Satyajit Ray: Centenary of the Pioneering, Influential Indian Filmmaker

Satyajit Ray, a pioneering director (May 2, 1921–April 23, 1992) was an Indian filmmaker who worked prominently in Bengali cinema and is regarded by many historians as one of the greatest directors of world cinema.

A portrait of Satyajit Ray wearing a white Kurta and right-hand kept on his chin

A portrait of Satyajit Ray

Born in Calcutta to a literary Bengali family, he began his career as a visualizer. His grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, was a writer and publisher who set up the U. Ray and Sons printing company. Satyajit’s father, Sukumar Ray, was an illustrator, critic and poet who died when Satyajit was only three. Ray studied economics and the arts in college and worked for years as a book cover designer and illustrator. One of his projects was a children’s edition of the classic Bengali novel Pather Panchali, a book he hoped one day to bring to the screen.

His meeting with French film director Jean Renoir, who had come to Calcutta in 1949 to shoot his film The River (released in 1951), was crucial; Ray helped him to find locations.

During a six-month work assignment in London, Ray saw De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), another influence on his filmmaking style. In a review of that and other Italian films he had seen in London, he wrote, “For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of the theme and the dishonesty of treatment.”

Ray made his directorial debut on a high note in 1955 with the stunning feature, Pather Panchali

In a career spanning nearly four decades, he directed 36 films, comprising 29 features, five documentaries, and two short films.

His Apu Trilogy (1955–1959) appeared in Time’s All-Time 100 Movies in 2005.

Although Ray’s work received critical acclaim, often more so abroad than in his own region, his film Pather Panchali and Ashani Sanket (1973) were criticized by some critics for “exporting poverty” and “distorting India’s image abroad.”

Aside from directing, Ray composed music and wrote screenplays for films, both his own and those by other directors.

Often credited as a fiction writer, illustrator, and calligrapher; Ray authored several short stories and novels in Bengali, most of which were aimed at children and adolescents.

Some of his short stories have been adapted into films by other directors, including his only son, Sandip Ray.

Considered a cultural icon in India and acknowledged for his contribution to Indian cinema, Ray has influenced several filmmakers around the world, including Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, François Truffaut, Carlos Saura, George Lucas, Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan.

 

When his country’s screens were dominated by escapist entertainment, Ray was at the vanguard of the Parallel Cinema movement, focusing on realistic films dealing with social issues. Drawing on the influence of Italian neorealism, Ray created a cinema of simple yet sharp and poignant observation. His sense of detail and ability to elicit strong performances from non-professional actors made his films both powerful and influential.

TCM celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 2 with 24 hours of his films.

In 1952, he started shooting Pather Panchali (1955) with his own money, working with an inexperienced crew and mostly amateur actors. It took two-and-a-half years to finish the film as he tried to obtain funding from a variety of sources without losing control of the project. The finished product was a slow-building success in India, winning an audience through word of mouth. It won a special award as Best Human Document at the Cannes Film Festival and was an art-house hit in the U.S. in 1958. By that time, Ray had enjoyed an even bigger international success with the film’s sequel, Aparajito (1956), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He finished what would be called The Apu Trilogy with The World of Apu, released in 1959.

After the trilogy, Ray made several films dealing with female psychology, including Devi (1960), about a young wife whose father-in-law thinks she is a goddess; The Big City (1963), about a wife and mother who defy convention by getting a job; and Ray’s personal favorite, Charulata (1964), about a neglected wife who develops feelings for her husband’s brother.

After that, he started exploring different genres, making children’s films like the musical The Adventures of Goopy and Bangha (1969); the complex Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), which premiered to critical acclaim at the New York Film Festival; and his study of India under British colonial rule, The Chess Players (1977).

While filming The Home and the World (1984), a study of nationalism and the unprecedented politicization of a young wife, Ray suffered a heart attack. He only finished the film with the help of his son, Sandip Ray, who would go on to become a film director in his own right.

Ray only made three other features after that, directing his last film, The Stranger (1991), from an oxygen tent as his health continued to decline. He was able to record his acceptance speech when he was awarded a special Oscar in 1992 but died only 24 days after the ceremony.

TCM presents 14 of Satyajit Ray’s films, starting with The Apu Trilogy Sunday, May 2, and running through the next day.

The lineup includes six network premieres:

Three Daughters: The Postmaster (1961) is the first of three short films adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s stories and deals with the one-sided bond forged between a regional postmaster and the child assigned as his housekeeper. Out of boredom, he teaches her to read and write, never realizing she has fallen in love with him.

Three Daughters: Monihara (1961), translated “The Lost Jewel,” was not included in the original international release of Three Daughters, which was re-titled Two Daughters. It tells of a woman who becomes obsessed with the jewels her husband gives her in an effort to win her love. The film was not included with its companion pieces in the U.S. until preserved by The Academy Film Archive in 1996.

Three Daughters: Samapti (1961) or “The Conclusion” tells of a young man returning home after passing his examinations. His mother has arranged for him to marry a young woman from a respectable family, but instead he chooses a young tomboy, although she may never be able to adjust to married life.

The Holy Man (1965) is officially adapted from a short story by Parashuram, the pen name for Rajshekhar Basu, but bears more than a passing resemblance to Molière’s classic comedy Tartuffe. A widowed lawyer falls under the spell of a preacher who claims to be on a first name basis with Buddha and the Hindu gods and to have witnessed Christ’s crucifixion.

An Enemy of the People (1989) translates Ibsen’s play to contemporary India for the tale of a doctor who loses his reputation when he discovers the waters at a popular tourist attraction are poisoned.

The Stranger won Ray the Indian National Film Awards for Best Picture and Director for his last directorial effort. He adapted his own short story about a family thrown into an uproar when the wife’s long lost uncle visits. Is he truly whom he claims to be or an imposter after the man’s inheritance?

Ray intended to make various other films, including The Alien which inspired Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T.; a documentary on Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar; an adaptation of the ancient Indian epic, the Mahābhārata; and an adaptation of E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel, A Passage to India (made into a major film by David Lean in 1984).

However, none had been started when he died in 1992, at the age of 71.

Ray received numerous awards at international film festivals, including Indian National Film Awards and an honorary Oscar at the 64th Academy Awards in 1992.

Ray was awarded India’s highest award in cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, in 1984 and India’s highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, in 1992.