Article abstract: Ray was India’s most distinguished film director, responsible for gaining Indian cinema international recognition and rescuing it from a reputation for indiscriminate productivity and vulgar escapism. For more than thirty years, his films not only established him as a moving force in world cinema but also provided Western audiences with profound insights into Indian life and inspired a generation of Indian filmmakers to follow his lead in producing films of serious social comment.
Satyajit Ray came from a distinguished Bengali family whose members have made lasting contributions to the intellectual life of their country. His grandfather, Upendra Kishore, was an artist and illustrator who established a publishing house (U. Ray and Sons), which Ray’s father, Sukumar, later headed. Upendra was friendly with Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most distinguished intellectual and social visionary, who would later take an interest in the education of his friend’s grandson. Both Upendra and Sukumar were directly influenced by a group of Bengali reformers known as the Brahmo Samaj, who in the late nineteenth century tried to introduce into their society progressive European ideas (notably relating to the education of women and the condition of the underclass) without disturbing the best of native traditions. Satyajit Ray inherited much of his own universalism and concern over the tensions between ancient and modern social forces from the tradition of Brahmoism.
Ray was only two years old when his father, who had already established a considerable reputation as an artist and publisher, died; the press had to be sold to pay the family’s debts. He and his mother, Suprabha, went to live with her brother and his family. Like his grandfather, Ray completed his secondary education and higher education at Presidency College in Calcutta, from which he was graduated in economics in 1940. He was then persuaded to go to Santineketan, the art center founded by Tagore for the purpose of creating a new generation of Bengali artists and intellectuals who would make careers for themselves faithful to the tenets of the progressive spirit of Brahmoism. Ray spent two and a half years in this intellectually encouraging atmosphere, gradually developing his inherited talent as an artist and deepening his acquaintance with the major figures in world cinema. Leaving Santineketan during World War II, Ray eventually found work as a commercial artist for the British firm of J. Keymer, for whom he worked until he turned his attention entirely to filmmaking.
Various events confirm a move in this direction in the years around Indian independence (1948). In 1947, he helped to establish the Calcutta Film Society and began to try his hand at writing articles on film. He was further encouraged by the arrival in Calcutta in 1950 of Jean Renoir to film The River. Finally his firm sent him to London for six months in 1950, where by his own account he saw ninety-nine films: among them were several Italian neorealist films, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), wherein Ray noted the potency of a family drama springing from an immediate economic crisis and the appeal of using nonprofessional actors. By the time he returned to Calcutta in late 1950, Ray not only knew he was to be a film director but also already had a complete draft of his first screenplay: an adaptation of a very popular Bengali novel, Bibhuti-Bhusan Banerji’s Pather panchali (1929; Pather Panchali: Song of the Road, 1968).
The film Pather Panchali was only completed in 1955 after enormous difficulties (including the pawning of family jewelry and books). This unblinkingly honest portrayal of life in an Indian village won immediate international acclaim in New York and at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. It gave Ray the confidence (and funds) he needed to complete the trilogy on the life of his hero Apu from birth to maturity. His second film, Aparajito (1956; The Unvanquished), moves from the death of the father to Apu’s education in Calcutta. It won the Golden Lion in Venice, 1957. The final film of the trilogy is Apu Sansar (1959; The World of Apu), which shows the hero as an aspiring novelist, the circumstances of his marriage, and the tragic death of his young wife.
Before completing the Apu trilogy, Ray made a subtle masterpiece in Jalsaghar (1958; The Music Room). Music and cultural reference are the means whereby the director dramatizes the decline of a representative of the landowning class in the 1920’s. Characteristic of Ray is his sympathy for a character whose indolence brings about his own tragedy.
Social tensions within the Indian past are the inspiration of Devi (1960; The Goddess) and the superb Charulata (1964; The Lonely Wife). The former takes controversial issue with religious fanaticism. A zamindar (feudal landlord) drives his favorite daughter-in-law, Daya, to madness and death through his obsessive conviction that she is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali. The latter, set in Calcutta in 1879, is a profound study of a wife neglected by her publisher husband and drawn to his sensitive cousin Amal. Clearly Ray did not see the problems of women imprisoned by the taboos of Indian society as frozen in the historical past but as unresolved contradictions in independent India.
As part of the centenary of the birth of Tagore, Ray was commissioned to make a documentary of the poet’s life: Rabindranath Tagore (1961). The completed film is a reminder of the debt that all Bengalis owe to...
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