Originally published in Masque vol. 1, no. 5, May-June 1968, pp. 14-17. This article appeared within a special film issue of this relatively short-lived but significant dramatic and performing arts magazine. This issue includes substantial articles by a range of figures including Ken G. Hall, Michael Thornhill and John Baxter. Reportedly, when visiting Australia for the 1968 Sydney Film Festival, Satyajit Ray indicated he thought it the best thing written on his work till than time. Republished with the permission of the author.

“Before I made my first film – Pather Panchali – I had only a superficial knowledge of what life in a Bengali village was like. Now I know a good deal about it. I know its soil, its seasons, its trees and forests and flowers. I know how the man in the field works and how the women at the well gossip; and I know the children out in the sun and the rain, behaving as children in all parts of the world do. My own city of Calcutta, too, I know much better know that I’ve made a film about it. It isn’t like any other city in the world to look at. Yet, people are born here and live and make love and earn bread as they do in London and New York and Tokyo. And, that is what amazes you most and makes you feel indebted to the cinema: this discovery that although you have roots here – in Bengal, in India – you are at the same time part of a large plan, a universal pattern. This uniqueness and universality and the co-existence of the two, is what I mainly try to convey through my films.”
– Satyajit Ray

This sort of manifesto has been heard before from playwrights, novelists and other auteurs. We become suspicious when we hear the expression of such sentiments; all too often they have served as a cloak for the artist’s closer personal preoccupations, or have proved too broad to focus valid responses within an artistic context.

Satyajit Ray, quest of the 1968 Sydney Film Festival and subject of a forthcoming season of the National Film Theatre, has repeatedly lived up to this manifesto. He is not deluded by stereotypes or pretensions; he sees clearly, he feels positively, and he can make films. Why should such a man be so rare?

The unspoiled sense of affinity with all the human species, the acceptance of human limitations, the rejoicing in the human capacities – these are values which the sensibility of industrial man finds difficult to assimilate.

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali

The four horsemen of guilt, alienation, dominance, possessiveness are visited upon us and our institutions; the wellsprings of our art have been poisoned. Only by great vigilance can we continue to believe in ourselves, much less in others.

Our art forms reflect the idea of suffering as issuing from conflict, as being willed. Our literary systems incorporate the concept of evil; where there is suffering, blame and punishment are measures in the aesthetic scales.

The masters of Western cinema are compelled to examine – if not endorse – the anguish of futility (Antonioni), irresponsibility (Godard), insularity (Resnais), professionalism (Hawks), retribution (Hitchcock), aggression (Siegel, Fuller).

The position may yet be retrieved by the new filmmakers, but the condition of the established artists is not encouraging: Ford, Lang and Buñuel are now silent, Visconti, Demy and Vadim are being seduced by formalism, Fellini by narcissism; de Sica has sold out; Malle, Rosi and Losey have lost their bearings – only Truffaut and Forman can express a positive spirit without going on the defensive.

In Satyajit Ray’s vision of the world compassion is not a reaction to something else, not a redress to fear, horror and cruelty: it is itself a primary, unconditioned motivation.

Ray is the great humanist of the cinema. His work should win him preference for such a claim over Renoir, for whose work a special intellectual sophistication is frequently a condition of favourable response; over Flaherty, in whom compassion and a tendency to lyricism tend to interfere with critical insight; over Ozu, whose rigorous neutrality of viewpoint generates a deep compassion but runs the risk of rendering intellectual curiosity inter. (I am not in a position to compare him with Dovzhenko, only one of whose films is in Australia; but I suspect that the great visual poet of the Ukraine has strong formalist elements.)

Deeply imbued with Bengali society in their particulars, Ray’s films reach out beyond cultural differences to activate a universal sympathy. In Ray’s vision, from the accidents of culture emerge the constants of humanity.

The creativity of Ray is not to be evidenced by a style, although he has mastered the techniques of cinematography relevant to his creative demands. Of the 14 films he has made since 1955, he has written all the scenario and the original stories of three, he has written the music for the last seven, and has been his own camera operator on the last three.

Satyajit Ray was born in Calcutta in 1921 and grew up in a condition of genteel poverty. He took a degree in Economics and studied Fine Arts for two years under that great man-of-two-worlds, Rabindranath Tagore. He worked as an illustrator and art director of an advertising agency for ten years.

Ray helped to found the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. He was – to use his own words – “always mad about theory”, and seems to have followed the Sight and Sound line in his preferences in films.

He was able to talk with Renoir when The River was being made in 1950; later he spent half a year in London where he made his first acquaintance with the works of Flaherty and the neo-realists. (He did not see all of Flaherty until 1958.) He does not seem to have seen the work of Ozu.

