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Ray and his movies

Satyajit Ray is universally regarded as one of the greatest auteurs of 20th century cinema. Born in Kolkata into a well-known Bengali family, prominent in the fields of the arts, Ray’s education was in Presidency College followed by a few years in the Vishwa Bharati University in the town of Shantiniketan. With an interest in movies which was inculcated in his childhood, this urge to make a difference on the silver screen was further reinforced after a meeting with the French filmmaker Jean Renoir who had come to India to shoot his movie, The River. Considerably inspired by the art of Italian neo-realism, and by one particular movie, Bicycle Thieves, Ray was also a prolific writer of Bengali fiction, most popular of which are the Feluda stories, and his science-fiction novellas on the travels of the inimitable Professor Shonku.
While working in an advertising company named D. J. Kreymer and Co. in Kolkata, Ray traveled to London on an assignment, and in the course of his stay in the city, happened to watch close to a hundred movies. One of these movies, Bicycle Thieves, would prove to be his inspiration, and land him on the stepping stone to becoming one of India’s best known directors. It was on the way back from London, that he decided that Pather Panchali, based on the novel of the same name by the author Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, would become the basis of his first film. With an utterly inexperience crew, the cameramen having only been accustomed to still-film shooting, Ray embarked on this humongous task of making this movie out of a well-read novel. With dwindling funds, shooting was postponed, cancelled at points, with the result that the movie took an incredibly long three years to finish, being financed by the West Bengal Government in the end. This was the movie which defined his career and a lot that followed.

Pather Panchali is easily Ray’s most well-known movie. Having won the award for the Best Human document at Cannes, it went on to rave reviews from critics and flamboyant criticism from Indian Bollywood stalwarts, with Nargis Dutt going on to criticize him for exporting poverty to the West . Pather Panchali was a raw film, but a movie filmed with a earnest desire for good cinema, with an eye for detail and with compassion for India and its villages. It’s a moving picture of the simple life in a village, and the ties which bind a brother and sister, shown with acute precision and amazing simplicity. Ray’s career started in full earnest with his second movie of the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito , a wonderful movie in its own right, which shows the increasing conflict between a mother and her child, the child with his ambitions and the mother with her fears. Aparajito was not well received by the audiences in Kolkata, but went on to rave international reviews and won quite a few awards over the world. The third film of the trilogy was Apur Sansar, but before making the movie Ray went on to make two other movies, Parash Pather, made primarily for comic relief, and Jalsaghar. Jalsaghar is one of my favorite Ray movies, based on the novel of the same name by the Bengali novelist, Tarashankar Banerjee. A detailed study in decadence and the last days of a wealthy zamindar in the old Bengal days, it’s a wonderful insight into one of the most deadly sins – pride. A story told with an eye for detail and wonderful empathy, and is considered a landmark in cinematic achievement by a lot of people. The long Indian classical music and dance sequences could be unfamiliar to many, but provide interesting insights into these art forms which have changed and transformed themselves over centuries.

Post Jalsaghar, Ray went on to make the third movie of the Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar. Lacking some of the rawness of the first two movies of the trilogy, it is nevertheless a very touching movie, told mostly with simplicity with tinges of bitterness at times. This film follows Apu as he moves from the village to the city of Kolkata, living in a nondescript house close to the railway tracks (a perennial motif throughout the trilogy), in the wrap of acute poverty. On a trip to a marriage of his friend, and by a strange travesty of circumstances, he gets married to Aparna . Tragedy never leaves Apu, and his young wife dies in childbirth, and Apu loses interest in life. The trains bring to him an option of suicide, but he desists and finally in the beautifully filmed climax of this movie, he reunites with his long-lost son. Devi, made shortly after Apur Sansar is another wonderful film, which deals with superstition and the blind faith in it in Hindu society, and is a wonderful achievement in addition to being a social critique. Ray’s first original screenplay was Kanchenjunga, a quiet uneventful film about an afternoon in a commonplace Bengali family, laced with wonderful dialogue and indefinite undercurrents, as the family tries to get the youngest daughter engaged to a worthy suitor.

In 1964, Ray made Charulata, considered his most polished and refined work, and one which he himself considers his most accurate and precise. Based on the Tagore novella, Nastanir, it deals with the passions of a young neglected wife for her brother-in-law, and her inner conflict and despair. Told with wonderful detail and serenity, Charulata is one film which would amaze the casual and discerning viewer alike, with Ray’s insight into human behavior and follies. In this period, he also directed a few movies, which include Teen Kanya, which was shortened and released as Two Daughters abroad, which is a collection of stories; Mahanagar, which deals with a homely wife’s search for a job and her success in it after her husband loses his post in a company. Post Charulata, Ray forged into various other fields, including science fiction and detective fiction, making his children films, including Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Sonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath and Hirok Rajar Deshe. All of these are wonderful movies, told with dollops of humor and are as enjoyable today as the day they were released. Of these, Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath are detective stories which would fit more into the thriller genre, and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirok Rajar Deshe are musical fantasies, both taking potshots and political controversies and the futility of war. Although categorized as children films, these movies are strong critiques of the Indian political system, and Hirok Rajar Deshe was a direct jab at the imposition of emergency, tariffs and restrictions.

