In the film Home and the World, it’s said of one protagonist that the less you know him the more you like him: the opposite is true of Satyajit Ray. I cannot do justice to the intellectual and emotional depth, the wisdom and quiet integrity, of his films. He was a polymath; illustrator, novelist, film critic, screenwriter, set and costume designer, composer, editor as well as director. Grounded but eclectic and willing to experiment, he served his films without flashy, self-glorifying gimmicks and mannerisms. While every bit an auteur, from the outset he was an unobtrusive rather than intrusive one- which in today’s shallow age may even count against him. His debut Pather Panchali (has there ever been a better?) shows a rare maturity.
Having Anglophile tendencies, he knew well and appreciated many aspects of Western culture while also able to be critical of it- justifiably and with steely authority rather than spiteful rancour-, and was still deeply immersed in the riches of his own Bengali tradition, for instance the great literary figure Rabindranath Tagore. He made his films first and foremost for Bengalis, considering success abroad a bonus.
There were few hang-ups in Ray’s attitude to filming- not only in the lack of bombast, egotism or overly precious approach (he completed filming Kanchenjungha while another film crew was apparently awaiting the sun!), but also in his willingness to improvise. He dissected social structures and customs, cultural traditions and impersonal materialism, not with bombs or blunderbuss but with a scalpel, and his films show him equally at ease depicting the daily struggles of the poor as the foibles and interactions of the leisured classes. As has been said of Tagore, he had a remarkable capacity to empathise with people in different situations. As with Eric Rohmer, there is a considerable amount of dialogue in Ray’s films- a trap for certain critics who perceive this as somehow less cinematic, for like Rohmer he also shows rather tham merely says- the sounds and visuals can underpin but also add layers of meaning or have us question the words. His oeuvre consists of “organic cohesion”, technique serving the source material, rather than vice versa. In his own quiet way, Ray, more so than certain touted directors with conspicuous auteurist styles (or mannerisms), is the antithesis of Hollywood, with its glitz, grandstanding and juvenile rollercoaster mentality.
With actors, whose memories of working with him were overwhelmingly fond, Ray, in keeping with his temperament, (and unlike, say, fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak) was more a suggestive ennabler, a confidence builder, than a demonstrative autocrat. He was comfortable choosing established stars just as new discoveries. In his use of music, which he composed himself (either in collaboration or from the early 60s onward alone), he preferred a mix of the Western and local, a range of instruments, new compositions drawing on elements of existing material rather than standard classics. For set design, he worked closely for many years with his friend Bansi Chandragupta. To Ray, camera movement was mainly a matter of instinct, to suit the situation. The economy of his editing has long been a neglected strength; revisiting Pather Panchali, i marvelled at the previously unnoticed “rightness” of the cutting- helped by “cut in the camera” scene planning- together with framing. Like other great masters Ozu and Mizoguchi, Ray saw no need to rush to colour; it was for Kanchenjungha, several years after his debut, that he considered colour best suited to bring out the emotional and social nuances (for instance the significance of an ochre sari) of a day in the mountain resort of Darjeeling
At the heart of Ray’s world were rounded characters, whose development we follow closely amid changing events and interactions; intricate portraits of individuals and relationships, but equally of environment. For all the stylistic and emotional restraint and grace of his films, he was sincerely concerned about social tensions, injustice and communal suffering and was reproachful of snobbery. When clearly expressing a critical political position there is usually a balancing warmth in his sensitivity to moral and psychological aspects; points are rarely made with a heavy hand or acid cynicism. Thanks to the nuanced shadings, the occasional lyricism, the range of his knowledge and references, the intimate care taken over relationships, the subtle qualities of his film-making , the richness of small details, his timeless humanity and love of nature, we can find new meanings and rewards on further viewings.
