Earlier this year, I had the honor of writing the program notes for Sydney Film Festival’s Satyajit Ray retrospective. My task was to watch and write up 10 classic Ray films selected by beloved Australian critic David Stratton for his annual retro program at the festival (and I got to talk to Stratton on the phone too, which was a treat).
This was such a welcome opportunity to catch up on Ray’s filmography. As it happens, believe it or not, I’d never seen any of these films. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that. Someone who went to film school, who’s worked for film festivals, and who’s been published (however sporadically) as a film critic should have probably seen a Ray film or two. But Ray’s films weren’t screened at USC when I was there, and since then they’ve eluded me for one reason or another.
I knew the bullet points: I’ve long been aware of Ray’s reputation as one of the great masters of the form; how he revolutionized both Indian cinema and world cinema; and what a massive influence he’s been on some of my favorite directors, including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and Kelly Reichardt. I always knew I would love his films. I just hadn’t seen any of them yet!
Well, I was right. Not only did I love the films, but they stunned me, moved me deeply, and inspired me. I felt heartbreak and loss, and cried several times. I felt joy and redemption, and cried some more. Each one stayed on my mind for days and weeks, and I found myself obsessing over them — their staggeringly beautiful cinematography and design, their marvellously relatable characters — in a way that’s more akin to how I react to the music I love. As I progressed through the program, I found myself hungry for the next film, and when I reached the end, I was sorry it was over.
It’s hard to imagine 10 films by any other director that would be so rewarding to watch consecutively like that. Ten Scorsese films in a row might just feel like a chore after a while, however much I love his best work. But Ray’s films just made me feel good (however heartbreaking they often are), and I couldn’t get enough of them.
I have some specific ideas about why I think they did all this to me, which I’ll get to shortly. Let me start by saying that I’d hardly ever seen films like these. They didn’t feel like classic films normally do; they didn’t even feel all that dated. They have an aesthetic and even a type of cool that feels very modern and current — maybe in the same way that Joy Division’s music does, despite the fact that it’s over 40 years old and from another century. Not just timelessness, but currency, relevance, immediacy.
Ray’s dialogue has a naturalistic flow, a knowing irony, and a sardonic zing that are very 21st century. His characters are so relatable; I felt far more in common with Apu, the unemployed writer and restless slacker from The World of Apu, than I usually do with characters in films from the 1950s. The sensitive hipsters and troubled losers in films like The Hero and Company Limited are clearly the ancestors of Wes Anderson’s protagonists. Ray was far ahead of his time in depicting strong, complex women characters.
These films felt new, fresh, alive and breathing, with a lot to say about the world we live in, and a lot to say about my own life.
In a way, it’s good I waited so long. I’m certain I appreciated Ray’s films now far more than I would have as a callow youth in film school. Being older and having more life experience, having a family now, and being more politically developed, I was able to appreciate the themes and subtexts in a way I couldn’t have even in my thirties.
I’ve also grown very fond of slower, quieter cinema in the last decade or so — Reichardt has become my favorite living director in that time for this very reason. Ray is more or less the one who introduced that slow, observational style to the cinema. It’s like it was meant to be for these films to come into my life now.
In his 2001 retrospective review of Ray’s seminal Apu Trilogy, which was part of the SFF program, Roger Ebert wrote that “it is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.” I feel the same is true of almost all the films in the program.
It may seem a bit bland to say “this is what the cinema can be” — I guess you could say that about any film you loved. But I know exactly what he means in this case.
Spend enough time at film festivals or in arthouses and you’ll see millions of films that all do the same thing. Static shots of characters just sitting there looking pensive. Quirkiness as a substitute for ideas or drama. The camera tracking behind someone as we look at a closeup of the back of their neck (my friend Ian Barr once wrote that this particular shot, which has been endemic in cinema for the past 15 years or so, and which we can blame the Dardenne brothers for, is like the arthouse version of a slo-mo stroll away from a burning building).
