Why this might not seem so easy
Akiro Kurosawa and Jean Renoir revered him. Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Wes Anderson are among the many filmmakers who have been inspired by him. And he’s considered one of the founding fathers of Indian cinema. But this titanic reputation, along with such a large body of work, could make tackling the films of Bengali director Satyajit Ray seem intimidating for even an avid film lover.
Inspired by the lyricism of his one-time mentor Jean Renoir and the street-level truthfulness of Italian neorealism, Ray specialised in a kind of cinematic naturalism in which the on-screen action unfolds in a manner that feels at once poetic and realistic. Ray’s films may at first feel quiet, gradual and undramatic, but it’s a testament to his skill as a storyteller that he gently folds us into their pace.
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His films have an irresistible knack for turning the ordinary into the exciting. Ray handles complicated experiences – like coming of age, taking a new direction in life, and when to defy social expectations – with simplicity and beauty.
While his long takes, deep focus and minimal camera movements feel worlds away from the mile-a-minute editing of modern Hollywood blockbusters, these allow Ray’s characters the space and time to strike us as fully rounded human beings, not social representations or symbols. Even characters who should be condemned for their actions are allowed to engage us as people. In Ray’s cinema, we catch an intimate glimpse of the many different kinds of lives lived in both colonial and modern India.
The best place to start – The Big City
Based on a short story by Narendranath Mitra, Ray’s 1963 film The Big City is a perfect jumping-off point. On the one hand, it tells a relatable story about fear and courage, with a loveable protagonist. On the other, it feels unique and fresh, offering a female point-of-view on issues such as money, labour and justice in 1960s Calcutta.
Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), an intelligent and resourceful housewife, must leave the familiarity of domestic life to join the workplace and supplement their income. Unconfident at first, Arati soon thrives in her job selling sewing machines door-to-door. She is no less devoted to the family she wants to share this success with, but her husband and children begin to resent her new responsibilities and the time she’s forced to spend away from their home.
The Big City is a story that asks contemporary questions with empathy: how to heal distance in marriage? How to switch between your home and work selves? What to do about ageing parents, or when you witness injustice? It shows the daily doses of love, humour, determination and forgiveness that are needed to make ordinary life go on. The strength to do so, Ray’s film proves, is not all that ordinary after all.
What to watch next
Ray’s debut film, Pather Panchali (1955), was a landmark release for Indian film, establishing Bengal as the home for auteur-driven Indian cinema while also drawing attention in the west. A more pensive work than The Big City, it is the best distillation of Ray’s spirit and essence as a filmmaker. Beginning what became known as the Apu trilogy, this poetic and touching film introduces our young protagonist, Apu, in a delightful coming-of-age story set in a Bengali village in the 1920s.
The two following instalments, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), which follow Apu as he leaves his village to seek an education and career in the city, are also essential viewing. Together, the films document the development of a life and how an ordinary Indian family has to change as the nation modernises. They also give a sense of Ray’s reverence for each discipline of the filmmaking process, from the beautiful cinematography of Subrata Mitra to the transporting original scores by Ravi Shankar.
Ray had a deep love of Bengali literature, and this shaped much of his filmmaking. His adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s stories represent some of his finest work. Among them, Ray’s own favourite, Charulata (1964), or ‘The Lonely Wife’, is often regarded as the director’s masterpiece. Set in late 19th-century Calcutta, it follows the graceful and intelligent Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) as she whiles away the days at home, largely ignored by her kindly but distracted newspaper-editor husband. Charulata offers a rich tapestry of pent-up emotion, fully imagined characters and poetically shot visuals.
It’s worth following this up with The Home and the World, as this 1984 romantic drama revisits many of the earlier film’s themes. Another Tagore adaptation, this one was begun by Ray but completed by his son, due to Ray’s ill health. It focuses on the Choudhury family, who live a genteel life in a great country house as the Swadeshi movement rages outside. The English-educated, liberal Nikhil Choudhury wants to ‘liberate’ his wife Bimala from her cloistered, traditional existence, but Bimala’s growing knowledge results in an independence and political verve that Nikhil does not welcome. Against the backdrop of Bengal’s troubled 1906/07 winter, Ray weaves a study of female liberation, national sovereignty and the complexities of love.
Days and Nights in the Forest (1970) is also a key Ray film, which shows some of the influence of Jean Renoir, whom Ray assisted on his India-set classic The River (1951). In Ray’s film, four middle-class friends, stifled by their city lives, take a road trip into the countryside. Each carries with them their own hopes and insecurities, and when they return from their forest sojourn, each has changed. It’s a film about freedom, regret, youth, joy and nature – it’s 1970, after all.
Where not to start
Ray’s other passion, music, takes precedence in The Music Room (1958), a story about an ageing zamindar – a member of India’s aristocratic landowning class. It is both a tribute to India’s classical traditions of dance and music, and the drama of a lonely, self-deluded man who is nostalgic for the past. Ray’s sympathetic character portrayal and exquisite framing make it one of Ray’s finest films, but it unravels at a pace that’s slow even by Ray’s standards. Come back to this one when you’ve got a good grasp on some of Ray’s other major works.
Similarly, The Chess Players (1977) should be a considered choice, as it can get pretty dense with historical context. It’s set on the eve of the Indian rebellion of 1857, when two wealthy best friends are ignoring their responsibilities both figuratively (they are obsessed with chess) and literally (they choose rural self-exile in order to play undisturbed).
This criticism of India’s native aristocratic classes for implicitly aiding the British by doing nothing is echoed in Ray’s equally political but more hard-hitting 1981 film for television, The Deliverance. Although it features the great Om Puri as a poor, wronged ‘untouchable’ in an affecting and searing condemnation of the caste system, it’s one to choose after seeing Ray’s signature early work.