Mondays with Ray

The Oak Street Cinema presents a four-film showcase of Satyajit Ray’s best-known work.

by Gabriel Shapiro

Speaking in an interview with Cineaste Magazine in 1982, a very modest Satyajit Ray, India’s greatest director, said of his first film, “I never imagined that any of my films, especially ‘Pather Panchali,’ would be seen throughout this country or in other countries. The fact that they have is an indication that, if you’re able to portray universal feelings, universal relations, emotions and characters, you can cross certain barriers and reach out to others Ö”

It is this universality that has kept Ray on the short list of filmmaking geniuses, shoulder to shoulder with other greats such as Eisenstein, Renoir and De Sica. Ray’s films speak not only to Bengalis, Indians or Indiaphiles, but also to the human sentiments that all of us share.

The specific images in Ray’s films will be unfamiliar to many in the audience for this latest cinematic feast put on by the Oak Street Cinema. The scenes of life in a remote West Bengal village where children run through jungles set against the strains of the sitar and tabla are not the like our memories of a Midwestern childhood. But the feelings that these images conjure – distress, wonder, joy and sadness – transcend their visual specificities to become overwhelmingly powerful.

It would be a misunderstanding at best to assume Ray’s films are somehow disconnected from temporal and physical material realities. In fact, the universality achieved is directly a result of Ray’s engagement with his characters’ peculiarities and particulars. Ray believed in film’s capacity to engage the world differently, to speak in a new language.

Keya Ganguly is a University cultural studies and comparative literature professor and Satyajit Ray scholar. In her article, “Cinema and University: Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apur Sansar'” which appeared in Race & Class, October 2002, wrote that beyond Ray’s films’ formal artistic virtues are deeply political, avant-garde critiques of modern life.

“For Ray, as is amply evident from his cinematic practice as well as his journalistic and critical writings, cinema was not only an ‘art,’ but a mode of intervening in politics and philosophy.”

Writing specifically about “Apur Sansar,” Ganguly identifies Ray’s marriage of cinema and philosophy that lead his movies to be so emotionally and politically affecting:

” ‘Apur Sansar’ is a film where authenticity of atmosphere and emotion, a hallmark of Ray’s practice, works in conjunction with his avant-gardist consciousness about cinema’s capacity to penetrate the surface of reality.”

It is still safe to say that Ray was an artist in every sense of the word. Before his transition to full-time auteur, Ray was employed in an advertising firm where he worked in graphic design and typography. He also composed music, wrote several short stories, screenplays and books on filmmaking.

He had an insatiable artistic appetite, and a famous episode from his informal film education revolves around a six-month period in London where Ray saw more than 100 films – more than one film per every two days. During this binge, Ray saw the film that most deeply influenced him and set his realistic style tone, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece “Ladri di biciclette” (“Bicycle Thieves”).

This classic film, an early example of cinematic realism, used non-professional actors to tell a heartbreaking tale of misfortune and struggle. Playwright Arthur Miller commented that the film was “everyman’s search for dignity – it is as if the soul of a man had been filmed.” Ray, too, saw the potential of this sort of hyperrealism and returned to India ready to begin his remarkable cinematic career.

When he began shooting “Pather Panchali,” Ray and his team were beginners. Each had a clear vision of how the film should look and how to tell the story, but no one had ever made a film. His cinematographer was an experienced still photographer, but had never shot a movie. After difficulties in securing financing for the picture, Ray decided the best course of action was to shoot a few scenes. He assembled a cast, set about his work and set out on his path to greatness.

Three of the four films the Oak Street is showing comprise Ray’s Apu trilogy. “Pather Panchali,” “Aparajito” and “Apur Sansar” are probably Ray’s best-known films. The trilogy, based on the popular novels by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, traces the arc of a man’s life from childhood through adolescence, into maturity and adulthood. Each stage is tinged with its own unique hope and despair, each has its dilemmas and opportunities and at each period, we recognize the title character Apu’s idiosyncrasies of that human development stage. He moves from the wide-eyed, dream-filled boy to the introspective sturdiness of a man nearly destroyed by fate, and we move with him, seeing aspects of our lives in this initially unfamiliar story.

Ray’s movies are not the slick, fast-paced schlock we are inundated with today. They tend to take their time, allowing characters to develop more fully than they might in today’s films, and are more concerned with quickly advancing plot than developing characters. The late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once said Ray’s films are “sometimes (for us Westerners, and perhaps for Easterners also?) a little boring, but what major artist outside film and drama isn’t?” She goes on to add “(w)hat he has to give us is so rich, so contemplative in approach (and this we are completely unused to in the film medium – except perhaps in documentary), that we begin to accept out lapses of attention during the tedious moments with the same kind of relaxation and confidence and affection that we feel for the boring sketches in the great novels, the epic poems.”

Ray turns the projected image into mirror, microscope and telescope at once, enabling us to see both ourselves and strangers in intimate detail and as part of humanity. Ray captured something so central to being human on film that his movies are practically textbooks for anyone hoping to learn to talk through cinematic vernacular.

Important directors from Akira Kurosawa to Martin Scorsese and James Ivory to George Lucas have spoken out on Ray’s genius and his contributions to filmmaking and humanity. But with all of this said, the best way to understand the praise is to see the films, and to have a chance to see them on a big screen in a cinema is amazing.