Some films that do these things might even be worthwhile or enjoyable or genuinely good. I love all kinds of film and I’m not that hard to please.
But only occasionally do you see a film that, like Ebert says, does all the things that cinema can and should do. That makes you feel more alive, that makes you feel joy and connection to other human beings.
Ray’s films typically feature such simple and beautiful depictions of ordinary people’s lives, and such straightforward narratives, that it would be suitable to show them as educational material for kids. Yet at the same time, they are so subtle and profound in their layered themes and in their cinematic power that you’re not quite sure how they captured this magic on film. They feel at once so naturalistic and so artfully composed. The stories often start out with an easy, languid pace, as if the characters are just hanging out and you’re hanging out with them, and then build slowly and inexorably toward one wrenching moment of tragedy or redemption.
The feeling I’m talking about is, again, more like music than cinema (that’s fitting in this case, since Ray was a musician himself and composed many of the beautiful scores for his films). Other films have a certain structure and a bunch of things going on in them, much of which you can predict, and you might like a lot of it, or not. Ray’s films have a kind of perfection, so that it feels like every word and every image is building towards something. Not perfect in a stiff way, like Wes Anderson’s films can be (to pick on a noteworthy Ray devotee); instead it feels organic and real and like something that is happening to you.
Only a few filmmakers have ever had this effect on me — Reichardt (of course), Jafar Panahi, Richard Linklater, and the Dardenne brothers (speaking of the devils) are a few contemporary ones that jump to mind, and that might be the long list. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Love did this to me, as did Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless when I was a kid in film school. I either know or I strongly suspect Ray was a huge influence on each of them.
Satyajit Ray had no experience as a filmmaker when he started production on Pather Panchali in 1952. Neither did his cinematographer, Subatra Mitra, a still photographer; nor did most of his actors have any screen experience. This rawness and naivete may be why it still feels so real and so different 67 years later.
Ray, who was born and raised in Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), worked as a designer in publishing as a young man. On a visit to London for work, Ray saw Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic of Italian neorealism, often cited as one of the greatest films of all time. He instantly decided that cinema was his path. He chose a popular novel by Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay as material for his first film (there was no screenplay, only Ray’s storyboards and notes), and set about making it with dogged determination through various logistical challenges, setbacks and financial delays over three years.
Pather Panchali stunned critics upon its release in 1955, won a heap of awards, and vaulted Ray and post-independence Indian cinema onto the world stage. It absolutely deserves its reputation as a canonical classic. It’s an astounding debut. It also introduced many of the themes and stylistic traits that would endure throughout Ray’s career.
Ray may have been decisively influenced by European arthouse cinema, but he transformed that influence into something very Indian and specifically very Bengali. A coming-of-age tale set in a rural village in what is now West Bengal in the 1910s — its title translates to Song of the Little Road — it’s a beautiful tribute to life in the Bengali countryside. But it’s also very much about poverty, and layered with poignant overarching themes concerning the industrialization of India in that era. So there’s an important social dimension to the story, more subtle than it would be in Ray’s later films.
Pather Panchali really takes its time. In the first hour, the most conflict there is concerns some stolen fruit. The languid rhythms of daily life in the village take over the viewer, as meals are cooked, floors are swept, and children doted on or scolded. It’s both relatively uneventful and fascinating; it almost feels like watching a documentary about Bengali peasant life. Ray intended this, in casting people from the area, his choice of locations, and approaching the story in a neorealist style. From a distance of 67 years, it occurs to me that in 1955, life in such villages probably wasn’t a whole lot different than it was in 1910, so that realism, that documentary quality, is perhaps even more significant now.
Reportedly when he saw the film, French New Wave giant François Truffaut said, “I don’t want to see a movie about peasants eating with their hands.” It’s a jerky sentiment, and really baffling considering not only how truly interesting but also how beautifully human it is to observe all the details of these characters’ lives.
