PRINT April 1992


THE BENGALI FILM DIRECTOR Satyajit Ray has just received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Those who know his work must feel that the honor is long overdue. Ray’s best-known films—the “Apu Trilogy,” Charulata, The Music Room, to name a few—are world-class, supranational classics, to be viewed and enjoyed again and again.

Besides directing his movies, Ray writes his own scripts, works the camera, edits the negative, and composes the music. He has a control almost unknown in cinema. This, together with his ability to interpret the human heart, transforms the flickering, insubstantial images of film into a real world in which we can recognize our family, our friends, and even our own society—though little could be more foreign to a Western audience than India, Bengal, Calcutta, and a humble village without electricity or running water. A great part of Ray’s brilliance lies in taking the smallest, poorest Bengali village and peopling it with characters and situations we know from our everyday lives, no matter who we are or where we live.

It is always difficult to convey on paper, in words and still images, where the genius of a film lies—particularly so when the film has the artistic scope of virtually any of Ray’s movies. On the occasion of this Oscar, then, we have asked L. Somi Roy and James Ivory, who know Ray’s art well, to put him in context for the wider audience that will hear of the award but might not otherwise know his work.

—Anthony Korner

SATYAJIT RAY’S FIRST FILM, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), is perhaps the single most important Indian movie. Its simultaneously poetic and realistic portrayal of a rural Bengal village revolutionized Indian cinema. Along with its two sequels, Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)—the “Apu Trilogy”—it establishes Ray as one of the great filmmakers of our time. What is even more remarkable, but perhaps less known, is the range of the work that followed. Ray has looked at contemporary India in over 30 feature films, shorts, and documentaries. He has made delightful fantasies that appeal to children and adults alike, has turned his hand to both satire and detective films, and has shown his mastery over the period film.

Ray was born in Calcutta in 1921, in the state of Bengal, into a family of artists and intellectuals. His father, Sukumar Ray, was a major literary figure, an Indian Edward Lear whose nonsense verse is still popular with children today. Ray’s first experience of cinema was as a young child watching Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. He spent his youth with the films of Frank Capra, John Huston, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and other great Hollywood directors, as well as with European and Soviet films. He then studied fine arts at Santiniketan, the university started by the Nobel poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Ray’s central creative and intellectual influence.

Ray, like Tagore before him, belonged to Bengal’s progressive middle class, the bhadralok, which led the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. The bhadralok had a comfortable and judicious respect for both modern, Western ideas and Indian traditions, but sought to rid those traditions of values inimical to modernization, for example the caste system and the subjugation of women. This intellectual and artistic lineage is central to Ray’s work, shaping his liberal and humanist worldview.

Ray also draws upon the sensibility and concerns of the sophisticated modern culture that developed during the years of India’s nationalist movement against the British. He belongs to the generation of artists who came of age during this period—contemporaries like Ritwick Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, who also made their first films in the late ’50s. These directors did not, of course, invent the serious Indian film (as distinct from the popular, escapist musical melodrama); V. Shantaram’s Duniya nu Mane (The Unexpected, 1937), K. A. Abbas’ Dharti ke Lal (Children of the Earth, 1946), and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953) had all won considerable critical recognition in their time. What distinguishes Ray and his peers from the earlier generation is their emphasis on the reconstruction of a newly independent society.

The overriding theme of all these filmmakers is change. Ray in particular has pointed out that all his films are “concerned with the new versus the old.”1 Underlying the poetic humanism of Pather Panchali is the story of a Brahmin family in decline, a decline that sets the stage for Apu’s growth to manhood in the second and third films of the trilogy. We see the same focus in the awakening of the eponymous heroine of Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Ray’s undisputed masterpiece, and of Bimala, one of the three central characters in Ghare-Baize (The Home and the World, 1984). It also emerges in the story of the feudal aristocrat faced with the vulgar but wealthy upstart in Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), and of the unemployed and angry young men of Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Jana Aranva (The Middleman, 1975). The representations of the caste system in Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973) and Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981) are aspects of change as well. The collective result is an examination, representation, and expression of facet after facet of modern Bengali life.

Ray has displayed a clearheaded and sensible approach in telling this story. His commitment to his own esthetics has meant that his films are ignored by the bulk of India’s cinema-going public, which prefers the musical melodramas and mythological films churned out by the studios of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Quite early in his career, Ray reflected,

What then should the serious filmmaker do? Should he accept the situation and apply himself to the making of serious mythologicals and serious devotionals, keeping the popular ingredients and clothing them in the semblance of art? This is obviously a way out of the impasse, but it raises an important question: can a serious filmmaker, working in India, afford to shut his eyes to the reality around him, the reality that is so poignant, and so urgently in need of interpretation in terms of the cinema? I do not think so.2

It is a measure of Ray’s response to the reality of India that he believes that one should make films in a language in which one is fluent. With the exception of Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977) and Sadgati, both of which are in Hindi, Ray has made all his films in Bengali, a language spoken by only a sixth of India’s population. As a result, his work is little seen beyond the educated urban Bengali public. His films are virtually assured of at least a six-week run in Calcutta, but usually appear only in brief runs, and with English subtitles, in the country’s other large cities.

For Ray, working for a minority audience has meant small budgets. This has had important consequences. After seeing Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, 1948), Ray was convinced it offered a model for his first feature, and neo-Realist techniques—extensive use of locations, natural lighting—did indeed contribute to Pather Panchali. It has also been economical for Ray to operate the camera himself, as he has done since Charulata, editing in the camera and keeping ratios of final film to film shot as low as 1:2 or 1:3. 3 But Ray would be a complete filmmaker without such considerations. He not only directs but writes his own scripts, many of them original screenplays. Since Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961, a three-part work released in the United States without one segment as Two Daughters) he has also composed the music for his works. He has complete control over every aspect of his films and has put a personal stamp on every one of them.

