Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2356
Article abstract: Ray was India’s most distinguished film director, responsible for gaining Indian cinema international recognition and rescuing it from a reputation for indiscriminate productivity and vulgar escapism. For more than thirty years, his films not only established him as a moving force in world cinema but also provided Western audiences with profound insights into Indian life and inspired a generation of Indian filmmakers to follow his lead in producing films of serious social comment.
Satyajit Ray came from a distinguished Bengali family whose members have made lasting contributions to the intellectual life of their country. His grandfather, Upendra Kishore, was an artist and illustrator who established a publishing house (U. Ray and Sons), which Ray’s father, Sukumar, later headed. Upendra was friendly with Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most distinguished intellectual and social visionary, who would later take an interest in the education of his friend’s grandson. Both Upendra and Sukumar were directly influenced by a group of Bengali reformers known as the Brahmo Samaj, who in the late nineteenth century tried to introduce into their society progressive European ideas (notably relating to the education of women and the condition of the underclass) without disturbing the best of native traditions. Satyajit Ray inherited much of his own universalism and concern over the tensions between ancient and modern social forces from the tradition of Brahmoism.
Ray was only two years old when his father, who had already established a considerable reputation as an artist and publisher, died; the press had to be sold to pay the family’s debts. He and his mother, Suprabha, went to live with her brother and his family. Like his grandfather, Ray completed his secondary education and higher education at Presidency College in Calcutta, from which he was graduated in economics in 1940. He was then persuaded to go to Santineketan, the art center founded by Tagore for the purpose of creating a new generation of Bengali artists and intellectuals who would make careers for themselves faithful to the tenets of the progressive spirit of Brahmoism. Ray spent two and a half years in this intellectually encouraging atmosphere, gradually developing his inherited talent as an artist and deepening his acquaintance with the major figures in world cinema. Leaving Santineketan during World War II, Ray eventually found work as a commercial artist for the British firm of J. Keymer, for whom he worked until he turned his attention entirely to filmmaking.
Various events confirm a move in this direction in the years around Indian independence (1948). In 1947, he helped to establish the Calcutta Film Society and began to try his hand at writing articles on film. He was further encouraged by the arrival in Calcutta in 1950 of Jean Renoir to film The River. Finally his firm sent him to London for six months in 1950, where by his own account he saw ninety-nine films: among them were several Italian neorealist films, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), wherein Ray noted the potency of a family drama springing from an immediate economic crisis and the appeal of using nonprofessional actors. By the time he returned to Calcutta in late 1950, Ray not only knew he was to be a film director but also already had a complete draft of his first screenplay: an adaptation of a very popular Bengali novel, Bibhuti-Bhusan Banerji’s Pather panchali (1929; Pather Panchali: Song of the Road, 1968).
The film Pather Panchali was only completed in 1955 after enormous difficulties (including the pawning of family jewelry and books). This unblinkingly honest portrayal of life in an Indian village won immediate international acclaim in New York and at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. It gave Ray the confidence (and funds) he needed to complete the trilogy on the life of his hero Apu from birth to maturity. His second film, Aparajito (1956; The Unvanquished), moves from the death of the father to Apu’s education in Calcutta. It won the Golden Lion in Venice, 1957. The final film of the trilogy is Apu Sansar (1959; The World of Apu), which shows the hero as an aspiring novelist, the circumstances of his marriage, and the tragic death of his young wife.
Before completing the Apu trilogy, Ray made a subtle masterpiece in Jalsaghar (1958; The Music Room). Music and cultural reference are the means whereby the director dramatizes the decline of a representative of the landowning class in the 1920’s. Characteristic of Ray is his sympathy for a character whose indolence brings about his own tragedy.
Social tensions within the Indian past are the inspiration of Devi (1960; The Goddess) and the superb Charulata (1964; The Lonely Wife). The former takes controversial issue with religious fanaticism. A zamindar (feudal landlord) drives his favorite daughter-in-law, Daya, to madness and death through his obsessive conviction that she is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali. The latter, set in Calcutta in 1879, is a profound study of a wife neglected by her publisher husband and drawn to his sensitive cousin Amal. Clearly Ray did not see the problems of women imprisoned by the taboos of Indian society as frozen in the historical past but as unresolved contradictions in independent India.