The first thing that hit me about Pather Panchali was the way cinematographer Mitra captures the leaves in the forest outside the village, as the young girl character, Durga (Runki Banerjee) runs around at play. The background of shifting, swaying leaves, filtering sunlight through them like an aura around the girl, are rendered so stunning in black-and-white. It’s hypnotic, surreal, even psychedelic; for a moment it’s like an experimental film by Stan Brakhage. It appears that Durga is running through some heavenly realm — an effect greatly enhanced by the young Ravi Shankar’s achingly beautiful score.
It’s this dreamlike, hypnotic quality that elevates Pather Panchali beyond neorealism. In another scene towards the end of the film, the camera simply gazes at insects skittering across the surface of a pond for several minutes. There’s nothing about the bugs that connects to the drama; it’s just a visual interlude that places the viewer in the timeless time of the country.
In one of the most famous and beloved scenes in the film, a teenaged Durga (now played Uma Dasgupta) and her little brother Apu (Apurba Roy) run through long grass in the country and stumble upon some powerlines, and then see a train in the distance. Everything about the scene and the way it’s shot is poetry — the silvery fronds of grass, vegetation once again rendered ethereal or dreamlike. The spellbinding deep-focus shot of the train on the horizon (a signature shot that Mitra returns to in several of these films, sometimes with animals like horses or elephants). The way the powerlines and the train tracks seem to slash into the countryside, bringing a new world with them. The joy and fascination of the children. You really get a sense of how new technology must have seemed so otherworldly, like UFOs, to country people east and west at the turn of the century as the world was rapidly modernizing.
Mitra would go on to be one of Ray’s key collaborators, and without his work it’s hard to imagine Ray’s films being so revolutionary. To me it says everything that both of them were artists in other media with no training in cinema.
Pather Panchali would be a great film even if it was limited to that slow-paced, dreamlike mode, but the really brilliant thing about it is the way Ray ratchets up the drama so gradually you don’t notice it happening at first, until it becomes a story about life and death.
It’s those shifting, contradictory qualities — neorealism giving way to hypnagogic experimentation and then to family melodrama, and each mode enhancing the other — that makes it something special to this day.
The conflict in the story springs from poverty. It’s a dire lack of money and resources that animates the tension between Apu’s parents, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) and Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), and leads to tragedy. Harihar is an aspiring playwright who works part-time as a humble village priest, and is philosophical about the family’s lack of income, believing that faith and his passion for his writing will carry them through. He’s irresponsible and detached in a way that rings true of fathers everywhere. Sarbajaya is the materialist, the one who can clearly see that the family is sinking into a hopeless situation, and she grows increasingly frustrated at her husband’s slackness.
All of this is so modern and relatable, despite the setting in what seems a distant past, with its rigid caste and gender roles. More significantly, it established Ray’s tendency of featuring strong women characters. Karuna Banerjee is so good as Subajaya, with her love for her children radiating through a mask of constant frustration and fear. Here, and in many other films, Ray was unafraid to counter traditionalist narratives and show women as being unhappy in their domestic settings — burdened with an unfair share of work, always exhausted, unable to smile. That’s not something you would have seen on the big screen very often anywhere, east or west, in 1955; and it would still be considered edgy to this day.
Ray’s neorealism isn’t as foregrounded in the rest of the program as it is in the Apu Trilogy. The other films have more structure, more plot, and actual screenplays; and often delve into surrealism, slapstick and other more formalist modes. However the neorealism lingers on and colors nearly all of the films; and no wonder. It really suits Ray’s running themes of family, work, class and social change. Aside from that it’s so engaging and emotionally affecting.
In general it’s striking how different most of these films are, while still feeling very cohesive as a body of work. Ray was clearly comfortable working in many genres and had many literary and cinematic influences. There are historical dramas and contemporary comedies and swooning romances; they range in tone from melodrama to psychological drama to social satire.
