Sunday 29 May 2022

Sydney Film Festival - Bruce Hodsdon considers The cinema of Satyajit Ray - The Projection of "our" India

These notes have been specially written for this blog by scholar and critic Bruce Hodsdon and are published to coincide with the 10 film Ray retrospective at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival screening from June 9. Titles included in the season are highlighted. CLICK HERE TO FIND SESSION TIMES AND MAKE BOOKINGS



In 1950, following the declaration of Indian sovereign independence, the Prime Minister Pandit Nehru appointed the S.K.Patil Film Enquiry Committee to report on the direction and reshaping of the film industry post independence, its report on content shaped by the divide between contending ideologies with arguments around “issues of authenticity: realist rootedness versus indigenous mass culture and nationalist utopia versus the regionalist components of nationalism.”


At about the same time Satyajit Ray (1921-92), inspired by Italian neo-realism was struggling to complete the self-funded Pather Panchali(1955), an adaptation of an early 20th century classic of Bengali fiction,


                   It was a major success, notably in the way his realism extended Nehruite,

                   post-independence rewriting of Indian history in light of the current progr-

                   ammes of Industrialisation and non-alignment...Ray's realism, repeatedly,

                   and in often uncanny fashion, evokes the tone of the book [Nehru's 'Disc-

                   overy of India' published in 1946 and a  'foundational text' for  the whole

                   nationalist enterprise], especially in the way [Ray]  symbolises realism its-

                   elf, as a vantage point from where to restage  'the past': to re-present me-

                   mory in a land that could now,so to speak,celebrate  the arrival of history.”

                                                                 Ashish Rajadhyakshin (Nowell-Smith (ed) p 682)


Ray apparently followed Nehru's suggestion in making the two sequels (Aparajito,Apu Sansar/The World of Apu) to form a trilogy which he based on a western literary form, the bildungsroman or coming of age novel, which had its origin in Germany in the 18th century and was popularised in Western culture, c1900.


Ray's accomplished naturalism focusing on everyday life in an Indian village attracted critical recognition in India as an art film but limited in its appealfor general Indian audiences. A major reason given for the failure of Aparajito witha wider audience in Indiawas its portrayal of the rift between mother and son, motherhood being sacrosanct in popular Hindi cinema exemplified by the all-time Hindi   classic Mother India(1957).


American director John Huston, filming in India, saw some sequences from Pather Panchali talked with Ray and contacted the Museum of Modern Art in New York which took on its distribution. Pather Panchali ran for 8 months in a NY cinema in 1958.



Realism becomes more mannered in the period films that followed. In Jalsaghar/The Music Room (1958) a feudal aristocrat is estranged from reality in his obsession with his past and his art. Devi/ TheGoddess (1960), an Ibsen-like play on the power of supersition, was the first of four films Ray made at this time with the central focus on a woman. Teen Kanya/Three Daughters (1961),  and in Charulata (1964) further form “a mosaic of highly mannered gesture and painstakingly reconstructed sets, encoded and understated evocations of period” including adaptations ostensibly through the eyes of Ray's mentor, the Nobel prizewinning Bengali poet, writer, playwright, composer and philosopher, the extraordinary Rabindranath Tagore. 

Three Daughters, based on three Tagore stories, was made in celebration of the centenary of his birth. These films are in a Tagore-based tradition of Asiatic Orientalism to which Ray remained an adherent (A.R. ibid 682)*. He spent two years studying painting at Sandiniketan, Tagore's open university, the abode of peace “where the world becomes one nest”, at that time finding himself as an artist. Ray produced a moving documentary tribute to the great man, The Inner Eye, narrated by himself.


In a shift in style and tone Mahanaghar/The Big City (1963) is set in the urban world of anglicised lower middle class Indians, ironically following the progress of a young woman from subdued housewife to achieving equality in her job only to resign in solidarity with a friend who had been unjustly dismissed. Mahanaghar has been praised for qualities comparable to that of an Ozu comedy. Ray was always concerned with the “social identity” of the characters, something Indian song-and-dance films ignored.(Barnouw & Krishnaswarmy 238).


His aspiration to make art films led to questions about Ray's loss of contact with wider Indian audiences. While recognised for the international success of the trilogy and later films such as Charulata (his personal favourite of his films), Ray's continuing preference for making films in Bengali  firmly categorised him in popular discourse as the most prominent of “a generalised category of directors celebrated as being culturally rooted in their context” ( AR 682).  Nayak/ The Hero (1966) is similar in theme to Bergman's Wild Strawberries: in the course of a 24 hour journey the arrogance of a Bengali matinee idol is a facade that is stripped away in an extended interview with a journalist and interspersed with dreams and flashbacks revealing the troubled man beneath the surface. Ray said that he wrote the screenplay only for the lead actor, Uttam Kumar, and would not have made the film if he had refused the role.


