Satyajit Ray Essay - Critical Essays

Ray, Satyajit

Introduction

Satyajit Ray 1921–

Indian director, scriptwriter, critic, author, and composer.

Ray is the only Indian director to date to gain prominence in the Western world. His humanistic themes have earned him a small but enthusiastic following among intellectuals worldwide, while his films invariably retain Indian settings and situations. Ray's films explore the transitional state of Indian society and the resulting moral implications, and Ray's sympathy toward Old World values is rarely disguised.

When Ray studied fine arts at Tagore University, he wrote scenarios and saw as many films as possible. Working as an art director, he was sent to London in 1950, where he saw films almost daily and talked with many film critics. One film which particularly influenced Ray was Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, in which human problems are graphically portrayed in natural settings. Back in Calcutta, Ray met Jean Renoir, who was then filming The River, and who encouraged Ray in his dream of filming Pather Panchali, a popular book in India. With virtually no financial backing, and using nonprofessional actors, Ray finished the film, but only after three years and several interruptions. Unlike most escapist Indian films, Pather Panchali employed the neorealist aspects Ray had found fascinating in De Sica and Renoir, and Ray achieved overnight success as a director as a result of its style and humanist themes. Pather Panchali won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, and Ray gained a following among educated Indians and Western intellectuals.

Although Ray had not originally planned to film a trilogy, he saw the logical possibilities of following the development of his hero, Apu, and released Aparajito in 1957 and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959. Aparajito was not as successful with the public as Pather Panchali, but Apur Sansar is generally regarded as a fine conclusion to the trilogy, showing clearly Ray's growing mastery of filmmaking.

Ray's later films are considered uneven, and critics are divided concerning the effectiveness of his portrayal of transition in Indian society. However, Ray branched out into other areas besides neorealism: Devi (The Goddess) has a particular focus on women's roles in society through a rather fantastical plot; Kanchenjunga is Ray's first color film, and also the first film for which he wrote the musical score (music is an aspect of major importance in all of Ray's films); Gopi Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) is a musical fantasy, and Ray's most popular film in India; Days and Nights in the Forest is an expansion on the themes evident in the Apu trilogy; Company Limited is a detective thriller with political overtones; and Distant Thunder takes the political themes further, leading to much controversy as to its worth as a work of art.

Many critics find Ray's films boring or old-fashioned as a result of their lack of inventive plot. However, Ray considers plot less important than precise dramatization and characterization. He emphasizes in his actors the need for improvisation, naturalness, and spontaneity in order to portray effectively his themes and characters. He refuses to work outside of India, preferring the natural settings of his native land. Although his films are not popular successes in his own country and are not widely distributed in the United States, Ray's themes and methods of creating his films have established him as a major artist throughout the world.

Guido Aristarco

The influences of the Italian cinema on Satyajit Ray are quite clear. [Aparajito (The Unconquered)] … confirms the significance of the two influences we perceived two years ago at Cannes in Pather panchali (The Song of the Road), the first episode of the trilogy: first, the Zavattini and De Sica of Bicycle Thief and The Children Are Watching Us …, and, second, the lyric documentary quality of Flaherty and of the Renoir of The River. But Ray's "universities"—in the Gorkian sense—are wider and more extensive….

Aparajito is not, in fact, the story of a maternal love, of a mother who sees the withdrawal of the object of her love, but a story, or, better, part of a story, of greater scope and views: it represents a portion of the "human comedy" of modern India. Ray's artistic method … is descriptive rather than narrative … and uncertainties of cinematic language are discernible here and there, though moments of great poetry are not lacking and there is an extremely apposite sound track in which music assumes a creative character in expressing situations and feelings. The final shot of Apu seated under the centuries-old tree, with its roots almost out of the ground, is unforgettable in its implied and expressed meanings: the mother is dead but there remains in the son the certainty of his having chosen the right road. (p. 9)

Guido Aristarco, "Three Tendencies: A Postscript to the Venice Film Festival," in Film Culture (copyright 1957 by Film Culture), Vol. III, No. 5, December, 1957, pp. 7-9.∗