Following this Ray made a few movies which are considered weak by several critics, most important among them being Nayak. Casting Bengal’s darling, Uttam Kumar, in the lead role, this was a very intense portrayal of the troubles and mental condition of a famous man, but received a muted response in international circles. Aranyer Din Ratri, is however a tremendous and very polished film. Made in 1969, this movie isolates and removes a group of young men from their natural habitat in the city, to stay in a village, where each of them gets involved in revealing encounters with one member of the local female population. It’s a great film which is lyrical and critical at the same time, with a fair bit of commentary on pettiness of urban existence in addition to doing a revealing study of the Indian middle-class.

Aranyer Din Ratri was the stepping stone for Ray’s Calcutta trilogy , consisting of three somewhat less-understood movies, Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, and Jana Aranya. The films, although composed separately share a loose similarity in their themes and hence have been frequently classified under one heading. Pratidwandi is a scathing critique on governmental apathy and the problems of the unemployed, namely disillusionment, and what it leads to - corruption. Pratidwandi is unique amongst Ray’s films because it uses a fragmented narrative style, jumping back and forth, a consistent use of flashbacks, and dream sequences, something very uncommon to Ray’s directorial style. Jana Aranya, though not in the same class as Pratidwandi, follows the life of a young man as he is forced to give in to corruption and decadence to eke out a living for himself. Seemabadhha, is the story of a successful man and the mental torture which he goes through as he is forced to choose between morality and monetary gains, finally choosing the latter. In 1977, Ray finished Shatranj Ke Khiladi, an Urdu film, his most expensive and star-studded one. Ray’s other Hindi movie, is the hour-long hard-hitting Sadgati, which was conceived mostly as a short film and is a searing jab at the problems of untouchability and it’s existence in the country in spite of government denial. The last film of this period was the short film Pikoo’s diary, which starred Aparna Sen as Pikoo’s mother, and is probably one of his most under-rated yet beautiful films. Wonderfully filmed, it’s a warm insight into the troubled feelings of a young innocent boy who wanders through the garden painting nature as his mother engages in an extra-marital relationship.

Ghare Baire was the movie, during the filming of which, Ray suffered his first heart-attack, and was forced to give up shooting outdoors altogether. The last three Ray movies are considered by many as considerably less powerful and moving. Ganashatru loosely based on Ibsen’s The enemy of the people, is uncharacteristically verbose and long. Shakha Proshakha, is a considerably better film, which follows the life of an honest old man, who is pained to learn about the corruption of his three sons, and is forced to accept the solace which his only uncorrupted, albeit mentally retarded son offers.

Agantuk is Ray’s last movie, and considered aptly by many as Ray’s swansong. Filmed in the nature of a Chekov comedy, it’s a humorous look into the world of a entirely commonplace Bengali family from the eyes of a filmmaker who has lost faith in humanity but hasn’t given up on it altogether. The story of Agantuk, has been dealt with in Hollywood in detail and practically beaten to death, but it took Ray to give the Indian touch to the movie. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Agantuk is a beautiful movie with a few flaws, but beautiful all the same. Through witty dialogue, and a subtle undercurrent of tension, Ray gives us valuable insights into the worthlessness of civilization, the universal pettiness of money, the universality of identity and the vibrancy and color of tribal life .

By 1992, Ray’s health had deteriorated beyond recovery. An honorary Oscar was awarded to him just weeks before his death, which he received on his death-bed, in a barely recognizable body ravaged by numerous heart-attacks.

There are perhaps very few filmmakers in India and abroad, who had total control over their art, and all aspects of it. Ray was responsible for scripting, casting, directing, scoring the music, operating the camera, art direction and editing, and designing his own credit titles and publicity material. What is likeable about his movies is the fact that they represent a personal expression of a kind not seen in films as a rule. Perverted, bizarre behavior and graphical sexual scenes are rarely present in his films; being concerned with human emotions and their inter-dependence on relationships is what he has been concerned with mainly. A person who always believed in depicting human emotions as honestly as possible, the strength of his cinema lies in the equal amount of importance he provided to form and content. Spectacular locations and flashiness was never a quality of his cinema and he is known to have rejected locations for scenes just because they were too overpowering, they would upset the balance . Ray’s sense of realism is abstract and wonderful at the same time. He makes us re-realize the commonplace and appreciate it in all its simplicity. He helps us recognize the mythic in the ordinary, and his movies have the capacity to invoke a thousand feelings without a single word being uttered. Ray’s movies are meditative, dreamy and contemplative, something that is profoundly and totally Indian; and that’s probably their greatest quality.

1 Responses to “Ray and his movies”

  1. # Blogger aparajito

    Nice, comprehensive post. I just wanted to add a quick correction: the advertising agency that Ray joined after returning to Calcutta from Shantiniketan was actually called D. J. Keymer and Co., where he started as a commercial artist at a monthly salary of Rs. 65, and was soon promoted to art director. Some of his campaigns from this period, including the now legendary series for Paludrine that illustrate his celebrated eye for detail can be seen here  

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