As part of the centenary of the birth of Tagore, Ray was commissioned to make a documentary of the poet’s life: Rabindranath Tagore (1961). The completed film is a reminder of the debt that all Bengalis owe to this protean artist and of the personal relationship between the Rays and the Tagores. Among the themes of progressive Brahmoism both inherited and embodied by Tagore is that of the rights of women; this idea is precisely what is incorporated into Ray’s first color film, Kanchenjungha (1962), and Mahanagar (1963; The Big City). From the interwoven crises of the vacationing family in Kanchenjungha may be isolated the gentle rebellion of a younger daughter strong enough to choose continuing education over an arranged marriage and the sense of the decline of a once-dominant paternal authority. Mahanagar concentrates on the economic struggles of the lower-middle class, with a wife leaving prejudice and her own fears behind to find a job and enjoy her new independence. She must also face unaccustomed problems in the commercial world, such as defending a fired coworker and fending off the boss.
The late 1960’s was a time of turmoil in Bengal, seeing rising unemployment, ethnic and religious violence, and food riots in Calcutta. The tensions of an unwieldly twenty-year-old democracy were threatening its stability. None of these social conflicts is directly observed in Ray’s films, a fact that brought him into polemical discussion with such overtly political filmmakers as Mrinal Sen. Ray, however, was neither aesthete nor escapist. To chronicle social change over a vast historical canvas—and via psychological relationships—requires a measure of serene detachment. His hollow men of Kapurush-o-Mahapurush (1965; The Coward and the Saint) and Nayak (1966; The Hero) are both products of a modern world that demands compromise and punishes forthrightness. At least twice Ray escaped into fantasy: Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (1969; The Adventures of Goopi and Bagha) and Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980; The Kingdom of Diamonds). Based on stories by his grandfather Upendra Kishore, they reflect a fidelity to a family tradition of writing and drawing for children. Both Ray’s grandfather and father published a children’s magazine, Sandesh, which Ray revived in the early 1960’s.
Ray’s experience in the business world lay behind an informal trilogy made in the early 1970’s based on studies of a confused Calcutta intelligentsia trying to define its place in a world that belittles tradition and proclaims self-interest above conscience. These films are Aranyer din Ratri (1970; Days and Nights in the Forest), Pratidwandi (1970; The Adversary), and Simabaddha (1971; Company Limited). To these one can add an epilogue, Dahana-Aranja (1975; The Middleman), a variation on the theme of modern forms of corruption. Days and Nights in the Forest was Ray’s finest film since The Lonely Wife. It is a film of dislocation: Four self-satisfied urban professionals are removed to a natural setting and observed as they come face to face with their limitations. The results are unsettling but not without some salutary chastening.
Ashani Sanket (1973; Distant Thunder) reveals the dramatic impact of war on a distant Bengal village. The images of starvation serve as a reminder that no one is immune to historical upheaval and as a response to Ray’s critics, who had accused him of remaining aloof from the world’s problems. “Outside observers” is an accurate description of the protagonists of Ray’s film Shatranj ke Kilhari (1977; The Chess Players). This historical drama, which was produced in color, was Ray’s first film in Urdu, the purpose being to attract a larger national audience.
With Ghare-Baire (1984; The Home and the World), Ray’s career came full circle. He had first written an adaptation of this important Tagore novel in 1948, but, with thirty-six years of experience behind him, produced a far more sophisticated version. The film’s structure, like the title, is dialectical, juxtaposing the values of domestic retirement and political commitment. The husband, Nikhil, urges his wife, Bimala, to interest herself in public events and introduces her to a friend, Sandip, a leader of the Swadeshi movement promoting independence from Great Britain (the year is 1905). Bimala soon recognizes that Sandip is a ruthless manipulator. In her understanding of her own independence and of the dangers of the charismatic Sandip one can sense the beliefs of Ray himself: his support of women’s emancipation and his doubts regarding forms of political extremism.