The second film I watched in the program, The Goddess (Devi), from 1960, is a prime example of this contrast: it’s hard to imagine a film that could be more different from Pather Panchali while still occupying the same milieu. Considered Ray’s first overtly political film, it’s set in late-19th century Bengal and tells the story of Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas), a devoutly religious landowner who has a dream that his beloved teenaged daughter-in-law Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) is an incarnation of the goddess Kali. This leads to some very disturbing developments. Under Kalinkinkar’s direction, Doya is installed as a living icon in the local temple. She is forced to sit for hours at a time while being gazed upon and worshipped by the men of the household and the village, who follow the lead of their pious landlord with his fervent, increasingly delirious belief in the girl’s holiness.
These scenes are intense and unforgettable. Straining under the weight of the floral garlands she’s made to wear, swooning from the psychic and emotional burden of all the attention, if not also from hunger and thirst, Doya seems to be in a trancelike state, tears streaming from her eyes. Of course this is interpreted as proof of her divinity. The contrast between the mystical power ascribed to her by the loving faithful and the misery of her fate as a captive of these rites is a potent metaphor for the oppression of women in general. As this Criterion essay by Devika Girish says, “Devi dramatizes the ways in which the symbolic deification of women comes at the cost of their material agency.”
Tagore is remarkable as Doyamoyee. She was a teenager herself — unbelievably only fourteen — when the film was made. It was her first starring role — her screen debut came the year before, with her stellar turn as the tragic young bride in The World of Apu. It doesn’t surprise me that according to Tagore herself, though she regards this as her greatest role, the physical and mental stress of filming these scenes was for her a real-life reflection of Doya’s suffering in the story.
Soon it’s apparent that all this is taking a severe toll on the girl, as she becomes lost in confusion about her own identity — especially after she’s led to believe that she has miraculously healed a young boy from a fatal illness. In desperation, Doya’s skeptical sister-in-law (Karuna Chatterjee) sends word to Doya’s husband Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), a reformist and rationalist who has been studying English at university in Kolkata. He rushes home, only to be horrified by his wife’s transformation and her fractured personality. Soon he’s locked in conflict with his superstitious father in order to save his young wife’s sanity and their marriage. But it’s to no avail. The stunning final shot of the film shows a shattered Doya, unable to be either a goddess or herself anymore, wandering off alone into a smoke-enshrouded field.
The complex, unsettling mood created by all this is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a film. It’s part tragedy, part fable, with subtle notes of horror, especially thanks to Mitra’s stark expressionist cinematography and Ali Akbar Khan’s haunting score. Shadows envelop the mansion, as Doya becomes a holy prisoner in her own home; faces are often lit in chiaroscuro or obscured by smoke. The fateful dream sequence is outright surreal in showing the visage of the goddess laid over Doya’s own face. The opening credits, which establish the uncanny atmosphere, are likewise surreal in tone, showing a marble statue of Kali appearing to come to life when its features are suddenly painted in a jump cut.
This may sound strange, but certain elements of The Goddess reminded me of Ari Aster’s Midsommar — especially the young woman chosen against her will as an object of veneration, the constraining weight of the flowers that symbolically hold her down, and the psychological devastation this causes her.
To be clear I’m not trying to equate Hinduism with the death cult in Midsommar. Ray’s take on religion is far more nuanced than the folk horror of Midsommar, as great as that film is.
It’s also important for Western audiences to be aware that whatever horror elements exist in the film don’t have anything to do with the aspect of Kali herself — the blood and gore which may be off-putting to Westerners (and were, of course, exploited for culturally insensitive thrills in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). For many Hindus, Kali is the Divine Mother, the source of all comfort and unconditional love; and her necklace of severed heads is as benign and even comforting as the image of Jesus dying horribly on a wooden torture device is to Christians.
The “horror” in the film isn’t the goddess herself; it has to do with the psychological horror experienced by Doya, and with the violence of her oppression. This excellent commentary from Arshia Dhar, a Kolkata-based journalist who grew up on Ray’s films, affirms these impressions in her use of descriptions like “ghoulish,” “spectre,” “pall of white,” and “horrors of womanhood,” all in making a forceful point about the film’s critique of misogyny.