“India’s single most celebrated filmmaker, Satyajit Ray was born into a prominent Calcutta family on May 2, 1921. Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishole Roychwdhury, was the creator of the popular children’s magazine Sandesh; his father, Sukhumar Ray (sometimes spelled Ra), was a noted poet and historian. After attending the Ballygunj government school, the younger Ray studied business science and physics at Calcutta’s Presidency College. From 1940 to 1942, he attended the University of Santinketan, a private establishment founded by an old family friend, Hindu poet Rabindranatah Tagore, the man largely credited with India’s 20th-century cultural renaissance. After graduation, Ray went to work as a commercial artist for the D. J. Keymer advertising agency in Calcutta. It was here that he was assigned to draw illustrations for Bhibuti Bashan Bannerjee’s classic autobiographical novel of Bengal life, Pather Panchali. Though he’d never had any formal cinematic training, he determined then and there to someday translate the Bannerjee novel to the screen.
In 1947, Ray co-founded the Calcutta Film Society, hoping to spearhead a movement toward a “new” Indian cinema. The same year he wrote his first screenplay, Ghaire Baire, but he lost the support of potential producers after refusing to make suggested changes. Three years later, Ray met French director Jean Renoir while the latter was filming his India-based The River. Renoir’s encouragement, coupled with Ray’s introduction to Italian director Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1947), strengthened the aspiring filmmaker’s resolve to direct Pather Panchali. Hocking everything he owned, he spent three years working on the film, shooting on weekends with a nonprofessional cast. Just when it seemed that Ray’s resources would dry up and he’d be forced to abandon the project, New York’s Museum of Modern Art—then amassing a collection of modern Indian culture—expressed interest in the director’s film. Further serendipity struck when the government of West Bengal made the precedent-setting decision to pump funding into Pather Panchali, enabling Ray to complete the film. The winner of a special jury prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival (the first of many such awards for Ray), Pather Panchali and its two sequels—known today as The Apu Trilogy—established Ray as India’s pre-eminent film director. Indeed, in the eyes of the world, the director was to India what Akira Kurosawa was to Japan: his country’s most influential and articulate cinematic spokesman. In India itself, however, Ray’s films were not guaranteed successes, due in great part to his decision to film them in Bengali, a minority language (only 1977’s The Chess Players would be filmed in Hindi, the country’s predominant tongue).
In assessing Ray’s career, many film historians have divided his works into three periods. From 1955 to 1966, he favored meticulous realism, utilizing a leisurely pace and eschewing crosscutting in favor of long, single takes. From 1969 to 1977, he began to emulate the nouvelle vague movement with a more complex editing and narrative style. Also during this period, the social-comment content of his films became less superficial and more deeply felt, perhaps as a response to Indian critics who accused Ray of paying mere lip service to the serious problems plaguing his native country. His final filmmaking phase, beginning in 1978 and ending with his death, was distinguished by his tendency to dispense with exposition as quickly as possible, the better to probe the “insides” of his characters. Throughout his career, Ray favored a minimalist approach, though he was certainly capable of staging large, spectacular scenes if his material warranted such treatment. The many themes explored in his films—coming of age, spiritual awakening, feminism, natural catastrophes, mythology—reflected in microcosm the ever-changing manners and mores of India. In the late 1970s, he shifted creative gears by turning out entertainments geared for children; during this period, he also revived Sandesh, the children’s magazine founded by his grandfather.
