It will probably come as little surprise that one of the first prizes awarded to a Satyajit Ray film was for ‘best human document’ at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. It was presented to Pather Panchali, one of the great debuts in cinema history, and the first film in a cinematic bildungsroman known as the Apu trilogy.
The humanism for which Ray’s cinema is so often revered would find even richer means of expression in such beloved exports as Devi (1960), The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964), but beyond the greatest hits, many of the films by this towering figure in Indian cinema remain difficult to see.
It’s testament to Ray’s piercing artistry that many contemporary western critics would speak to the emotional universality of his films. But such readings serve to strip the films of their cultural specificity, taking Ray’s complex interrogations of Bengali society purely on generic terms. At home, Ray could be a much more controversial figure than his international reputation suggests. As his biographer Andrew Robinson puts it: “To do Ray full justice would take a wide understanding of world cinema of all kinds and western and Indian classical music, as well as an informed appreciation of the language, literature, music, art, religions and history of Bengal, the cultural confluence of India – and especially of Bengal’s greatest creative figure Rabindranath Tagore.”
The gulf between local criticism and international appreciation – and vice versa – of a given Ray film could be vast, with some of his biggest homegrown successes barely seeing a release abroad. The occasion of Ray’s centenary retrospectives provides a rare opportunity to dig a little deeper into his abundant filmography, to look beyond the canonised masterworks for the diamonds in the rough. Here are 10 deep cuts from one of the great filmographies in world cinema.
Three Daughters (1961)
In 1964, Ray would make one of his most acclaimed films in Charulata, an adaptation of the 1901 novel by Nobel Prize-winning Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Three years earlier, he had the ambitious notion of mounting dual projects for the occasion of the philosopher-poet’s centenary. His 54-minute Rabindranath Tagore was a documentary portrait that paired archive material with lyrical dramatisations, but it was Three Daughters – a triptych of hour-long episodes adapted from Tagore’s short fiction – that would stand among Ray’s finest achievements as a filmmaker.
Encompassing a poignant tale of a village urchin in ‘The Postmaster’, a melancholy ghost story steeped in loneliness and isolation in ‘Monihara’ (The Lost Jewels), and a comic farce of arranged marriage in ‘Samapti’ (The Conclusion), Three Daughters is a generous tribute to the range of Ray’s literary hero. In a rush to finish the anthology in time for Tagore’s anniversary, Ray was unable to complete the subtitles for ‘Monihara’, leading to the international release of Two Daughters, comprising just the opening and closing episodes. “If I were forced to pick only one work by Ray to show to someone unfamiliar with him,” wrote biographer Andrew Robinson, “It would have to be Three Daughters.”
With its picture-postcard setting along the winding mountain trails of Darjeeling, it’s little wonder that Ray chose Kanchenjungha as his first colour production. It was also his first original screenplay, and the first of his films to feature a score of his own composition. The title refers to the mighty Himalayan mountain, a Rosebud of sorts that a group of upper-crust Calcuttans, on the last day of their holiday, have been unable to catch sight of through the cloud cover.
It’s a film of ambulatory discussions related to an arranged marriage-in-the-making, and a complex critique of well-to-do Bengali society. But it’s the location that lends Kanchenjungha its psychological, almost metaphysical charge. Completing the film in just 24 days, Ray raced around Darjeeling in order to capture the volatile atmospheric qualities of a landscape that holds a significant place in the Bengali cultural consciousness. The final reveal of the elusive peak ranks among the most transcendent moments in Ray’s cinema. With the original negative damaged beyond repair, and no home video release in sight, a big screen opportunity isn’t to be missed.
The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (1969)
With the exception of The Music Room (1958), The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha and its 1980 sequel The Kingdom of Diamonds are the only musicals in Ray’s filmography. While barely known in the west, these adorable picaresques were among Ray’s most popular films at home, with The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha receiving the longest ever continuous run for a Bengali film. Ray’s love for fantasy and children’s fiction had borne fruit in his parallel careers as a writer and illustrator. Keen to make a film that would appeal to his young son, he turned to a story written by his grandfather in 1914.
