Satyajit Ray

The Indian film director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was noted for his refined and subtly moving studies of native family life. His creations possess a humanistic warmth, crystalline purity, and mythic evocativeness which enable them to transcend the barriers of alien cultural sensibility.

Satyajit Ray was born in Bengal into one of the nation's most prominent artistic families. His grandfather was a painter, a poet, and a scientist who edited the first children's magazine in Bengal. Ray's father was the author of, among other works, Bengal's classic Book of Nonsense. In 1940 Satyajit Ray graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Calcutta. With the encouragement of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian writer-philosopher and close friend of the Ray family, the youth undertook graduate courses in painting and graphics at the Santiniketan Institute. Ray was subsequently hired as an art director for the Calcutta branch of a British advertising agency in 1945. Sometime later he was transferred to the firm's London office, where, besides his regular assignments, he designed a new abridged edition of Bibhui Banerji's popular two-volume novel, Pather Panchali. With the cinematic version already germinating in his mind, Ray, a movie enthusiast from childhood, attended all the current films of John Ford and William Wyler; he was particularly impressed by Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thief; and, in addition, he studied the cinema theories of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin.

When Ray returned to India in 1950, he met the French film maker Jean Renoir, who, while completing the location shooting of The River, gave Ray invaluable technical training. Stimulated by Renoir's personal interest, Ray began work on the scenario for the Banerji story. Produced on an extremely tight budget and employing such De Sica devices as the use of nonprofessional actors in their natural environs, Ray's sensitive visualization of the life of a poor Brahmin family, released in 1955, earned over 100 international film awards and fervent critical praise. Ray continued the events of Banerji's tale in his next production, Aparajito, a film as lyrical as the first, though more advanced technically and structurally. Before undertaking the concluding portion of the trilogy, the director shifted his focus from the physical hardships of the impoverished to the spiritual malaise of the declining aristocracy, creating The Music Room (1958). The final chapter in Ray's national epic, The World of Apu (1960), contrasting the joys of married life and childbirth with the desolation of defeat and bereavement, provided an ideal ending for a work of art which functioned with equal intensity on the particular and mythical levels. "It is fascinating to note," wrote critic Stanley Kauffmann (1966) of the trilogy, "how in the most commonplace daily actions—gesturing, walking, carrying a jug—these people move beautifully, how in the poorest homes the bowls and platters, the windings of the ragged shawls, have some beauty … not dainty aestheticism but an ingrained ethos."

With Devi (1960) Ray examined with intelligence and compassion the controversial problem of Hindu superstition, and in Two Daughters (1961) he explored the tension resulting from unyielding family ritual. Kanchenjanga (1962), the director's first color film, again dealt with domestic conflict.

In 1992 he was honored with a special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He died on April 23, 1992. His funeral ceremony was conducted with full state honors and declared an official holiday by the government of West Bengal. Over one million mourners attended.


Further Reading on Satyajit Ray

Ray gives his views in Hugh Gray's revealing interview with him, recorded in Andrew Sarris, ed., Interviews with Film Directors (1967). The most thorough and perceptive analysis of Ray's cinematography is in Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, Indian Film (1963). See also sections of Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (1965); Eric Rhode, The Tower of Babel (1966); and Stanley Kauffmann, A World on Film (1966).