DOUGLAS McVAY

Apart from suggesting an echo of the end of Grapes of Wrath in the closing compositions of Pather Panchali, I'd prefer to turn to one or two allegations of amateurism levelled against Ray—notably Paul Dehn's objection to the 'elementary' use in Panchali of long tracking shots. To me these shots are often among the most magical moments of the picture: the children pursuing the sweet-seller, the train sequence, or Apu running after Durga across the fields when they have quarrelled over the toy-box. And how many magical moments there are!…

[One can find nothing] amateurish in the visuals, the grey soft-dwelling close-ups and misty, luminous landscapes. Subrata Mitra may never have handled a camera before, but Ray has inspired him, just as he must have inspired Ravi Shankar, whose evocatively dissonant score was created in a night and is nowhere more perfectly employed than at the film's climax. The whole of the last two reels, indeed, are beyond praise. (p. 21)

In Pather Panchali desperate needs enforce desperate remedies. The family's existence, while it has its universal aspects and is frequently lightened by humour and small pleasures, seems a shade too impoverished to strike directly home to us: whereas the theme of Aparajito is psychological rather than documentary, applicable not merely to the poor but to every social plane.

I tend, in fact, to consider Aparajito the most profoundly sensitive panel of the triptych, for the central human bond of World of Apu, between husband and wife, springs from Apu's agreement to step into the shoes of a bridegroom who has become unhinged on his wedding day. Such an action—admittedly reluctant—may be excusable from an Indian outlook; to a Westerner, it appears a distasteful negation of sexual freedom. Because of it, the marital association isn't quite rooted in the normal, unlike the mother-son association of the preceding film. (p. 23)

Douglas McVay, "The Ray Trilogy," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), No. 24, March-April, 1960, pp. 20-4.

Jonathan Harker

The World of Apu seems to me not only the most successful, the most brilliant, the most moving, and the most important of the three parts of Mr. Ray's trilogy, but also probably the most important single film made since the introduction of sound. (p. 53)

It's difficult to give the full flavor of this film; it's difficult to describe the extraordinary success with which Ray has succeeded in stripping away several more veils from reality than any film-maker has ever removed before. Moreover, here at last is a student of film history who is able to absorb the best of the heritage handed down to him by the great film-makers of the twenties' and thirties' and fifties', to redigest and to improve on the originals. The dialogue is not only sophisticated but often genuinely surprising. The scenes at the end of the film involving Apu's five-year-old son and Apu's struggle to communicate with this boy whom he has never seen before represent perhaps the most moving portrayal of a father-son relationship in any motion picture ever made. Though they closely resemble some of the scenes in The Bicycle Thief, there is a surprising and even dazzling quality to them, which lifts them well above the DeSica-Zavattini work. (p. 54)

Jonathan Harker, "'The World of Apu'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1960 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIII, No. 3, Spring, 1960, pp. 53-5.

Arlene Croce

[Roughly] two-thirds of The World of Apu, with which Ray closes his trilogy, are well worth the trouble, and some of this is as fine, in its own way, as the best of Pather Panchali…. Ray is so thoroughly in command of his material that for the first hour or so the reality of people, of their differentiated and changing worlds, leaps unquestioned from the screen.

Looking back over this film and back over the trilogy as a whole, you see that it was chiefly this reality of persons and backgrounds that spoke to Ray from the start. Where he deals most directly with its substance, he produces great cinema; where he deals with the pre-arranged reality of a conventional screenplay, he lapses into a rather unaccustomed second gear; and where he deals with outright artifice, his technique becomes faintly spurious or, at the very least, arguable. This isn't the mere truism of film making it sounds. Bergman, for example, works best with just the opposite strengths.

