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An Art Wedded to Truth

By Michael Sragow

Copyright 1994, The Atlantic Monthly

Satyajit Ray, the Indian Chekhov, typically earned $3,300 for writing, producing, directing, and composing the score for one of his limpid, masterly feature films.

Satyajit Ray was the most sublimely relaxed and embracing moviemaker to emerge since Jean Renoir and Vittorio de Sica — and, unlike those two maestros, he did great or near-great work throughout his career. In Ray's twenty-nine features dramatic epiphanies sprout organically from the material when characters aren't looking and audiences are least expecting them. Ray's movies don't usually leave audiences purged by pity and terror; they leave them either sadder but wiser or gladder but wiser. After watching a masterwork like Aparajito (1956), the middle chapter of the tumultuously moving Apu trilogy, in which the young hero leaves his mother behind in the countryside to study in Calcutta, viewers sense that Ray's rivers of feeling have enriched their own emotional sediment. One doesn't have to be the heir of a Hindu priest or a widow's only surviving child to perceive the momentousness of Apu's move. And one doesn't have to be a Bengali learning British academic discourse to experience Apu's subsequent mixture of estrangement and elation. No other movie, from any nation or in any language, has so keenly captured the inevitable alienation that comes from shuttling between a traditional home and college.

As Ray proved in his essays on movies — collected in an eloquent and far-ranging 1976 anthology, Our Films, Their Films (just published for the first time in North America, by Hyperion) — he had a capacious, catholic critical appetite. He was one of the last frankly humanistic movie masters. Although he felt out of synch with post-sixties permissiveness, he loved the way the innovations of the French New Wave and the British Free Cinema expressed fluctuating social values. He also acknowledged instances in which pure formal genius provoked delight. He wrote, "In Hitchcock at his best, the basic idea is not crushed, but transcended by the technique which becomes something to be admired for its own sake. This has happened in the cinema again and again, in Westerns, in thrillers, in slapstick comedies, in musicals."

Ray had faith that "art wedded to truth must in the end have its reward."

His craft alone was considerable. In addition to screenwriting, producing, and directing, he composed the scores for all his movies after Three Daughters (1961), designed the calligraphy for the opening credits, and, after Charulata (1964), operated the camera.

Ray told an interviewer, "I am forced by circumstances to keep my stories on an innocuous level. What I can do, however, is pack my films with meaning and psychological inflections and shades, and make a whole which will communicate a lot of things to many people." He conceived this whole as a stream of imagery and movement. When Apu returns from school in Aparajito and realizes, in a rush, that his mother has died, the camera follows him as he approaches the village courtyard, and then it glides along outside as Apu dashes inside and emerges from an opening in the wall; the design and choreography of the scene provide the visual equivalent of Apu's racing, skipping heartbeat. As Apu comes to a halt and sees the still, stoic figure of his granduncle, the history of his family reaches its tragic pinnacle.

In the four decades since Ray's debut as a writer-director — with the first Apu movie, Pather Panchali (1955) — his influence has been felt both in the type of work other directors attempt and in the means they employ to execute it. The youthful coming-of-age dramas that have flooded art houses since the mid-fifties owe a tremendous debt to the Apu trilogy, which Terrence Rafferty has rightly called "cinema's purest Bildungsroman." (In baggy-pants homage to Ray, American TV's cartoon-burlesque Bildungsroman, The Simpsons — which could be called "The Education of Bart Simpson" — contains an Indian convenience-store owner named Apu.)

In 1967 Ray wrote an E.T.-like fantasy called The Alien. After Steven Spielberg's lyrical flight of fancy appeared, in 1982, Ray told the Indian press that E.T. "would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies." Spielberg retorted, "I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood." Still, the best scenes in E.T., such as the one of the boy hero showing the creature his Star Wars figurines, have the patience and controlled excitement of Pather Panchali. I take this not as a sign of imitation but as a testament to how Ray kept alive the Renoir-De Sica tradition of luminous observation. His methods of charging enclosed and wide-open spaces with feeling have entered the movie vocabulary of the world. Spielberg might not have seen Pather Panchali (or read The Alien), but he had seen Truffaut's The 400 Blows, which won Truffaut a best-director award at Cannes four years after Ray's movie won a prize there for "best human document." Reviewing Ray's canon, I was struck by how he tied his camera movements to his characters' psychology, just as Martin Scorsese (who acknowledges a debt to Ray) does, more showily, today. Ray gave meaning and poignance to the steady accumulation of details that in life, as in art, we're apt to pass by. He made art out of the overlooked.

