Sun shines on the films of Satyajit Ray

The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray, India, film, cinema, Bengal, Bengali

Scene from The World of Apu by Satyajit Ray

TIFF retrospective showcases legendary Indian film director

THERE ARE TWO scenes in the Satyajit Ray film The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959) that sent me into the bathroom crying at the end of the film. One has to do with the birth of Apu’s son, and the other, the last scene of the movie, when they reconcile. More than that I don’t want to tell you if you haven’t scene this classic of world cinema.

When I came out of the stall, tears still wetting my face, I struck up a conversation with a white-haired woman who had a kind and gentle face. I knew immediately she was someone I could cry in front of, and indeed she understood, she had just seen the same film.

Not to have seen the films of Ray would mean existing in a world without the sun or the moon. — Akira Kurosawa

Carol and I were to see each other several times more as we were both attending the same film series at Toronto International Film Festival headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Sun and The Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray is a massive retrospective, “one of the most important and influential bodies of work in international cinema … includes a raft of restorations and rarities,” according to the press release.

Pather Panchali, Apu Trilogy, The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray, India, film, cinema, Bengal, Bengali,

The boy Apu in Pather Panchali

This series is special in so many ways. It’s special because the films themselves are so good, and so illustrative of a style of humanism in filmmaking that is long out of fashion. The first time I saw Pather Panchali (1955) — the first film Ray made, and the first of his films that I saw — my jaw was on the floor. I had never seen anything so lifelike and natural on the screen before. It’s a stunning achievement and to me possibly the best film ever made. It’s also the first in the Apu Trilogy of films (The World of Apu is the last).

It’s special because of the community it is creating among film-goers. Carol told me she was in India in 1969 to visit her husband and travelled alone while he was working. She re-enacted an incident where a street beggar grabbed onto her leg as she tried to walk away, laughing at the darkly comic memory. I also met a man who travelled widely in South India in the 70s collecting art and artifacts, which he has since donated to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Satyajit Ray, India, film, cinema, Bengal, Bengali,

Director Satyajit Ray

And it’s special because the works of this giant of cinema were almost lost to the world due to film deterioration.

I was lucky to be at several screenings with special guests who spoke before the film began. Prior to the screening of Charulata, University of Toronto Lecturer Kathleen O’Connell examined Ray’s status within both Indian and world cinema, and the profound influence Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had on Ray. It was interesting to find out that Ray was an illustrator who worked in advertising, and that he exerted a great deal of control over all his films, from designing costumes and sets to editing and and illustrating the posters (as well as directing of course).

Michael Pogorzelski, who is with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film Archive, spoke at the start of Three Daughters (Teen Kanya, 1961) about the lengthy and painstaking process of restoring the entire Ray oeuvre. It was a monumental task.

Trailer for The World of Apu

“In 1992, the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles heroically embarked upon the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project, a comprehensive program to restore all of the director’s work. Collaborating closely with the Satyajit Ray Society, a group of Ray’s former producers, the National Archives of India, the Merchant and Ivory Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Academy restorations of Ray’s essential films (complemented by restorations from the RDB Corporation of Calcutta) ensure a sublime experience during this rare retrospective.” From the TIFF website.

Michael Pogorzelski showed us photos of what the films looked like before restoration. The hot, humid climate in India was literally eating the films. They were either disintegrating or covered in mould. For each film, a separate journey was required, to find the best print available as in some cases, the original negative was lost.

Teen Kanya, Three Daughters, Satyajit Ray, India, film, cinema, Bengal, Bengali,

Teen Kanya film poster

As well as the Apu Trilogy of course, I particularly loved Teen Kanya, an anthology of three short films commissioned for the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary. Each of the films is based on a Tagore story, and each centres around a woman or girl. The Postmaster, Monihara and Samapti were all good, but I loved Samapti, which features actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who I thought was astoundingly natural and moving in this film and The World of Apu (he plays the grown up Apu). Monihara is a ghost story, and the film was almost lost, until the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project rescued it.

The series is running all summer long, and includes 34 films in total. It is accompanied by another series, about how foreigners see India. Passages to India: India seen by Outsiders, includes a couple of my favourite films: The River and Black Narcissus.

Watching films about India and by Indians is a good way to begin to get to know this spectacularly colourful and complex culture. I also recommend reading books, too, and I have several resources on Breathedreamgo to get you started.