As usual with Ray, alongside his frank commentary on religious fanaticism (and class too: note that it’s the upper-class landowner who’s responsible for these ghastly events), there’s sensitivity for ordinary people of faith. At one point the film pauses for a villager’s chant of devotion to Kali, and it’s lovely in an uncomplicated way.
But at the same time, watching this naive girl crushed under the weight of blind faith and male familial authority, reduced to literally an object of spiritual desire by the men of her community, is undeniably creepy. Ray and Mitra bring out that creepiness in their filmmaking choices.
The Goddess was very controversial in India when it was released; questioning the religious and patriarchal order was too much for some critics and pundits who may have been charmed by the pastoralism of Pather Panchali. Of course many of these issues are still unresolved in India today, with Hindu extremism rampant under the reactionary prime minister Narendra Modi. So the conflict between religion and reform depicted in this 60-year-old film set in the 19th century is still very relevant.
The politics of Ray’s films is a complex issue, and a full analysis is beyond the scope of this article. For at least 60 years, critics and commentators have been debating whether Ray’s films were political — whether he was genuinely concerned with workers and the poor, or merely a bourgeois aesthete who sold poverty porn to the world. (This essay by Salil Tripathi provides a pretty good overview of this debate.)
As I’ve confessed, I’m a recent convert to Ray, so I’ll need more time to read up and think about it, and by no means do you need to listen to me. But based on my survey of these 10 films, I would fall into the former camp and argue that Ray’s films reveal a genuinely social outlook, and are grounded in a solid understanding of class society, gender oppression, colonialism, and capitalism.
It may be that for some critics, Ray was not polemical enough for them. That doesn’t bother me at all in these films. In my essay about Don’t Look Up, I argued in favor of political heavy-handedness, but I enjoy Ray’s subtle and nuanced approach too. Typical is Aparajito (1956), the sequel to Pather Panchali, which focuses on the ups and downs in the lives of one boy and his family, but by doing so illustrates the massive social upheaval taking place in early-20th century India. Apu (affectingly played as a teen by Smaran Ghosal) has grown to become a bookish young man, determined to learn as much about science as he can and see as much of the world as possible. Eventually he leaves his mother (Karuna Bannerjee again, in an even better performance than in the first entry) to attend university in Kolkata. His academic ambitions and rationalism are painted in contrast to the rural village life and poverty he grew up in, and, more uncomfortably, to traditional expectations of family duty. For Apu to choose university (and, by extension, the modern world) over his mother upset some audiences in India in 1956 when the film was released.
So there’s nothing overtly political here — except the impression that everything we do and every choice we make in this world is political.
Sometimes there are little clues about more specific political contexts. At the start of the final film in the trilogy, The World of Apu (1959), Apu visits the university office, and outside we hear student independence protesters chanting, “Long live the revolution!”
Ray’s films are only subtle up to a point; several of the films here make politics quite overt. In a lengthy flashback in the outstanding The Hero (Nayak) (1966), the matinee idol played by Uttam Kumar (himself a real matinee idol, playfully satirizing himself) confesses his guilt over alienating his best friend, a left-wing labor activist, because he wouldn’t speak out for striking workers and endanger his star status.