Sadly, in his later years Ray himself was overlooked. Even his most famous films, like Pather Panchali and Devi (1960), fell into obscurity. Before Ray died, on April 23, 1992, he gained renewed recognition from the West and from his own country, including a special Academy Award and the Jewel of India. But as the critic and documentarian Richard Schickel prepared a celebratory montage of Ray's work for the 1992 Oscars show, he discovered that time and neglect had ravaged the Ray legacy. Dilip K. Basu, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who had helped arrange for Ray to prerecord his Academy Award acceptance speech in Calcutta, proposed that the Academy investigate the physical deterioration of his movies. David H. Shepard, an expert on film preservation and a member of the Academy's Scholarship and Grants Committee, spent three weeks in India in the winter of 1992-1993 examining fifteen Ray films and gathering information on the others. His report contained a warning: "It would be hard to think of another world class film artist whose oeuvre hangs by such a thin thread."

According to Shepard, the zealot of the Ray preservation movement is Basu, the founder and director of the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection (Ray FASC) at UC Santa Cruz. In coordination with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films in India, Basu has raised enough money to take steps toward rebuilding the Ray canon in its entirety and having negatives stored in Calcutta for eventual use in the creation of a complete Ray archive in the United States. The kickoff exhibition of Ray FASC, at the Santa Cruz campus in May, showed off Ray's many facets with a shelf of his diverse genre novels (he designed the covers himself); production sketchbooks and notebooks that displayed Ray's skills at drawing and calligraphy; a huge promotional ad that he devised for his 1977 parable of imperialism, The Chess Players ("Marching Towards Completion," it reads, under vistas of an army on the move); and a scheduling chart Ray made for The Golden Fortress (1974), which is as intricate and decorative as a Renaissance calendar. All in all, a tribute fit for a Renaissance man.

The other leading Ray preservationist is Ismail Merchant, the producer who, with the director James Ivory, is responsible for such art-house smashes as Howards End and A Room With a View, and who is himself an occasional director (his first feature is In Custody). Merchant has made the revival of Ray's work a priority of The Merchant and Ivory Foundation. He owns the North American distribution rights to nine Ray titles and hopes to acquire the same rights to the rest of them; he has also catalyzed an unprecedented restoration effort by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Film Archive and its director, Michael Friend. This fall Sony Pictures Classics will begin to distribute the films in theaters and on video. The AMPAS Film Archive will preserve the reconditioned negatives and make prints available to other archival facilities.

Not even the combined clout of Merchant and the Academy can protect films from acts of God: a fire at the Henderson Film Laboratories, in London, on July 4 of last year destroyed the original negatives of six Ray classics licensed to Merchant: Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu (1959), The Music Room (1958), Devi, and Three Daughters. Friend says that the bad shape the negatives were in before the blaze mitigated the tragedy — he was planning to use alternative sources anyway. In his view, the loss underscores the need to gather backup materials and store them at separate locations.

In Basu's view, the task is too urgent to be left to a commercial producer, even one who collaborates with a dedicated archivist. It's natural for Basu to want the reconstruction of Ray's movies freed from any commercial taint. The struggle between idealism and commercialism is one of Ray's crucial themes. Ray's output testifies to the glories a gifted filmmaker can achieve outside the mainstream of film production. Even in India, Ray has appealed mostly to a fervid minority, because he worked in Bengali, a regional language. Shepard's report states that Ray's budgets ranged from $15,000 to $60,000 and that he typically received $3,300 for the combined work of writing, producing, directing, and composing.

