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Monday, July 21, 2014

Fifteen Essential Satyajit Ray Films

best Satyajit Ray films
It’s a well established fact that Indian taste in cinema is considerably different from Western taste. The different underlying notions of cinema in each of these cultures are the cause of this diversity in taste. But then there is an exceptional talent with a vision and scope so vast that it satisfies the tastes of cinema lovers across the globe. Satyajit Ray is such a talent. His telling of Indian stories makes him a visionary in the truest sense. He has redefined the way Indian aesthetics and narratives can be delineated on the silver screen.
Ray had a firm foundation in Indian Fine Arts, with his formal education from Shantiniketan, West Bengal, and he is an ardent follower of Western art forms. He has imbibed stories and narrative forms from his homeland since childhood but it was his exposure to Western cinema that shaped his technique. What follows is a list ranging from some of his most renowned works to his conveniently overlooked films. Taken together, they define a true auteur.

1. Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) (1955)
In the year of 1955, Satyajit Ray released his first film which went on to become one of the most popular and revered Indian films in the world. Before making this film Ray was working as an art director in a British Advertising Company. He had never thought of making films until he read Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali. But the real inspiration came from the treatment of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, which was shot on location with non-actors playing lead roles.
Pather Panchali showcased Ray’s ability to capture cultural nuances while keeping the drama and narrative intact. His skill as a director is highlighted in scene after scene, capturing the barren beauty of the Indian village, the phenomenon of discovery, haunting revelations about as death, loss, desperation, longing and the intricacies in relationships. While he keeps his visuals natural and true to the setting of the story, some of the scenes are exquisitely shot.
The discovery of Train through white fields of Kaas is one such splendidly shot sequence. For every cinema enthusiast who craves pure drama and humanistic story telling, this masterpiece is a must-see. Pather Panchali will always remain a milestone in Indian cinema.

2. Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956)
After the success of Pather Panchali, Ray decided to take the story of Apu forward. This time it’s a coming of age story involving culture shock. In Aparajito the setting of the story is Varanasi and a village in Bengal, unlike Pather Panchali. This gave Ray a chance to insert his personal sensibilities into Apu’s story. Ray was raised by his mother in Calcutta. Even though it resonates with Ray’s life, the story encompasses final chapters from Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s Pather Panchali.
Aparajito acts more as a link between Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, both of which were better received than this sequel. The film won a Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, even though it was not as successful as its predecessor. Aparajito can be characterised as a tragedy, even though it does not conclude Apu’s story. Some of the scenes, such as death of Apu’s father are haunting and disturbing. This is one of Ray’s most autobiographical films.

3. Parash Patthar (The Philosopher’s Stone) (1958)
The Philosopher's Stone
A working class clerk accidentally finds a stone which can transform anything that it comes into contact with into gold. However fantastical the story may sound for Ray’s filmography, the end product is believable, endearing and genuinely humorous. It may seem unexpected since Ray’s previous film was the sequel to Pather Panchali, Aparajito. However, his ability to swiftly shift from one genre to another, one form to another, is what makes him a true genius.
Parash Pathar can be categorized as a fantasy-comedy, but it is layered with economic predicaments that occur due to premise of the film. The film could be easily seen as a sneak peek into Ray’s sense of humour and his ability to make non-serious films. Even though it is considered only a minor film in Ray’s filmography, it clearly demonstrates the variety of stories in his arsenal.

4. Jalsaghar (The Music Room) (1958)
The Music Room
Indian cinema is known for song and dance numbers, but rather than serving the story, they are known to distract from the flow of story. But here, when Ray handled the music, he created an intense drama layered with classical Indian music, a detailed depiction of indulgent Zameendar’s (Landlords) life, and haunting yet engaging performances by all lead actors. The film is about an aging, decadent Zamindar (Landlord) who is so self-involved and self-indulgent that he is not paying attention to his property which has fed him all his life. He is not bothered about the abolishment of Zamindaari system by the newfound Government of India.
Jalsaghar is the testament of meticulous set design in cinema – designs which were largely done by Ray himself. Each set consists of a character who sets the mood of each scene. The palace used was Roy Choudry’s palace in Nimtita Raajbari. Another spectacularly shot film by Ray’s frequent collaborator, Subrata Mitra. With this film Satyajit Ray proved that he is equally adept at handling all the mainstream elements of cinema such as extravagant characters, music and sets. Nonetheless this film showcases Ray’s ability to create a mood-based story.

5. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959)
The World of Apu
The third and final instalment in Apu trilogy is the new beginning as well as the inevitable end of Apu’s story. After making two films on Apu it was always expected that Ray would finish the story with Apu, completing the circle and coming to a point where Pather Panchali starts, meeting his own child and rediscovering his childhood. This film was released three years after Aparajito. Since then Ray had ventured on to other stories and had gathered fresh ideas for his story telling.
Sharmila Tagore , who plays Apu’s wife, debuted with this film. She went on to become one of Ray’s most frequent collaborators and also one of the most popular actresses in Indain cinema. Another actor who went on to become Ray’s most frequent collaborator was Shoumitra Chatterjee, who plays Apu. With this film Ray got a chance to show a directionless protagonist who represents contemporary youth in India. The final scene shows Apu reuniting with his son and walking away from the camera is an apt climax to this story of loss.

