Satyajit Ray was born in Calcutta into an exceptionally talented family who were prominent in Bengali arts and letters. His father died when he was an infant and his mother and her younger brother’s family brought him up. After graduating from Presidency College, Calcutta, in 1940, he studied art at Rabindranath Tagore’s University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. He took up commercial advertising and he also designed covers and illustrated books brought out by Signet Press. One of these books was an edition of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhya’s novel, Pather Panchali, which was to become his first film. In 1947 Ray established the Calcutta Film Society. During a six month trip to Europe in 1950, he managed to see 100 films, including Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (1948), which greatly inspired him. He returned convinced that it was possible to make realist cinema and with an amateur crew he endeavoured to prove this to the world.
In 1955, after incredible financial hardship (shooting on the film stopped for over a year) his adaptation of Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) was completed. Prior to the 1956 Cannes Festival, Indian Cinema was relatively unknown in the West, just as Japanese cinema had been prior to Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). However, with Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray suddenly assumed great importance. The film went on to win numerous awards abroad including Best Human Document at Cannes. Pather Panchali‘s success launched an extraordinary international film career for Ray.
A prolific filmmaker, during his lifetime Ray directed 36 films, comprising of features, documentaries and short stories. These include the renowned Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito  and Apur Sansar ), Jalsaghar (1958), Postmaster (1961), Charulata (1964), Days and Nights in the Forest (1969) and Pikoo (1980) along with a host of his lesser known works which themselves stand up as fine examples of story telling. His films encompass a diversity of moods, techniques, and genres: comedy, satire, fantasy and tragedy. Usually he made films in a realist mode, but he also experimented with surrealism and fantasy.
Pather Panchali was based on the aforementioned famous novel of the ’30s depicting a poor Bengali family’s grim struggle for survival. In this story, a father, although talented artistically, is compelled to eke out a living for his wife and two children by collecting rents. For a long time he struggles to bring up the family in its ancestral home, but ultimately he is forced to abandon the home. Aparajito (The Unvanquished) forms the second part of this great trilogy. It deals with the adolescence of Apu following his father’s death. Sarbojaya, after some hardships, takes Apu to live in her uncle’s household in the country. The local schoolmaster nurtures Apu’s interest in learning and in the wider world, and at 16 Apu wins a scholarship to study in Calcutta. Caught up in the excitement of the city, he visits his mother reluctantly and rarely. She is lonely and dying but refuses to appeal to his sympathy for fear of impeding his education. Finally a letter from his uncle brings Apu home, one day too late. After the funeral, Apu, refusing to follow his father into the priesthood, leaves again for the city.
Before concluding the trilogy Ray made Paras Pather (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), a satirical comedy about a poor clerk who chances on a magic stone that turns all metal to gold. The concluding film in the trilogy is Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), in many ways the most mature and deeply felt of the three works. Apu, now a grown man, marries, writes his first novel, and then loses his wife Aparna in childbirth. Shattered, Apu refuses to his son, blaming him for Aparna’s death and he wanders off in anguished solitude. Five years later his friend Pulu unearths him and at last he is reunited with his son. This event gives him the vitality and joy with which to face the future. The theme of change, of the countervailing gains and losses attendant on the forces of progress, has often been identified as the central preoccupation of Ray’s work. This theme, underlying much of the Apu trilogy, finds its most overt expression in Jalsaghar (The Music Room), an underrated film and one of Ray’s finest achievements. Jalsaghar is the story of Biswambhar, a feudal lord who ruins himself through holding music concerts to outclass the boorish upstart son of a moneylender. The film as a whole explores the idea that truly great art is created in that space of time just before disintegration takes over. Time seems to be frozen for Biswambhar and it is within this act of refusal that his ruin lies.
The inner struggle between traditional and modern values in Indian life has coloured several other Ray films. Devi (The Goddess, 1960) is essentially a story exploring the dangers of religious fanaticism and superstition. Daya is a young bride at the end of the 19th century who (because her father-in-law has a vision) suddenly believes that she is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali. The gullible Daya accepts the worship of the people around her, but she eventually becomes a victim of a quarrel that develops between her husband and her father.