Merchant and Ivory have their own connections to Ray, who supervised the music for Ivory's debut as a feature director, The Householder (1963), recut the movie in three days, and also scored Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Thanks to Merchant, Ray's art will soon become available to moviegoers in vastly improved prints — a contribution that can't be overpraised. The Ray films currently in video stores, on poor-to-middling high-contrast prints or on dimming rental copies of good prints, are the Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu), Devi, Two Daughters, Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), The Adversary (1970), Distant Thunder (1973), and The Home and the World (1984) — the last Ray film to enjoy a broad American release. (Specialty rental stores with large foreign collections carry better tapes, imported from Great Britain, of the Apu trilogy and of Ray's botched 1989 translation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.) Of these, only Embassy Home Entertainment's tapes of Two Daughters and The Home and the World (now out of print) preserve the iridescent textures that suffused the original movies. The subtitles are often unreadable and the backgrounds undiscernible in Pather Panchali and Aparajito — you have to put your VCR on pause and refer to Shampa Banerjee's excellent English translation of the screenplay, put out by Seagull Books of Calcutta in 1985 (currently hard to find; try used-book stores). Distant Thunder is a movie that lives in its color. As Ray once said, the crux of this Second World War tale set in a remote Bengali village is "that nature was very lush, that everything was physically beautiful, and, yet, people were dying of hunger." The incongruity is lost in the current video, which has faded into black, white, and tinges of dull, dull red.

The first four Rays scheduled for restoration include Mahanagar (1963), a slender, appealing portrait of a modern urban wife, and Devi, which Pauline Kael called "one of the rare, honest films about decadence." The group's anchor (if not its crown) is the director's favorite, Charulata. Based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore and set in Bengal in the 1870s, it's a pellucid romantic-triangle movie about the bored, lonely wife of a liberal newspaper editor and her inchoate longing for the man's younger cousin (according to Bengali custom, he's considered the wife's brother-in-law). The scenes of the wife, Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee), and the cousin, Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), sublimating their passion through literature have an unusual comic-romantic charm. The character of the husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), who is so wedded to work and politics that he's slow to notice his wife's ennui, leads the audience to tantalizing insights. Charulata recognizes the paradox that reformers are removed from the people for whom they toil. But the movie itself is too stately.

After Devi, the freshest and most inspired work in this quartet is Two Daughters. This anthology film was called Three Daughters (or Teen Kanya) before one segment was cut for export (either because of the film's length — roughly three hours — or because the director could not meet the deadline to subtitle a full version; stories vary). It's not yet clear whether Merchant's American-release prints will contain all three segments. But what Ray's biographer, Andrew Robinson, has said of the triptych — "If I were forced to pick only one work by Ray to show to someone unfamiliar with him, it would have to be Three Daughters" — could apply to the movie in its diptych form. Watching Ray's renderings of two (or three) Tagore stories, those unfamiliar with his movies can find the humorous, bittersweet lyricism of a rural classic like Pather Panchali, the understanding of sexual politics which flowered in The Home and the World, Ray's take on mother-son relationships (parts of Three Daughters are like the tragic portions of Aparajito and The World of Apu reinterpreted as farce), and the instinctual, tragicomic handling of half-formed men which centers the Apu trilogy, the socially conscious The Adversary, the contemporary romantic comedy Days and Nights in the Forest, and even Ray's philosophical valedictory The Stranger (1991), a winsome comedy that at this writing has yet to find a U.S. distributor.

Three Daughters also epitomizes Ray's Chekhovian quality — his ability to suffuse the most awkward and "ordinary" lives with the potency of art without violating their integrity. It's tempting to call The Postmaster — the first episode — a perfect movie. But calling a work of art perfect can suggest that it is finished to death, and The Postmaster bursts with ungovernable vitality and wit. It's set in a tiny village where an educated Calcuttan has taken the job of postmaster. This young man, Nandalal (Anil Chatterjee), encourages his housekeeper, Ratan (Chandana Banerjee), a pre-adolescent orphan, to see herself as a kid sister to him. He begins teaching her to read and write; she struggles to meet his standards (she starts to wash her own clothes regularly) and waits on him without wavering, even when he contracts malaria. But Nandalal gets fed up with village life and resigns his post. In the last few shots he begins his trip home as Ratan fetches water for her next master. Within the confines of this chapati-thin slice of life, Ray explores two approaches to living — the postmaster's, relatively cultured and based on self-gratification (though not necessarily self-fulfillment), and the girl's, stoic and dutiful (but not joyous or satisfying).