As in the two previous films, nothing much happens in The World of Apu—which is to say, the events of the scenario are extremely few and not especially extraordinary. (pp. 62-3)

The absence from the trilogy of any intricately developed dramatic interest is not a relevant point of criticism. Ray has obviously aimed for a poetic-realistic chronicle of the evolution of a boy into a man—or, to use Ray's own term—a "social being." As we know, he has adapted his films from an enormously popular serialized novel which had impressed him with its authenticity as a picture of Indian life. His avoidance of the factitious is to be commended as long as the chronicle sticks to those elements in his source which mirror the untamed individuality of an identifiable life and time. But the uncomfortable truth is that the final portion of The World of Apu, in spite of the great sincerity, trust and taste with which it is filmed, looks like a fairly accurate reflection of the unexamined stock attitudes of Western biographical...

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Cynthia Grenier

[Ray's first] films—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu, form a kind of unified triptych of childhood, adolescence, and young manhood. The Music Room leisurely and patiently unfolds the story of the decline of the last member of a once mighty Indian noble family, revealing the man's character by quiet, ever-acute observation. The film has the quality and complexity usually reserved to an extremely good novel, without losing any of the visual beauty inherent to a first-rate motion picture. In its way, despite the foreign setting and details of Indian life which occasionally are quite alien to us, the film is, in its spirit, close to a number of Chekhov's later short stories or to...

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John Burgess

The World of Apu should not be qualified by the 'final part of a trilogy' tag. It stands surely on its own, prologue included, and this is not to overlook the fact that an extra dimension can be gained by seeing it after the earlier two films, Pather Panchali and Aparajito. This film is more than the sum of the successful contributions of a handful of technicians, and although its milieu is absolutely convincing and established without pretension it should not be patronised by being deemed significant for its peculiar relevance to the problems of contemporary India or Bengal. Its significance to India is that it confirms the emergence of a major creative talent who must be ceded a place beside the...

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John Gillett

The world-wide acclaim given to Satyajit Ray's Bengali trilogy has tended to overshadow his other films, none of which has received much of a showing in the West. In the case of The Philosopher's Stone, a mild comedy made as a commercial intermezzb, the loss is negligible; but Jalsaghar or The Music Room (made before Apu) was fobbed off with a minor prize at the 1959 Moscow Festival and then mysteriously disappeared. Fortunately, after two attempts, Jalsaghar was captured for last year's London Festival. Although it cannot be said to outclass the best parts of the trilogy, it proves to be an engrossing experiment in a deliberately minor key. (p. 35)

[This] is Ray's...

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Eric Rhode

In general, Satyajit Ray's films embarrass the critics. Admirers go impressionistic, talk airily of Human Values, and look offended when asked to be more precise. Detractors are no less vague. Some of them call his work charming, in a tone which could hardly carry more weight of suspicion and distrust, or say they are not interested in the problems of the Indian peasantry. Only M. Truffaut, in describing Pather Panchali as Europeanised and insipid, has firmly placed himself in the opposition. This mustn't have taken him much trouble, since he apparently walked out of the film after the first two reels. Those who stayed on to the end, however, had every reason to be more hesitant; for the supposed simplicity of...

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Gordon Gow

[It] is right for a film to preserve the indigenous quality of its country of origin, but Ray is unique among Indian filmmakers in that he has combined this with a cinematic idiom that is acceptable outside India. His films are very slow, but the influence of neo-realism and a flair for poetic imagery has brought them nearer to us than other Indian films have ever been. Even so, the slowness of Ray is less consistently cinematic than the slowness of, say, Antonioni. At times he is content to let the subject matter too much alone, and observe his characters, or in this case his almost solitary central character, in pictures that are often pretty dull.

Yet, at other times, there are indications of his...

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Tony Mallerman

Satyajit Ray can reveal reality as can no other director in the world. He can give us the squelch of mud so that our feet are sucked into it; and the sound of birds frantically chattering so that we might reach out and touch a wing in flight; and the nearness of a great sluggish river so that we, too, are governed by it. One feels it possible to touch a Ray film, to make real tactile contact with objects and people which, in other films, we might admire for the patterns they made or the attitudes they struck.

One might see a thousand well-intentioned documentaries about India, yet learn less from them than from either of the two stories in Two Daughters. And besides his benevolently accurate...

