Satyajit Ray: five essential films

As BFI Southbank mounts a major retrospective of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, we choose five of his very best films from a long career.

Samuel Wigley
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Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.
– Akira Kurosawa

Pather Panchali (1955)

One of world cinema’s great directorial debuts, Pather Panchali not only announced the arrival of a new filmmaking talent, it was also credited by western critics with putting Indian cinema on the map.

Filmmaking in India had in fact been well established for decades; indeed, it celebrates its centenary this year. But those who saw Ray’s debut at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival were met with an entirely different proposition from Bollywood’s trademark musicals and melodramas: a delicately told human drama inspired by Jean Renoir (whom Ray had assisted on his 1951 India-set drama The River) and neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves (1948), which had bowled over the young Ray when he saw them during a stint in London.

Pather Panchali is an adaptation of a 1929 novel about a young boy, Apu, growing up in rural Bengal, where the abject poverty of his family does little to suppress his youthful inquisitiveness and awakening sensibilities. Ray followed Apu’s progress in two further films – Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959) – in which the maturing boy moves to Calcutta to take up studies and find his place in the adult world. The Apu trilogy remains Ray’s most famous achievement.

Watch it for… the joyous moment when Apu and his sister run through fields to catch a glimpse of a passing steam train.

Listen to… the beautiful score by the young Ravi Shankar.

What the critics say

“The first film by the masterly Satyajit Ray – possibly the most unembarrassed and natural of directors – is a quiet reverie about the life of an impoverished Brahman family in a Bengali village. Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen.” Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

The Music Room (1958)

Now a filmmaker on the world stage, Ray took time out before the final part of his Apu trilogy for the 1957 comedy The Philosopher’s Stone and this magisterial drama about an ageing Bengali landowner and his fatal clinging to the past.

Set in the 1920s, after the Indian government had abolished the feudal zamindari system, it stars Chhabi Biswas as a landed aristocrat, Roy, who sequesters himself in his grand home, taking refuge in his beloved classical music while the winds of change rage through the outside world. Ray brings Roy’s perfumed world to life with glittering images of fireworks, gleaming chandeliers and the cavernous extravagance of his music room, where he invites sitarists and dancers to entertain him and his guests. But there are also portentous images of doom – a lightning storm, an insect drowning in a goblet, a spider crawling across the portrait of one of his illustrious ancestors – that suggest these musicians are merely fiddling while Roy’s Rome burns.

It’s a great film to rank with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) or The Leopard (1963) about grand old men whose ways are being eclipsed by passing time. There’s even a touch of Norma Desmond, the has-been silent screen star of Sunset Blvd. (1950), about Roy’s proud faith in old illusions and the privileged blood in his veins.

Watch it for… an extraordinary kathak dancing sequence that enchants Roy and his assembled guests, just as it does us in the audience.

Listen to… the music in the music room, played by some of the most important performers in Indian classical music during the 1950s.

What the critics say

“This is one of Ray’s most magnificently visual films, thanks to Subrata Mitra’s superb camera-work. But it is about music, too, with Ray’s equally ravishing score showing us that the old aristocrat’s appreciation of high art was not simply an attempt to show off.” Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

The Big City (1963)

There’s a moment part way into The Big City when Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) turns to her husband, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), saying, “If you saw me at work you wouldn’t recognise me.” Her eyes are bright with pride, widened by new experiences.

“And at home?” comes Subrata’s forlorn reply, his own pride injured. He’s envious of his wife’s professional prowess, and struggling to adapt to these changes in the subservient housewife he loves.

Finding it hard to support a large, extended family on his bank-clerk salary alone, she has persuaded him to let her take a job as a saleswoman. To her surprise, and the consternation of her hidebound, traditionalist family, Arati, who has never known much outside cooking and cleaning at home, takes to the world of work like a duck to water. She finds herself surprisingly adept at earning money, and laps up her newfound independence in the city, the camaraderie of her colleagues, and glowing praise from her boss. With this 1963 drama, Ray found himself railing against the ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ mentality, making a sassy, nuanced and deeply moving film about the gathering speed of modernity and feminism in his home city of Calcutta.

