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.
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)
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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[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 Joyce's Dubliners: in it a man's life is epiphanized in an hour and a half of film. We are shown all the weaknesses of the man; his vanity, his self-deception, his total inability to adjust or adapt to any kind of life different from that to which he has always been accustomed. Yet we are also shown, with compassion and wisdom, a fellow human being whom we can understand, forgive, and with whom we can identify.
There is scarcely any plot at all in the conventional sense, yet at the end the viewer feels he has seen a man's entire life laid out before him and has come to understand not just the man's character, but something essential to life itself. Gently the film follows the shallow movements of this life; suddenly,...
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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 other contemporary greats Bergman and Fellini.
Stripped immodestly to essentials, The World of Apu explores the paradoxical business of death-in-life and the rebirth dependent upon it. (p. 83)
The film is constructed from dynamically linked movements, later ones containing reminders and overtones of the various states of innocence the former come to represent….
Ray's personal vision fuses the unsophisticated narrative. A dynamic tightening is effected by various patterns of imagery, particularly a recurrence of child images and sounds…. [The] unobtrusive accumulation of sounds and images into suggestive patterns gives The World of Apu a most satisfying, yet in no way...
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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 most romantic film, almost Gothic in its concentration on the crumbling spiritual and physical façade of its protagonist's existence. In it, Ray seems to be recording the loss of a certain kind of purity and idealism, but the comment is made without sentimentality. And there is no bitterness either—even the nobleman's nouveau riche rival is given a faintly ridiculous yet not unsympathetic pomposity. The gentle sadness and humour of the story sometimes bring it near to a Chekhovian tempo; certainly it is some distance from the eager striving forward of the Apu trilogy. But, despite the difference in subject matter, the style belongs unmistakably to Ray. Again, there is the atmospheric concentration on sounds and objects (a...
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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 this work—and indeed of all Ray's films—disarms the critic. Only after close scrutiny do most of them turn out to be artefacts of the most subtle sort. It is a case of art concealing art, brought about by Ray's precise construction of plot—so that craftsmanship seldom shows—and by his ability while shooting to improvise against this structure in a way which gives his work a continual spontaneity….
The myth of the Natural Genius, piping his native woodnotes wild, dies hard in certain quarters; and Ray it seems is to be the latest victim sacrificed upon its altars. He can only be made to play this part, however, if one ignores his robust plots and the density of his symbolism. Not that his best work is mannered, as...
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[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 ability to present evocative images…. But [in The Music Room] there is never enough of this to outweigh the rest, the plodding part, the part that might mean much more to an Indian audience, perhaps, than it does to me.
Gordon Gow, "'The Music Room'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1962; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 10, July, 1962, p. 37.
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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 eye, Satyajit Ray has a heart he has not controlled in the interests of sophistication. Director, producer, writer, composer—Ray has credits for all these in Two Daughters. But at the risk of seeming arch I'd say it is for something uncredited that he earns our undying gratitude. Every frame in this film proclaims his love for his people and their environment. In neither of his treatments of the two Rabindranath Tagore stories on which he has based his film need we care about his direction, in the formal sense of the word. Or whether his lighting could be improved. Or whether his camera is at times too static. If he lingers on a close-up for what, in a western film might seem too long, it is because for every second that close-up is...
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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, possibly the symbolism, of myth. In Devi episodes relate to each other with rationalist logic. So symbolism is played down; the river and landscape never become more than a beautiful backdrop to the action. Such a logic, moreover, requires motives to be highly plausible, a requirement which Devi doesn't entirely satisfy….
But—fortunately—Devi is much more than a tract. As always, Ray shows sympathy for the old order as well as for the new…. On a closor look, indeed, Devi is anything but a tract. It has touches of a Greek tragedy in which Kali, the destroyer, enacts her necessary sacrifice; not without reason is Doyamoyee chased by furies across a sunlit field of flowers. Again, and most...
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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 Room. The view of the new generation is expressed by Umaprasad's Professor in Calcutta. The question of belief, he says, is irrelevant; the tragedy is that a husband has been denied certain basic rights. When, in the final anguished scene, the feeble landowner collapses in the face of his son's accusations, his fall seems to symbolise the fall of an entire way of life.
Ray's style is impeccable. He weaves the timeless melancholy of the music, the serene life of the village on the river, and the elaborate ritual of the priests, into a study in depth of the essential India, the India that is absorbing up-to-date methods and dress without ever quite relinquishing the ceremonial modus vivendi of its...