The idea of filming the well-known novel Pather Panchali (a sort of Bengali The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, one gathers) had occupied Ray since the meeting with Renoir. In 1952 he commenced shooting part-time, assisted by a small band of devoted friends. Their own lack of experience, the inadequacy of technical facilities in India, and financial demands, all hindered the project. Finally, Ray was able to obtain a government grant, while resisting pressure to ameliorate his depiction of life in rural Bengal.

Pather Panchali was completed in 1955. Receipts at the domestic box-office were fair, and finance was forthcoming for other films. The reception by Western critics was largely respectful, but superlatives of praise were withheld. It was utterly honest as far as any of them could tell, it was luminously compassionate; but it was slow and damn little happened, just those Indian peasants day after day.

The mildness of their reception seems to have been more from caution than insensitivity, as though they did not trust their own response to a thoroughgoing humanism when it is not tied to a crusade.

Pather Panchali has been described as “an act of sublimity”. It records the quotidian round of a Bengali household, relating principally to the young children, brother and sister. Their day is busy but not eventful. The camera shows us things the children cannot see, such as the slow path to extinction of the remarkable aged “Auntie” so reminiscent of Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer.

Yet we still have our sensations of objects invested with the wonderment of the children – we can exult in the mysterious humming of the telegraph wires, or the joyful tension of running through fields to view the daily distant train.

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali

When death comes it takes its place in the way of things – even untimely death. There is grief at the death of a child, but there is also a resignation which is neither facile nor evasive, but preparatory for life. In the later Apur Sansar [The World of Apu] the prolonged grief of the young widower is seen as undesirable because it has impaired his capacity for living.

Pather Panchali proceeded to take out a number of international awards, and the acclaim became intensified, sweeping away the initial wariness. The critics generally had been embarrassed. As well as the clods who professed boredom, there were the aesthetes who had no jargon in their armoury to meet something so uneventful, so artistically self-effacing. The “social content” boys were uneasy about a message that took no explicit stand, yet communicated values by the very capture of the viewer’s disarmed empathy. The values themselves acclaimed a positive warmth in human relationships, but they did so without protest.

The film contained suffering in plenty, but there was no evil, no retribution – a state of affairs disconcerting to the child of European morality. In our sophistication we had learned to react to stories and situations, themes and symbols in our films; we had lost the habit of reacting to people. We were unprepared in our art for compassion, unspoiled and unqualified.

In 1956 Aparajito followed as a sequel to Pather Panchali; the seamless web of rural existence becomes shaped into some sort of narrative progression. Although different in form, it affirmed a simple but ingenious humanism, and looked on suffering with a level gaze. Further international honours were awarded but, significantly, no cult developed.

Aparajito

Aparajito

The following year he made Parash Pathar which we have not seen here. It is reported as a gentle satiric fantasy in the vein of de Sica’s Miracolo de Milan.

In 1958 Ray made Jalsaghar, perhaps the most concentrated of all his films. It is an intent study of the last stages in the anachronistic life of an old mandarin figure. A wonderful combination of patrician arrogance and sensitivity, he maintains his role as a patron of music while the order crumbles around him. Greater restriction in emotional range and physical milieu, and greater intrication between these elements, have intensified the film’s emotional yield.

Ray is unerring in maintaining a symbiotic interdependence between sympathetic engagement with the individual human quality of the old aristocrat and his theoretical value as a case history, an exemplar of attitudes in Bengali society. Ray’s sure seeing of the situation ensures that neither interpretation can become figure to the other’s ground. The personal engagement is seen to precede the social analysis and to draw from it in ideological feedback, but not to pre-empt it.

In 1959 Apur Sansar took up the thread of Ray’s first two films, and completed what is known as the Apu trilogy. The child and adolescent Apu were universal, the final film traces the sorrows of the young adult. Now a well-articulated individual, Apu makes a more personal claim on our concern. His story takes on a particularity of situation and event which sheds the documentary mode of the first two. There is no longer typicality of action, but there is still typicality of character. It can no longer be claimed for adult Apu that his condition is universal, but the emotional validity of his experience is no less so than that of his unindividuated childhood.

Devi (1960) retained the same sensitivity of observation, but there was now clearly the organisation of events in the exposition of issues. Ray displayed this extraordinary grasp on the relevant and the demands of personality at the core of beliefs. He appears quite immune to the traps of propaganda.