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Eric Rhode

On a first glance you might see Devi [The Goddess] … as no more than a film with a thesis, Ibsen in an Indian setting….

The thesis, it seems, is clear; and in fact is nothing less than the latent theme of the Apu trilogy made articulate….

On the level of a thesis …, the plot is both inexorable and tight. Ironies fall into place neatly—almost too neatly. A child is saved, so another child must die. Women are treated both as serfs and as idols; in any event, they are never allowed to be human beings…. In the Apu trilogy episodes were mainly related to each other by association; as the images of river and parched land recurred they took on the resonance,...

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Peter Cowie

The handful of Ray's films that one has been able to see reveal his major theme as being the conflict between the generations in India, between the older generation who lived under the British Raj, and the younger generation who have grown up in a modern, independent land. (pp. 28-9)

On paper [the plot of The Goddess] seems preposterous in this day and age. But Ray's handling of the characters is so discreet, and the acting of the father, son and his wife is so convincing that never once does the conception of Doya's being a goddess strike one as being altogether ridiculous. Instead it signifies the last stand of the older generations' beliefs in India, like the old man's house in The Music...

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Penelope Houston

To attempt to annex Satyajit Ray as the last Victorian would be absurd. But it isn't merely because Charulata is set in 1880, and full of references to Gladstone and Macaulay, to English politics and the rotundities of nineteenth century leader writers, that one is made aware of the connections. The film brings together the two characters who seem most thoroughly to arouse Ray's sympathies, and who have appeared most persistently in his films. And neither of them is, in Western terms, quite of the present day.

Amal …, the literary-minded cousin who awakens Charu, the editor-publisher's wife, from the lethargy of the long Indian afternoons, is a variation on Ray's eternal student, (p. 31)...

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Richard Schickel

Satyajit Ray, the noted Indian director, is up to his usual lack of tricks in his latest film, Kanchenjungha. Once again he has dared to make a movie of such stately pace and conventionality of imagery that it—and the audience—always teeters on the brink of boredom. Once again his characters are fictional familiars—archetypes in danger of becoming stereotypes. Once again his story is little more than a cliché. And once again, by a magic that is peculiarly his own, he forces us to attend his deliberately difficult work closely and to care, perhaps more than common sense would dictate, about its outcome. (p. 77)

Some sketchy subplots underpin [the] central situation, but they are no more...

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Richard Schickel

It is always a trifle embarrassing to set down in unadorned outline the story of one of Satyajit Ray's films, for in that form they generally seem too small, too simple to support the critical enthusiasm they generate. (p. 126)

[In The Big City], it all seems rather banal. But it is perfectly wonderful when you see it unfold at Mr. Ray's customary unforced pace in his customary unfancy style. The real substance of his films lies between their plot lines, in the interaction of his almost Chekhovian characters. (p. 127)

I imagine that Mr. Ray sees the emergence of [the young wife] under trial as symbolic of India itself, emerging into the modern world after the long...

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Chidananda Das Gupta

It is in Charulata that both the statement and the art reach their height. For the first time since the trilogy, Ray has something different and important to say, and says it really well. It is, to me, his masterpiece since the trilogy. In a classically Indian fusion of decoration and expression, its miniature-painting-like images acquire an autonomy and poise. Its rhythm, gentle as in all Ray's films, never falters, and Ray's own musical score, competent and interesting in previous films, for the first time becomes a major instrument in making the statement of his film. (p. 44)

The exquisite period flavor is Ray's own, and distinguishes the film from the story, in which Tagore takes it for...

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Ernest Callenbach

[Mahanagar] dramatizes a disconcerting shift in the roles of women, and hence in the patterns of family life and emotional life generally. (pp. 46-7)

American viewers, living in a culture which went through the emergence of women from the home a generation ago, will mostly find the film sentimental, and for them its appeal will be largely ethnographic: Ray is very good at catching the atmosphere of the Bengali household, the small glances and movements by which the inhabitants of the crowded apartment convey their love or disapproval or resentment. But this "humanist" appeal is not enough to preserve the film from charges of being an exotic soapopera. (p. 47)

The comparison...