To mark the centenary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, Ray made Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) in 1961. The Postmaster is the first of the three-part series making up Teen Kanya. A young man from Calcutta, exiled as postmaster in a remote village begins teaching a young orphan girl (who tends his house) to read and write. Acting out of sheer boredom, he is too selfish to notice her growing attachment to him, and when the chance of a transfer comes he leaves without consideration. The second episode, Samapti, is a comedy about a young law student who rejects the dull bride chosen by his mother and marries the village tomboy. The third episode is Monihara, a ghost story about a wife who returns after her death to claim her husband’s last gift.
Ray’s first original script was for Kanchanjungha (1962), which was also his first picture in colour and the first film for which Ray composed the score. Filmed entirely on location in Darjeeling, it traces the varied activities of a vacationing family dominated by the father, a rich Calcutta businessman. Yet another disillusioned character is the taxi-driver protagonist of Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962). In Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), Ray tackles the problem of whether or not both a husband and wife should take up jobs to maintain the family. The Big City is set in contemporary India, but the issue at stake – that being a woman’s place in society – is essentially the same in Charulata (1964), which takes place in 1879 and is based on another story by Tagore. Admirers of Ray’s work have often quarrelled as to which are his best films. Most have agreed however that Charulata is among the very finest. Ray himself rates it as his favourite. “It’s the one with the fewest flaws.” (John Wakeman, 1988, p. 845.)
After the confident mastery of Charulata, Ray seemed for the rest of the decade to lose his sureness of touch, unable to come satisfactorily to terms either with his material or with the world around him. Films such as Kapurush-o-Mahapurush (The Crowd and the Holy Man, 1965), Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and Chiriakhana (The Zoo, 1967) contain little of Ray’s personal touch. It was not until Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969) that Ray returned to form. In this accomplished work, Ray isolates and removes a group of modern young Calcuttans from their natural habitat in order to study their attitudes and reactions and to reveal aspects of their respective characters. During the late-’60s, Ray made a fairytale for adults in Goopy Gyn Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, 1968) and then went on to make The City Trilogy (comprising of Pratidwandi [The Adversary, 1970], Seemabaddha [Company Limited, 1971] and Jana Aranya [The Middleman, 1975]) but before its completion a number of other film projects intervened. Two documentaries from this period are Sikkim (1971), a travelogue on the northern border kingdom, and The Inner Eye (1972), a short tribute to the blind artist Binod Behari Mukherjee. Between these two documentaries, however, Ray made Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), his second colour film.
In 1961 Ray had revived Sandesh, the children’s magazine founded by his grandfather and continued by his father until his premature death. From this time, alongside his movie-making he also produced a constant flow of illustrations, verses, translations and stories for the magazine. Several of his stories featured Felu Mittar, a private detective and it is one of these that he adapted for his second children’s film Sonar Kella (The Fortress, 1974). Like all of Ray’s children’s films it was hugely successful. Wary of making films in a language in which he was not proficient, Ray resisted the idea of moving outside the restricted Bengali. However, he was persuaded to aim for a wider audience by making his first film in Hindu, Shatranji Ke Kilhari (The Chess Players, 1977), a period piece set in Lucknow 1856. In this film Ray traces two parallel stories. While General Outram, the British resident, moves to oust Wajid Ali Shah from the throne of Oudh and annex the Kingdom for the East India Company, two of Wajid’s indolent nawabs, indifferent to history, play endless games of chess. Although a strong film, it would seem Ray failed to adequately mesh the two separate strands of the plot as he intended. After The Chess Players, Ray returned to making films for children. Ray adapted another of his short stories for Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1978). The plot revolves around a stolen gold statuette, which Felu eventually recovers in the face of bribes from assorted heavies. Ray followed this film with Hirok Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980), a sequel to Goopy and Bagha in which the two characters find themselves in a police state where idealists are exiled and dissenters are brainwashed.
