Madras Blog

Written by 10:38 AM Film

A Ray of light in a bleak cinematic landscape

Satyajit Ray, the colossus who strode the Indian cinema landscape is still remembered and revered f…

The production cost of PS1 (Ponniyin Selvan – part 1) was around US$ 60 million – source, the vast internet.

The director of this movie, Mani Ratnam, was not likely constrained by budgets. I suppose he could hire the best top-tier talent available. Not just actors but the best technicians as well. The sets are lavish, bordering on garishness, and the entire production smacks of a fairy-tale setting. Which probably was the central idea of this film.

To each his own, I guess. I prefer realism in my movies.

And there are movies made with shoestring budgets.

The tale of another production

This production dragged on for years due to the lack of funding, which caused frequent setbacks. The director could not raise any money from film producers, so he couldn’t hire the best available talent. Most crew members lacked experience and worked on an unpaid basis. Ravi Shankar, not yet the legendary sitar player, composed the score.

Battling all these constraints, the final product, however, manages to convey a very pure, personal story partly because of everyone involved’s relative innocence. It was later called “one of the greatest pictures ever made” by Philip French, a film critic for The Observer.

The film was Pather Panchali (Song of the Open Road), in which a family in a small village in the Indian state of Bengal endures abject poverty.

The director?

Satyajit Ray.

Pather Panchali – 1955

His birth

Satyajit Ray was born May 2, 1921, in Calcutta [now Kolkata], India, and died April 23, 1992, in Calcutta

His early days

Ray’s father passed away when he was young, so he was raised by his mother. Both his grandfather and father were authors and artists. He attended a public school where he learned Bengali. He then transferred to Presidency College, the best university in Calcutta, where he was instructed in English. As a result, he could graduate from high school in 1940, having achieved native proficiency in both languages.

At Santiniketan

In 1940, his mother encouraged him to enroll in art classes at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan University, located north of Calcutta. At Santiniketan, Ray, whose previous life experiences had been limited to the urban and Western spheres, was exposed to Indian and other Eastern art and developed a deeper appreciation for both Eastern and Western culture.

His first job

Back in Calcutta in 1943, Ray worked as a commercial illustrator for a publishing house. He also worked as an art director for a British-owned advertising agency, eventually rising to prominence as a typographer and book-jacket designer.


Pather Panchali, a novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Banarjee, was one of the books he illustrated in 1944. This book first sparked his interest in the novel’s potential as a film.

Ray’s lifelong love of movies led him to try his hand at screenwriting and, in 1947, to help establish the Calcutta Film Society. In 1949, while French director Jean Renoir was in Bengal to film The River, he inspired Ray to pursue a career in film.

The bleak story, low production style, and shooting with non-professional actors, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) inspired Ray to film Pather Panchali.

Ray’s primary creative influence was Rabindranath Tagore, whose works inspired some of Ray’s finest films. Ray’s most accomplished film is probably Charulata(1964; The Lonely Wife), a tragic love triangle set in a privileged, Westernized Bengali family in 1879. Ghare Baire (1984; The Home and the World) is a sad study of Bengal’s first revolutionary movement. Set in 1907-08 during the period of British rule, Teen Kanya (1961); “Three Daughters,” English-language title, is a varied trilogy of short films about women.

Some international accolades

Martin Scorsese described his work, and I paraphrase, ‘treasures of cinema that should be watched by “everyone with interest in films.”

The Japanese master Akira Kurosawa went further: “Not to have seen his movies means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

His movies are still relevant to this day and are still being screened at festivals. Ray retrospectives are still being screened across the world.

A fair conclusion?

Will a Bahubali or a PS1 survive the passage of time? With folded hands and bended knees (gross exaggeration), my answer is no.

And I say this with all the humility that I can muster.

Ray’s techniques that appeal to me

  • Real life characters that you can relate to
  • His frame has no unnecessary clutter and is steady
  • No exaggerated moves or histrionics by any of his cast
  • Screenplay based on good, grounded stories
  • The ability to capture the essence of the story and present it in the right perspective
  • His ability to leave the viewer with a creative space within his movies
  • Silence when required, music only when required

Two of my favorite Ray films

It isn’t easy to pick my favorites, like asking a parent who is their favorite child.

My first Ray film was Jalsaghar (The Music Room), one of Ray’s finest films. The protagonist of Jalsaghar is Biswambhar, a feudal lord. He self-destructs himself by staging musical performances spending his limited money, to best the oafish young son of a moneylender.

The film investigates the idea that the period just before a system fails is prime time for creative peak performance. Biswambhar is stuck in his ways and will eventually be undone by his stubbornness. Jalsaghar was adapted from a short story by Bengali author Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay.

Although Jalsaghar was met with lukewarm reviews upon its initial release in India, it won the Presidential Award for best film in India. It was instrumental in establishing Ray’s reputation as a director beyond India. As time has passed, it has been widely hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made and is now considered a cinematic classic.

The movie shows a Calcutta resident Anila Bose receives a letter from someone posing as her missing uncle, Manmohan Mitra. The latter decides to return to India to spend time with his only living relative, Anila, after living abroad for 35 years. While Anila anticipates it with excitement, Sudhindra, Anila’s husband, has doubts. Their son, Satyaki, quickly becomes friends with him after introducing himself as an anthropologist who has visited every continent.

When Anila mentions her grandfather’s will, Sudhindra immediately suspects that he has come to collect his share of the inheritance. While their son is convinced that he is who he says he is, Anila begins to have doubts about his identity.

The film’s central conflict revolves around the family’s efforts to learn the man’s true identity. Sudhindra puts the guest through a battery of tests, including a review of his identification documents. However, the visitor’s mind-reading skills cause embarrassment for both Sudhindra and his friend Rakshit. In a last-ditch effort to get to the bottom of things, Sudhindra has a lawyer friend interrogate the visitor. The lawyer makes no headway, and the lawyer’s temper flares up, and he tells the visitor to “either come clean or just clear out.”

The guest leaves the following morning. The family begins searching for him and tries to win him back, and now they know he has visited the executor of the will.

Later they find out that Manmohan has left them his inheritance after he moves to Australia.

Utpal Dutt plays the part of Manmohan Mitra brilliantly, and so too do the rest of the cast.

The Ray movies that I have experienced are:
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) (1955) 115min B/W
Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956) 113 min B/W
Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) (1957) 111 min B/W
Jalsaghar (The Music Room) (1958) 100 min B/W
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959) 106 min B/W
Devi (The Goddess) (1960), 93 min B/W
Mahanagar (The Big City) (1963) 131 min B/W
Charulata (The Lonely Wife) (1964) 117 min B/W
Kapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Crowd and the Holy Man) (1965) (Two-part film – The Crowd and The Holy Man, running at 74 min and 65 min respectively, B/W)
Nayak (The Hero) (1966) 120 min B/W
Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) (1978) 112 min Colour
Ganashatru (Enemy of the People) (1989) 100 min Colour
Agantuk (The Stranger) (1991) 120 min color

For me, the benchmark of any movie I watch is a Ray movie, and only a few measure up to his creations.

The end

Kolkata, came to a complete halt after Ray’s death in 1992. At 6 feet and 3 inches tall, his man was justly hailed as one of the city’s most towering creatives. But he was more than just a Bengali director or even an Indian director; he was one of the most influential people in the postwar cinema.

He still towers over any present, past, or, I daresay, maybe even future filmmakers. (gross exaggeration, one last time)

Cited Sources

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