Festival of Foreign
Born: May 2, 1921, Calcutta, West Bengal, British India
Died: April 23, 1992, Calcutta, West Bengal, India
Education: Presidency College, Calcutta (degree in
economics, 1940), Viswa-Bharati University, Santiniketan (visual arts, left in
Ray is India’s best known filmmaker and one of the great masters of the art of
cinematography. He came from a very influential family, who helped introduce him
mainly to literature, but also to European culture and filmmaking. The director
also traveled extensively in Europe during the 1950’s. When asked about the
strongest influences on his decision to become a filmmaker, Ray mentioned
Bicycle Thief and the works of Jean Renoir, whom he met in India during
Renoir’s filming of The River.
His grandfather and father were both writers and publishers, and one of Ray’s
later works would be based on the characters of Goopy and Bagha, both created by
his grandfather. For two years, he studied in the art school of Rabindranath
Tagore, a family friend. This experience has undeniably been a long-lasting
influence on his career as a filmmaker.
This influence is immediately noticeable in his first feature,
(Song of the Little Road), the first part in the “World Of Apu” trilogy. Based
on the novel by Bhibuti Bashan Bannerjee, it is a moving story set in a small
Bengali village centered around a young boy Apu and his family. The depiction of
life in the village is rich and full of beautiful shots. His family lives in
poverty and Apu and his sister spend most of their days watching trains coming
and going. One day, Apu will leave the small community on one of these trains.
This was also one of the first films to be made in the Bengali language*, and
Ray had many difficulties raising and maintaining funds for continuous shooting.
It took him approximately two years to complete the film.
* Correction: There was already an established film production center in
Tollygunge (a part of Calcutta) producing number of Bengali films every year.
When Satyajit made Pather Panchali he literally showed this already established
film industry of Bengal, how to make realistic films dealing with real life
people. (Thanks to a learned guest for the above correction.)
A year later, the shooting of the second part began.
Unvanquished) follows young Apu and his mother as they leave the village, before
Apu returns to begin his education. Ray used two different boys for the role of
Apu in the film that follows his youth and serves as a link to the third part:
Apu Sansar (The World of Apu). Now a grown-up, Apu accepts an arranged
marriage, only to find that he soon loves his wife. When she dies suddenly
during the birth of their son, Apu refuses to see and accept the boy. This third
part of the trilogy, as compared to the first two, suffers slightly from the
naturalness of the story telling. But that does not stop us from enjoying it,
especially some of the mesmerizing shots, accompanied by Ravi Shankar’s
In between the filming of parts two and three of the trilogy, Ray made the
Jalsaghar (Music Room). It is a story about a music-loving, ageing
aristocrat who decides to spend the remainder of his fortune, already depleted
by his reckless living, on a performance of Indian dance and music at his home.
The music for the film was composed by Ray*, who was also a great music lover
and a trained musician. Later, he would compose the music for many of his
features, most notably for the trilogy about Calcutta.
* Correction: The music for Jalsaghar was composed by Ustaad Vilayat
Khan. The first film with Ray's own music was the Kanchenjungha, shot entirely in
Darjeeling, a hill station in the Himalayas. There onwards he always composed
his own music, never entrusting this to any one else.
(Thanks to a learned guest for the above correction.)
The exploration of the position women in modern society played an important part
in Ray’s overall oeuvre. Each of his next four features played heavily on this
theme. Devi (The Goddess) deals with a religious man trying to persuade his
young daughter-in-law that she is a reincarnation of the goddess Kali, a slow
painful process that results in the heroine’s losing sense of her own
personality. Although this film did not have the same impact as the trilogy
before it, it unquestionably remains a great work by a great artist.
Two Daughters (Teen Kanya) is a film based on two stories by Tagore. The
original title means three daughters, and Ray did shoot three stories, but later
on decided to cut one of them out. The stories focus on three different women in
different situations. The first story is one of a moving friendship that
develops between a postman and an orphan girl in a small Indian village. The
second story depicts about an arranged marriage that results in another arranged
marriage, that ultimately ends in love and the third one, that was eventually
left out, talks about a woman’s obsession with her jeweler.
A year later,
The Big City (Mahanagar) followed. It was one of the
first Ray films to have an entirely urban feeling, presenting a wife and her
struggle for emancipation in a society overridden with banks and modernization,
as she takes up door to door selling in order to support her family.
Charulata (The Lonely Wife) is another film based on a Tagore story about the
neglected wife of a young and aspiring journalist. She tries to find solace and
attention in a relationship with her husband’s cousin, but without much success.
Ray subsequently worked on two interlocking trilogies. The former portrayed
young men’s fight for a decent place in a modern society. The aspirations and
nature of the young people are tested as they struggle to establish themselves
and cope with modern day requirements. The period when the ideas for the films
were developed was one of intense modernization for an Indian society under
heavy English influence, something Ray suggests with his inclusion of the
occasional English phrase. The trilogy starts with
Days and Nights in the
Forest (Ratri) about three young men and their adventures as they try to have a
small holiday in an Indian countryside.
The second part is The Adversary (Siddharta and the City), a deep and moving
story about the difficult situation of a young student after the death of his
father, when he is forced to abandon his studies and look for work in order to
support his family. Ruthless and demanding society takes its toll on the young
The third part is Company Limited (Seemabaddha) about a young and aspiring
sales manager with ambitions of becoming a successful industrialist. In order to
achieve this, he has to make number of compromises that go against his social
and moral upbringing. All of three films are characterized by a form of
storytelling that is very much Ray’s own, interwoven with a feeling of humor and
The second trilogy is dedicated to Calcutta though it differs only slightly from
the previous one. It starts with Adversary, includes Company Limited and
ends with The Middle Man (Jana-Arena), a story about the difficulties of a
young man to find a job in Calcutta. With no other option, he accepts a position
as a middleman, surrounded by corruption, smuggling and prostitution.
A period of intensive and prolonged illness for Ray followed but it see the
production of another two masterpieces of cinematography. An Enemy of the
People (Ganashatru) is a moving story, beautifully filmed, with simple and
convincing acting about a doctor’s fight against bureaucracy in a small town and
his discovery that the water system is contaminated. The film was based on
Henrik Ibsen’s play, and Ray successfully managed to change the setting to
modern India without losing the spirit and the message of the play.
One of his biggest admirers, Gerard Depardieu helped Ray to complete one of his
last features, The Branches of a Tree (Shakha Proshakha), a powerful story
centered around a dying father and his four sons. Three of them are successful
businessmen and the fourth is a former musician, now suffering from a brain
disorder. The seemingly successful and caring children show their true face and
consideration for their father and young, suffering brother when they come to
visit with their families.
Thanks to Filmworld UK for contributing this biography.
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