Satyajit Ray
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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)

Satyajit RaySatyajit Ray, standing 6'-4" tall, was born in a prominent Bengali family of arts and letters. He graduated in Economics from the Presidency College, Kolkata and studied arts at the Visva-Bharati University, Shantiniketan. At Vishwabharati he was profoundly influenced by the humanism of Rabindranath Tagore, the founder of the university. After completing his education, Ray took up visual design, before turning to film direction. His inspiration came when he attended a screening of Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves in London, which convinced him of his future in filmmaking.

Ray's cinematic debut, Pather Panchali, won eleven international prizes including Best Human Document at Cannes. Compeleted in 1955, Pather Panchali is a milestone of humanist filmmaking and changed the course of Bengali and Indian cinema. Along with Aparajito and Apur Sansar, Pather Panchali forms the Apu trilogy -- Ray's magnum opus.

Ray was profoundly affected by the people and the prevailing socio-economic conditions of Bengal, and though his films have universal humanitarian appeal, the life of Bengal's various social classes, the conflict of old and new values, the effects of India's rapidly changing economic and political conditions are some of the recurring themes in his work.

Ray was a prolific filmmaker and during his lifetime directed thirty seven films, comprising of features, documentaries and short stories. Due to Ray's level of involvement in every aspect of filmmaking, his films demonstrate a level of personal expression rarely experienced in cinema. He was responsible for scripting, casting, directing, scoring, operating the camera, working closely on art direction and editing, even designing his own credit titles and publicity material. Apart from being a film-maker, he was also a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, graphic designer and film critic.

Ray received many major film and movie awards in his illustrious career, including an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1991 shortly before his death in Kolkata.

From the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, Satyajit Ray was interested in finding ways to reveal the mind and thoughts of his characters. Because the range of his sympathy was wide, he has been accused of softening the presence of evil in his cinematic world. But a director who aims to represent the currents and cross-currents of feeling within people is likely to disclose to viewers the humanness even in reprehensible figures. In any case, from the first films of his early period, Ray devised strategies for rendering inner lives; he simplified the surface action of the film so that the viewer’s attention travels to (1) the reaction of people to one another, or to their environments, (2) the mood expressed by natural scenery or objects, and (3) music as a clue to the state of mind of a character. In the Apu Trilogy the camera often stays with one of two characters after the other character exits the frame to see their silent response. Or else, after some significant event in the narrative, Ray presents correlatives of that event in the natural world. When the impoverished wife in Pather Panchali receives a postcard bearing happy news from her husband, the scene dissolves to water skates dancing on a pond. As for music, in his films Ray commissioned compositions from India’s best classical musicians—Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan— but after Teen Kanya composed his own music and progressed towards quieter indication through music of the emotional experience of his characters.

Ray’s work can be divided into three periods on the basis of his cinematic practice: the early period, 1955–66, from Pather Panchali through Nayak; the middle period, 1969–1977, from Googy Gyne Bagha Byne through Shatranj Ke Khilari; and the final period, from Joy Baba Felunath and through his final film Agantuk, in 1991. The early period is characterized by thoroughgoing realism: the mise-enscène are rendered in deep focus; long takes and slow camera movements prevail. The editing is subtle, following shifts of narrative interest and cutting on action in the Hollywood style. Ray’s emphasis in the early period on capturing reality is obvious in Kanchanjangha, in which 100 minutes in the lives of characters are rendered in 100 minutes of film time. The Apu Trilogy, Parash Pather, Jalsaghar, and Devi all exemplify what Ray had learned from Hollywood’s studio era, from Renoir’s mise-en-scène, and from the use of classical music in Indian cinema. Charulata affords the archetypal example of Ray’s early style, with the decor, the music, the long takes, the activation of various planes of depth within a composition, and the reaction shots all contributing significantly to a representation of the lonely wife’s inner conflicts. The power of Ray’s early films comes from his ability to suggest deep feeling by arranging the surface elements of his films unemphatically.

Ray’s middle period is characterized by increasing complexity of style; to his skills at understatement Ray adds a sharp use of montage. The difference in effect between an early film and a middle film becomes apparent if one compares the early Mahanagar with the middle Jana Aranya, both films pertaining to life in Calcutta. In Mahanagar, the protagonist chooses to resign her job in order to protest the unjust dismissal of a colleague. The film affirms the rightness of her decision. In the closing sequence, the protagonist looks up at the tall towers of Calcutta and says to her husband so that we believe her, ‘‘What a big city! Full of jobs! There must be something somewhere for one of us!’’ Ten years later, in Jana Aranya, it is clear that there are no jobs and that there is precious little room to worry about niceties of justice and injustice. The darkness running under the pleasant facade of many of the middle films seems to derive from the turn in Indian politics after the death of Nehru. Within Bengal, many ardent young people joined a Maoist movement to destroy existing institutions, and more were themselves destroyed by a ruthless police force. Across India, politicians abandoned Nehru’s commitment to a socialist democracy in favor of a scramble for personal power. In Seemabaddha or Aranyer Din Ratri Ray’s editing is sharp but not startling. In Shatranj Ke Khilari, on the other hand, Ray’s irony is barely restrained: he cuts from the blue haze of a Nawab’s music room to a gambling scene in the city. In harsh daylight, commoners lay bets on fighting rams, as intent on their gambling as the Nawab was on his music. Audiences in India who responded warmly to Ray’s early films have sometimes been troubled by the complexity of his middle films.