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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)
The second Ray character is the New Woman—and she deserves those Victorian capital letters…. [She] is very closely related to the heroine of Mahanagar, his preceding film. There the setting is modern, and the girl finds herself forced into unwilling competition with her husband: taking a job, and discovering that she actually enjoys it….
Ray's women characters in themselves sum up a range of historical attitudes. The poor little wife in Devi is tradition personified: quietly submissive, classically patient, she is trapped into her appalling role of goddess. In The World of Apu, the wife is still submissive, though her docility is tempered by self-discovery; in Two Daughters...
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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 thrill-packed than the major premise. The Darjeeling setting is interesting, but Ray, who is no pictorialist, handles it routinely. The technical quality of the film is distractingly poor. What, then, is so fascinating about it?
I cannot fully answer that question, since I know the picture did its most forceful work on me below the conscious level, but I suspect it has to do with Ray's patient, insistent probing for the meanings of gestures and glances and silences, his search for the psychic realities that lie beneath conversational conventions and banalities. All these small matters carry a weight in this film that is far heavier than normal, and as we strain forward to catch their true meanings we are, almost against...
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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 personality-crushing ordeal of colonialism, and I imagine, too, that he is urging upon his nation a course similar to that which his heroine pursues—neither clinging blindly to the past (like her unseeing father-in-law) nor clutching unthinkingly at the future as the other characters around her do. Rather, he seems to say, try to blend the forces of tradition with the forces of change thoughtfully, testingly, without panic or excessive passion. In such a way might a wholly new character—strong, supple, subtle—emerge in a wholly new world.
I have no wish, however, to imply that Mr. Ray is heavy or particularly dogged in pursuit of messages, symbolic or otherwise. He is, instead, a careful, ironic and always very specific...
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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 granted. The sunlit garden, the swing, he embroidery, the floral motifs on the doors and the walls, the horse-drawn carriage, the evocative settings … are, however, more than exquisite decorations; they frame the action and set it at a distance—the distance of contemplation. (p. 45)
Chidananda Das Gupta, "'Charulata'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1967 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXI, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp. 42-5.
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[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 between Ray's Charulata and his preceding film Mahanagar shows how thin the dividing line [between soap-opera and art] may sometimes be. These films have the same actress at their center …; they are both "women's pictures," focused on the domestic relations of husband and wife; they share Ray's gently humorous observation of manners. Such films stand or fall, then, on how delicately and intriguingly they are managed: how rich is the invention of character and incident, how skillful and nuanced the playing and dialogue, how interesting the mise-en-scène. Mahanagar, whether useful or regressive in its relation to the modernizing trend of present-day India, is simpler and more banal than the rather complexly ironic...
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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 regretfully from our roots, recurs with each generation. What is so exciting about Ray's approach to this is that he actually shows us the ambivalence of people's attitudes. Mahanagar is about a young housewife … who goes out to work for the first time, and we can see on her face the mixture of nostalgia and anticipation, fear and courage, that this occasions. When a film can get as far inside people as this, there is no possibility of its losing anything with the passage of time.
This is not to deny the importance of the precise placing in space and time. For Ray, I think, the limitations imposed by his Bengali family settings provide the disciplined framework which, in one form or another, every artist needs. (p....
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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 stereotypes of a film by Ray. Before completing the trilogy, Ray made two other works, The Philosopher's Stone (1957), a comic fantasy and the only one of Ray's films I would characterize as slight, and The Music Room (1958), a gothic study in obsession and decay that more nearly evokes the fateful cosmos of a Kleist (and of his "St. Cecilia, or The Power of Music," in particular) than it does any world of a perfectable human nature. Despite its backdrop of societal transformation, the essential force of The Music Room resides in the extent to which we are drawn into its protagonist's proud madness; the extent to which we are brought even to admire the declining aristocrat's compulsive sacrifice of all else to the thrall of a...
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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 mostly because he withdraws so determinedly from the tempo of this technological age that time becomes almost as important a factor in his films as it is with Resnais…. (p. 48)
[It] is interesting that the most frequent criticism levelled against Ray by his detractors is that his films are too slow, and by his admirers, that he cannot handle melodrama (e.g. much of Abhijan, the end of Mahanagar, the assault on Hari in Days and Nights in the Forest). Opposite ends of the same candle, these criticisms arise because Ray's cinema is essentially one of contemplation in which both he and his characters like to ponder first, act afterwards. (p. 49)
Tom Milne, "'Days and...
