Satyajit Ray – five of the best from the director of The Apu Trilogy

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Subir Banerjjee in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (Credit: BFI Facebook page)

Subir Banerjjee in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Credit: BFI Facebook page)

Satyajit Ray’s seminal film Jalsaghar was released in October 1958 and to celebrate its anniversary Getintothis’ Chris Leathley picks five of the director’s best work.

Mention Indian cinema to anybody and their thoughts invariably drift towards either Bollywood extravaganzas or pompous colonial epics designed to present the imperial past via rose-tinted lenses. Not surprisingly, there is much more to be found in the rich cinematic heritage of the sub-continent than these vulgar binary strands.

In saying that, much of what exists now in film culture within India owes a hefty (but not exclusive) debt to one man: Satyajit Ray. Indian movies do not end with Ray but there’s certainly an argument to be made for Ray as the Father of modern cinematic sensibilities within the teeming, culturally voracious and diverse Indian population.

We don’t claim that Ray is a flawless filmmaker either.

He could, at times, be guilty of error, repetition and an occasionally conservative style of production. Equally, some critics have rightly pointed out that the subtle neo-realism of Ray’s oeuvre hardly typified Indian mores or attitudes, nor did it amount (over a career that spanned 4 decades) to stylistic innovation of any great note.

In fact, Ray has admitted openly the huge influence of directors like De Sica or Rossellini over much that he produced. Satyajit Ray was, in myriad ways, as ‘European’ a director as Visconti, Bergman or Renoir. David Thomson argued that these cultural perspectives undermined his position as a filmmaker for India, going so far as to comment that ‘Ray seemed more clearly than ever the projection of “our” India – not quite India’s India’.

Despite (or perhaps, because of) this, Ray remains a much cherished auteur within the vibrant tapestry of Indian cinema.

After all, this was the director who won prizes at Cannes, Venice, Berlin and London. Here was the first of India’s celluloid artists to gain international recognition and distribution. Rather like a creative dynamo, Ray propelled Indian movies into another, more rarefied, more dangerous and more ambiguous atmosphere. If he came with caveats attached, well, what great artist doesn’t?

More so than most, Ray pursued his personal fascinations almost to the exclusion of all else. He may rarely have seemed at the cutting edge of his chosen medium and yet, today, he is admired passionately by many who are.

If it appears as though we are damning Sayajit Ray with faint praise, we certainly don’t mean to. Ray is a crucial director in the development of a truly global cinema and was absolutely instrumental in getting vivid, life-enhancing stories onto the big screen and before the broadest possible audience at that.

Who then was Satyajit Ray?

He grew up amongst a relatively bourgeois milieu. His father died when he was an infant and thus Ray was nurtured and heavily influenced by his mother. Indeed, maternal roles and bonds would play a critical part in many of Ray’s films, not least the peerless Apu Trilogy.

Ray’s uncle owned a printing firm where he spent much of his younger years (and would later immortalise in Charulata). Further to this, Ray’s youth and early manhood was embellished by his family’s embrace of the Arts, especially music and illustration.

The scope of these aesthetic obsessions was not solely limited to his own indigenous culture either. From an early age, like many in the Bengali middle-class, Ray and his family were as open to European influences as they were receptive to the intoxicating traditions of Tagore or Bandyopadhyay.

Once at university, Ray chose to endure the tedious study of Economics before, and with much greater success, he pursued the scholarly analysis of Music. It was in this world of learning, that Ray began to introduce himself to cinema. Directors like John Ford, William Wyler, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Leo McCarey, Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang are all referenced by Ray as widening his horizons to near infinite points of imaginative reflection. The fire was well and truly lit within Ray’s febrile mind.

As a direct result of this exposure, Ray started to write critically about film and to immerse himself in the new aesthetic experiments of the era, like the Neo-Realism of The Bicycle Thieves, La Terra Trema or Rome: Open City.

Meanwhile, he began to engage in a professional career in advertising and illustration. It took some time (and courage) for Ray to finally make his move and venture directly into the world of movie-making. He faced doing so with skeletal finances, zero experience and a film crew which shared his enthusiastic naivety. To make that quantum leap, especially within a nation that lacked any kind of established cinema beyond the mainstream sentimental and mythological tropes being churned out, was, and is, remarkable.

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It is symptomatic of what we know about Satyajit Ray that he chose to do so without being at all certain that he had the means or the understanding through which to yield worthwhile results.

Once Ray made his professional and artistic decision to follow his celluloid muse, the themes and techniques that would dominate his filmography were consistent, potent and universal. They were also, like us, full of contradictions and paradoxes.

Take his assaults on religious obfuscation and social conservatism in films like Devi. Ray was capable of moving critiques of how Indian traditions could subvert or destroy basic human dignity.

However, in movies like Jalsaghar, he could demonstrate surprising sympathy for moribund aristocratic castes, regardless of how divorced from everyday realities they might be and the resistance they might display towards even the most gradual change.

Further to this idea of a duality of opposing extremes, Ray frequently investigated encroaching urban modernity and its inevitable defeat of rural feudalism. It recurred again and again in his work. Yet, it was never entirely clear which side of the urban/rural divide he was on (even though his own personal experience was overwhelmingly urban). The symbols of ‘progress’ in Ray’s masterpieces were often ambiguous as to their intent or benefits.

Despite this thematic murkiness, Ray’s filmmaking showed a frank honesty about our collective confusion over change, be it societal, economic, technological or cultural. There were no definite answers about what humanity’s progressive shifts meant for us all. Ray accepted this essential truth, depicted it and reflected upon it, all with estimable grace and empathy.

Another factor that could explain Ray’s choice of cinematic avenues might be his own knowledge and experience of the Indian middle class. He was clear that he knew little of Indian pastoral society until he began making movies and even then, he often relied on others for insight and suggestions. Ray was much more comfortable and confident when revealing the nuances of bourgeois existence. There was much that was context specific about his work (certainly more than some of his critics gave him credit for) but it was often a context that was alien even to many Indians themselves.

Nevertheless, it was one that he knew intimately. The fascination for the Arts; the liberal political values and aspirations; the hermetically sealed optimism that often gave scant regard for the grimy reality of the slums; the misogyny that remained entrenched, even amongst the educated few; and so on and so forth.

It may not have been as politically fashionable as the work of other activist directors but it was just as astute and its observations could be applied beyond the confines of a single social class. The concept of liberty, both individual or collective, was at the heart of Ray’s filmic universe. Freedom from crushing expectation or social norms was as valid an exploration as any other destructive constraint on life and happiness. It may have seemed elitist to some but that was never Ray’s intent. Besides, as the Apu Trilogy proved, Ray’s movies were not confined to the middle-class experience alone.

What’s more, Ray genuinely felt that music, art, film and literature could all proffer gateways to interior worlds well beyond our narrow immediate environments.

Hence, this is why Satyajit Ray chose to adapt venerated writers’ work or to incorporate leading Indian musicians and artists within his movies. For him, these aesthetic interrogations were inseparable from meaningful existence, to life with a fully rounded sense of place and value. Again, this preoccupation with artists, writers and musicians was labelled indulgent by some but its premise was drawn from a far deeper well than mere superficial cultural snobbery.

If there was one point of agreement amongst critics regarding Ray’s cinematic exploits, it was that Ray’s compassion and humanism was strident throughout his finest movies. As a director, Ray cared deeply for his characters and their lives. Translated to wider principles, he cares for the community at large. His cinema was a defiant brand of filmmaking, one which looks adversity and injustice squarely in the face and stands steadfast. If nothing else, Ray gives us a degree of optimism that we might make it after all.

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One final but significant focus of Ray’s art was family, more specifically the familial ties that bind, both for good or ill, which are represented with brutal intensity. The callow betrayals by the young, the fatalistic devotion of mothers, the facile arrogance of fathers and the dysfunctional morass that encompasses most family units are exposed by Ray with remorseless precision. There are, as one would expect, regional peculiarities of caste, of marriage rites and of duty. Nonetheless, the way in which Ray narrates filial drama, parental dilemma and marital tragedy can be, and was, easily related to lives beyond the shores of the sub-continent.

Before moving on, as we customarily do, to our suggested films to watch, it is vital to consider Ray’s secure grasp of technique and photography.