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Elizabeth Sussex

Satyajit Ray made Mahanagar … in Calcutta in 1963. It came to the London Film Festival in 1964, and we remembered it as lightweight Ray with an especially rich quota of humour. That is how it still seems, with the humour marvellously perceptive about the little things that are really the big things of life.

This conflict within the family between tradition and progress, between the old culture and the new enlightenment, that runs through all Ray's films, is after all a feature of the human condition not just in India but everywhere, and not just in our time but always. The need to overthrow things that conceivably still matter to us, and to taste the kind of knowledge that can sever us...

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William S. Pechter

[Perhaps] the most remarkable aspect of Ray's body of work is its range and versatility. Even within the trilogy, each of the films is strikingly different from the others: Pather Panchali, a Dovzhenko-like poem of the earth and of human lives coming to definition against the anonymity of nature's cycles; Aparajito, owing less perhaps to De Sica than to Zavattini in the latter's call for an open form; and The World of Apu, in which a narrative of spiritual questing that reminds one of Hesse in its largeness of gesture is given an embodiment whose critical detachment and admittance of a natural world are as different from the emotional posturing of Hesse as they are again from any of the...

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Tom Milne

Days and Nights in the Forest … the very title rings with enchantment, and the old Ray magic is soon at work again….

[Whereas] it would be impossible to detach Chekhov's characters, or indeed James's, from their very precise social contexts, Ray's characters seem to belong so essentially to no other time than their own that they could step quite easily out of Charulata into Days and Nights in the Forest, bridging three-quarters of a century in the process. Partly, of course, this is because aspects of Victoriana have survived quaintly in Indian life; partly because Ray has a respect for traditional (especially cultural) values which is hardly shared by modern society; but...

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Robin Wood

I should confront the problem … of the accessibility of Ray's films for western audiences: can we feel any confidence that we are adequately understanding, intellectually and emotionally, works which are the product of a culture very different from our own? The problem has two aspects. One is content, our intermittent sense that certain passages or details in the films may mean something more, or something different, to Indian audiences. The other is tempo: the chief explicit grumble in the West about Ray's films is that they move slowly.

The 'content' problem can easily be stood on its head: what is remarkable is how seldom in Ray's films the spectator is pulled up by any specific obstacle...

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Pauline Kael

"It adds years to your life," the young men from Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's Days and Nights in the Forest say of the country quiet, and it's easy to believe. Ray's images are so emotionally saturated that they become suspended in time and, in some cases, fixed forever. Satyajit Ray's films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness in me than the work of any other director. I think it must be because our involvement with his characters is so direct that we are caught up in a blend of the fully accessible and the inexplicable, the redolent, the mysterious. We accept the resolutions he effects not merely as resolutions of the stories but as truths of human experience. Yet it isn't only a matter of...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Neglect is benign for some artists. An American novelist named William March was thought by some to be a neglected fine writer until a large anthology of his work was published; that finished March. The Indian director, Satyajit Ray, is a first-class artist, until you see his films. As long as he isn't imported, one can talk about injustice and neglect. But then along comes a Ray film, and, allowing for such exceptions as Aparajito and Charulata, it is usually a mild and fairly dull item.

[Days and Nights in the Forest] is one of the milder and duller; wretchedly photographed, archaically edited, sentimental and superficial in style and theme. (p. 22)

...

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Alan Ross

Ray's films—arguably the most considerable achievement in the art of our time—have made only a modest impact in relation to their quality. What the curious but weary West has wanted from India has been its peripheral and largely discarded mysticism, not its human problems and statistics of defeat.

Where much of even the best cinema is a game, played in isolation and its interest dependent on awareness of cultural cross-references and its own improvizations, Ray's films have an organic growth, to which the actors in prescribed situations contribute, that makes discussions of technique and influence almost superfluous. (p. 150)

In The Adversary the visual and dialogue...