In 1981, as a result of a successful revival of Ray’s work in Paris, ORTF commissioned a new work, Pikoo, a 27-minute fiction film. Pikoo is a story which depicts a family crisis through the uncomprehending eyes of the six-year-old son. The same year, Ray was commissioned to make a film for Indian TV. The resulting film was Sadgati (Deliverance) a 50-minute piece filmed in Hindi, which relates a story of callous exploitation. In 1984 Ray made Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World), telling the story of a love triangle in which the characters are forced to confront the wider effects of their own limitations.
Due to his medical condition (which resulted from a heart attack during the making of The Home and the World), Satyajit Ray was told by his doctors not to do any location work and he was forced to shoot in studios. Unfortunately, this constraint of shooting does mar the last of his films as a whole. This is true of not only Ganashatru (Enemy of the People, 1989) but also Shakha Prashakha (Branches of the Tree, 1990) and Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991).
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There is perhaps no filmmaker who exercised such total control over his work as Satyajit Ray. He was responsible for scripting, casting, directing, scoring, operating the camera, working closely on art direction and editing, even designing his own credit titles and publicity material. His films come as close to complete personal expression as may be possible in cinema. Ray’s style grows out of the material itself, and from an inner compulsion to express it clearly. The thread that ties the body of his work together is its strong humanist basis. By his own admission his films are the antithesis of conventional Hollywood films, both in style and content. His characters are generally of average ability and talents. Perverted or bizarre behaviour, violence and explicit sex, rarely appear in his films. His interest lies in characters with roots in their society. What fascinates him is the struggle and corruption of the conscience-stricken person. He brought real concerns of real people to the screen. His works serve to remind us of the wholeness and sanctity of the individual. Above all, Ray’s is a cinema of thought and feeling, in which the feeling is deliberately restrained because it is so intense. Although Ray continued to experiment with subject matter and style more than most directors, he always held true to his original conviction that the finest cinema uses strong, simple themes containing hundreds of little, apparently irrelevant details, which only help to intensify the illusion of actuality better. These themes cannot come from the passing fashions of the period; they must be drawn from permanent values.
By depicting physical environments with the utmost truth and by exploring human relationships to their limits, Ray reveals many aspects of the human condition. Through particulars, he reaches universality, conveying through his cinema this co-existence. Much of his cinema’s strength lies in the total impression of its average moments, moments that can’t be picked out as necessarily striking scenes. This is because he strikes a carefully judged balance between form and content. He does not let one part override the other. He was known to reject locations because he thought them too spectacular and overpowering, stating they would upset the balance.
In the last few decades we have seen greater emphasis on form and technique in film at the expense of content. Form has come to be identified as the content of film. With formalism reigning supreme, subject matter has disappeared. Meaning has been divorced from the subject and a steady dehumanisation in cinema has resulted. What is refreshing about Satyajit Ray and his films is that they represent sanity and faith in humanity. With him, the subject comes first and with the material on hand he allows it to dictate the form.
Throughout his career, Satyajit Ray maintained that the best technique of filmmaking was the one that was not noticeable, that technique was merely a means to an end. He disliked the idea of a film that drew attention to its style rather than the contents. That is why his work touches one as a revelation of artistry. For at the same time, he reveals his attitude, his sympathies, and his overall outlook in a subtle manner, through hints and via undertones. There are no direct messages in his films. But their meanings are clear, thanks to structural coherence.
Ray makes us re-evaluate the commonplace. He has the remarkable capacity of transforming the utterly mundane into the excitement of an adventure. There is the ability to recognise the mythic in the ordinary, such as in the train sequence of Pather Panchali where the humming telegraph poles hold Durga and Apu in a spell. In addition, he has the extraordinary capacity of evoking the unsaid. When viewing one of his films we often think we know what one of his characters is thinking and feeling, without a single word of dialogue. This ability to create a sense of intimate connection between people of vastly different cultures is Ray’s greatest achievement. More then any of his contemporaries in world cinema, he can create an awareness of the ordinary man, and he doesn’t do it in the abstract, but by using the simplest, most common and concrete details such as a gesture or a glance.