A film like Shatranj Ke Khilari was expected by many viewers to reconstruct the splendors of Moghul India as the early Jalsaghar had reconstructed the sensitivity of Bengali feudal landlords and Charulata he decency of upper class Victorian Bengal. What the audience found instead was a stern examination of the sources of Indian decadence. According to Ray, the British seemed less to blame for their role than the Indians who demeaned themselves by colluding with the British or by ignoring the public good and plunging into private pleasures. Ray’s point of view in Shatranj was not popular with distributors and so his first Hindi film was denied fair exhibition in many cities in India. Ray’s concluding style, most evident in the short features Pikoo and Sadgati, pays less attention than earlier to building a stable geography and a firm time scheme. The exposition of characters and situations is swift: the effect is of great concision. In Pikoo, a young boy is sent outside to sketch flowers so that his mother and her lover can pursue their affair indoors. The lover has brought along a drawing pad and colored pens to divert the boy. The boy has twelve colored pens in his packet with which he must represent on paper the wealth of colors in nature. In a key scene (lasting ten seconds) the boy looks at a flower, then down at his packet for a matching color. Through that action of the boy’s looking to match the world with his means, Ray suggests the striving in his own work to render the depth and range of human experience. In focussing on inner lives and on human relations as the ground of social and political systems, Ray continued the humanist tradition of Rabindranath Tagore. Ray studied at Santiniketan, the university founded by Tagore, and was close to the poet during his last years. Ray once acknowledged his debt in a lyrical documentary about Tagore, and through the Tagore stories on which he based his films Teen Kanya, Charulata, and Ghare Bahire. As the poet Tagore was his example, Ray has become an example to important younger filmmakers (such as Shyam Benegal, M. S. Sathyu, G. Aravindan), who have learned from him how to reveal in small domestic situations the working of larger political and cultural forces.


1955 Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) 115 min. B/W.
1956 Aparajito (The Unvanquished) 113 min. B/W.
1958 Paras Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone) 111 min. B/W
1958 Jalsaghar (The Music Room) 100 min. B/W
1959 Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) 106 min. B/W.
1960 Devi (The Goddess) 93 min. B/W.
1961 Teen Kanya (Two Daughters) :
Postmaster 56 min. l Monihara 61 min. l Samapti 56 min  54 min B/W.
1962 Kanchenjungha 102 min. Color
1962 Abhijan (The Expedition) 150 min. B/W.
1963 Mahanagar (The Big City) 131 min. B/W
1964 Charulata (The Lonely Wife) 117 min. B/W.
1965 Kapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Coward and the Holy Man):
Kapurush 74 min.l Mahapurush 65 min. 139 min. B/W
1966 Nayak (The Hero) 120 min. B/W
1967 Chiriyakhana (The Menagerie) 125 min. B/W
1968 Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) 132 min. B/W
1970 Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) 115 min., B/W
1970 Pratidwandi (The Adversary) 110 min. B/W
1971 Seemabaddha (Company Limited) 112 min. B/W
1973 Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder) 101 min. Color
1974 Sonar Kella (The Fortress) 120 min. Color
1975 Jana Aranya (The Middleman) 131 min. B/W
1977 Shantranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) 113 min. Color
1978 Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) 112 min. Color
1980 Heerak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds) 118 min. Color
1984 Ghare-Baire (Home and the World) 140 min. Color
1989 Ganashatru (Enemy of the People) 100 min. Color
1990 Shakha Prashakha (Branches of the Tree) 121 min. Color
1991 Agantuk (The Stranger) 120 min. Color

Documentaries by Satyajit Ray
1961 Rabindranath Tagore 54 min. B/W
1971 Sikkim 52 min. Color
1972 The Inner Eye 19 min. Color
1976 Bala 33 min. Color
1987 Sukumar Ray 30 min. Color

Televison Films by Satyajit Ray
1964 Two 16 min. Color
1981 Piku 26 min. Color
1981 Sadgati (The Deliverance)




Last Updated ( Wednesday, 21 November 2007 )