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Tom Milne

Company Limited is an impeccable ideological tract detailing the exact price in human dignity and decency to be paid for a stake in the corridors of power. As always with Ray, the message is all the better and richer for being conveyed obliquely…. [The] secret motivation of Company Limited is the mournful yearning of Chekhov's characters, not this time for the seemingly unattainable city but for the 'provincial' life that has been lost…. Company Limited may not have the exquisite formal perfection of Days and Nights in the Forest, but it is considerably more successful than The Adversary in filtering the political demands of a situation which, as Ray says, "you feel every moment...

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John Coleman

Company Limited has a bleak, slightly off-key title to British ears and this quality of getting things just that shade wrong is an element in what it is all about. The film takes its place in a trio (the other two, Days and Nights in the Forest and The Adversary) concerned with the effects of what we did to India and Indians. We left them a language, English, and a way of life not unconnected with capitalism. These facts Mr Ray now occupies himself with stressing and, under their impact, he seems to be producing increasingly unnerved and unnerving movies….

If one leans on the pictorial style, it is because it is nearly consistently ugly, harsh, almost as if Ray had decided...

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Penelope Gilliatt

"Charulata," Satyajit Ray's most nearly flawless film apart from his great Apu trilogy, is a flowing, opulent tale that seems to be lit from the inside like a velvet-lined carriage with a lantern in it rocked by a hot monsoon wind. The film carries an exquisite period flavor of the eighteen-seventies in Bengal. (p. 48)

The film leaves one with a sense of great things unfulfilled but never of mania. Like Ray's "The Music Room," which has tones of "The Cherry Orchard," it has a style that is songlike, beautiful, sometimes turning into an abrupt and comic rudeness that again seems very Russian. Grapelipped men lapse into English as Chekhovians dreaming of revolution lapse into French.

...

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Penelope Gilliatt

["Nayak the Hero"] is the achievement of a great film director working outside his usual style, fumbling sometimes with surrealism, using flashbacks that flaw the usual concord of his sense of storytelling, but sometimes illumining it by lines that suddenly show character in movement, like the glare of a torch catching a figure on a staircase. (p. 67)

Penelope Gilliatt, "The Fastest Anachronism in the West," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 23, July 29, 1974, pp. 66-7.

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Judith Crist

[The Hero is] a witty and ironic film Ray made in 1966. It is quintessential Ray, a simple story moving at what has been so aptly described as "the pace of a majestic snail," its protagonist projected on a broad canvas so subtly crammed with insights, perceptions, and wry comment that its compassionate awareness of the human comedy sticks to the mind's ribs with surprising persistency….

Ray provides a worldliness and sophistication to break the journey, with the tiniest of moments becoming significant drama, and gestures—like the quick, firm restoration of the hornrims—providing the breadth of character. We might, in fact, be riding the Twentieth Century again, a little less fliply and a...

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Tom Milne

Light shimmering on the water; what appears to be a dead hand floating just beneath the surface; then the hand idly begins to toy with the ripples, and the camera gently pans to reveal a girl dreamily bathing in the river and staring up at the sky as five fighter planes sweep by in formation: "How beautiful", she exclaims, "like a flight of cranes". This sequence of images immediately following the credits of Distant Thunder (themselves placed over images of tranquil nature and stormy winds starting to ruffle a field of waving corn) is Ray at his complex, evocative best. Long before we discover that this is some time after the fall of Singapore and that the distant thunder of World War Two will soon break over...

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Pauline Kael

The color imagery of Satyajit Ray's "Distant Thunder" is so expressive that I regretted the need to look down to the subtitles; it took precious time away from the faces and bodies, with their hint of something passive, self-absorbed—a narcissism of the flesh….

The film is delicately, ambiguously beautiful; the shadowing comes from our knowledge … that the people we're looking at are endangered. It is a lyric chronicle of a way of life just before its extinction, and Ray gives the action the distilled, meditative expressiveness that he alone of all directors seems able to give. We're looking at something that we feel is already gone, and so the images throb. Or is it that we do? It comes...

