Indian cinema changed forever thanks to Satyajit Ray. In celebration of Ray’s centennial birthday, TCM ran a Ray marathon while The Criterion Channel has programmed a selection of his illustrious filmography. His name isn’t as revered with cinephiles as other international icons such as Bergman, Fellini, Varda or Kurosawa, but he should be.
Ray was a Bengali director born in Calcutta on May 2, 1921. His education gave him more opportunities than most, given his ability to speak English. Movies were always a great interest of his and that led him to start Calcutta’s first film club in 1947. He soon became acquainted with French director Jean Renoir, who needed someone to help him scout locations in Bengal for The River and Ray helped immensely. Due to their rapport, Renoir encouraged Ray to try his hand at filmmaking—but neither man anticipated what was about to occur. Ray wasn’t supposed to be a filmmaker. Before The Apu Trilogy, he was a graphic designer for a British-owned advertising agency. As fate would have it, he designed the cover for the abridged version of the Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay novel Pather Panchali, which would become the movie that would change his life. Ray had no formal training in making movies, but he was determined to adapt one of the most cherished Indian novels.
Satyajit Ray would go on to shoot more than thirty feature films from 1955 to 1991. There was a period of that time where he was making a movie a year. His films are marked by their humanitarian outlook detailing the lives of the lower class, bringing to light many cultural and historical changes. He was also very aware of how tradition played into many aspects of his culture, showing individuals that were trapped in the past, afraid of how modernity was changing India. Ray received many awards over the years, including over thirty Indian National Film Awards, honors from Venice and Berlin, and an Academy Honorary Award in 1992. When he received the Academy Award, he was gravely ill and never recovered, passing away from heart failure shortly before his 71st birthday. If you are unfamiliar with his work, there is no better time to delve in and learn about one of the greatest directors of all time.
Pather Panchali feels like a product from an amatuer. There is something very raw about it, with many of the actors appearing on screen for the first time and a lack of experience from the crew. For example, his cinematographer Subrata Mitra was a still photographer that Ray convinced to join the production. Great filmmaking sometimes occurs from great risk, and in this case a masterpiece was made. Apur Sansar actor Soumitra Chatterjee said during a Criterion Channel interview, “Experts will perhaps say that all of Satyajit Ray’s other films are technically superior…but Pather Panchali’s vitality and intensity are like an eagle swooping down and carrying our hearts up to the sky.”
Each of the films explore different aspects of Apu’s life. Pather Panchali explores the village lifestyle and Apu’s relationship with his sister, Aparajito finds Apu and his family moving to Varanasi and Apur Sansar shows an adult Apu making his own family. Each of the films focus not only on the physical and mental growth of Apu, but also the brief time he shares with his relatives over his life. What makes The Apu Trilogy so memorable is how the lives of Apu and his family become part of us as the movies roll on. Roger Ebert once spoke about how movies are the great “empathy machine” that allow audiences to inhabit the lives of others. Even if you can’t initially imagine relating to this family from a small village, the great power of The Apu Trilogy magically brings us into a world and features life changes that all can relate to. That is the true secret of Ray’s cinema.
Filmed between the final installments of The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room is the best place to start an adventure into the filmography of Ray. A sampling of all the elements that make his filmmaking so moving, without delving into the commitment of the trilogy. Based on a short story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, The Music Room details the decaying legacy of a zamindar (landlord), while the modernization of India happens all around him. Biswambhar Roy (Chhabit Biswas) is obsessed with his jalsaghar (music room). He loves putting on these extravagant gatherings, inviting some of the finest musicians India has to offer, and reaping the adoration of his community.
Even though his land has been savaged by floods and sold off following India’s independence and the abolition of the zamindari system, he is consumed by his love of the high life he has known forever. As his funds dwindle, so does his influence. Further adding to Roy’s troubles is that commoner Mahim Ganguly comes into town, with his poor manners and money-lending business practices, rubbing Roy the wrong way. Ganguly likes to flaunt his success, buying new inventions like generators and automobiles. This aggravates Roy, compelling him to compete with the man.
The Music Room taps into elements that would become commonplace among Ray’s films: Holding onto the last strands of a fading tradition, letting pride consume all reason, and a self-centered attitude that keeps others away. It’s a tale of male ego and how our vices can leave us with nothing.
What I love about The Big City is how almost sixty years later, it remains timeless. Housewife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) decides to join the workforce because she’s tired of her family going without their wants. It’s an extended family with her husband Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), their son, daughter and her parents-in-law. Even though she wants a job to support her family, it’s highly unusual for a housewife to work. Her father-in-law Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee) disapproves and refuses to accept any money or gifts, while Subrata believes his wife working reflects poorly on his ability to care for his family. Not only is Arati facing the demands of employment, but she also has to fend with fragile masculinity at home.
Her workplace isn’t without problems. Arati is the boss’s favorite among her peers because she has traditional values: Quiet, obedient, wears conventional attire. She befriends an Anglo-Indian colleague, Edith (Vicky Redwood) whose ethnicity is a sticking point for their boss. Her boss views Anglo-Indians to be more flighty and troublesome. There is obviously an objection not only to who she is, but also what she represents.
And women are still fighting for their equal place in the workforce. When The Big City came out, I imagine it was considered radical because it reflected that both husband and wife could provide financially for their families. India was in the mist of making life better for women during the mid-50s into the mid-60s, safeguarding women’s interests by introducing five acts that gave women more control of their lives and families. Ray was always aware of the social issues in India and his films provided a gateway into those changes. Although the family depicted in The Big City is an Indian family from the 1960s, they could easily be anyone’s neighbors today, struggling to put food on the table.
The Lonely Wife begins with Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) walking around her mansion. She has her projects to keep her busy and an affinity towards reading. But she grabs her binoculars and starts spying on the world outside her window. It’s easy to make the assumption that her life is similar to the protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window—someone who experiences the outside world while trapped in their house. That’s reality for Charulata. She’s a housebound woman who exists solely to entertain and care for the breadwinner of the family, her journalist husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee). Their relationship is functional, but his focus in life revolves around the success of his newspaper.
Bhupati decides to invite his cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to stay in the mansion and entertain his wife during the day. Amal comes into their lives like a whirlwind, opening the doors of the mansion and Charulata’s passions. Not only is he handsome and articulate, but he encourages Charulata to pursue her interests in writing fiction. It’s a recipe for a love affair.
The Lonely Wife is another entry in Ray’s filmography showing the progress women were making in the ‘60s. Domestic life was supposed to be the end goal for women, they weren’t supposed to have dreams of becoming successful writers. Not only is the idea of her ambitions being met introduced, but Chaulata finds love from another man. That’s unheard of in India, as it has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world due to the values and beliefs historically looming large in its society. Married men and women are supposed to make their marriage work until death do they part. Often considered one of Ray’s greatest cinematic achievements, The Lonely Wife is notable not only for its terrific performances, but how Ray empowered women through his pictures.
Max Covill has written for Fandom, Polygon, Film School Rejects, Playboy, SYFY and many others since 2011. He is also the co-host of @itsthepicpod. You can find him on Twitter @mhcovill discussing all things movies, videogames and anime.