In 1971’s Company Limited, Ray skewers corporate culture and the corruption of the middle classes of Kolkata, all against the backdrop of the real-life Naxalite uprising, a Maoist terrorist insurgency that shook West Bengal for years in the early 70s. Critics might argue that by focusing the story on a corporate middle manager (the charismatic Barun Chanda, coming across like a Bengali Jeff Goldblum) and his unresolved feelings for his wife’s sister (Sharmila Tagore, in another scintillating performance), Ray is ignoring the struggles of the masses. But I think it’s brilliant in the unsparing way it dissects the foibles of the middle class, with their inane conversations, their repugnant political apathy, and their anxious social climbing — with the sound of bombs going off periodically in the background to remind us of how fragile the social order really is. (Apparently the violence in the city was so pervasive in that era that it interrupted production on the film at times, which only adds to the tense atmosphere of the film.) I especially love how the razor-sharp editing (by longtime Ray editor Dulal Dutta) brings out these themes; and how Ray, the former designer, focuses on corporate and industrial design (such as ads on billboards, or the ceiling fans that are central to the plot) in his visual scheme. Meanwhile, because Ray is so generous even with characters he clearly disapproves of, the fraught romantic tension between Chanda and Tagore is as compelling and heartrending as an Edith Wharton novel.
The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khilari), from 1977, Ray’s only Hindi-language feature as well as his biggest-budgeted and most commercially successful one at home in India, is set in the North Indian state of Oudh in the period just before the Rebellion of 1857. Like Company Limited, it’s a withering satire of the privileged classes, in this case the nawabs — wealthy landowners who, in their shortsightedness and greed, bear a great deal of responsibility for the British takeover of the country. Bollywood stars Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey play two comically lazy, entitled and clueless landlords who care only about playing chess, while their marriages crumble and the British army schemes to take over their province in the name of the ur-capitalist British East India Company.
Much of the film is taken up with the pair’s bumbling slapstick, as they go to increasingly comical lengths to keep their game going; but the social commentary is only thinly concealed by comedy. At the end of the film, the two landlords witness the arrival of the British army in the province — in a wrenching sequence worthy of David Lean — and realize how foolish and neglectful they’ve been in allowing this outrage to happen under their noses.
It’s probably not a coincidence that The Chess Players was my least favorite film in this program. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it and find it brilliant. It’s a wonderful film, especially for its gorgeous production design and its epic feel. It’s just that it doesn’t have quite that same transcendent quality as the other nine titles, and I think this is probably because Ray was outside his wheelhouse.
Possibly my favorite out of all the films in the program was The Big City. I can’t remember the last time a film touched me so deeply (the only competition would be other films in this program!). It’s such a perfect example of Ray’s ability to combine the simple and the sublime, the personal and the social.
Released in 1963, The Big City is the story of a working-class family in contemporary Kolkata who struggle to make ends meet — and it’s about so much more than that. Madhabi Mukherjee (who is also so radiant in Charulata) stars as Arati, a young housewife and mother who enters the workforce for the first time in order to make ends meet. Her well-meaning but sometimes insensitive husband Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), a bank clerk, is the one who prods her into applying for a job. Soon enough though, his ego is bruised the more he ruminates on his perceived inability to provide for his family. Subrata’s traditionalist parents, who live with them, are outright against it, aghast at this upheaval in the social order. Subrata’s father punishes his son by refusing to talk to him, making things very uncomfortable in their cramped apartment. Thus the clash of the traditional and the modern in post-independence India plays out in microcosm in this humble home.
Mukherjee’s portrayal of Arati’s transformation is pitch perfect — at first so endearingly nervous and painfully shy about venturing out of the house and doing all the unfamiliar things required of her in her new job as a salesperson, then discovering that she loves her newfound autonomy, and her camaraderie with her fellow workers. In one memorable scene, quietly fierce pride and almost sensuous joy shows on her face when, for the first time in her life, she holds a bundle of cash that she made herself. It’s like she’s discovering the building blocks of feminism all by herself. It’s sublime in the way it balances materialism and liberation.
Arati also quickly learns the hard way about the exploitation of workers — especially women workers — and the necessity of worker solidarity. This focus on labor struggles evolves out of the family drama, and in the final act of the film becomes its main focus — typical of Ray to integrate those two things so organically. There’s so much clarity here about how wage labor and social-reproductive labor are intimately bound under capitalism that it’s practically Marxist.