The eponymous duo love to sing, but find themselves banished from their respective villages for having no talent. Granted three wishes by a forest ghost, they gain tremendous musical talents, and set off to cure the world of its ills. Working with a reduced budget, Ray had to rely on his ingenuity for the film’s most impressive sequence, the Dance of the Ghosts. Using shadow puppetry and negative printing for the six-minute number, it’s an escalating wonder of percussive frenzy, described by Ray as “surely the most striking thing ever done in cinematic choreography”.
The Adversary (1970)
If Ray’s early period, up to and including Charulata, was largely concerned with rural life, his mid-period turned to questions of urbanity, epitomised by a trio of films informally known as the Calcutta trilogy. In Ray’s own words, the Calcutta of The Adversary – the first film in the series – had become “a nightmare city”, plagued by violence and political unrest throughout the preceding decade. Centring on a bright but disenchanted young man (brilliantly played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) as he struggles to find employment, it’s a frantic tale of political and sexual unfulfillment.
With its bomb-making students and ideological tensions, Ray knew the film would prove provocative, its modernist sensibilities separating it from all that came before in his filmography. The ending is sensational, and purely cinematic, as an outburst of impotent rage gives way to resigned disillusionment, granting its protagonist a measure of catharsis even as resolution continues to elude him.
Distant Thunder (1973)
Ray had been planning to make a film about the Bengal famine of 1943 to 1944 for some years when he finally returned to the village landscapes he’d left behind with Three Daughters. A man-made catastrophe exacerbated by war and natural disasters, the famine decimated rural agriculture, leading to the death of some five million people. Adapted by Ray from the contemporaneous novel by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, Distant Thunder examines the causes of the cataclysm. Shooting in vibrant colour, Ray fielded accusations that he’d glamourised or aestheticised the famine, and while it’s true that cinematographer Soumendu Roy captures the lushness of the natural world in vibrant detail, its disharmony with man speaks to the film’s bitter critical ironies.
Although Distant Thunder took the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, otherwise it seems Ray couldn’t win. Local critics found it insufficiently anguished, while western writers saw only unsubtle melodrama. It’s a powerful examination of human failure, but charges of universality do Ray – and his subject – a disservice. “From the first moment of any Ray film,” read The Times review, “the spectator forgets the racial and cultural difference of the characters and sees only human beings.” As biographer Andrew Robinson has noted, however, that’s a misleading charge, however well-intentioned, for such an explicit – and specific – examination of caste tensions.
The Golden Fortress (1974)
If you were to ask the average western cinephile which Satyajit Ray character the great director was most synonymous with, they’d probably name Pather Panchali’s Apu. In India, the same question would likely get a unanimous answer: Pradosh Chandra Mitter, aka Detective Feluda. Inspired by Ray’s love for Sherlock Holmes, Feluda – along with his young sidekick Topse – was the star of more than a dozen books written and illustrated by the novelist-filmmaker.
The Golden Fortress wasn’t Ray’s first detective film – that honour goes to the middling 1967 film The Zoo – but it was his first Feluda picture, followed in 1978 by The Elephant God. Throwing together a dash of Tintin and a little James Bond (explicitly referenced on screen), it’s one of Ray’s most purely enjoyable features; a barreling adventure-mystery that journeys to Rajasthan and the majestic golden fortress of Jaisalmer. With an iconic lead in Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee as the charismatic sleuth, Ray establishes one of his most enduring characters, still going strong in 2022 with the release of a new Feluda mystery directed by Ray’s son, Sandip.
