Satyajit Ray was one of the best filmmakers who ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do and he did quite literally everything a filmmaker could. He was an artist working in a county undergoing a quickly shifting identity from colonial rule to independence. He also worked in India, a country known for great filmmaking, but one where his generally more “arthouse” fare sometimes ran uneasily alongside mainstream, crowd pleasing blockbusters. He also never stuck to making the same kind of film more than once, bouncing between searing dramas, musical minded larks, raucous comedies, satirical and psychological thrillers, almost Shakespearian epics, family films, shorts, and political allegories with boundless and almost effortless dexterity. No filmmaker that every lived and worked as long as he had ever had such an astoundingly high hit to miss ratio. None. Ever.
Until his death in 1992, shortly after becoming the only Indian filmmaker to win an Oscar (an honorary one, but still), Ray was one of the most influential and vital filmmaking forces in the world. Evidence of his inspiration can be found in the works of Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, John Madden, Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, Bernardo Bertolucci, and possibly hundreds of other filmmakers who were lucky enough to catch even one of Ray’s films, let alone the entirety of his 36 film carreer (counting shorts, documentaries, and even an anthology).
Becoming a Ray completist has become easier over the years. The Criterion Collection has released several of his films on disc, even some of his late films via their Eclipse series. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the US has been working since 1992 to restore and preserve many of Ray’s now increasingly rare films, eventually fixing up 18 of the films to their former glory.
So with some help of the Academy, the TIFF Bell Lightbox kicks off the most comprehensive retrospective of Ray’s work possible given the preservation circumstances. The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray (running now to August 17th), a series of over 20 programs featuring Ray’s works including some extreme rarities that might not be seen again in these parts for decades more to come. Compared to the availability of some of the other filmmakers who have their works screened via a retrospective at the Lightbox, this showcase of Ray might be the most vital and cinematically important undertaking yet.
Narrowing down Ray’s work to a simple list of five can’t miss events proves nearly impossible. I couldn’t even be asked to deliver a list of five that are marginal. But with that in mind, here are five things to keep an eye out for that deserve to be seen on a big screen (or seen at all in one case).
Kanchenjungha (1962, Thursday, July 10th, 9:00pm)
A fast paced treatise on the nature of entitlement, Ray’s 8th feature overall and his first ever in colour, is one of the greatest films to ever unfold using the stylistic and narrative gambit of telling a story in “real time.” A wealthy businessman with some semblance of British nobility takes his family to a vacation resort in Darjeeling, but instead of getting waited on hand and foot, he watches his world crumble around him despite the bucolic and relaxing setting. Unable to control his surroundings and rubbing some people the wrong way, he learns a valuable and sometimes harsh lesson about the nature of humility in just over 100 minutes. It’s one of Ray’s rawest, realest, and most compact works; a great starting point for anyone completely unfamiliar with Ray. The writing feels in step with a classical work of European literature, most notably Dickens or de Maupassant, but bearing a cultural identity and nose for societal problems that would be a benchmark of Ray’s career before and since.
The Chess Players (Shantranj Ke Khilari, 1977, Friday, July 18th, 6:15pm)
One of Ray’s most challenging works also happens to be one of his finest. Essentially his take on Chekov and Brecht, with a ever so slight dash of Mel Brooks all in one go, The Chess Players takes a simple story – two douchy 19th century nabobs so caught up in their own personal desires that they’re oblivious to the world around them – and blows it up to gleefully aggrandizing heights. Blending cutting edge, bone dry satire and historical costume drama, The Chess Players stands as a perfect testament to Ray’s bleeding humanist heart: a film that knows all of its characters are deeply flawed and somewhat unlikable, but one with a great amount of warmth and sympathy. The film – screening from a newly restored 35mm print – will also be introduced by Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive, who will speak about the organization’s continuing restoration efforts with regards to Ray’s film.
Distant Thunder (Ashani Sanket, 1973, Saturday, August 9th, 4:15pm)
I once saw Distant Thunder in the worst possible way approximately 15 years ago. It was via a bootleg VHS that was clearly taped using an early 1980s camcorder and bearing virtually inscrutable subtitles. It still doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s one of Ray’s absolute best. To give you an idea of how rare this film is, the Lightbox will be screening it via a 16mm print that will have to be stopped at every reel change to put a new one on to continue the film. That’s still better than how I watched it and a testament to the power of one of the greatest films to ever showcase a humanitarian disaster. Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 1973 (and it should have won far more), Ray takes a sometimes hard to watch look at poverty and class distinction amid the manmade great famine of 1943 that killed almost 5 million Bengalis. Showcasing the effects that World War II had on an already impoverished people, Ray’s work here is one of gut wrenching power and elegiac grace. Did I mention that unless it gets restored you may never see it on film again? This could literally be your one and only chance. Take it.
The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1968, Sunday, August 17th, 4:00pm)
We could talk endlessly about Ray’s work as a serious artist, but he was also capable of delivering top notch and highly entertaining family fare. In fact, this film with a bizarre sounding title was far and away his highest grossing effort in India, and one that launched a franchise for its titular characters. Ostensibly made to please his eight year old son and adapted from a story written by his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Roychowdhury, this tale of two hopelessly tone deaf troubadours is a delightful musical romp that takes after classical fairy tales. It’s not too far removed from the Walt Disney live action films of the same era, but it’s every bit as fun, and proof that Ray could put the time, effort, and care into anything he wanted to attempt.
Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1990, Sunday, August 10th, 4:00pm)
Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1992, Saturday, July 26th, 1:00pm)
The Stranger (Agantuk, 1992, Thursday, July 31st, 6:30pm)
For a man who made two very high profile and cinematically notable trilogies previously (three if you count the trio of Goopy and Bagha films), it says a lot about Ray’s work that his most deeply personal and emotionally resonant films are the trilogy that he capped his lengthy career with. Starting with the tale of a physician who becomes a pariah for daring to call an outbreak of a disease in a small down an epidemic in Enemy of the People (a plot that shadows Ray’s abilities to hold a mirror up to a sometimes blissfully ignorant power structure), then leading into the story of a dying businessman trying to reconcile with his four hopeless and emotionally distant sons in Branches of the Tree, and finally ending with the dignified look at a family reconnecting with an estranged uncle in The Stranger, Ray’s final works all feel valedictory and grand despite their smaller scale. Stylistically they’re unpretentious, but they’re packed with an abundance of hope and weariness in equal amount. He’s a talent that continues to be missed over a quarter century after his passing, but he certainly went out almost exactly in the same way he started: at the absolute top of his game.
The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until August 17th. For a full list of films, showtimes, and special guest appearances and talks, please visit the TIFF website.