Ray had few substantial box office successes in India, the national market being dominated by films in Hindi in the north and Tamil and Telugu films in the south. Many Bengali films were not widely distributed outside Bengal at the time. India has a history of film societies (Ray was co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society in 1947) but not of nationwide arthouse exhibition. He had only one major home success, a musical fantasy based on Indian mythology that left overseas audiences puzzled, Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne (1969).


 A seminal film, Aranyer Din Ratri/ Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), is one of his best regarded internationally for its contemplative mood in a blend of Chekov and Jean Renoir - Ray had worked as an assistant searching locations for Renoir's Indian film The River (1951). Nights has been described as almost an extended remake of Renoir's short film Une Partie de Campagne(1936) filtered through another sensibility with four young men from Calcutta on leave for a few days in the country replacing the French bourgeois family.  


Company Limited

In the 'Calcutta trilogy' - Pratidiwandi/ The Adversary (1970), Seemabadha/Company Limited (1974) and Jana-Aranya/ The Middleman (1975) - there is a darkening of mood and stylistic departures in Ray's films in the post-Nehru era ushered in by the Naxalite peasant insurrection and student revolts in Calcutta.  In The Adversary centred on the anger and violence associated with the disillusionment that comes with youth unemployment, Ray uses disjunctive distancing devices – negative imagery and a flash forward – for the first time. Corruption is central in both the succeeding films, ironically in The Middleman which Ray described as “a kind of black comedy.” Mrinal Sen, in his own Calcutta trilogy made at the same time, sought to directly participate in current politics.


Following the Calcutta trilogy the growing complexity, even ambivalence, of Ray's later work, in mode more akin to modern European art cinema, appeared to alienate at least a part of the relatively elite Indian audience for his earlier films. Shatranj ke Kilari/The Chess Players(1978) is made up of two stories reflecting on each other. What many viewers expected, Satti Khanna suggests, was “a reconstruction of the splendours of Moghul India” (as in Jalsaghar) and “the decency of upper class Bengal” (as in Charulata). “What they found was a stern examination of the sources of Indian decadence. According to Ray, the British seem less to blame for their role than the Indians who demeaned themselves by colluding with the British or by ignoring the public good and plunging into private pleasures.”


This point of view was not popular with the monopolistic distribution set-up of Hindi cinema. Instead of a simultaneous release of Ray's first film in Hindi was delayed for seven months and then denied fair exhibition in a number of Indian cities. Generally well-received internationally, The Chess Players took some years to recover losses from the Indian release.


His second film in Hindi, Sadgati/Deliverance (1981), made for TV, is “his sharpest indictment of caste and religious orthodoxy,” it was attacked by some critics for its 'lack of anger' and commitment to which Ray replied that “it was not the anger of an exploding bomb, but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.” ( Garga 224)


Ray was the complete filmmaker; as well as directing he wrote the original story and screenplay, designed the sets and composed the music for many of his films.


In the year before his death in 1992 Ray was awarded an honorary Oscar for “rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook.” David Thomson in an overview concludes that “the rhetoric had been earned, but Ray seemed more than ever the projection of “our” India – not quite India's India.”The former was close to being projected internationally as the 'real' India by Ray  through a realist and Tagorean lens close to fully realised in his films from Pather Panchali to Mahanaghar. To aid the achievement of that sense of reality Ray had immersed himself in European, Soviet, American and other cinemas at film society screenings in Calcutta and during 8 months of intensive film viewing in London in 1950. The projection of “India's India,” always elusive, in cinema has come to embrace a spectrum of narratives from masala to art cinema, the latter also taken up radically by Bengalis Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, and younger filmmakers who were inspired by Ray's example as he had been by Tagore.


*  For those interested in exploring this subject further, search online under Tagore's Asiatic Orientalism for an article in 'Punch Magazine'  Do Indians have Tagore's idea of being an Asian? by Devdan Chaudhuri? , and an essay Tagore's Orientalism by Yu-ting Lee in 'Taiwan East Asian Studies'.



Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “India: Filming the Nation” The Oxford History of World Cinema, Nowell-Smith ed. 1996

Pradip Krishen, “Knocking at the Doors of Public Culture:India's Parallel Cinema” Public Culture  v4/1 India 1991                                                                              

David ThomsonThe New Biographical Dictionary of Film Sixth ed. 2014

B.D. Garga So Many Cinemas The Motion Picture in India 1996

Erik Neher  “Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy Restored”  Hudson Arts Review Summer 2015

John Pym  “The Chess Players” review  Monthly Film Bulletin March 1979

Suresh Jindal  My Adventures with Satyajit Ray The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players)

Satti Khanna “Satyajit Ray” The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers  Vol 2 Directors  Christopher Lyon ed. 1984                 Erik Barnouw & S. Krisnaswarmy  Indian Cinema 2nded. 1980

see also online: Helen Goritsas, “Great Directors: Satyajit Ray”  Senses of Cinema, May 2002                                                                                                             


This note is adapted from an entry on Indian Cinema in the 60s in an ongoing series on Global Art Cinema in Film Alert.            


Thanks to Adrienne McKibbins for advice



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