The Criterion Shelf: Directed by Satyajit Ray

Bil Antoniou surveys the career of one of the world's greatest humanist filmmakers

In 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted filmmaker Satyajit Ray an Honorary Oscar. They gave it “for his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.” Ray’s films had been delighting audiences around the world for five decades and the Academy, despite never having acknowledged him or his films with a nomination of any kind before this, made an astute choice in honouring this great filmmaker for his remarkable career. Unable to attend because he was grievously ill, he accepted via pre-recorded tape filmed on his deathbed, where his life would end a month later.

That life began seventy-nine years earlier in Calcutta, where the future filmmaker, visual artist, novelist (Netflix is about to release a series based on his stories) and composer was born. His father, a writer and artist, died when he was three, leading him and his mother to survive on what little income she could provide. Reaching adulthood, he completed an economics degree at Presidency College before following his mother’s advice to attend the Visva-Bharati University. Founded by his father’s good friend Rabindranath Tagore, the legendary Bengali artist who would come to be central in Ray’s own film work, it was the place where Ray’s life as an artist truly began. In 1947, he co-founded the Calcutta Film Society and, by the middle of the next decade, would be making his celebrated feature directorial debut. His career was destined to put Bengali cinema (and culture) on the map.

Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, was based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay which he discovered while working as a graphic designer at Signet Press. Ray’s early years designing book covers and advertisements would lead to him designing the posters to most of his films. It was also a project encouraged by Jean Renoir after Ray had served as the French auteur’s assistant on The River, inspired by that experience as well as his love for Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief to take neo-realism to his native land. It also presaged the kind of storytelling that would win him his most devoted followers, vibrant characters with rich inner lives whose emotional turmoil felt visible but never calculated or contrived, with a particular emphasis on the experiences of women coming into their own sense of self as a representation of progress (his chief narrative concern) in his newly independent country.

His career continued, undaunted and celebrated through to the end of his life. Illness hampered the productions of his final works but didn’t stop him completely.  (He was working on his next project when he died.) His rich filmography includes dramas, fantasies and comedies, original stories and literary adaptations, a magnificent legacy that the Criterion Channel is celebrating in the 100th year since the great artist’s birth.  The collection also acts as tribute to Soumitra Chatterjee, the legendary actor who was Ray’s most frequent performer and whom we lost to the pandemic last spring.

 

THE MASTERPIECES

Pather Panchali (1955)

Satyajit Ray’s debut remains one of his finest works. It is a sumptuously photographed coming of age tale that also served as the first of three films about the development to maturity of his protagonist Apu. A child in a poor, rural village, our hero quietly observes as his parents struggle to survive life’s hardships, his hopeful father going to the big city to work while his careworn mother carries the burden of worry, while Apu himself can’t help but explore the vast natural beauty that surrounds him. Photographed in black and white but still bursting with a sense of verdant joy emanating from the landscape, it ends with a devastating wallop that sets you up for the exceptional sequel.

 

The Music Room (1958)

One of the master filmmaker’s most visually sumptuous works. An aging, lonely rajah sits in his giant, decaying mansion and reflects on better days with his concerned wife and young son, their lives at the mercy of their patriarch’s obsession with throwing lavish soirees in his beloved music room. His devotion to these events comes at great cost to their dwindling fortune, which eventually leads to consequences that include financial ruin and tragic personal loss. Years later, he is inspired by an upstart of a new money business tycoon to air out the sealed music room and throw one more expensive party, refusing to accept the practical reality that his old money is no longer the claim to superiority that it once was. Thoughtful, beautifully contemplative and savage in its summation of tradition having to give way to modernity.