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John Simon

[It] was indeed a miracle for even so modest a talent as Satyajit Ray's to emerge with Pather Panchali two decades ago. It is not so much that Ray's films are slow, or pallid, or derivative, or choppy, or technically rudimentary—though they are all of these things, too—as that they are, for the most part, dull. Pather and the other two films of the so-called Apu Trilogy seemed better than what followed, perhaps because of the novelty of seeing films from India. What impressed me in Ray's later films was the infallible gift for making things come out less varied, dimensional, moving (in both senses) than life.

Some of this is not the fault of Ray, but of the political mess and...

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John Russell Taylor

Ray is a great director, and ipso facto cannot be typical of anything, perhaps not even reliably himself (it is the prerogative of all great artists constantly to take us by surprise). But it seems reasonable to assume that he must have come from something and fit into some sort of context. And so of course he does. Not particularly a cinematic context: eighteen years after the appearance of Pather Panchali, the first of the Apu trilogy, he is still a solitary figure, a unique talent in Indian cinema, and the Indian cinema apart from him has hardly moved on from the kind of nonsense he gently satirizes in the filmgoing sequence of Apur Sansar, all trashy, theatrical, sentimental, and...

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Chris Schemering

Distant Thunder, a rare color film by Satyajit Ray, is perhaps the master film-maker's loveliest, but it could take the cake as his most simple-minded and literal….

Ray gets in a few social barbs at the huszling middle class. But while Ray plants the seed for satire, he doesn't go anywhere with it. It's a red herring—the calm before the storm.

After this point the narrative becomes an exposition of the theme: what war does to people, specifically what war does to Ray's innocents who will endure famine although the war never touches them directly. Distant Thunder has been compared with Bergman's Shame but the vivid images matched with heavy metaphors and...

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William S. Pechter

That [Distant Thunder] falls short of Ray's best work is probably true enough, and worth saying. No less worth saying, however briefly and belatedly, is that I've seen no other film this year or last which seems to me to approach it.

[What] the film is about is less [the famine it depicts] than the transformations wrought by that famine on the lives of one couple. Characteristically, the principals aren't some neo-realist-style impoverished everyman-and-woman but a Brahmin teacher and his wife, accustomed by their caste to privilege, and taking deference as their due. It would have been easy to have made these characters, the man especially, more sympathetic…. And it would have been easy,...

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Geoff Brown

The Middleman is no exact sequel [to Company Limited], for Ray's portrait of the sad inter-relationship between amorality and success is painted in far greater detail and in darker colours. There is more explicit emphasis on the break-up of India's past traditions…. Religion is specifically degraded…. Unlike many other directors (Altman, for instance), Ray can depict sour and cynical characters or events without being sour himself: from the opening scenes the film bristles with the warm, involving comedy of everyday oddities and indignities, conveying Ray's moral and message with far more effectiveness than any strident tub-thumping…. Ray's camera observes the comic disasters and follies with his...

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Tom Milne

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players … is the ambivalence with which Ray views the matter of politics and progress, recalling the fact that twenty years ago, in Jalsaghar, he demonstrated how an aristocratic landowner's irredeemable social negligence might yet aspire to a state of grace through his overruling delight in beauty. There, more overtly but no more inescapably than in the new film, Ray's direction recorded the death of a way of life, a suicide willingly undertaken because pure beauty cannot survive untarnished in a crassly material world….

[Ray splits his viewpoint three ways.] Two of these, represented on the one hand by the montage...

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J. Hoberman

American interest in Satyajit Ray appears to have peaked in the Peace Corps era of the early '60s. One wonders if he didn't forfeit his status as a Third World filmmaker once it became apparent that his theme was not the plight of India's landless masses but the social evolution of its Brahman bourgeoisie. That The Middleman (1975) … reiterates Ray's obsessive concern should be obvious from its title. What's uncharacteristic about the film—Ray's best since his chamber drama Charluta (1964)—is its bleak pessimism.

Shot during the early days of Indira Gandhi's "emergency rule" in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Ray's native Calcutta, The Middleman is played against a tatty...

(The entire section is 340 words.)