Ray’s interest in the individual, in the subtle shading of character, is evident in all his films. Inner states, motivations, and relationships are developed through a strong sense of visual and dramatic form. Even an apparently structureless film like Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970) leaves us feeling we know the vacationing city-dwellers as individuals. We grow to recognize Ashim, the refined executive, his buddy Sanjoy, the sophisticated and sensitive Aparna, the masculine jock Hari, the group comedian Sekhar. Through Ray’s subtle and fluid interplay, the characters define each other even as they represent themselves.

Ray excels in a totally cinematic approach, an intense and eloquent use of visual images expressing inner states of being. In Charulata, the heroine’s feelings of turmoil are captured in an extreme closeup of the actress Madhabi Mukherjee’s eyes looking into the camera, going slightly in and out of focus as she moves gently on a swing. Landscapes too acquire eloquence, as in the opening sequence of Distant Thunder, where the lush paddy fields of Bengal reflect swiftly moving storm clouds and finally a fiery sunset in their shallow water. The fields are green; the oncoming famine is manmade. Tragedy, sorrow, and death loom on the horizon.

These are the attributes that have carried Ray’s films to their international audience. There are of course limitations. His “village” films have done better in the West than his “city” films, reflecting in part the appeal of the exotic. His interest in human relationships and depth of characterization have often resulted in films where the cadences and speech patterns in the dialogue are crucial—and untranslatable. And as with any movie, one’s appreciation of his films, characteristically unfolding through nuances of human behavior, is more compelling with a fuller knowledge of their social and esthetic background. Probir’s confidences to his sister-in-law about his decision to quit his job in Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree, 1990), for instance, a film about an old man witnessing moral decay in his family, or the alteration of the relationships within an extended family in Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), have a power of verisimilitude that is enhanced by a knowledge of the intimate yet formal relationships within an Indian family.

It is in the presentation of the specifics of modern India that Ray has been most profound and yet most criticized. In a country that often seems to dwarf its works of art by the scale of its tragedies, it is perhaps a measure of Ray’s cultural status, ranked only next to Tagore, that Bengali viewers have sought from him radical answers to the problems that face the nation. But the poverty of village India depicted in Pather Panchali endures, as does the inhumanity of the caste system portrayed in Sadgati, and the corruption of The Middleman.

Modern Indians have grown disenchanted with the ability of the political structures they inherited from the British to solve the problems of their newly independent land. Ray’s own state of Bengal has led this process, electing a Marxist government. In films like The Adversary and The Middleman, Ray delineates the entrenchment of ruling interests and the helplessness of the disenfranchised. Yet in eschewing greater radicalism at a time when Bengal’s youth were advocating Maoist political action, he aimed at a politics that would preserve individual integrity and responsibility. It is Ray’s interest in the individual rather than a general ideology that deters him from forwarding solutions. Several of his films from the 1970s on saw him looking at the political and economic problems facing the country; yet Siddhartha, the job seeker in The Adversary, does not become a radical and take to the streets. Siddhartha’s decision to accept a low-paying and less prestigious job in the country is more universally understandable precisely because it is based not on an ideology but on his own experience.

Ray’s examination and recognition of the problems of contemporary India, and his unwillingness to prescribe radical solutions, have been frustrating to some, especially in his own country. There is an uneasiness with political activism in his dismissal of the single-minded radicalism of Siddhartha’s brother Tunu in The Adversary. Similarly, the ambivalence of the heroine of Seemahaddha (Company Limited, 1971) toward her revolutionary boyfriend allows her to approach her brother-in-law’s corporate world—though she does eventually reject that world for its amorality. Ray’s sympathies lie with the thinking individual who harbors uncertainties and vacillations rather than with revolutionaries proclaiming political certainties. In The Home and the World he delves unsparingly into the psychological motivations of Sandip, a leader of Swadeshi, a nationalist anti-British movement whose progressive role in history no modern Indian would question.

Ray is comfortable in his artistic inquiry and expression: “I think I like to present problems and make the public conscious of the presence of certain social problems and let them think for themselves. . . . I don’t think it’s necessary, important or right for an artist to provide answers, to say 'this is right and this is wrong.'”4 His humanism goes beyond that of a liberal who does not agree with Marxist methods of social change; it represents the position of a modern mind that approaches India and the world at large through a commitment to the individual. In Shakha Proshakha, a bitter drama about the destruction of moral values and the corruption that swamps India today, one of the characters remarks on his confusion with the events in Eastern Europe and the crumbling of the Communist regimes. True to his approach, Ray explores problems by indicating how his characters experience them. At a time when countries are scrambling to cope with a globe spanned by the power of capitalism and consumerism, and intellectuals are faced with diminished ideological alternatives, his films stand in good stead. He may not have provided the answers, but he has asked crucial questions and retained for his characters their ultimate right—their humanity.

L. Somi Roy, formerly the film programmer at the Asia Society, is a specialist in Asian cinema who lives in New York.



1. Satyajit Ray, quoted in Marie Seton, Satyajit Ray: Portrait of a Director, London: Doobson Books. Ltd., 1971, p. 141.
2. Ray, Our Films Their Films, New Delhi Orient Longman, 1976, pp. 40–41.
3. Ben Nyce, Satyajit Ray: A Study of His Films, New York: Praeger, 1988, p. 196.
4. Roy, quoted in “Film India: Satyajit Ray,” Directorate of Film Festivals, ed. Chidananda Das Gupta, New Delhi: Directorate of Film Festivals, 1981, p. 136. The original source is Folke Isaacson, “Interview with Ray,” Sight and Sound, Summer 1970.