 

The Big City (1963)

Ray makes his first contemporary film and, with it, possibly his masterpiece. Madhabi Mukherjee decides to help her financially strapped husband by getting a job, something that doesn’t go over too well in her rather traditional household. The discoveries she makes while working as a sales representative for a sewing machine expose her to an interesting variety of characters, from her fellow salesgirls to her customers, while also awakening her to her own identity and individuality as a person in a rapidly changing and modernizing society. The care that Ray takes to allow us into the emotional reality of his main character, without ever letting the effort show in the slightest, is truly astonishing.

 

The Coward (1965)

One of Ray’s most delightfully observant and emotionally satisfying films, packing quite a punch into a mere 70-minute running time. While traveling out of town to research a screenplay, Soumitra Chatterjee’s car breaks down and he is offered a place to stay by a local tea plantation manager, who turns out to be married to our hero’s jilted college girlfriend. Flashbacks ensue, and things come to a climax with a heartbreaking confrontation on a train station. Beautiful, romantic and so delicately perfect.

 

The Hero (1966)

Bengali movie star Uttam Kumar plays a fictionalized version of himself, settling in for an overnight train ride to New Delhi where he will be accepting a prize for his film work. He’s dogged by concern that his latest film might turn out to be his first bomb (and thus, the first death knell to his illustrious career). This, along with his encounters with other passengers on the train, sets off a series of flashbacks to the beginnings of his life in the movies and the experiences that shaped him along the way. Most notable on this journey, which takes up the majority of this sparkling, deeply intuitive film, is his squaring off in an interview with a magazine editor (a razor-sharp Sharmila Tagore) whose inability to be star struck provides him a great challenge. This is a marvelous film.

 

The Home and the World (1984)

Ray originally planned for this adaptation of Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire to be his first film, but it’s almost to our benefit that it took until he was in his sixties that he finally managed it. Like Charulata before it, this film is also a love triangle that rests atop more complicated themes. The story takes place in the home of a liberal Maharaja named Nikhil (Victor Banerjee, the same year as his acclaimed performance in A Passage to India) who encourages his wife Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta) to go against convention and expand her mind politically. His own political agnosticism is put to the test by the arrival of his friend Soumitra Chatterjee, who is leading activists protesting the British plans to partition Bengal and who seduces Bimala to his cause and his side. Nikhil considers himself too wise to subscribe to Sandip’s scorched-earth policy for freeing themselves of British tyranny, and sees the rise in nationalism as a middle-class privilege that will destroy the lives of the poor.  The results are devastating in one of Ray’s most challenging but also rewarding dramas, slowly, carefully gleaning intensity from the actor’s superb performances with all the mastery of an artist who is, at this late stage in his career, a genius at his craft.

 

MUST-SEE RAY

 

Apajarito (1956)

Now a teenager living with his parents in the city, Pather Panchali’s Apu is given the opportunity to better himself through education, which becomes crucial after a loss in the family. His mother goes to live with relatives in the country as he stays behind to attend school. The strain of the distance between them inspires an increasing need for validation from her as his holiday visits continue. Ray is as kind-hearted to Apu’s youthful need for freedom as he is unforgiving in his portrayal of all the harsh realities that come the character’s way, the subtlety of how he presents the painful relationship at the centre of the film establishes him as a master storyteller very early in his career.

 

Apur Sansar (1959)

The third in the Apu series, also known as World of Apu, in which our plucky hero reaches adulthood and experiences all it has to offer. Happy to be living the solitary life of a scholar, Apu is invited to a wedding where the bridegroom has a fit of madness before the ceremony that threatens to plunge the bride’s family in shame. Apu is asked to marry her instead, which he agrees to and finds himself falling in love with his new bride, taking her back to Calcutta and embarking on yet another voyage of discovery with the new outlook of being a family man. Told with all the light, capricious genius that Ray hides so beautifully in his narratives, this film is, as per the other two, not without its moments of deep heartbreak. A fitting end to this magnificent trilogy.

