(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.