You’d be hard-pressed to think of a filmmaker more frequently linked to his national cinema in the popular imagination than Satyajit Ray, whose work in the 1950s brought an independent streak to the production of Indian cinema as famously as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless countered the establishment of French costume dramas around the same time. Yet prior to the 1990s, you might have found it equally difficult to name a major international figurehead who was as underrepresented at repertory screenings, so dire was the state of the films’ prints.
Twenty years after the Academy Film Archive restored the Bengali director’s deteriorating and otherwise endangered negatives and made proper retrospectives possible, TIFF Cinematheque offers “The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray,” a far-ranging program that gives Toronto audiences the opportunity to see the fruit of that labour as well as the work of arguably India’s most influential filmmaker.
The retrospective kicks off with Ray’s debut feature, 1955’s richly humane Pather Panchali, the first chapter in what came to be called the Apu Trilogy, rounded out by Aparajito and The World of Apu, which follow the eponymous hero from adolescence to adulthood. In Pather Panchali, Apu (played the first time by nonprofessional actor Subir Banerjee) is just six years old, his wide eyes a neat surrogate for Ray’s epiphanic view of the world as a series of small wonders and calamities. Though it’s one of the most sterling debuts in world cinema, alternately poetic and blunt, the film’s neorealism—in the tradition of Italian filmmakers like Vittorio de Sica—has perhaps been overstated. To be sure, Ray presents an unvarnished view of the poverty of Apu’s village relative to the commercial Bengali cinema of the period. But one is equally impressed by the film’s delicate, faintly modernist construction, which presents a cross-section of the life of a family through a procession of ephemeral moments, as in a lovely gesture when, tasked with waking her brother, Apu’s sister reaches under the covers to gently peel back his eyelid.
Though the Apu Trilogy is what he’s best known for today, in the way that Francois Truffaut is inextricably linked to his films about fictional scamp Antoine Doinel, Ray was also producing some of his best-received films between those instalments. One of his finest is surely 1958’s The Music Room, a starkly different take on poverty, this one focusing on Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aloof landowner who has frittered away his wealth and lands on a series of lavish concerts; so disoriented is he by the ruination of his kingdom that in the first moments of the film he asks his servant what month it is. Set in last days of the caste system that privileged such dissipated nobles, The Music Room frequently flashes back to Roy’s salad days, dreamlike memories of opulence that establish him as a King Lear figure, his stature shrunk by the unhappy convergence of time, the shifting political landscape, and his own bad decisions. As difficult as it is to sympathize with Roy’s diminished position in the face of his continued haughtiness—unlike Lear, he remains proud, paying tribute to a ruined likeness of himself in the final moments—one cannot help but be as taken as he is with his music, which plays out in expertly framed performance-based set pieces, with a superb (and near omnipresent) score by Vilayat Khan.
Perhaps owing to the success of Pather Panchali, Ray neophytes tend to see him primarily as a storyteller of present-day Bengal. Yet Ray has had his share of period pieces as well as more cosmopolitan affairs. His personal favourite of his films, and in our view one of the most absorbing and technically accomplished, is 1964’s Charulata, based on the novella by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore about Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee), a wealthy housewife in 1870s Calcutta who finds her loyalty to her distant husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) tested by the arrival of his aesthete cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee). A similar dynamic plays out in what might be Ray’s best-regarded later work, 1984’s The Home and the World, which is likewise based on a text by Tagore and again preoccupied with a love triangle, this time involving a progressive couple whose relationship is strained by the arrival of the husband’s revolutionary friend—a man with a passion that stands in sharp relief to the husband’s passivity. A Palme d’Or contender at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s one of the most expressly political and transnational of Ray’s films, explicitly tackling the reverberations of British colonial rule as well as self-consciously probing the Western inclinations of his own cinema.
Despite Ray’s golden reputation, his films have had certain asterisks attached to them over the years, earning skepticism from some corners for supposedly romanticizing poverty, and being seen as overly Western in orientation by others. We can think of no better way to either counter or confirm those readings than an earnest sampling of TIFF’s retrospective, which also includes an educational sidebar program entitled Passages to India: India Seen by Outsiders, which spans films by Jean Renoir, Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger—though curiously not Wes Anderson, whose The Darjeeling Limited openly quotes the scores from both The Music Room and Charulata.