 

Three Daughters (1961)

Along with his documentary on Rabindranath Tagore, Ray paid tribute to the centenary of the artist’s birth with an adaptation of three of his stories centering on female protagonists. The first is a sweet, muted love story of a new postmaster at a village post office who treats the little orphaned girl who works for him with great kindness, then breaks her heart by leaving because country life isn’t for him. The second, which was originally cut from prints outside India until recently, switches tones to an eerie supernatural atmosphere as a wealthy bride becomes paranoid about everyone, including her husband, wanting to steal her jewels, which she hangs onto well past all practical limits. In the third, Soumitra Chatterjee returns to his mother’s rural home from his studies in Calcutta and is told he must take a wife; rejecting her choice for him, he opts instead to marry a rebellious young tomboy and then must contend with his bride’s not being prepared for her wifely duties. The limitations placed on spirited, emotionally vibrant women in a patriarchal society are the running thread of stories that have varying style and pace but combine beautifully.

 

Charulata (1964)

Ray sets this adaptation of Tagore’s The Broken Nest to the pace of a hot summer day, soaking in the repressed longings of the characters at the centre of his gorgeous period piece. Madhabi Mukherjee is magnificent as the lonely housewife to a wealthy political journalist whose empty house is livened up briefly by the arrival of her husband’s business manager and rather provincial wife, but she soon tires of her female companion and finds herself so much more engaged by her husband’s cousin (Sumitra Chatterjee) who comes to stay with them for an indefinite amount of time. His plans to write great works and be a successful author align happily with her own love of literature and she eventually grows a deep fondness for him that threatens to cross the line, coinciding with her own awakening of her authorial voice. It doesn’t have the wry humour of most of the great filmmaker’s other works, the irony is very faint here, but it’s a finely wrought character study whose deep intimacy allows us to feel part of the sexy romance at its core.

 

WORTHY

 

Devi (The Goddess) (1960)

Soumitra Chatterjee goes away for work and leaves his wife Sharmila Tagore at the home he shares with his family.  Her religiously committed father-in-law is so impressed with her kindly devotion to him that he dreams one night that she is the earthly incarnation of the goddess Kali, and wakes up convinced that this is true. Thanks to his having spread the word quickly, the young woman’s life is transformed and she soon finds herself at the head of a room full of priests paying homage to her and people traveling to bring their sick to be healed by her. Chatterjee comes home and tries to undo the nonsense he sees, but Tagore herself has begun to believe in the possibility of herself as a goddess and it leads to a tragic outcome. Ray applies a lighter, more humorous tone to this story than his more emotionally gut-wrenching dramas, but he’s no less incisive in his understanding of personal relationships, maintaining his intimate relationship with his nuanced and fully dimensional characters.

 

Rabindranath Tagore (1961)

Ray celebrates the centenary of the birth of the great Bengali author, painter, composer and educator with a compact and informative documentary. The subject of much of Ray’s academic study and source for some of his films later on (Three Daughters, Charulata, The Home and the World), Tagore was born to a noble lineage that traced its history back to the eighth century, born the youngest of fourteen children in mid-nineteenth century Calcutta. His first poems were published when he was 13, by adulthood he was a celebrated author and composer of popular operas. At the century of the century he opened an ashram in Santiniketan that eventually grew to be a venerated seat of learning. He became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and was knighted (which he later renounced). His involvement with politics began with the controversial, British-mandated partition of Bengal, continued with his working towards the independence of India (which he did not live to see) and inspired his many writings on the evils of hardcore nationalism. Ray narrates the information over a collage of photographs, file footage (of the artist’s final years) and his own dramatic recreations that are worked seamlessly into the source material, giving an air of beauty and poetry to the film and preventing it from just being a dry educational program.