Where he lacked expertise, he certainly ensured that he worked with highly innovative and competent individuals (such as cinematographer Subrata Mitra). Generally, Ray eschewed symbolism and oblique methodologies where he could. Still, in films like Pather Panchali and Jalsaghar (with a train and a spider respectively), Ray was effortlessly capable of appropriating objects or creatures for dramatic exposition.

More commonly though, Ray employed idiosyncratic angles of perspective that proved much more evocative than any dialogue he might choose to employ. Lines of camera sight could emerge breathtakingly, from a child’s eye on awaking to the full panoply of worldly experience to a solemn glare between the slats of a shuttered, gilded home that doubled as a prison. Ray’s agile camera took the viewer within the internal worlds of his protagonists with exquisite elegance and his films benefitted immeasurably as a consequence.

Moreover, Ray ensured that his camera studied the human face with care, attention and guile. So many of his greatest cinematic moments lay in actor’s expressions, their lines and creases, their hollow cheeks and deceptively benign eyes, full of fathomless meaning.

Similarly, Ray was prepared to utilise ‘available light’ (natural light in exterior shots) where he could, maintained a nimble fluidity of his camera adding kinetic force to static scenes and was able to paint grand compositional canvases with the landscape and buildings which inhabited his filmic world.

In short, he was an ingenious craftsman who possessed exceptional technical skills by the time his career began to blossom more fully. Ray learned quickly and deployed his talents accordingly. As Roger Ebert suggests, ‘Never before had one man had such a decisive impact on the films of his culture.’

With all this in mind, we now invite you to watch our choice picks from Ray’s sparkling career.

The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali in 1955, Aparajito in 1956, Apu Sansar in 1959)

As Apu himself states in the third entry in the trilogy, ‘joy is in the act of living’. That is a pronouncement that aptly summarises the central concept of this extraordinary triptych of films. Taking on a classic tale of Indian literature (or rather, the first two films – the third was not based on the source texts), Ray plunged into filmmaking with the gusto of an inexperienced enthusiast. In doing so, from his debut on, Ray constructed a timeless story of self-fulfilment, love and loss.

Nothing in the plots of these films will point to anything unique or surprising.

It is a rather incongruously simple narrative of one boy’s poverty stricken beginnings, his inspirations and mentors, his attempts to educate himself and his final self-realisation in a way that lies far outside the scope of scholarship or literary fame.

Yet, this gentle narrative provides numerous iconic moments that have become synonymous with any fleeting understanding of Indian cinema. The child’s eye beginning to see the world with innocent curiosity; the train steaming into view through the Indian countryside; the flock of birds ascending as one character expires; and the glorious, euphoric finale to the entire trilogy as Apu re-discovers hope and meaning.

Despite those who would lazily label Ray as an aesthete with little ‘real’ understanding of the world, Eric Rhode asserts that Apu Sansar in particular, demonstrated that ‘Art without life leads to a kind of death’. That is to say, that to lose oneself in fantasy and fiction, is to forget the very vibrancy of being and the nourishing ways in which the everyday can sustain us, even during our darkest times. Ray utilised the entire cast with deft skill and economy, eliciting moments of pungent emotion and pathos. Given that this was Ray’s opening cinematic gambit, from a position of utter inexperience, his achievement is all the more impressive.

As Ebert concludes, the Apu Trilogy is a ‘prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray’.

We whole-heartedly concur.

Jalsaghar (1958)

In the midst of the sprawling epic which became the Apu Trilogy, Ray also crafted potentially his finest film. In some ways, it was reminiscent of Welles’ mutilated masterwork The Magnificent Ambersons, another tale of a once grand family’s slide into decadent obsolescence.

In Jalsaghar, an Indian prince presides over a shrinking dustbowl territory, ironically prone to flooding in the Monsoon, and a depleted treasury. His hopes lie with his only son and patient wife. The prince’s affections however, if not his entire erotic obsessions, are with music and dance. The Arts consume him in a way which wholly blinds him to the needs, demands and opportunities of ‘new’ India. Jalsaghar delivers a poignant contemplation upon what gives our lives meaning and how easily we can lose any kind of anchor in turbulent times, allowing us to drift inexorably towards alienation, isolation and doom.

