Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray on set

From Wednesday, the British Film Institute will celebrate the work of Satyajit Ray with a two-part retrospective. Timed to coincide with the centenary of Indian film-making, it is welcome news for those who see Ray’s work as the essence and apogee of Indian art-house cinema; from a distance, at least, there seems to be little outside it except the exuberance, chutzpah and, some would add, silliness of Bollywood.

Other Indian directors had done valuable work before Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, appeared in 1955: in Bengal itself (the state from which Ray came), there was Bimal Roy’s exceptional leftwing parable Udayer Pathey (1944), and Pramathesh Barua’s wryly sophisticated comedy Rajat Jayanti (1939). And not long after Ray made that first masterpiece, there emerged a completely different – mythopoeic, occasionally over the top – sensibility in Ritwik Ghatak, an equally great film-maker. But it’s undeniable that all Bengali and Indian cinema was changed after the release of Pather Panchali; not just with Ghatak, who saw it and altered course from his beginnings in socialist melodrama, but also Guru Dutt, the most gifted artist of popular Hindi cinema, who began to look at his craft anew. Even Iranian film – especially Abbas Kiarostami – bears the imprimatur of Ray’s legacy, especially his preoccupation with the commonplace, the everyday, and the child.

If Ray changed others, he too was changed by the moment he lived in. The crucial stimuli came from a multiplicity of sources. He was born in 1921 to an extraordinary father – Sukumar Ray, whose anarchic comic legacy is contained in his Bengali nonsense verse – and grandfather – Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury, a children’s writer and illustrator, and innovator in printing technology. Ray, after unhappily studying art at Santiniketan, the university founded by the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, started out as a commercial artist in advertising, but he was already a director manqué. In preparation, he’d seen, adoringly, John Ford’s westerns in the 1930s, and must have early on recognised in the American a film-maker whom, in Ezra Pound’s words about Whitman, he could one day “do business with”. To notice the serious artist in Ford was in itself shrewd and prescient, and is evidence of Ray’s prophetic eye for the unexpected in the familiar, whether in cinema or in life.

In 1944, Ray illustrated, with woodcuts, a children’s version of Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s classic novel, Pather Panchali, in the course of which the book was clearly distilled by his imagination into a series of images (some of them quite close to the ones we see in the film) rather than simply remaining a story about a village boy. In 1947, he set up the first Indian film society in Calcutta, and became a militant advocate for good cinema. Around now, the career-changing moments occurred in rapid succession. In 1949, Ray met Jean Renoir (the director whose métier and temperament he is closest to) when he came to Calcutta, and accompanied him to the areas in Bengal in which he filmed The River. In 1950, he saw Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), and realised (“It gored me,” he said later) that his future as a possible film director lay in provisional settings and non-professional actors, such as De Sica had used. That year he embarked upon his seemingly ramshackle, idiosyncratic adventure, Pather Panchali.

In making the film, Ray did something as strange as Banerjee had done with his novel in 1929: he created a modernist work that privileged the momentary and sensory, out of material – the impecunious childhood of a Brahmin boy in a Bengali village – that would, at the time, have logically lent itself to socialist realist treatment. This unprecedented approach was a lesson to directors such as Ghatak, who was always more political than Ray, but would have been taught by the latter that the portrayal of socially extreme situations wasn’t incompatible with imaginative exploration and delight, and even – the raison d’être of cinema – luminosity.

It wasn’t an easy lesson to follow, given politically engaged critics’ demands – particularly strident in a so-called “developing” nation – that serious art should tackle serious issues seriously. In 1970, there was a scathing response by local critics to Days and Nights in the Forest, Ray’s formally perfect and brilliant portrayal of four middle-class men on holiday in the Bengali countryside, a reaction reminiscent of the devastating dressing-down Renoir had received in the 1930s to La Règle du Jeu. After this, Ray’s conviction wavered, and he forgot his own lesson in films such as Ashani Sanket (or Distant Thunder, 1973), about famine, and, particularly, the laborious Sadgati (or Deliverance, 1981), about the death of a low-caste man. Henceforth, the main channel for Ray to recover his original impulse – delight – would, surreptitiously, be via his children’s films about the detective he’d created himself, Feluda. Nevertheless, he’d already achieved such an impressive range of registers that Akira Kurosawa was moved to say: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

Runki Banerjee
Runki Banerjee as Durga in ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955)

Kurosawa’s metaphor points to Ray’s characteristic genius: his capacity for looking at the world. Although Ray isn’t explicitly interested in pointing us to the cosmic, he’s absorbed in the eye, both as an instrument and as a world in itself. Thus, one of the first scenes in Pather Panchali reveals that Apu, the boy-protagonist, is only pretending to be asleep, as we register, through the open eye revealed unexpectedly under the blanket, the shock of his being awake to the day. So, too, the binoculars brandished by the eponymous heroine in Charulata (1964), as, bored but fitfully excited, she goes from window to window in the large house, surveying the street through the slats. As exemplified by Charulata, the act of watching is precipitous and potentially turbulent, and barely contained by Ray’s poised aesthetic. It’s not only the human eye that Ray is necessarily concerned with; in the first scene in Pather Panchali, Durga, Apu’s older sister, opens a basket that – this is something we don’t know yet – is full of kittens. We see Durga’s face hover above from within the basket’s dark crevasse: this is the kittens’ perspective on this innocent but doomed human.

Many of the analogies that Ray used when speaking of his own work and of favourite films by others were musical, citing, especially, the western classical oeuvre he loved. Mozart comes up more than once, in comparisons that are at once illuminating and deeply personal: “The conventions of the Western are almost as rigid as those of, say, the classical sonata,” he wrote. “We recognise the lethal weapon twirled around the finger as we recognise a trill or a turn in Mozart or Haydn.”

This reminds us of the other realm in which he did pioneering work in cinema besides that of the visual: the realm of sound. I mean not only the scores he set his films to; I mean his capacity for listening, not just to what his characters are saying but also to the unfolding of life in the next house and street, to the negligible ramifications that the camera can’t record but the soundtrack can. It’s something he learnt from Renoir’s The River, an underrated film that captures the simultaneity of Indian existence through its extraordinary soundtrack, which is constantly alive to the interrupted flow of what’s happening elsewhere.

In a late tribute, Ray, who was also one of India’s most remarkable essayists, says of John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948): “Two men stand talking on the edge of a deep ravine. There is a broken bottle lying alongside. One man gives it a casual kick and sends it flying over the edge. A few seconds later, in a gap in the conversation, the soundtrack registers the faintest of clinks. That’s all. This is the sort of thing that belongs uniquely to the cinema.” Ray’s films, too, are meant to be listened to. Their soundtracks remind us that Ray deliberately set a boundary to his vision, and that part of the strength of his aesthetic was, paradoxically, his decision not to show us everything; to suggest the mysterious proximity of lives.

‘Satyajit Ray – Part One’, BFI Southbank, from August 14

Amit Chaudhuri’s book of essays, ‘Telling Tales’, is published this month by Union Books

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