The Indian commissioned Ray in 1961 to make a documentary on the life of that remarkable man, Rabindranath Tagore, who had been an eminence in the literature, drama and politics of Bengal. He profoundly influenced a generation of young men, many of whose characteristics are reflected in Ray’s films – charming but not durable, charitable but disillusioned by hardship, progressive in spirit but shrinking from active reform, exhibiting “the very Indian predilection for avoiding conflict and drama”.

Teen Kanya (1961) was an adaptation of three Tagore stories, two of which have been shown here. Minor works in the Ray canon, they put to shame the “masterpieces” of some European directors.

Kanchenjungha (1962) was from Ray’s first original script (other than the documentary) and was shot in colour. Reports tell us that it has stirred the most controversy in his own country. Subtle interplay of mood and motive are again present, but there is also photography of consistently striking beauty.

With Abhijan the same year Ray enjoyed his first commercial success. It is reported to be melodramatic and fast-paced and I suspect it may be the least penetrating of his films, although it is not regarded as a bad lapse.

Ray wrote the original story for Mahanagar in 1963. Surprisingly, the Great City is not shown in its externals but in the pressures on an impoverished genteel family when the young wife makes the extraordinary step of taking a commercial job. Despite sequences of great charm and penetration, this film was considered a falling-off for its author when shown in Australia.

Charulata (1964) was based on a famous Tagore novel. An intense piquancy emerges from this delineation of a 19th century triangle relationship in the Bengal aristocracy. The concentration of mood stops short of oppressiveness, and there is a hint of waste, almost despair, which is not typical of Ray. The outer world takes on the form of the husband’s preoccupation with “Home” (Britain) politics and his weekly newspaper; while the actual physical environs of that ornate Victorian mansion become the correlates of the themes of frustration, abuse of trust, and sacrifice – all under great restraint.

Charulata

Charulata

Charulata was the last work to be shown in this country. Since then he has made Kapurush and Mahhapurush (both 1965), two comically bitter stories on moral cowardice and religious credulity, and Nayak (1966), perhaps the closest Ray has come to a “well-made” film.

The peculiar technology of the cinema has created the conditions for an aesthetic innovation which, as yet, few filmmakers have attempted to put into practice.

It is possible for the representation of life by the cinema to be experienced along roughly the same range of response as we bring to the experience of our own lives. It is Satyajit Ray’s great achievement that he has succeeded in something like this in most of his films.

This seems to mark a crucial departure from all precedent of the traditional arts of representation. Traditionally, the object (which may be any phenomenon – physical, psychological, sociological, etc.) is represented by schemata, reduced and usually stylised cues of perception which vary from one art form to another.

The various arts have each developed a very wide vocabulary of conventions into which we learn to discharge appropriate cognitive and emotional responses. In so far as it offers fewer and less “natural” cues for its recognition, the representation may be regarded as less complete, less open to interpretation, than the object it represents – whether it be anything from a background fixture to a state of mind or an entire dramatic situation.

But the artists’ incompleteness will be suggestive, stimulating the viewer into imaginative participation. The conventions call upon us to supplement the artist’s cues from our own personal storehouse of impressions. The more schematic the representation, the greater will be the need for discharge from our own imagination.

[Ernst] Gombrich, in his authorative Art and Illusion, regards the process of inferring from schemata as universally underlying the representative arts. It would seem, then, that the closer a work draws to the illusion of reality, the fewer will be the conventions intervening, the less will be the involvement of the imagination. (I trust that here “conventions” are understood to be not clichés but a basic heritage of interpretation and formal prescription.)

Should there no longer be conventions to mediate between a work and our response to it, I would not regard this as necessarily an artistic disqualification, perhaps not even a loss. But it would be a remarkable deviation from tradition.

In drama we accept that the conventions (whichever they may be, so long as they stimulate the imaginative supplement from the audience) mediate between the work and our response. We evaluate the character – an artistic product – not “that person”; the role, not “the sum of that person’s experience and feeling”.

We collaborate in the illusion, the “willing suspension of disbelief”. Our awareness of “how it was done”, of how the conventions have been organised, constitutes our admiration of the artist (author, producer, actors, etc.) and influences our evaluation of the work as a whole.

No one in the theatre is seeking the wholesale deceit of an illusion of verisimilitude. Even in terms of what was strictly perceptible, the “fourth wall” dramas never approached the reality they were seeking to represent. But the resources of the cinema are capable of bringing us close to that area of no definition where, for the purpose of moral, psychological, aesthetic etc. judgements, the division between responses to life and responses to the artistic representation of life is no longer detectable.