Ray still manages to evoke compassion in the audience for this flawed scion of the fading nobility (played with delicate pitch and tenor by Chhabi Biswas) who adores what Ray adores – music, the Arts and our inner creative worlds. It’s not that Ray forgives Biswas’ character’s sins but he certainly understands his transgressions. The film is artfully photographed with some delightful cinematographic fluency, especially during scenes set in the infamous music room.

The symbolism is utilised somewhat clumsily at times but Ray was still discovering his chosen medium and the means of expression available to him. These concerns aside, Jalsaghar is a peerless classic of world cinema.

Devi (1960)

This was an early attempt by Ray to expose religious mysticism and superstition, still powerful social forces in Bengal and across India.

An aging widower becomes convinced that his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of the goddess Kali. After she apparently performs a miracle, local people and those from further afield, demand more divine actions from the increasingly frightened and disorientated girl.

Even more fascinating than Ray’s adroit dissection of rural obscurantism and rationalism’s philosophical and material challenge to it (embodied by the patriarch’s tragically perplexed son), is the revelation of the girl’s ambiguous beliefs and feelings. How far does she believe her father-in-law?

We are never quite sure but there is certainly a suspicion that she comes to the shattering conclusion that her divinity may indeed be genuine.

As Devi builds towards its enigmatic finish, the film reminds us that secular wisdom and logic only goes so far when faced by entrenched tradition and historic attitudes. In fact, Ray seems to strike a pessimistic tone throughout much of the film, an unusual admission by the humanist director that people are capable of persistent ignorance and folly, even when the costs of such behaviour have become all too apparent.

In many ways, Devi was a more morally complex metaphor for India’s slow emergence into modernity than his previous films and, as such, the conclusions that are drawn are far from clear. This was evidence of Satyajit’s Ray’s evolving maturity as a director, a maturity that would bear rich fruit in the coming years.

Mahanagar (1963)

Having dwelled upon rural culture clashes in his earlier work, Ray began to spend more time exploring urban environments and the arrival of a more entrepreneurial middle class with films like Mahanagar.

Madhabi Mukherjee portrays Arati, a housewife who decides to engage in a career in sales for a newly established company.

The film explains the harsh economics of women leaving traditional domestic roles, as well as the very tangible emancipation that such an action allows. The tensions between the archaic norms for Indian women with the demands of mercantile capitalism are investigated with painful clarity, especially the taut relationship between a more conservative older generation and youthful adherents to the new economic credos.

More than this, Mahanagar asks difficult questions about whether principles can endure when faced by acute need or societal pressures.

As with Charulata and other later films, Ray ensures that Mahanagar has a bold, defiant female protagonist, something that remains very much to Ray’s credit in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society.  In this sense, Mahanagar was an erudite riposte to those in India who still cleaved to anachronistic notions of what women’s roles should be across the nation.

Thus, Mahanagar is a stark and important cinematic time capsule of the prejudice and limitations that defined life for so many women in 1960s India, and still bedevils so many more today.

Charulata (1964)

If Ray hadn’t reached his filmmaking peak with Jalsaghar, he certainly ascended to heady heights with Charulata. In this film, he moved back to the 19th century and revealed the compromising divide that existed between social progressives and the conformity that they railed against.

Calcutta in the Victorian era of the Raj is brought to life with poise and poignancy, as Ray details the ways and means by which a beautiful young wife seeks to carve out a niche for herself in the stifling world into which she has married. Ray adds extra layers of complexity by making Charulata’s husband an ardent liberal.

In spite of his political values, he cannot show the imagination required to comprehend that his wife needs more than a wholly domestic life, a life that appears luxurious but is in fact no more than an extravagant cage.

As she searches for creative release through writing, and emotional succour in the form of her husband’s cousin, the contradictions of her life and his became excruciatingly self-evident. Of all Ray’s films, the monochrome photography of Charulata leaves the viewer utterly enraptured.

Similarly, Ray coaxes performances from his cast which give vivid resonance to the melodrama of Rabindranath Tagore’s story. Even more impressively, Ray composed the film’s evocative score, one that rivals the work of Ravi Shankar who had collaborated with Satyajit on earlier movies. With every facet of the film meticulously cultivated, one can but marvel at Ray’s precocious talent.

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