The Middleman (1976)
Following The Adversary, Ray’s Calcutta trilogy continued in 1971 with Company Limited – a tale of an ambitious young executive seeking promotion – before concluding with this bustling story of urban entrepreneurship. While both films see a change in cadence following the incandescence of the opening instalment, The Middleman is hardly the comedy it was received as in the west. The Middleman is a moral fable, or perhaps Ray’s spin on the rake’s progress, charting the spiritual decline of a young man eaten alive by the city he ventures into to make his name.
The most novelistic film in the trilogy, it’s as heavy on plot as it is textural detail. Touring the cramped offices and winding backstreets of Calcutta, Ray plunges us into the city’s subcutaneous underworld of petty criminals, hustlers and sex workers. A film of mordant ironies and tainted idealism, with a tremendous lead in Pradip Mukherjee, it’s about as far removed from the quiet humanism with which Ray is synonymous as his filmography gets.
Pikoo’s Day (1981)
One of the deepest cuts in Ray’s filmography, Pikoo is also among the shortest – running just 26 minutes. Made for French television shortly after production finished on The Kingdom of Diamonds, the film saw Ray given complete creative freedom, with which he chose to adapt his own short story, ‘Pikoo’s Day’. From Pather Panchali and ‘The Postmaster’ to his shortest film, Two (1965), Ray’s cinema is full of remarkable child performances. Pikoo is told through the eyes of a young boy, negotiating the tensions of the adult world he inhabits. His mother is carrying on an affair at home, while his grandfather lies bedridden in the next room.
A miniature about lost innocence, beautifully performed by Arjun Guha-Thakurta as Pikoo, it’s a film suffused with lyrical gestures. Ray’s mastery of the short form is best captured in a sequence that sees Pikoo sent outside with his colouring pens to draw some flowers. Stumped by his inability to capture a white bloom without a white pen, and with his drawing tainted by a drop of rain, he goes back inside to find his grandfather dead, and his mum indifferent to all but her lover. A distillation of theme in a handful of images, at once defying description while possessing an irrefutable poetic truth.
If contemporary Indian critics didn’t feel Ray’s anger in Distant Thunder, they certainly did with Deliverance. An interrogation of social exploitation, this 50-minute cri de coeur finds Ray at his most ferociously indignant. Tradition dictates that Dukhi, a lower caste tanner, must seek the blessing of the local Brahmin if he is to marry off his young daughter. This means putting himself at the mercy of the village elder’s sadistic whims, and soon finds himself given the impossible task of splitting a vast fallen tree stump with a blunt axe. Falling prey to illness and exhaustion, Dukhi’s fate is quickly sealed, and the Brahmin sets about disposing of his corpse before the police arrive.
The film sees Ray’s humanism calcified into righteous fury, a sentiment he carried into his quarrels with the censors ahead of its television airing. With two of the country’s finest actors in Om Puri and Smita Patil playing the beleaguered couple, Ray knew the film would attract viewers. Audiences and critics alike were shocked – or rather stunned – by Deliverance, with the government calling for fewer screen depictions of poverty in its wake. Four decades on, the film has lost none of its terrible power.
The Home and the World (1984)
Ray turned to the work of Rabindranath Tagore one last time for this stately romantic drama, which could be read as a late-period companion piece to Charulata. The tension inherent in the film’s title finds expression in the relationship between the thoughtfully reserved Nikhil (Victor Banerjee) and his wife Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta), whom he encourages to broaden her cultural and political horizons. His friend Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a charismatic nationalist into whose seductive orbit Bimala is steadily drawn.
The central love triangle is the vehicle for Ray to explore the complexities of early-20th century history, forging a microcosm of India’s relationship with the west in the years following the Partition of Bengal. If the film’s political specificity can sometimes feel elusive, there are no such obstacles to embracing its high tragedy, or the ravishing textures of Soumendu Roy’s colour photography. Despite the similarities, shorn of the earlier film’s lyricism, The Home and the World is a much darker, psychologically impermeable work than Charulata, and perhaps the greatest of Ray’s later years.
Satyajit Ray: The Language of Film runs at BFI Southbank in July and August 2022.