After seeing De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, Ray wrote a friend, "The conventional approach tells you that the best way to tell a story is to leave out all except those elements which are directly related to the story, while the master's work clearly indicates that if your theme is strong and simple, then you can include a hundred little apparently irrelevant details which, instead of obscuring the theme, only help to intensify it by contrast, and in addition create the illusion of actuality better."

The Postmaster has at least "a hundred little apparently irrelevant details," every one expressive. From the changing of the guard that begins the story — with the outgoing postman using what looks like a religious painting to help him preach the use of quinine to ward off malaria — Ray defines, in sharp, ticklish brushstrokes, both the country girl's modesty and reticence and the city man's queasiness and softness.

The village madman is a visual as well as a comedic marvel. A bristle- haired scarecrow with a wild stare, he's something out of a shipwreck movie; he squats accusatorily, his fishing rod lying in the road like a flattened plant. When the postmaster first sees him, Ray conjures an intimate slapstick portrait — Nandalal's cigarette falls out of his mouth and he drops his match as the raggedy man watches him smoke. The laughter that results is a tribute to Chatterjee's — and Ray's — comic timing and to the connection Ray makes between the audience and Nandalal. Suddenly we're all strangers in a strange land. When Ratan shoos the madman away with the quiet threat "Do you know how strong my master is?" it's a crystalline comic coup — besides a grasp of the situation, she displays how much strength she will lend Nandalal and how much her job instills in her. It's also a painfully ironic moment: Ratan is repeating something the outgoing postmaster told her so that she would obey Nandalal.

Who hasn't experienced the kind of temporary union and leave-taking that the postmaster and his ward go through in this story? Middle-class life has shallow roots, whether in America or in India: what could be more typical for a college graduate than to take a job in a different culture or environment and later return home — or maybe move farther off, to a better or more congenial job? Ray's art is rich because it concentrates on the conjunctions rather than the clashes between opposing characters. Nothing could be simpler on paper than the postmaster's passage from being a naive aspiring writer who believes that his poetry will bloom in rural solitude to being the disillusioned soul who decides that he must return to Calcutta. What is surprising is that the audience feels a sense of loss when he does return — because Ray suggests that by staying in town and nurturing Ratan, or by taking her with him to Calcutta, he could have achieved a profound self-transformation, becoming empathic and confident. At the end Ratan is the graver, wiser character. When she ignores Nandalal on the road as he hastens home, and spurns his offer of a tip, the act of cutting him registers, in its own nonromantic, nonsexual way, as strongly as Valli's silent, eyes-ahead rejection of Joseph Cotten at the end of The Third Man. When Ray's camera takes one last look at a hurt, ruminative Nandalal, we discern that this director doesn't sell anyone short — Ratan's brushing him off may smarten him up.

These days zealots of every stripe treat cultural cross-pollenization as mongrelization. Ray's achievement rested on moviemaking artistry that was as universal as music. In an intelligent, rueful overview in the Spring, 1993 American Scholar, Chandak Sengoopta supports Ray's belief that his marriage of Eastern and Western art could be appreciated (in Ray's words) "only by someone who has his feet in both cultures. Someone who will bring to bear on the films involvement and detachment in equal measures. Someone who will see both the wood and the trees." But Ray did his work more effectively than he (or Sengoopta) might have realized. One of the most intense and emotional moviegoing experiences I've had was watching The Home and the World at a small Greenwich Village theater. Based on a Tagore novel, the film concerns such alien issues as purdah (India's traditional cordoning-off of women) and the turn-of-the-century Indian nationalist movement, swadeshi, which called for banning British goods and increasing native productivity. Nevertheless, Ray succeeded in involving the audience so intimately that there was a rustle in the theater when one viewer whispered that the swadeshi leader was sipping from an English teacup. In Our Films, Their Films, Ray confessed that his love for movies turned "serious" when he began studying Hollywood directors to determine the way "Ford [was] different from Wyler, or Wyler from Capra, or Capra from Stevens." Americans may rediscover in the work of this Indian master the deepest roots of their own art.

Michael Sragow edited Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You've Never Seen (1990).

The Atlantic Monthly has a transcript of an online conference with Michael Sragow that was held September 28, 1994.