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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 arising from cultural differences. Partly, this can be attributed to the fact that Ray appears to have learnt his art mainly from the western cinema….
In terms of general subject-matter, Ray's films usually deal with human fundamentals that undercut all cultural distinctions. The subject-matter of the trilogy—family, the parentchild relationship, marriage, irreparable loss, reconciliation—is obviously universal in its accessibility. Even Ray's apparently more 'exotic' films like Devi—in which a young girl is mistaken by her father-in-law for a reincarnation of a goddess—can be reduced to conflicts (usually related to social change and the gulf between generations) that are certainly not restricted to one...
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"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 thinking, Yes, this is the way it is. What we assent to is only a component of the pattern of associations in his films; to tell the stories does not begin to suggest what the films call to mind or why they're so moving. There is always a residue of feeling that isn't resolved. Two young men sprawled on a porch after a hot journey, a drunken group doing the Twist in the dark on a country road, Sharmila Tagore's face lit by a cigarette lighter, her undulating walk in a sari—the images are suffused with feeling and become overwhelmingly, sometimes unbearably beautiful. The emotions that are imminent may never develop, but we're left with the sense of a limitless yet perhaps harmonious natural drama that the characters are part of. There are...
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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)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Four for the Seesaw" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1973 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 168, No. 16, April 21, 1973, pp. 22, 33.∗
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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 references to politics are more obvious than usual, but it is what Ray makes out of nothing, in purely cinematic terms, that is significant, not what his films can be reduced to in terms of theme and incident.
In fact, each of his films can be regarded as a series of beautifully conceived set-pieces, but so much are they part of a whole, so gently do they flow into each other, that anecdote or style are never obtrusive. Robin Wood and others have drawn attention to the Mozartian aspect of Ray's art [see excerpt above], to his debt to Renoir, to the stylish innovations he has borrowed from others, but ultimately the films quite simply are—aspects of growing, struggling, loving, dying, while the sun shines, the rains...
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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 of the day in Calcutta", through the prism of his own vision. (p. 52)
Tom Milne, "Feature Films: 'Seemabaddha' ('Company Limited')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 482, March, 1974, pp. 51-2.
(The entire section is 148 words.)
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 (and, for heaven's sake, he worked under Renoir and himself made the visually ravishing Charulata) to send up a gamut of Hollywood postures…. Noises, the dialogue, the eerily clumsy or parody appearance of things begin to come together into a statement of sorts. This is Ray's bitterest work: that much is certain. He couldn't otherwise have permitted the visual going to get so rough.
And the script, which is credited to him, based on a novel by Shankar, is more replete with chucked-in English than any other of his I can remember…. Ray, who has no effective audience at home (where it is all song and dance), must make his films for himself or for an audience cautiously sensed as out there, which would be you and me....
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"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.
"Charulata" is gentle to loneliness in the well-off, it is beautifully written, and sometimes it is very funny. The music was written by Ray himself. Along with everything else, the picture is a fascinating fable about the bequest of Empire in India…. Against the gaudy background of the Indian film industry, there may well appear to be something Europeanized about Ray's humor and his low tones. To Europeans or Americans, though, his Forsterish irony seems deeply embedded in his style, and he obviously works from within in his sight of the Indian character. The film is triumphant in its comprehension of a period. (pp. 49-50)
Penelope Gilliatt, "The Great Ray," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The...
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["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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[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 lot more satisfyingly. It makes the erratic sound track and recurrence of white-on-white (but markedly literate) subtitles worth enduring.
Judith Crist, "Star's Trek," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1974 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 7, No. 31, August 1, 1974, p. 53.
(The entire section is 159 words.)
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 this remote Bengali village trailing a terrible man-made famine, that corpse-like hand already pollutes the placid river with its intimations of mortality. There is really no need for the complementary image later on in the film when order has begun to collapse in the village, two women save a third from attempted rape by beating her attacker to death, and a stream of blood flowing from a now unmistakably dead hand stains the same placid waters. The tautology here, or perhaps over-expressiveness in an attempt to encompass a vast theme would be a better term, is part of the problem with the film. "Five million starved in Bengal in what has come to be known as the man-made famine of 1943" reads the last, accusing title after an apocalyptic...
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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 to the same thing. (p. 169)
Ray is one of the most conscious artists who ever lived, and in this film he means to show us the subservient status of women…. Ray is not a vulgar chauvinist, exalting subservient women; quite the contrary. While the men in his films are weak and easily flattered—dupes, self-deceived by vanity and ambition—the women have conflicts that are larger, more dignified, involving a need for love, for independence, for self-expression. They are morally stronger than the men. This may, in part, reflect a belief that the women, having always been in a subservient position, were not corrupted by English rule in the way that the men were.
