his shyness.
After Ray had won numerous awards and international acclaim she finally decided it was time
to write his biography. After writing a rough outline in London she went back to Calcutta, having cadged
a lift in Pandit Nehru’s baggage plane, to finalize work on the book which was published in 1971.
She was honoured by India in the penultimate year of her life with a Padma Bhushan. The
assassination of her close friend, Indira Gandhi, deeply upset her and in a way set the seeds in her frail
body for her death from pneumonia in 1985.
Following Marie’s death the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, wrote: ‘…she was a
fine friend who reached out to people, effortlessly crossing the generation gap and any kind of cultural
To me she was a wonderful friend, a woman full of life and new ideas right to the end of her
life. I still miss her enormously and am delighted that her wish to have her book published in a revised
paperback edition has finally come true.
I am particularly grateful to Indrani Majumdar for writing the Afterword to this book.
Back of the Book
The definitive study of the life and work of India’s greatest filmmaker.
Satyajit Ray was India’s first filmmaker to gain international recognition as a master of the medium, and
today he continues to be regarded as one of the world’s finest directors of all time. His first film Pather
Panchali, made when he was in his thirties, catapulted him into the forefront of young directors
worldwide when in 1956 the Cannes Film Festival honoured it as the ‘best human document’ of the year.
Several other films by Ray, like Aparajito, Jalsaghar, Charulata, Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri, Shatranj Ke
Khilari, Ghare Baire and Agantuk, made over a career spanning five decades, are considered classics of
contemporary cinema. In 1992, Ray was awarded the Oscar for lifetime Achievement by the Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, in the same year, was also honoured with the Bharat
First compared with Robert Flaherty for his lyrical use of nature and locations, Ray is not
regarded as one of the great neo-realist directors. From the beginning he rejected the established path
of Indian film production, declaring at the age of six: ‘I’ll go to Germany and come back and make
films’ He absorbed a remarkably broad culture from his family which had interesting literary, artistic
and musical inclinations. With his extraordinary persistence and capacity for work, he simultaneously
equipped himself with such thoroughness that he was able to create a masterpiece in his very first
Marie Seton’s classic study of Ray, the product of thorough research and a long and close
association with the Ray family, is the most detailed examination available of Ray’s work-as musician,
scenarist and director. First published in 1971, it was last updated in 1978, some fourteen years before
Ray passed away. This new and revised edition includes unpublished pieces from the author’s further
writings on Ray, and an Afterword that takes the story forward to Ray’s last film. It will hopefully,
re-introduce the genius of Ray to a whole new generation of readers and film aficionados.
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