Trailer for Teen Kanya

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8 Responses to Sun shines on the films of Satyajit Ray

  1. Renuka July 23, 2014 at 2:17 am #

    Thank you for an insightful account on Satyajit Ray. I haven’t seen any of his films yet. I am a bit lazy when it comes to watching films other than the usual entertaining ones. But, your write-up has intrigued me.
    Renuka recently posted..Monasteries In Sikkim And The Curious ‘Me’My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward July 23, 2014 at 10:59 am #

      Renuka, I recommend you start with the Apu Trilogy, in order. If you are not a fan by that last scene in The World of Apu … well, then I don;t know what to say!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Missing the smells of DelhiMy Profile

  2. Destination Infinity July 25, 2014 at 5:13 am #

    At a recent workshop, they showed us the first 15 minutes of a Shyam Benegal/Sathyajith Ray movie (I don’t remember the name), and we were stunned by the importance given to the descriptions, setting, and characters. I mean, even the smallest nuances were given utmost importance. Not even a single word was spoken throughout that period and still we were glued to the screen! I want to see movies written by Satyajit Ray, now.

    Destination Infinity

  3. Melinda August 4, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    Hi Mariellen,

    Thank you for this great article.

    I am four weeks away from jetting off to India, beginning in Kerela and making our way up to New Dehli.

    I have been looking for some great indian films and books to set the mood for our big trip, I will be sure to look for the films by this director, especially The River and Black Narcissus.

    I am just about to read your article ’10 books about India that are better than Shantaram’ and am excited!


  4. Abhay Singh September 3, 2014 at 3:50 am #

    Hi Mariellen Ward ,

    Thank you for sharing a heart touching post……best of luck for writing…..

  5. Gopal Gupta November 3, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    I found the Apu Trilogy very difficult watch. I however enjoyed “Agantuk” his last film and “Days and nights in the Forest”.

  6. Deboprio December 9, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    More works by Ray :

    a) Detective Stories :

    Satyajit Ray was a great fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.As many Bengalees did not have much access to Doyles great work in English he created 2 characters like – Feluda and Topse like Holmes and Watson.There were 2 films he made with these 2 characters – 1) Sonar Kella( The Golden Fortress)
    2) Joy Baba Felunath (Hail Feluda!!)

    b) Fantasies :

    He had drawn each and every set of these films in his notebooks. Handmade framing.
    b) He created 3 movies – depicting a singer and a percussionist neglected by society and thrown away.However they manage to impress the king of Good Ghosts.They got 3 blessings from the king addressing 3 basic need of mankind.Food,dress and travel.

    1) Goopi Gaine Bagha Baine (Goopi Singer Bagha Percussionist)
    2) Hirok Rajar Deshe ( In the land of Evil Diamond King)
    Whole script is written as poem and original Royal Bengal Tiger was used to film it.
    3) Goopi Bagha Firey Elo (Return of Goopi and Bagha)

    c) Science Fictions:
    Movies are not made out of it – but intriguing –
    Professor Shonku who does miracle with science and protects society from evil forces.

    d) Turning others work into cinema –
    Protidwondi (A competitor)

    e) Another interesting fact about Ray –

    Long back Ray had submitted his science fiction script to Hollywood.They turned it down and rejected.Long after came a movie called ET – depicting love of Child and Alien.
    Which was actually Ray’s script.
    Wiki Says :

    There were allegations that the film was plagiarized from a 1967 script, The Alien, by Indian Bengali director Satyajit Ray. Ray stated, “E.T. would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout the United States in mimeographed copies.” Spielberg denied this claim, stating, “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.”[24] Star Weekend Magazine disputes Spielberg’s claim, pointing out that he had graduated from high school in 1965 and began his career as a director in Hollywood in 1969.[25] Besides E.T., some believe that an earlier Spielberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was also inspired by The Alien.[26][27]
    Veteran filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Richard Attenborough too pointed out Spielberg’s influences from Ray’s script.[28]

    The list will never end.

    Alike Ray, there were 2 other great directors –

    Ritwik Ghatak (Eat , lived , spoke and dream cinemas – sometime considered to be dreadfully realistic , even more than Ray)

    Mrinal Sen – (The less I talk is better).

    Thanks a lot.

  7. Puru May 18, 2016 at 5:22 am #

    What a beautiful write up about the master (yes I address Satyajit Ray as just master) .. You can also explore the cinema by Ritwik Ghatak..

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