Andrew Robinson / Visual Culture

The Universe of Satyajit Ray

With the BFI beginning a two month retrospective of Satyajit Ray in August, Andrew Robinson reflects on the continuing appeal of this master filmmaker.

The Universe of Satyajit Ray

Two decades ago, Satyajit Ray received an honorary Academy Award for his Lifetime Achievement, just before his death in Calcutta in 1992. Since then India has become vastly wealthier, following the liberalization of its economy in 1991. But Ray’s films have lost none of their power, humanity, humour and topicality for both Indians and the world. Currently, the British Film Institute, a supporter of Ray since the Apu Trilogy of the 1950s, is giving audiences another chance to experience his films with a complete retrospective at the BFI Southbank cinema in London in August-October 2013.

The key to understanding the films is that Ray himself, though intimately rooted in Bengal, was also immersed in western culture: European and Hollywood films, of course, but also literature, art and music. ‘I’m thankful for the fact that I’m familiar with both cultures and it gives me a very much stronger footing as a film-maker’, Ray told me while I was researching his biography. One of his most admired films, Charulata, was directly inspired by his love of Mozart’s operas.

Born in Calcutta in 1921, Ray was educated in both Bengali and English, and studied for a fine arts degree, which he abandoned for a job as a commercial artist in advertising. As a film-maker, Ray was entirely self-educated, except for a brief period helping Jean Renoir, who had come from Hollywood to make The River. The strongest influence on his first film, Pather Panchali, completed in 1955, was seeing the Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves, in London in 1950: ‘It gored me’, said Ray.

Ray’s films cover an exceptional range of moods and genres: from the epic tragedy of the Apu Trilogy to the lavish period comedy, The Chess Players, from the ghost story Monihara to the children’s fantasy The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, with hugely popular Bengali songs by Ray—one of which, ‘Maharaja, We Salute You’, was spontaneously sung by the crowds at Ray’s funeral. But what makes Ray virtually unparalleled is his versatility. He wrote his scripts solo, and they were often original screenplays. He designed the sets and costumes down to the smallest details. He acted out the roles for his actors with consummate nuance. He operated the camera and he edited each frame. He composed the music, scoring it in a mixture of western and Indian notation. He even designed the credits and posters.

Ray’s critics often accused him of avoiding politics in his films. While there may be some truth in this criticism during the first half of his career, up to the end of the 1960s, there are no grounds for it during the second half. After making The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, Ray’s mood darkened, first into the wincing irony of Days and Nights in the Forest, afterwards into an openly political trilogy: The Adversary, Company Limited and The Middle Man. From 1969, the Naxalite movement inspired by Maoism rocked Bengal through terrorist acts by young Bengalis, followed by horrific police and army reprisals, and a period of national Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, in which she became in effect a dictator. While Ray felt some sympathy for revolution, as shown in the relatively optimistic first film, he never supported violence, and was increasingly disgusted by the immorality of politicians, businessmen and ordinary individuals, skewered in the later two films of the trilogy. In fact, The Middle Man was the most courageous artistic protest made against the Indian government during the Emergency.

In the 1970s, Ray’s emotion-laden portrait of the manmade Bengal Famine of 1943, Distant Thunder, managed to retain faith in individual compassion, despite the historical death of several millions from hunger and disease. And his exquisite historical drama about the British military takeover of Lucknow in 1856, The Chess Players, was equally concerned with individual morality rather than political systems. But his two detective films, The Golden Fortress and The Elephant God, based on his own Holmes-and-Watson-style Bengali duo, betrayed a declining belief in official justice. In Deliverance, a stark attack on the cruelty of Untouchability, Ray moved about as far from the hopefulness of Pather Panchali as it was possible to go.

Ray’s last three films, though not without his trademark comedy, were urgent warnings to his fellow citizens against religious fundamentalism and societal corruption. Unfortunately, they were prescient, given the notorious destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 by a Hindu mob and numerous later bribery scandals. But they were also works of art that speak to everyone. As the great Henri Cartier-Bresson, a long-time Ray aficionado, truly remarked of Ray’s penultimate film, Branches of the Tree: ‘it is of distressing beauty’.

Ray’s fellow film director, Akira Kurosawa, said of him: ‘The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all Ray’s films, have impressed me greatly.’ At a time when the razzamatazz of Bollywood too often dominates Indian culture, it is a treat to experience—in prints faithfully restored by the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood—an alternative, subtler and richer, cinematic vision of India and the human condition: the universe of Satyajit Ray. ■

The Apu TrilogyAndrew Robinson is the author of three books on Satyajit Ray: Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye; Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema; and The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray and the Making of an Epic.

Image shows Apu in Benares from Aparajito (1956).

More information about BFI’s Satyajit Ray retrospective can be found here.

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