The labor dispute that provides the final act with its conflict centers around a supporting character I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: Arati’s co-worker Edith, played by Vicky Redwood. Edith is a working-class Anglo-Indian, meaning that she’s British in terms of identity and culture, but grew up in Kolkata, is fluent in Bengali and Hindi, and speaks English with an Indian accent. After Indian independence in 1947, for a time there remained a small community of mixed-race, Christian, Anglo-identifying people — the “illegitimate” descendants of white British military officers and officials who were left behind when the colonial ruling class departed the country. They were literally caught between worlds — unable to migrate “home” to Britain, where many of them had never been and where they wouldn’t have been welcome anyway; but never quite fitting into Indian society either. Some retained their upper- and middle-class trappings, but more were left to fend for themselves as workers.
I tried looking up Redwood to see what other films she may have been in, and I couldn’t find any. My guess is that Ray cast a nonprofessional in the role of someone very much like herself: a young, working-class Anglo-Indian woman from early-60s Kolkata. So everything about Edith, from her striking accent to her 60s working-girl fashions and makeup to the cluttered apartment she lives in with her mother was probably quite real. Like many other people and things in this film, and in all of his films, Edith’s character is an example of Ray’s neorealist instincts making the film an important document of a time and a place.
Arati grows to value her friendship with Edith in particular out of all her new coworkers. It’s Edith who encourages her to be more independent and assertive and to speak up for herself. In one memorable and touching scene, Edith teaches Arati how to put on lipstick. So Edith is very central to Arati’s newfound self-esteem, and to the film’s feminist themes.
Edith and Arati’s domineering boss, Himangshu (Haradhan Bannerjee), seems to regard Edith as a party girl with loose morals compared to the Indian women in his employ; and confides to Subrata in a sexist, sneering way, “Our ex-rulers left behind quite a clan!” He tries to use this discrimination to his advantage, firing Edith to cut his payroll and assuming the Indian women will get in line. But Arati is more loyal to Edith than to her boss; and she overcomes her extreme shyness and culturally imposed modesty to take a stand for her by threatening to quit the firm herself. Even more significantly she takes beginning steps to organize the other workers and demand a higher commission for them.
These developments are so simple and straightforward they could be the plot of a sitcom episode, but Ray succeeds in showing us how much is at stake for Arati, and how heroic it is for her to rise up against the capitalist and patriarchal structures arrayed against her.
As with many of his other films, Ray creates sympathy in us for almost every character — even Subrata’s resentful and misguided father (Haren Chatterjee), a retired teacher whose poverty and dependence on his son has gnawed at his own self-esteem. Every character’s struggle, all their disappointment and heartbreak adds to the tapestry of the story — even though many of those strands are in opposition to each other. Ray’s easy naturalism makes all this such a pleasure to watch. Again, we’re privy to meals being prepared, or kids put to bed, or long conversations that play out like real ones.
In a lesser film — I’m thinking of a thousand Western romantic comedies that tackle women in the workforce — Arati would learn some kind of facile lesson about how to balance family and independence. Here it’s much more nuanced and lifelike and open-ended. Even better, if she does learn a lesson, it has to do with the collective, not just the family or the individual.
At the end, there’s a climactic moment of decision, as things get much clearer but also much harder for Arati and Subrata. “You stood up to injustice. Is that wrong? I never could have done what you did,” he tells her. “Earning our daily bread has made us cowards.” Then they step outside and they’re framed by the vast urban landscape of Kolkata, as if to underscore that their struggle is everyone’s struggle, and vice versa. This scene filled me with a feeling I can hardly describe, a kind of profound, melancholy joy and a feeling of connectedness with humans everywhere — and, specifically, working humans. It made me want to be a better husband and a better socialist and a better person. What kind of film does that to you?