Watch it for… a nail-biting scene in which Arati stands up to her male boss on behalf of one of her new colleagues, risking more than she knows for something she believes in.

Listen to… Ray’s own score. Ray was one of the rare great directors who often composed his own music for his films.

What the critics say

“The power of this extraordinary film seems to come in equal parts from the serene narrative style of director Satyajit Ray and the sensitive performances of the cast members. At a time when we are engaged in the annual ritual of choosing our ‘best actress’, it might be useful to see the performance of Madhabi Mukherjee in this film. She is a beautiful deep, wonderful actress who simply surpasses all ordinary standards of judgment.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Charulata (1964)

“I lost my taste for the saga kind of story after the Apu trilogy,” Ray told his biographer Andrew Robinson. “Too many lapses of time. It’s a kind of novelistic approach. For the cinema it’s much better to be more concentrated in time.”

Ray’s 1964 film Charulata is a perfect example of this more concentrated approach, a closeted, short story-like drama set almost entirely within a house and its grounds in 1880s Calcutta. While her wealthy husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), busies himself with running his own newspaper, The Sentinel, his bored wife, Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee), occupies her time reading, relaxing and spying on passers-by through her field glasses. But the arrival of her husband’s young cousin not only sends ripples of adulterous desire through her pinned-butterfly existence, but also sets Charu along her own path towards an artistic awakening as a writer.

Like The Big City, it’s a film about a woman beginning to shrug off the straitjacket of a male-dominated society to explore her own sensibilities and ambitions. Hilarious in its lampooning of the pompous husband, who peppers his speech with English phrases and high-cultural references, it’s also exquisitely shot – both within the ornamented spaces of the house and in the dappled light of the garden.

Watch it for… the famous scene when Charu sings Rabindranath Tagore’s song ‘Fule Fule Dhole Dhole’ to her cousin from the garden swing. The camera captures her joy in thrilling pendular swoops, cutting between Charu’s askance view of her cousin and her own face against the sky.

Listen to… a medley of Ray’s theme music and one of the songs from the film.

What the critics say

“Ray uses his setting, meticulously designed by Bansi Chandragupta, to underscore one woman’s listless, privileged imprisonment […] Though Charulata has been obscured in the Ray canon by a certain trilogy made at the outset of his career, it remains a singularly accomplished song to love, idealism, heartbreak and disillusionment.” Jay Antani, slantmagazine.com

Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

Mentored by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir in his early career, Ray created a tribute to Renoir’s classic Partie de campagne (1936) with Days and Nights in the Forest, transplanting the scene from pastoral France to the forests of north-eastern India.

Like the Renoir film, it’s a story about middle-class city folk taking a holiday to the countryside. Four male friends from Calcutta go on a road trip to rural Bihar, where they lodge at a forest guest house despite the protestations of its caretaker. They’re from the big city: brash, confident, careerist, and ready to lord it over the more ‘backward’ tribal communities living on their new doorstep. They vow not to shave, but that goes out of the window when they come across two beautiful women staying nearby, and an elegant game of flirtation and embarrassment ensues.

“When people leave Calcutta, they become younger,” says one of the friends in the car, as they’re first heading out for the country. They’ve come in search of booze, relaxation and women, but Ray lets us warm to their more obnoxious traits, bottling a happy holiday mood that’s ripe with chance and rife with lessons to be learned.

Watch it for… the terrific picnic sequence in which the circle of friends plays a memory game, taking it in turns to name a famous person then adding more and more to the chain.

What the critics say “Ray gradually distils a magical world of absolute stasis: a shimmering summer’s day, a tranquil forest clearing, the two women strolling in a shady avenue, wistful yearnings as love and the need for love echo plangently […] Beautifully shot and acted, it’s probably Ray’s masterpiece.” Tom Milne, Time Out magazine

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