We didn’t need the Internet to understand the paradox of a shrinking growing world. We had it with the great mid-century burgeoning of world cinema. Stories from far away that hit close to home are still available if we look for them — if, for instance, we dare to shut off our many torrents of mechanized entertainment, however briefly, to revisit the films of the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray.
Even in his prime, Ray offered an oasis of sorts, a comparative quietude amid the formal, political and metaphysical provocations put out by other art-house titans of his time. Here was something fixed lower in the human hierarchy of needs, something gracefully grounded. And here it still is.
“For a popular medium,” Ray once wrote, “the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment.” He made his movies accordingly and enduringly — with what Martin Scorsese, in nominating Ray for the Lifetime Achievement Oscar, later called a “deeply humanitarian vision.” Ray got that Oscar, and died, in 1992, at which time the Academy couldn’t even scrounge up a proper tribute reel on account of lacking broadcast-quality prints. Restorations have been ongoing since then, with several now playing as part of an overdue retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., through August.
One drawback of international eminence is being the living proof that you can’t please everybody.As was clear from our introduction to the eponymous protagonist of Ray’s “Apu Trilogy,” in his 1955 debut, Pather Panchali , when the child peeks out with one eye from a blanket and then rises into an embracing close-up, his would be a cinema of small moments. Small yet large enough today to command attention even on an iPad. Still, there’s just something so restorative about being alone with them again, among strangers, in the dark.
Born in Calcutta in 1921, the son of a culturally prominent family, Ray first worked in advertising and designed the covers of several books. His key creative influences included the neorealist Vittorio De Sica, whose Bicycle Thieves was a formative inspiration; the humanist Jean Renoir, whom Ray befriended when Renoir shot The River in India; and the discursive maximalist Charles Dickens, whose novels Ray studied in college and thereafter admired. So there you have Italy, France and England all acting on an artist who would later be scrutinized for his Indianness; and you have a modern movie storyteller who took his lessons from a pioneer of cinematic verity, the heir to an impressionist painter, and the world’s most famous maker of big books.
What to Watch
My picks of his diverse and wondrous 36 films: Charulata and The Music Room , now available as on-demand rentals via Hulu Plus, and Days and Nights in the Forest on a big screen in Berkeley, California next month.
A rare cosmopolitan radiance was the result — Bollywood, it’s not — and a critical reputation sometimes stretched uncomfortably between Eastern and Western attitudes; one drawback of international eminence is being the living proof that you can’t please everybody. Posthumously, the question of whether Ray was “Indian enough” seems increasingly silly, as if being so receptive to the rest of the world, and having a universally intelligible voice, would somehow disqualify him.
Ray made his movies … with what Martin Scorsese later called a “deeply humanitarian vision.”
His films tend to age well because they were made with complete conviction, and it’s hard to understate the value they place on human dignity. Even Ray’s satires seem more rueful than cynical. Maybe you could say he was tasteful to a fault, and sometimes his films can seem slow-moving or very self-contained, like placid little ponds. But still they’re beautiful as such, with unrippled surfaces allowing better views into liquid depths. Revisit them if only to remember how much better we can see when we really let our eyes adjust.
Why you should care
Because 1992 Oscars’ Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Satyajit Ray’sThe World of Apu is your world too.