When we see the insects spindling across the water’s surface in Pather Panchali, we respond to a summation of all the sensuous aspects of sight, not merely symbolic indication of the seasons, not merely token illustration of “life in the countryside”. Some stage effect might be devised which could achieve an identical amount of information as the shots in the movie, but it would be lacking in the evocative qualities of the movie image, an inclusive apperceptive richness.

While we are watching Pather Panchali the awareness that this is a representation of life with actors, etc., tends to be lost; no allowances for convention intervene between us and our experience of the people depicted; the hand of the director vanishes.

To a great extent Pather Panchali is able to immerse us in the flux of experience without the mediation of aesthetic conventions. The things we respond to in the film – nature, people, their feelings, their relationships – are encountered and evaluated along lines of inference operative in life rather than in art.

In what can the beauty of such an artifact lie? It has no conventional form, no conditioning structure of aesthetic sensibility. There are no schemata to call our imagination into play; there is no dream-work. But there is still contemplation; for no matter how far the depiction may become indistinguishable from the event, the viewer is always exempt from the need to act. Art removes us to the plane of contemplation, as distinct from the plane of decision and execution.

Pather Panchali has no form by literary and theatrical standards. If we approach from these points of reference it will pass through the filters of our sensibility. But if we are patient, if we are humble before life, if we can bear its depiction without the stylistic tensors to which we have become accustomed, then we will be rewarded by a massive release of sympathy. For many of us Pather Panchali is the occasion of a hitherto unattainable sense of contemplation of the human condition.

Its beauty is the beauty of life being lived, for what that may be worth to each of us.

It is my contention that the cinema of Satyajit Ray, especially in Pather Panchali and in varying lesser degrees in later films, exemplifies an aesthetic innovation – the contemplation of the emotive properties of life represented without the mediation of formal beauty.

I realise this claim overreaches: formal properties are never entirely dispensed with. However the extent to which reliance on them can be reduced in the cinema is unique.

None of the films after Pather Panchali approach as closely to the ideal claim for Ray. They have tended to be organised around an appreciable narrative scheme, and some have pronounced dramatic elements. He has made two fantasies – one satirical, one macabre, neither shown here – and a documentary biography.

There are numerous things of beauty in Ray’s films. Many of them are intrinsic properties of the objects depicted, such as the ineffable countenance of Smaran Ghosal, who plays the adolescent Apu, or the serenity of every movement of Karuna Bannerjee (Apu’s mother). And humour which suffuses Ray’s observation of the little vanities and idiosyncrasies of his fellow man is less likely to be an attitude intervening between audience and material, but rather an intrinsic quality perceived to reside in the material.

Nevertheless there are myriad examples of formal contrivance in Ray’s film (though we may not be aware of them at the time of viewing): choice of angle, emphasis of attention influenced by the composition of a shot, a less-than-natural camera orientation in the positioning of some two-shots, even lighting. Ray is careful to avoid lighting which does not simulate light sources in the frame, but he is not averse to placing faces in shadow.

Apur Sansar

Apur Sansar

It must also be conceded that the use of music by Ray is extraordinarily beautiful and effective – and that one is frequently conscious of it. However it is never an intrusion. It is probable that European audiences, having no first-hand experience of the sound of India, would be to assimilate the music into the overall naturalistic impression than Indian audiences, who would be aware of its special qualities.

Ray’s practice of “editing in the camera” is beautifully demonstrated in the sequence in Teen Kanya where the luckless man in his best dress is faced with the perilous prospect of a muddy road. His plight is observed in a close-up of his fine-shod feet and gaiters picking in the mud, then a high long shot in front of him showing the mud spread before him, then a high long shot from behind showing the extent of the mud away up the road.

Ray’s formal devices are not showy (though I do recall the dismay of local filmniks when the camera took a “subjective” fall downstairs in Mahanagar). It is probably true that most of them are not consciously apprehended by an audience. To this extent – the nature of audience response – my claim might still hold substantially that there is no mediation of formal beauty between the viewer and the object represented at the time of viewing.

We can talk about Ray’s “fineness if touch” and so on, because we know he couldn’t have achieved many of the things we see without such a gift. But we are not describing such a quality, or where it is specifically evidenced; we are merely deducing its existence.

Essentially, the art of Satyajit Ray lies not in the formal properties and technical assurance of his work. Others can surpass him in that. His pre-eminence lies in having an unerring eye to simulate behaviour (he is not deluded into transplanting stereotypes of behaviour and character into his scenes, as so many film and stage directors are) and an exquisitely refined sense of the relevant in his selection of what to simulate.

And he is motivated by the last great challenge to the artist: to make the commonplaces of existence yield up their meaning.

About The Author

John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked the following year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.