6. Devi (The Goddess) (1960)
There are very few films in India which focus on the hollow rituals that push innocent lives in to misery and depression. Devi is a relevant piece of work even today, after five decades, because of its theme of blind faith and superstitions. It’s a story of a young girl who is married in to a house with strong religious convictions. Her father-in-law is a devoted follower of goddess Kali. While her husband is away at school, one night her father-in-law has a dream of Kali indicating that his daughter-in-law is an Avatar of the goddess. This changes his perception about his daughter-in-law and sets in motion a chain reaction in which other people around start worshiping her.
The film is about the loss of innocence due suffocation. The idea of deification and man’s efforts to create legends is vividly shown through strong characters and honest portrayal of gullibility in Indian society. It also focuses on the notion of male dominance which runs counter to the idea of a deity who is a goddess.

7. Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) (1961)
three daughters
One of the best writer-director collaborations in cinema is Satyajit Ray directing stories of Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first non-European to win a Nobel prize for literature. Teen Kanya is made up of three episodes of a story which have common central characters, which join all three stories.
It won the Presidents Silver Medal for Best Film. Even though the international release had only two episodes namely, The Postmaster and Samapti (The Conclusion), in India it has a third episode called Monihara (The Love Jewel). This is one of the least celebrated films of Ray and tends to need more than one viewing to sink in.

8. Mahanagar (The Big City) (1963)
The Big City
As a director Ray had made films about rural India, cities like Varanasi, Sikkim and Rajasthan. But he had a burning desire to make something that depicts his hometown, Calcutta. Even though the story revolves around a women taking control of her life, it’s the city which compels her to be independent. It is a story about hypocritical patriarchal society and a woman’s struggle to earn herself an independent place in such a society.
It is considered a s one of Ray’s best films, and it is also a film that has so much rebellion and so many new age ideas that made it difficult to be accepted at first. It also has a middle class struggle, the ripples of economic changes on dynamics of the society, and a dilemma of whether women should be allowed independence. With this story Ray portrays the volatile nature of urban life, but leaves us with the hope that prevails in this part of the country.

9. Charulata (The Lonely Wife) (1964)
Charulata_Satyajit Ray_1964
Rays’s personal favourite among all his films, Charulata, is the closest depiction of a women trapped in the hedonistic world of comfort, wealth and luxury. The film depicts the loneliness and suffocation of an Indian woman without taking a feminist stance. Charu, played by poised Madhabi Mukherjee, who is married to a wealthy intellectual, is not challenged or encouraged to explore herself in any way till her brother-in-law shows up. Ray considers this film to be the closest to his vision. The film stars some of the finest Bengali actors and is known for its art direction. Ray designed all the sets himself.
Some of the themes in this film are particularly audacious for the time it was made. The scene depicting Charu’s growing affection for her brother-in-law is delicately superbly directed, and is Ray’s answer to critics who called him diplomatic in his story telling. There are certain shots in the film which are iconic in Indian cinema. One of them is Charu looking through her binoculars as her husband leaves for work. For anyone interested in Indian cinema vocabulary, this film is a guide book. The film received an award at Berlin Film Festival as well as other film festivals across the globe. It is considered a classic in Indian cinema.

10. Nayak (Hero) (1966)
This film is special for various reasons, one being it brought Ray and then superstar Uttam Kumar together for the first time. At the time of its release, Uttam Kumar was the biggest name in mainstream Bengali cinema, whereas Ray was the representative of New Age Indian cinema. But with a character study like Nayak, the thick line dividing conventional and unconventional story telling blended seamlessly. Also, after Charulata, this was Ray’s attempt at a male character study. The majority of the film takes place on a train, and the journey serves as an apt analogy for the change in background in each character’s life.
Even though the film is about a superstar, Arindam Mukherjee played by Mr. Kumar with poise and élan, it travels through various philosophical, political and moral dilemmas and issues of contemporary society. Every memory from Aridam’s past life has conflicting characters, which echo division between idealists and pragmatics. As in many other films, Ray does not shy away from showing the needy and selfish side of each character. A journalist trying to grab a sensational story pokes in the right places and gets what she wants; a businessman trying to get a deal with another traveller pushes his wife to build a rapport. The superstar on the other hand reveals his insecurities to a journalist, and the journey turns in to a metamorphosis, indicating his intention to rediscover himself.

11. Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) (1969)
Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne
Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne is one of the most interesting choices made by Ray – whose filmography contained serious humanistic films up to that point. The film is a fantasy adventure of its titular characters. It is based on a story written by Ray’s grandfather, Upendra Kishor Roychoudhary. With this film Ray, for the first time after Parash Pathar, ventured into the comedy genre. The film was a product of a request by young Sadip Ray, who went on to become a director himself and make films for children.
Goopy and Bagha are an innocent aspiring singer and drum player, respectively. They meet in a jungle while exiled from their villages. In the jungle they encounter the King Of Ghosts who offers them three wishes. With those newfound abilities both go on to earn trust of a King who promises them marriage with his daughter. The standout sequence in this seemingly simple film is a Ghost Dance sequence which was conceived by S. V. Rau. This sequence has some of the most iconic images in the history of cinema. The superb use of zoom in the scene depicting Goopi’s singing or the interesting technique of freeze frame, which was also used by Truffaut in Jules Et Jim. It is a testament to the distinctive vocabulary that Ray managed to develop with each film.

12. Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) (1970)
Days and Nights in the Forest
Based on a Bengali novel of the same name, this film shows the realistic adventures of contemporary Indian men. One of the best portrayals of modern India can be found in this masterpiece by a man who lived all his life in the city of Calcutta, and over time observed each and every cultural, ethical and political change taking place. Satyajit Ray gave India a film which is about a vacation, breaking with the convention in Indian cinema of trapping the hero in petty fights with local goons.
This film is about a group of friends who escape from the metropolitan clamour for the weekend. The pace reminds us of a respite in our favourite place. Yet with such a simple sounding premise Ray manages to subtly play with the way every character sees this vacation. Their backstories are shown only briefly, but each character is strongly established within the first half an hour. One must watch this film for the way an Indian treatment can change a western story.

13. Shonar Kella (The Fortress) (1974)
Shonar Kella
The detective film genre is unexplored territory in Indian cinema. Therefore this film is significant both in its subject matter and its scope, using Indian history to explore the mystery genre in Indian film. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Ray himself, this film is based on detective Feluda’s adventures. Ray has published a series of short stories involving the exploits of Feluda and his sidekick Topshe. This film also marks Ray’s attempt at making children’s films.
The cinematography of the film is another remarkable achievement by Ray’s long time collaborator Soumendu Roy. The scenes shot in Rajasthan desert are some of the best examples of low light photography at magic hours. A long take involving all three lead characters stuck in the desert is two minute long, with camera continuously tracking one of the characters with sun setting in the background – a technical achievement. Shonar Kella marks Ray’s first film that travels outside Bengal. Ray, who is known for stories set in and around Bengal, took up the challenge to tackle outdoor shooting in the desert. The result is an aesthetically pleasing and dramatically exuberant mystery adventure. For cinephiles who enjoy classical detective story telling, this film is a must-see.

14. Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) (1977)
The Chess Players
Released in the year 1977, this was Ray’s first film in Hindi since he had started making films twenty two years before. Satranj Ke Khiladi was by far the biggest project of Ray’s career – both in its scope and in the sheer production size. It had a cast which included stalwarts like Amjad Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi and Sir Richard Attenborough. The film was based on a short story by Munshi Premchad.
The story is set in 1856, when East India Company started annexation of provinces and kingdoms. The political development is evident in two ignorant and indulgent chess players, who are aware of the ongoing situation but remain passive due to lack of concern. The ignorant attitude is almost a metaphor for lack of nationalistic streak in the population at the time, which was then exploited by the British.
Ray employs his flair for authenticity and his meticulous set design tools and cinematography to perfectly recreate the era. This film also has some of the acerbic dialogues, which pierce through every viewer’s heart. This film is Ray’s take on historic epic film genre. On the surface it’s a story about two noblemen who like to indulge in a lavish but lethargic lifestyle, but deep down it shows how the British managed to establish themselves as a government.

15. Joi Baba Felutinath (The Elephant God) (1979)
The Elephant God
Since the release of Pather Panchali in 1955, Ray had made at least one film every year. But in 1978 he took a break from filmmaking to concentrate on his publication and to indulge in other interests. After a break of one year, in 1979 Ray returned to directing, and he chose to bring Feluda back on the silver screen. His last film Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) was in Hindi – the only Hindi film he would ever make – and it was a historical drama. Therefore he chose to make a mystery-adventure with Bengal’s favourite detective, Feluda. This time Ray chose a new backdrop of Banaras. The story again involves a child, sidekick Topshe, writer accomplice Jotayu.
The mysterious bylanes of Banaras add another layer to the story. The setting of Banaras and Banks of Ganga act as another character in the film which has a tightly woven screenplay, adapted by Ray from his novel of the same name. Ray has also used elements of Hindu religious superstitions to emphasize the black and white characters which are cunning and are always lurking around in the wrong places. Once again cinematographer Soumendu Roy captured the congested architecture of Varanasi with as much panache as he captured the vistas of Rahasthan desert in the previous instalment of Feluda’s adventures.
Author Bio: Amey is a working engineer on weekdays and a cinephile on weekends and literally any other time he finds. He has made short films, only to understand why he should respect good film making, that is because it’s goddamn difficult. He wishes to connect with film fans across the globe.


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