Satyajit Ray was primarily a Bengali artist whose films successfully reflect the past and the present of his native land. He was in a direct line from those artists and intellectuals (in particular Rabindranath Tagore) who promoted the Bengali renaissance, which aimed at a vibrant renewal of the culture as well as progressive social reforms. In a country whose official language is Hindi and where the capital of the film industry is Bombay, Ray’s fidelity to his native Bengali in his films limited the countrywide appeal of his work. Nevertheless, his international standing as the man who liberated Indian cinema from its vacuous escapism made of him a spokesman and informal ambassador abroad. Such prominence did not come smoothly. He came under fire for overexposing India’s problems of poverty, religious excess, and the status of women, while from the Left he had to answer charges of aloofness or political indifference.
Ray’s life, like that of most Indians, revolved around his family, a fact that gives a particular flavor to his films, which are so often studies of the intimate dynamics of family groups and married couples. The family serves as a microcosm of the world’s events, the conflicts between parents and children or man and wife reflecting those between classes and competing ideologies. Undoubtedly this concentration on the small but accessible unit of human experience has enhanced the appeal of his films outside India to audiences in Europe and the United States. There was something familial, too, about his working methods, in the fidelity of a small number of inseparable associates with whom he worked after the Apu trilogy, whose contributions to his work added to its consistency and wholeness. However rooted he was in his native traditions, however provincial his stories seem to be, Ray invested his characters and their lives with a universal humanity that viewers from East and West instantly recognize.
Das Gupta, Chidananga. The Cinema of Satyajit Ray. New Delhi: Vikas, 1980. A book written by a critic personally close to Ray and one of several publications timed to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of Pather Panchali. Das Gupta places Ray firmly in the context of Bengali culture, emphasizing the importance of the late nineteenth century Bengal renaissance and the influence of Tagore.
Micciollo, Henri. Satyajit Ray. Lausanne: Éditions l’Âge d’Homme, 1981. A book designed to fill a void in European critical attention paid to Third World cinema, and in particular that of Ray. Includes a lengthy introduction placing Ray in the context of his own national cinema and interviews with Ray himself. Each film—up to Pikoo’s Day (1980)—is given an extended sequence-by-sequence plot summary, followed by a lengthy formal and thematic analysis.
Nyce, Ben. Satyajit Ray: A Study of His Films. New York: Praeger, 1988. This is the first full-length study of Ray’s film by an American critic, including analyses of his rarely seen documentaries and short subjects and a final chapter on The Home and the World. There is a brief recapitulation of biographical material and some clear notes on the director’s cultural and historical roots.
Ray, Satyajit. Satyajit Ray: An Anthology of Statements on Ray and by Ray. Edited by Chidanada Das Gupta. New Delhi: Directorate of Film Festivals, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1981. An indispensable volume for the student of Ray’s career, published at the time of a complete retrospective of the director’s work presented at the Bangalore Film Festival of 1980. Part 1 includes a summary of the plots of every film up to Pikoo’s Day, followed by lengthy extracts from contemporary reviews, Indian and Western. The final section is an anthology of statements by Ray on all aspects of his art and working habits. No clearer summary of his career has been published.
Seton, Marie. Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. While much of the material here has been outdated by later studies and developments in Ray’s career itself, this remains the definitive biography up to the period of Days and Nights in the Forest. It includes a detailed account of Ray’s ancestry and family history and of the way he lives and works. Provides fascinating background information on the production history and problems of the individual films. Includes interviews with Ray, articles by him, examples of his artwork and illustrations, and many excellent photographs.
Wood, Robin. The Apu Trilogy. New York: Praeger, 1971. A purely critical and largely formalist study of the Apu trilogy alone by a prolific critic and long-time associate. Those encountering the trilogy for the first time will find it a valuable introduction.
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