Ashoke Nag recollects the day maestro Satyajit Ray received the Oscar trophy in Calcutta from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which was an unprecedented gesture in the history of the Oscars.
A day in the Spring of 1992. It’s a moment when Calcutta was crowned with the movie world’s most celebrated award. Maestro Satyajit Ray was handed the Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).
Says Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s son: “The air was abuzz since end-1991 that several film makers in Hollywood, including Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Martin Scorcese, were all gearing up to propose the Oscar for father. That’s the feedback we were receiving from our close friends and associates in Los Angeles. Even so, we were still keeping the goings on away from father. Then we learnt that virtually any Hollywood personality who was being approached by the Merchant-Ivory duo – embracing names like Francis Ford Coppola, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, a wide spectrum of the Hollywood fraternity including the actors and directors were throwing their mite behind father and recommending him for the Oscar Award.”
Then a telegram arrived from the one-time famed Hollywood actor Karl Malden, who was AMPAS’s president then, announcing the Oscar for Satyajit Ray. “Father was thrown off his feet. He was ecstatic,” exclaims Sandip. “It was like the Nobel Prize in cinema for him. Besides, he began watching Hollywood from the outset of his affair with films. Hollywood was his first love. In fact, after he suffered two massive heart attacks and underwent surgery in the US, he was confined at home by the doctors for a while. This was the phase when he single-mindedly watched Hollywood movies on the VHS system we had set up at our residence.”
Sandip narrates, “Incidentally, father was in the midst of post-production work for his last film Agantuk (The Stranger) when Mr Karl Malden’s telegram arrived in December 1991. Father wrote back saying that he was deeply touched by AMPAS’s gesture and expressed his wish to be present at the Oscar ceremonies provided his doctors permitted such a long flight. He was moved to the Belle Vue Nursing Home in south-central Calcutta) only some months later.”
Satyajit Ray had to be given crucial shot every month which could only be administered at the hospital under supervision. But, this time around, various complications began dogging the maestro. Realising that his health was deteriorating, Satyajit Ray informed AMPAS that he would be unable to attend the ceremonies. On the heels of this message from Ray, AMPAS decided to send across a team to Calcutta with the Oscar trophy and present the award to the master in the city. An unprecedented gesture in the history of the Oscars.
“Father’s condition kept going from bad to worse and we were in a nail-biting state of uncertainty whether he would actually manage to receive the Oscar personally. The AMPAS team members, mainly a cameraman and a director, who were camping at a city five-star hotel, also had to return for the ceremonies and couldn’t wait indefinitely. We were in constant touch, obviously, with father’s prime cardiologist, Dr Kanti Bakshi, and taking stock of the situation. Father was then in the intensive cardiac care unit (ICCU). Then, early one morning, Dr Bakshi put through a call to mother (Bijoya Ray) and informed her that father was in an enhanced state of alertness. In fact, he had spoken to father and he (Ray) had expressed a wish to get the whole act over a done with,” informs Sandip reflectively.
The AMPAS team members were, in turn, informed and they arrived at Belle Vue without a whisper going around and entered through a door which was secluded and not meant for general visitors and went straight up to the ICCU. Of course, special permission had been sought from the nursing home’s top management to carry out what was a simulated Oscar award presentation, in the ICCU.
“All the nurses at the ICCU were palpably excited to witness a never-before spectacle in such an environ. The whole affair was extremely cleverly managed so that the media wouldn’t smell a whiff of the goings on. It wouldn’t have been possible today without a doubt with the media world having exploded into gigantic proportions. And, most importantly, father pulled it off with aplomb with a memorable Oscar speech to boot. In the totally debilitated condition in which he (Satyajit Ray) was, I feel this was possible only for an individual of his stature and calibre,” Sandip says, nostalgia writ on his face. “Not just that, it clearly underscored father’s inner strength and will-power. Even Dr Bakshi was taken completely aback,” drives home Sandip. Incidentally, the Oscar trophy was wrapped in a red velvet cloth and before being handed over to father, he was warned that it was somewhat heavy,” informs Sandip. Totally inspired that he was, the master was undeterred by any hurdle. The footage was screened at the 64th Academy Awards ceremony with a stirring introduction by the famed actress Audrey Hepburn.
Ray had made a mention in his Oscar talk, that he had written to famous Hollywood director Billy Wilder and actress Ginger Rogers sometime during his days of viewing American films, but hadn’t received responses from either of them. Expresses Sandip, “When Billy Wilder watched father’s televised Academy Award talk, he was shocked and immediately made amends and wired a telegram to father. But tragically, I failed to show Mr Wilder’s telegram to father because he had slid further health-wise and was unable to comprehend anything which was being conveyed to him.”
I would drop by every day at the family home of the Rays when the maestro was battling for his life at the Belle Vue Nursing Home. On the day of the Oscar award, I reached their home in the afternoon. When I entered Satyajit Ray’s study, there were some relatives and friends of the Rays milling around. And, of course, media persons and photojournalists, interviewing Sandip or clicking photographs of the Oscar trophy which was gleaming at a distance. Suddenly, without a warning, Sandip’s wife Lolita picked up that sparkling gold figure and placed it in my hands. For a fleeting moment, I was over the Moon clasping that indescribable statuette. The seconds ticked by as if they never existed. Before I gathered myself and returned that unforgettable trophy to Lolita.
Sandip is inexpressibly saddened to narrate the setbacks his father suffered in the wake of his two cardiac arrests. “It’s a pity that we were not left with enough time to get his bypass surgery done before the second massive attack. That virtually finished him. When we travelled to Houston for the operation, (the legendary) cardiac surgeon Dr Denton Cooley had clearly expressed to us that irretrievable damage had been wreaked and that father wouldn’t last for long. Seven or eight years, is what Dr Cooley had outlined. Even so, father mustered up enough resources, physically and intellectually, post-surgery, to reel out three films – Ganashatru (Enemy of the People based on the Henrik Ibsen play), Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) and Agantuk (The Stranger) before he went. However, the last few months of his life were painful for him and difficult for us to take,” says Sandip emotionally.
Agony, undoubtedly. But, ecstasy in tandem. Encased in the incomparable legacy, laced with that stellar statuette, which one of the greatest names in world cinema left for posterity.