What is also distinctive in Ray’s work is that the rhythm in his films seems almost meditative. There is a contemplative quality in the magnificent flow of images and sounds that evokes an attitude of acceptance and detachment, which is profoundly Indian. His compassionate work arises from a philosophical tradition that brings detachment and freedom from fear, celebrates joy in birth and life and accepts death with grace. This perspective attempts to create the whole out of a fineness of detail. Ray succeeded in making Indian cinema, for the first time in its history, something to be taken seriously, and in so doing, created a body of work of distinct range and richness.
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) (1955) 115min B/W
Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956) 113 min B/W
Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) (1957) 111 min B/W
Jalsaghar (The Music Room) (1958) 100 min B/W
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959) 106 min B/W
Devi (The Goddess) (1960), 93 min B/W
Rabindranath Tagore (Documentary, 1961) 54 min B/W
Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) (1961) (comprising of Postmaster [56 min], Samapti [56 min] and Monihara [61mins], all B/W). (There also exist different versions of this film, combining only two of the three stories, under the title Two Daughters.)
Kanchenjungha (1962) 102 min Colour
Abhijan (The Expedition) (1962) 150min B/W
Mahanagar (The Big City) (1963) 131 min B/W
Charulata (The Lonely Wife) (1964) 117 min B/W
Two (1964) 15 min B/W
Kapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Crowd and the Holy Man) (1965) (Two-part film – The Crowd and The Holy Man, running at 74 min and 65 min respectively, B/W)
Nayak (The Hero) (1966) 120 min B/W
Chiriakhana (The Zoo) (1967) 125 min B/W
Goopy Gyn Bagha Byne (Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) (1968) 132 min B/W & Colour
Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) (1969) 115 min B/W
Pratidwandi (The Adversary) (1970) 110 min B/W
Sikkim (Documentary, 1971) 60 min B/W
Seemabaddha (Company Limited) (1971) 112 min B/W
The Inner Eye (Documentary, 1972) 20 min Colour
Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder) (1973) 101 min Colour
Sonar Kella (The Fortress) (1974) 120 min Colour
Jana Aranya (The Middleman) (1975) 131 min B/W
Bala (Documentary, 1976) 33 min Colour
Shatrani Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) (1977) 113 min Colour
Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) (1978) 112 min Colour
Pikoo (Pikoo’s Day) (Short, 1980) 26 min Colour
Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds) (1980) 118 min Colour
Sadgati (The Deliverance) (1981) 52 min Colour
Ghare Baire (Home and the World) (1984) 140 min Colour
Sukumar Ray (Documentary, 1987) 30 min Colour
Ganashatru (Enemy of the People) (1989) 100 min Colour
Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) (1990) 121 min Colour
Agantuk (The Stranger) (1991) 120 min colour
Cowie, Peter, 50 Major Filmmakers, New York, Tanity Press, 1975.
Das Gupta, Chidananda, Film India Satyajit Ray, Bombay, Tata Press, 1981.
Nyce, Ben, Satyajit Ray: A Study of his Films, New York, Greenwood Press 1988
Robinson, Andrew, Satyajit Ray, The Inner Eye, Great Britain, WBC Ltd Bristol & Maesteg, 1989.
Seton, Marie, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, London, St Ann’s, Press 1971.
Montage No 5/6 July 1966, Anandam Film Society Publication, Bombay.
World Film Directors, Volume 11 1945-1958, Wilson Company, 1988.
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection
Excellent website for the non-profit educational organisation dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Ray’s cinematic, literary and artistic oeuvre.
Good overview of the filmmaker as part of Film India‘s website.
Maanvi Media presents. Satyajit Ray
Great resource for information on his films, awards, books, crews, biography, testimonials.
Good (though basic) site with some enlightening articles.
Reportages – Satyajit Ray
Great French site, consisting mainly of shots of Ray at work on set.
Retrospectiva Satyajit Ray
Question (in Portuguese) and answer (in English) with the director on his influences and methods.
Basic page (with stills, quotations and testimonials) dedicated to this film.
Manas: Culture, Indian Cinema – Satyajit Ray
Great overview of Ray’s life and cinema.
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