As his filmmaking activities increased, Ray found himself voluntarily wearing several professional hats: director, producer, writer, composer, cinematographer, editor. He was forced to slow down in the early 1980s by a series of health problems; suffering a heart attack in 1984, stopped work on his-long delayed Ghaire Baire and turned the directorial reigns over to his son Sandip (born 1954). While convalescing, he wrote a series of thirteen TV plays, to be directed by his son. In 1989 he returned to directing with an adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and in 1992, he rallied long enough to turn out Agantuk (The Visitor), a welcome harkening back to his glory days. That same year, Ray was presented with a “Lifetime Achievement” Academy Award. By this time, however, he had suffered a bad relapse, a victim of his ongoing heart ailment and respiratory problems. He accepted his Oscar while lying in a hospital bed—certainly the most poignant and heartrending moment of the 1992 Academy Awards telecast. Less than a month later, Ray was dead; his final screenplay, Jagoran (Broken Journey), was filmed posthumously by his son in 1994. There are many books dedicated to the life and career of Satyajit Ray, perhaps the best being his own 1977 volume, Our Films, Their Films. –allmovie guide"
“As a small schoolboy i was terribly interested in the cinema, became a film fan, wrote a letter to Deanna Durbin, got a reply, was delighted: wrote to Ginger Rogers, ah, didn’t get a reply. Then, of course, i got interested in cinema as an art form, and i wrote a twelve page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He din’t reply either…Well, there you are.” (Ray’s Oscar acceptance speech, shortly before his death)
“The director is the only person who knows what the film is about”
“At the age when Bengali youth almost inevitably writes poetry, I was listening to European classical music.”
“Love between a man and a woman is an elevating experience. It should be treated as such on the screen. Why use it to lend interest to a mediocre story?”
“I only try to tell a story in the best possible way balancing the needs of Art with the need to reach an audience.”
“Popular taste has produced Greek drama, Shakespeare, The Magic Flute, Chaplin and the Western…i do not know of a single film-maker today
who has been dismayed by a wide acceptance of his work”
“The most dictinctive feature (of my films) is that they are deeply rooted in Bengal, in Bengali culture, mannerisms and mores. What makes them universal in appeal is that they are about human beings”
“If your theme is strong and simple, then you can include a hundred little apparently irrelevant details which, instead of obscuring the theme, only help to intensify it by contrast, and in addition create the illusion of reality better”
“The movement from a certain state of character to another state of character- this total inner change fascinates me most. If you don’t have this, with all your actions, you don’t make a film”
“Technique. A means to an end…the best technqiue is the one that’s not noticeable”
“If i were asked what has been my main preoccupation as a film-maker, i should say it has been to find out ways of investing a story with organic cohesion, and filling it with detailed and truthful observation of human behaviour and relationships in a given milieu and a given set of events, avoiding stereotypes and stock situations, and sustaining interest visually, aurally and emotionally by a judicious use of the human and technical resources at one’s disposal. I know this sounds pompous, but i can’t think of any other way to put it.”
“Ray’s roots grew deep, but he reminded one of a banyan tree more than any English oak. The main trunk was fed by the sights and sounds of Bengal and its literature, art, music and dance, along with those of the subcontinent, stretching right back to the Mahabharata, but the aerial roots had spread far and wide, sucking up nourishment from all over the world” (Andrew Robinson)
“It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.” (Kurosawa Akira)
“Ray’s magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact, will always stay with me.” (Martin Scorsese)
“I tell American directors to look at the work of Satyajit Ray’s work to learn how to take the Hollywood out of their films” (Pauline Kael)
" I felt like a bud. He made me blossom like a flower" (Swatilekha Chatterjee, of acting in Home and the World)
“What i admire most about Manik is his simplicity, his honesty, his generosity, his kindness and, above all, his ability to mix with people from all walks of life.This, i think, is the hallmark of all great men.” (Ray’s wife Bijoya)
Home and the World
I would strongly recommend Andrew Robinson’s book The Inner Eye, one of the best books on film i know. We now have a new Robinson book The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray and the Making of an Epic, and Keya Ganguly’s book Cinema, Emergence and the Films of Satyajit Ray, in which she makes the (unusual) case for him as an avant-garde modernist. There is also a collection of Ray’s writings on film Our Lives, Their Lives.
This list has now been rearranged to include all the films Ray directed, in year order, followed by Benegal’s biography. I am lucky to still have films to discover, but for now, my own top 16 (the first 3 a trilogy) are:
The World of Apu
The Music Room
Days and Nights in the Forest
The Home and the World
The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha