Satyajit Ray: A re-appraisal, some interim thoughts

I’ve been reading criticism and biography of Ray and his early career and re-watching some of the films from 1966-75 and I think it would be useful to summarise some of my thinking at this stage.

First off I was surprised at just how much interest there still seems to be in Satyajit Ray. I must apologise for not noticing how much has been written recently and over the last couple of years by Omar and Shubhajit amongst others. They’ve provided lots of useful material and links to explore. I’m going to offer a list of observations and then possibly some responses to specific films.

1. Ray as ‘world cinema/art cinema auteur’. Ray’s emergence on the international scene from 1956 onwards was at a very auspicious time. He was recognised as one of the leading figures of what was a generally ‘humanist’ cinema encompassing great figures such as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Bergman, Fellini and Andrzej Wajda. This status enabled him to get wide distribution in Europe and North America in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, this same status also had some disadvantages in the way that it placed Ray’s films in relation to other forms of cinema.

2. It’s very difficult to ‘read’ Ray’s films without reference to the triangular relationship Bengali Cinema – ‘World Cinema’ – Indian Cinema. Most of the early work on Ray in the West dismissed ‘Indian Cinema’ out of hand and to some extent, the commercial industries across India ignored Ray until the later 1960s. To some extent, this problem still exists, though Ray’s reputation within West Bengal seems secured. The various attempts to analyse Ray’s output in terms of the ‘New Cinema’ that emerged in the 1970s in India are interesting markers of how the triangular relationship has developed. What has happened since parallel production has almost disappeared is an interesting point. When diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair make known their debt to Ray and Ritwik Ghatak does this help to establish the credentials of the younger directors? Does it help in re-casting ideas about Ray’s work alongside Ghatak’s and Mrinal Sen’s?

3. Following these two institutional ‘placings’ of Ray, how do we tackle the question of his ‘influences’ – the cinematic models he may be following? I’m struck again by the Kurosawa connection here. There are several parallels between what happened to Kurosawa and what happened to Ray when they began their careers (and equally there are big differences). Both men had family backgrounds and education that gave them access to both their own cultural traditions and those of the West/’international’ culture. Both had a form of aesthetic education, Kurosawa in painting, Ray in graphics. Both steeped themselves in foreign cinema and as a consequence when their films began to be recognised at Venice and other international festivals, they began to be seen as ‘Westernised’ – and by extension ‘less Japanese’ or ‘less Indian’. Interestingly, Marie Seton in her biography of Ray, Portrait of a Director (1971), makes several extended references to the similarities and differences between Indian and Japanese film culture, starting with the emergence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon at Venice in 1951. Identifying both countries as major film producers – numerically ahead of Hollywood – she sees both as producing formulaic films with only occasional notable titles, but she notes that Japan has an homogenous culture compared to the multi-lingual and multi-cultural Indian film industries. I would contest the easy dismissal of both industries as merely formulaic. While I would accept the difference created by the array of Indian languages, I would also emphasise that Indian and Japanese Cinema both draw upon a mixture of influences from native forms of music, dance, theatre and art often mixed with ideas from European and American art forms, especially Hollywood Cinema. It’s worth querying whether it might not be a good idea to study Ray in terms of Japanese and Chinese auteur directors of the 1940s-60s rather than European and American directors? There are two reasons why such a comparative study might be useful. Firstly, although India is a country of different language traditions, it does share certain social structures and cultural mores across both the sub-continent and other East and South-East Asian societies (e.g. family structures, the importance of arranged or ‘commercial’ marriages, strict social hierarchies, the importance of religious rituals etc.). Secondly – and especially re Bengal – so called ‘quality pictures’ in Japan and China have often been adapted from literary novels. Both Ray and Kurosawa have adapted well-known novels and short stories from their own literary compatriots as well as work from European or American sources.

4. How should we assess the development of Ray’s film aesthetics? I think it is fairly clear that too much weight was put by critics on the ‘look’ and sound of Ray’s first feature Pather Panchali (India 1955).  Unlike any of the Japanese masters of the 1950s (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kurosawa – who all served apprenticeships in the studio system) Ray began work as a novice in filmmaking practice (although of course already a serious student of film). The early style was unique partly because of the influence of Ray’s viewing of neo-realist films, but also partly because of budget restrictions and simple lack of expertise and the need to ‘learn by doing’ (allied to very intelligent decisions about breaking conventions). Clearly, as Ray’s career progressed, he developed a range of styles suited to different types of material and different production contexts. I suspect that changes in style were either accepted or rejected by critics partly in response to their feelings towards the subject matter rather than a conscious appreciation of Ray’s development of his own aesthetic voice. (I’m thinking here of the way that the more modernist tropes in Ray’s films appear in some of the later 1960s films with their shift to contemporary urban issues.) I haven’t yet analysed any of his films in detail on a shot-by-shot basis, so this is something that I need to do. (One problem is that the DVDs of the later films that I’ve seen are not great quality.)

5. Finally we come to the knotty question of the ideological in Ray’s work. This is what has drawn me back to his films since I know that I turned away from them when I became interested in ideas about Third Cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t think that I’ve changed by political standpoint, but I do recognise now that I have more approaches available to consider different kinds of films and I hope to look at Ray’s work in different ways. Until I read Seton’s biography I wasn’t really aware of Ray’s early life or of his specific connections to aspects of Bengali culture and politics. I’m not surprised to discover his socially liberal-left politics but I am fearful of how much I need to find out about Bengali politics in the 1960s/70s in order to evaluate Ray’s response.


  1. Shubhajit Lahiri

    Let me thank you at the outset for mentioning about my writing on Ray. Well, my essay on Ray at Culturazzi was just a small way of expressing the immense admiration that I have for Satyajit Ray.

    This is a comprehensive and insightful piece that you’ve written. What I especially admire about this piece is that, unlike most film writers, you’ve taken the more difficult route of first trying to understand the cultural, sociological and even political background of Bengal & India before discussing about Ray.

    I found the topic raised in the 2nd point quite interesting. As you noted later, India is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. In fact, even among urban dwellers, who were most represented in Ray’s movies, the people of Calcutta (Kolkata) are as distinct as the people of say Bombay (Mumbai), Delhi or Madras (Chennai). So, even though most of Ray’s movies (barring a few) are based on Calcutta and/or urban Bengalis, not many Bombay or Chennai residents would be able to truly appreciate the nuances in the movies and observations made by Ray.

    For instance, Calcutta has always been known to be a hotbed for politics, be it during pre-independence times or during the Naxal movement of the 70’s. So, in Pratidwandi (The Adversary), when the urban English-educated protagonist played by Dhritiman Chatterjee, opines during an interview that he feels the Vietnam War was a more important event as compared to man’s landing on the moon, a Calcuttan might smirk in acknowledgment, but I can’t say the same for ones belong to a different urban diaspora.

    So I guess one might take it for granted that though Ray will continue to be an icon among educated Bengalis, outside Bengal the educated populace might be aware of him and might even mention that he was India’s greatest filmmaker, but very few will have actually watched and appraised his movies in person. That might not be as much due to disregard or silent disdain, as it is because of a sense of detachment given the vast social & cultural difference between the various parts of India. And hence, when a Mira Nair expresses her debt to Ray & Ritwik Ghatak, I feel it would be better to take her comments with a pinch of salt.

    As for your 5th point, I too am largely unaware of Ray’s political leanings. That Mrinal Sen & Ritwik Ghatak were staunch Leftists is well known. I guess I’ll have to agree with you that Ray’s political views were left-liberal. It is safe to assume that nearly every educated Bengali during 60’s & 70’s had a soft corner towards Leftism. And though Ray never made his political viewpoints too obvious, but his ‘political’ movies like Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds), and the Calcutta trilogy do provide more than subtle hints of his left-liberal sentiments.

    I’d like to once again mention that this is a wonderful piece that you’ve written. Here’s hoping more discussion follows.


  2. OMAR

    I think this overlap between Ray and Kurosawa is often sidelined but needs more exploration. An interesting proposition in regards to whether we should study Ray as a Japanese/Chinese auteur in the 40s/60s. Reading Das Gupta’s book on Ray, he also talks a great deal about this idea of rhythm and Ray’s exacting involvement with the editing process – the pace of many Ray’s films, even the urban based ones, unfold at a very natural pace. Once again, I know you mentioned Kurosawa but like you say, his control over pacing reminds me of Ozu. I have finished reading Andrew Robinson’s book on Ray and I have managed to watch Ray’s documentary on Rabindrinath Tagore – and like you say one realises how connected Ray was to the Bengali renaissance. Yet much of the pace of his films he says came directly out of his love of western classical music especially Mozart – this figures prominently in Charulata. Roy, you have raised a number of very pertinent points in regards to Ray and I will come back to you on many of the points you make. I will post the link to the Tagore documentary later on this week.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.