The High Tide of World Cinema: Satyajit Ray

Internationally renowned director Akira Kurosawa once stated that “not to have seen the cinema of [Satyajit] Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” I would not have understood the magnitude of that quote at this time a year ago; until eight months ago, in October 2014, I had never seen a film directed by Satyajit Ray (pictured above, left in the foreground, with Kurosawa during a visit to the Taj Mahal in 1977). From the moment I became curious about in film studies I was probably aware of Ray’s importance in world cinema history, but it was not until my first year in graduate school that I discovered firsthand the virtuosity of Ray’s filmmaking.

My first encounter with a Ray film was when I watched The Music Room (1958) for a film studies class last semester. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and the high price of the Criterion Collection DVD, I had to watch The Music Room on YouTube. The quality of the video’s resolution was pretty good, but I knew it wasn’t the optimum viewing experience. Even so, I recognized the skill of Subrata Mitra’s cinematography and the nuance in star Chhabi Biswas’s performance as an affluent landowner whose desire to impress guests with India’s most talented (and expensive) musicians and dancers in recitals in his mansion’s music room drains the character of his wealth and causes tragedy to strike his family.

In the last three weeks I have renewed my interest in Ray’s filmography when I had the opportunity to see the “Apu trilogy” – Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959) – at the Film Forum, where the recently restored films will be playing through Tuesday, June 30. These three classics, which established Ray as a leading voice in Indian cinema, are among the finest films that I have seen in a long time. Pather Panchali, which is my favorite film of the three, is powerful not only because of young Apu, played by Subir Banerjee, but also because of the three main female characters in the film: Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya (played by Karuna Bannerjee), Apu’s headstrong older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and Aunt Indir (Chunibala Devi). Karuna Bannerjee in particular has a quality about her that is similar to Setsuko Hara’s best performances in Ozu’s films: when Bannerjee smiles, her whole faces lights up with joy and we love her for it, but when the smile falls it is like a curtain of darkness has fallen and we weep along with her. I would also bet that the scene in the wheat field next to the train tracks (see the second photo above) inspired similar shots in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). An additional note: Pather Panchali and the other two films in the trilogy were scored by the legendary Ravi Shankar.

Aparajito (1956) is a worthy follow-up to Pather Panchali, showing Apu’s growth from age ten to age seventeen and the heartache of Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, after her husband dies and, later, when teenage Apu wants to go to school in faraway Calcutta. The film was a hit with international film festivals and organizations, capturing the coveted Golden Lion, the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Prize and the New Cinema Award at the Venice Film Festival as well as being deemed one of the five best foreign films of the year by the National Board of Review (USA) and being nominated for the Best Foreign Film (then the “Best Film from Any Source” category) and Best Foreign Actress (for Karuna Bannerjee) honors at the BAFTA Awards (UK). Bannerjee’s work in the first two “Apu” films is revelatory.

While watching the final film in the trilogy, The World of Apu (1959), it occurred to me that I was suddenly cognizant of Ray as his own director rather than his style in relationship to another auteur (I had previously linked Pather Panchali and Aparajito to Ozu in terms of pacing, the beauty of images and the aforementioned connection I perceive between Setsuko Hara and Karuna Bannerjee). As we watch adult Apu (played wonderfully by Soumitra Chatterjee) endure more highs and lows in his marriage to Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) and in his complicated relationship with his young son Kajal (Alok Chakravarty), we know just how much we as an audience have grown to care about Apu.

Last night I finally got my hands on the Criterion DVD of The Music Room and saw the film a bit more properly on a television screen (although admittedly not as “proper” as in a theater). The film was so much more engaging, perhaps in part because I already knew the plot but I believe also because I could better appreciate the style of the film – directing, acting, music, cinematography, editing and otherwise. I paid closer attention to individual shots, especially the first one of the three above (showing the statues) and the third shot that reflects the image of the music room’s ornate chandelier on a glass surface.

You can learn some more about Ray’s career in this clip from a 1989 interview with Pierre Andre Boutang.

Ray was the recipient of an Honorary Academy Award in 1992, which he received only twenty-four days before he passed away. At the ceremony in Los Angeles, presenter Audrey Hepburn told the audience of Ray’s “rare mastery of the art of motion pictures” and of his “profound humanism, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”

I look forward to seeing many more of Satyajit Ray’s films, particularly The Goddess (1960), Kanchenjungha (1962), The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964), which star some of my favorite actors who appeared in his work, like Karuna Bannerjee, Chhabi Biswas, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore. The films are undoubtedly expertly crafted and from what I have read of their plots, they provide thought-provoking portraits of women and girls in the narratives. It took me far too long to wade into these cinematic waters, but it feels like the right time to immerse myself. The tide is high!

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