Still, in "Distant Thunder," in a village...
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[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 cultural wasteland, the underfinancing and over-censoring he must contend with. But all this oppressiveness works, in some ways, to his advantage: it precludes a lot of competition, excuses many crudities. And, true, there are cultural differences that may make it harder for us to apprehend Ray's meanings, yet given the bending over backward with which every supine bit of Indian mysticism is hailed by our budding Buddhists, yearning yogis, and transcendental meditators, Ray, for all his secularism and even socialism, cannot help benefiting indirectly from his Indianness…. [Such] recent films of his' as Days and Nights in the Forest and The Adversary have demonstrated to me with how primitive, indeed nonexistent, a sense of humor...
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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 fantasticated. But a literary and artistic context is very much there…. (pp. 165-66)
Ray's first films, the Apu trilogy, at once place him in a certain tradition by being based on a modern classic of Bengali literature, the semi-autobiographical novels by Bibhuti Bhushan Bannerjee; a more personal kind of placing is implied by his much later filming of a famous children's book by his grandfather, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The kind of cultural society from which the young Ray sprang can be observed more directly in his film Charulata, which shows something closely comparable to the cultural level and highminded seriousness suggested in the works of Ibsen and Chekhov. If Ray seems in many ways the most Western of Oriental...
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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 tired plot bones brings it closer to Cries and Whispers, Bergman's awesome closet drama…. Distant Thunder begins as a fairy tale romance and ends on the same note; there's nowhere the film can go dramatically…. Nevertheless, the film moves forward so sensuously and lyrically and because all Satyajit Ray's films are invariably rubber-stamped with the critical catchword 'humanism', it's no wonder Distant Thunder could appeal to critics as varied as Vincent Canby, Molly Haskell and Pauline Kael….
The ridiculously blunt symbolism comes down with the weight of a sledgehammer. Ray isn't giving an emotional nudge; it's a push. Distant Thunder contains some of Ray's worst ideas since Nayak...
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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, also, to have set the film in some expressively ravaged and barren landscape rather than the film's verdantly beautiful one, and to have photographed it in stark black and white instead of sensuous color. But this is a film of distant thunder, in which the first words, said by the woman of some passing bombers, are, "How beautiful! Like a flight of cranes!"—a film about a world that's full of death, but a world in which death comes not with sudden violence so much as by stealth: stealing up on one in barely perceptible increments.
Distant Thunder has its faults. Though exquisitely delicate when it keeps to the intimate scale of the man and wife, it can be perfunctory and uninspired (montages of newspaper...
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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 customary dry detachment: during a drive …, a dashboard compartment repeatedly flaps open every time the vehicle hits a pothole—an event deliciously signalled by shots of one of the car's wheels hurtling fatefully along the road. The film runs for a little over two hours, and the narrative drifts and drags its feet slightly; a couple of flashback scenes seem curious intrusions. But nothing can detract from the film's overall success and its penetrating charm.
Geoff Brown, "Feature Films: 'Jana-Aranya' ('The Middleman')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1977), Vol. 44, No. 518, March, 1977, p. 43.
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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 sequence which sketches a concise but enormously expressive account of Britain's relationship with [the Nawabsof Oudh], and on the other by the tale of the two chess players, are governed by the historical determinants of British colonial arrogance and India's obliging submission to superior technology…. [Contrary] to his usual concern for the respect due to his characters' lives …, Ray treats both characters essentially as caricatures to match the cartoon basis of his historical montage.
In a sense, therefore, these two 'viewpoints' cancel each other out: if the march of progress is inevitable in the wake of the British Empire, equally inevitable is the fact—for all the chess players' stout insistence that they will...
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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 backdrop of matter-of-fact chaos. The recurrent power failures and perpetually crossed phone wires are almost too routine to deserve comment. The lines of the unemployed snake through half the exterior scenes; the clamor of the street invades every interior. Nothing else can be taken for granted: Somnath …, the 24-year-old protagonist first seen in a hysterical crowd of students surging for their exam results, has his academic career wrecked because his test examiner is unable to borrow a pair of glasses from a neighbor….
Ray is the most conservative of neo-realism's heirs and he spends the first hour of the film carefully establishing Somnath's relationships with his family, friends, and colleagues. At the same time...
(The entire section is 340 words.)