 

The Holy Man (1965)

Ray pokes fun not at religion but at the vulnerabilities of unquestioning believers in this humorous mini-feature. A widower still reeling from the loss of his wife finds comfort in the teachings of a spiritual guru who speaks of his two thousand year life, his previous friends include Jesus and Buddha and lists among his accomplishments his having given Einstein the theory of relativity. A lovelorn young man desires to marry the hapless widower’s daughter and conspires with his friends to reveal the holy leader as a fraud in order to get her away from his clutches. Playing out in a series of almost theatrical set pieces, Ray cleverly composes a series of jigsaw pieces that fit together beautifully in the very satisfying finale, along the way creating yet another collection of memorably beautiful images.

 

The Stranger (1991)

Ray’s final film has some set pieces that go on slightly too long, but it features a host of multi-dimensional characters who remind one of his richest works of the past and make it well worthy of his legacy. Adapting his own short story published a decade earlier, he tells of a bourgeois Calcutta couple who are visited by a man who says he is the uncle who left Bengal thirty-five years earlier when his niece was just a baby. She welcomes him into her home but her husband has his suspicions, believing it’s possible that this man is an imposter. They find themselves baffled by this intelligent, shrewd wanderer whose lack of material desire makes no sense to them; after deciding they like him, the couple then get involved in connecting him with his unclaimed inheritance which they believe is the real reason he has come to visit.  Utpal Dutt gives a superb performance as the visitor in question, and the intelligent script ably and subtly examines themes of friendship and family without ever overstating its ideas.

 

FOR FANS ONLY

 

The Chess Players (1977)

Ray’s largest and most sumptuous production is also the only film he made in Hindi. Awadh (Oudh) is the last remaining kingdom still independent of direct British rule, governed by an unmotivated and unpopular king who is no match for the ambitions of a British general (Richard Attenborough) who has his sights set on swallowing the area into the empire’s treasury. As the English army approaches the area like predator towards its prey, two noblemen (Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey) occupy themselves with their passionate love of playing chess, to which they are so dedicated that they hear the news of war and head for a place to play their game away from conflict. Ray’s criticism of an elite ruling class asleep at the wheel who always leave the country vulnerable to colonial forces was not appreciated by audiences at the time, and the size and breadth of his cast and settings, while beautifully achieved, lack the intimacy of his previous works. While not particularly warm and definitely too long, it’s an intelligent and sobering work.

 

The Elephant God (1979)

Ray wrote the character of detective Feluda into a number of novels and introduced him in the film The Golden Fortress (which unfortunately is not in this collection), following up with this sequel a few years later. This time Feluda is on vacation in Benares when he is asked by a financially strapped gentleman to help him locate a missing miniature golden statuette of the elephant god Ganesh. The victim believes that the item was stolen by a local gangster who had openly coveted it and tried to buy it from him, but Feluda’s investigation, accompanied by his mystery writer friend Ganguly and his sidekick Topshe reveals that it’s not so simple a path to the truth. Ray follows the gorgeously photographed original with equally beautiful colour cinematography (represented richly in Criterion’s marvelous print) but his plot lacks bite and works out to something quite flimsy by the end. Enjoyable but not wholly memorable.

 

An Enemy of the People (1989)

Ray adapts Ibsen’s play and shows its universality with a perfectly smooth transition to modern-day India, where doctor Soumitra Chatterjee lives happily in the town of Chandipur with his wife and daughter. Dismayed by a recent spate of cases of hepatitis, the doctor does some digging and finds that faulty pipes under the town’s biggest temple are causing water contamination and is making people sick. His simple effort to get this information out to people results in his becoming a pariah when his slick business tycoon brother decides to silence him in order to save the town’s most popular tourist attraction. It was the first film Ray was able to make after a near-fatal heart attack and the limitations placed on him by his caregivers shows,the film is smart and brilliantly acted but its limited settings make it feel stuffy and the lack of introspection suggests a director who, unusual for him, has already made our minds up for us. Themes of progress are a running concern in the great master’s oeuvre. One can trace a line between the excitement of a newly independent post-colonial India in his early works and a fatigued and hopeless sense of corruption and religious fundamentalism in his last.

 

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