When I talked to him, David Stratton said, “Ray is one of the great humanist filmmakers.” I think this unusually profound feeling of connectedness that Ray’s films create in the viewer is exactly what he means. Roger Ebert addressed this humanism in his 1968 review of The Big City:
I have so much trouble approaching Ray’s films as “foreign.” They are not foreign. They are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but Ray’s characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood. Ray’s people have genuine emotions and ambitions, like the people next door and the people in Peoria and the people in Kansas City. There is not a person reading this review who would not identify immediately and deeply with the characters in The Big City.
It’s important to point out that this relatability isn’t because of some generic quality in Ray’s films. No, they are beautifully specific. There is glowing pride in Bengali culture, and more broadly Indian culture, to be found in these films. The language, the food (so much focus on mealtimes in all the films!), the literature (most of the screenplays are based on Bengali novels; and literature is key to the plot of Charulata), the theatrical traditions (I’m thinking of the haunting scene featuring a travelling troupe of performers in Pather Panchali), and especially the music (the beautiful scores by Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Ray himself; as well as the splendid music and dance that’s central to The Music Room). There’s even a self-reflexive celebration of Bengali cinema in The Hero.
I think it’s paradoxically because Ray is so particular in documenting and celebrating Bengali culture that his films take on that universal quality. This is the difference between the fallacy of hoping for a homogenous “postracial” society, and upholding multiculturalism, which is truly the way to see that we are all the same. Perhaps the viewer has never been to India, never cooked a meal while squatting on the kitchen floor, never eaten rice and dal with their hands, or attended a Hindu wedding.
But the viewer has had an argument with a family member, has struggled to find work, has worried about money, fallen in love, experienced the death of a loved one. Thanks to his naturalism, his meticulous attention to detail, and the shimmering intelligence of his screenwriting, Ray’s characters go through all these things in ways that are recognizably us. This is what allows these films, more than most, to shatter time, distance and cultural barriers. At the same time those universal qualities give us an appreciation for Bengali culture while avoiding the trap of Orientalism.
I suspect the order in which I watched this program had something to do with how it impacted me. The films screened chronologically at SFF (spanning 1955’s Pather Panchali and 1977’s The Chess Players); but for logistical reasons I had to watch them somewhat out of order when preparing the program. I did watch Pather Panchali first, then I watched most of the rest of the program before finishing the Apu Trilogy and concluding with Charulata (1964). Watching the devastating The World of Apu followed by Charulata, considered by many to be Ray’s masterpiece, was such a powerful and emotional way to end the program; it was like the entire thing was building up to that one-two punch.
Stratton told me Charulata is his favorite film of all time, and I can see why. He mentioned the exquisite opening scene, in which the protagonist Charu spies on her husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) and some street vendors from the second floor of their house, following their movements with opera glasses. There’s pure delight in motion and in editing in this scene — I especially love the optical effect of the railing, blurring as the camera follows Charu running along it to get to the opposite side of the house. Like the insects in Pather Panchali, the railing is there simply as a visual treat — just because it looks cool. Ray and Mitra in absolute control of their craft, and a masterclass in what separates film from all other mediums. With hardly a word of dialogue, the scene establishes all we need to know about Charu’s character — her Victorian middle-class confinement, her boredom, her yearning intelligence and curiosity about the world.
I’m not going to review Charulata in detail, or this essay would become much longer. There’s more going on in this film than in a dozen lesser ones (despite how accessible it is); if you’ve never seen it, I’ll let you experience its many joys for the first time. There’s the transcendence of the scene pictured above, in which Charu delicately flirts with her husband’s cousin Amal (another amazing performance by Soumitra Chatterjee) while playing on a swing (combining that same euphoric emphasis on motion with the ethereal sylvan quality of the shifting shadows cast by the leaves). There’s the heartrending moment towards the end of the film when she tenderly expresses her pride in Bhupati while they relax on a beach, as if the ocean air has momentarily lifted the burden of her hidden passion for Amal. I haven’t been able to get the gentle, aching perfection of that scene out of my head. Again, less like something I passively saw in a movie and more like something I experienced along with the characters.