Almost as soon as I started getting into art house and foreign independent films a couple years ago, I started hearing the name Satyajit Ray. An Indian film director, his work is highly regarded as some of the best films ever made, and not just from India. I’m just now sitting down to 5 of his earliest films, and I have to say, I don’t know why I waited this long.
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) was Ray’s first picture in 1955. Made on a minuscule budget with non-professional actors (and even many first-timers in the film crew!), it follows a Bengali family. They are the poorest of the families in their small, rural community. Father Harihar doesn’t have a trade; he always wanted to be a priest, but he struggles to earn a living as one in such a small community, so he takes odd jobs to help the family scrape by. With him away often looking for work, the matriarch, Sarbajaya, runs the house, looking after their kids, Durga and Apu, and butting heads with the town’s old woman, “auntie,” who is homeless but allowed to stay with them. There’s a loose story about Durga and Apu growing up in this small community with its traditions, while the greater world around them chugs along to the future (Apu doesn’t know what power lines are when he strays further from home, and is amazed by the train when it goes through), but the film is best viewed as a glimpse in the life of struggling family. I’m not always a fan of realism in films (most non-professional actors make me cringe), but here, it works to perfection. The actors are more than good, they are great, and Ray’s directorial hand has patience and an eye for stretching moments to beautiful perfection. The local Indian music blends wonderfully too and brings the viewer into the film. I can’t believe this film was made in 1955, except for being in black and white, it feels like a brand new art film that would be a hit if it came out today. ★★★★★
Aparajito (The Unvanquished) was not a planned sequel, but after the success of his first film, Ray felt pressure to continue the story of the family. **Since this is a sequel, SPOILERS ahead for the ending of the previous picture.** With the death of Durga, the family decides to move to a big city, Varanasi, where the father can finally find enough work as a priest. He does start earning better wages, but the family is still poor, and they can’t seem to get ahead. After a couple years, Harihar becomes ill and dies, forcing Sarbajaya to decide to take Apu back to a rural community. Her dream is for Apu to become a priest like his father, but Apu is still intrigued by science, education, and the greater world out there. He convinces his mom to let him enroll in a local school, and several years later, he is ready to go to college, having earned good enough grades for a scholarship. Against his mother’s best laid plans, Abu does indeed head off to Calcutta, where his studies continue. When he does return home to visit Sarbajaya, he is bored and can’t wait to get back to the bustling city. I can go into the fantastic symbolism of rural life and traditional Indian values/religion, vs the exciting futurism that Calcutta offers, but to get into that too much would spoil the ending. I generally like Pather Panchali more, as this second picture was more straight forward and less esoteric, but I still loved the course Apu has set out for himself, and can’t wait to see where the final film takes him. ★★★½
A couple years passed since the previous picture, and in between Ray made a film titled The Music Room (reviewed below) which cemented him as an international star. In 1959 he returned to Apu to complete the trilogy with Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Apu has graduated from college, but can’t pursue an advanced degree due to lack of funds. Still poor, he rents a room in a rundown building and makes a few dollars tutoring, while working on an autobiographical novel, which by all accounts shows a lot of promise. A former college friend invites him to a wedding as his +1, and the day will change Apu’s life. It turns out the groom in this arranged marriage has a mental disorder, and the superstitious family of the bride is sure that if she isn’t married today, at the appointed auspicious hour, she will never be married. Apu is roped into being the savior and marrying the young bride for her and her family’s honor. Aparna is from a wealthy family, and when she gets back to Apu’s little rented room and sees the poor conditions, she has her private cry, but then embraces her new life, and Apu as her husband. Things are finally looking up for Apu, as he and Aparna fall in love with each other over time, but another tragedy strikes to upset the balance. Apu must face himself in the mirror and decide what kind of man he will be, and by the end, we’ve come full circle on the life he started in the first picture. It’s a fitting and beautiful ending to this trilogy, and a delectable beginning to Ray’s directorial career. ★★★★½
Jalsaghar (The Music Room) follows an old zamindar (wealthy landlord aristocrat) named Biswanbhar Roy as he watches his way of life crumble around him, both figuratively and literally. His land holdings have dwindled over his lifetime, with both poor decisions and the government breaking things up, leaving him in debt, with little more to trade on than his reputation. Roy is particularly perturbed by his neighbor, Mahim Ganguly, who is “new money.” Mahim is throwing lavish parties, the likes of which Roy used to, and Roy continues to try to match him in both extravagance and appeal, selling off furniture and family jewels to hire out the best musicians and entertainers. The focal point in Roy’s house is the music room, an ornate hall where his parties would take place. It’s a rich and multi-layered film which you can glean a lot from in multiple viewings. It lends itself to us wanting to like Roy, despite his ugly competitiveness with Mahim which costs him everything by the end. Mahim on the other hand is genuinely nice to Roy, but he is also depicted as uncouth, not always being respectful to the performers at the parties. Both men throw the parties to show off to their neighbors, but obviously for different reasons. Ray used this picture to bring dancing and musical numbers into his films, something the Apu trilogy was lacking, and which brought him criticism in his own country. Musical numbers were at the time a regular part of India’s films, though even here, he wasn’t able to satisfy the critics. The music was usually an interlude to break up the film, and Ray instead incorporated the music into the picture, making it part of the story. Whatever his contemporary native land critics thought, The Music Room would go on to become an international hit, and it is a perfect film. ★★★★★
Mahanagar (The Big City) brought Ray out of the 1920’s and was his first film set in modern times (released in 1963, but taking place in the mid-50s). The Mazumdar family is struggling to make ends meet. Subrata is a banker at a time when banks are failing around Calcutta, and he and his wife Arati and son are living in a tiny apartment with his aging parents and his sister. He begins considering getting a second job when Arati decides to get a job herself. The thought of a woman working sends the house into a tizzy. Subrata reluctantly agrees, but his father is vehemently against it, and even stops talking to his son and daughter-in-law. Arati becomes a door-to-door salesman, and is very good at it. In addition to her salary, she makes a great commission which is able to buy gifts for everyone in the family (though the old man refuses his). Racked with the guilt of seeing his wife work, Subrata decides to get that second job, but instead, his bank becomes a casualty of the times and Arati becomes the sole breadwinner for the entire household. The film deals with gender equality, but also race issues/relations, with a coworker of Arati being an Anglo-Indian named Edith, a race of people left over in India from from when they were under British control, and who were often not accepted by neither the English nor the Indian. The ending of the film is a bit sentimental, but on the whole it is a great film, with outstanding performances by the entire cast, and eye-opening themes which Ray brought together to great effect. ★★★★½
Finally, a quick, short film titled Kapurush (The Coward), from 1965. It’s a cool companion piece to The Big City, as it too has a modern setting, and is (quietly) about a strong woman as well. Amitabha (Soumitra Chatterjee, the adult Apu from The World of Apu) is traveling when his car breaks down outside a little town. An older gentleman, Bimal (Haradhan Bandopadhyay, Arati’s boss in The Big City) offers to put him up in his house for the night. A grateful Amitabha accepts, but when they arrive to the house, he is dismayed to find Bimal’s much younger wife is his own ex-girlfriend. Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee, the charming Arati from The Big City) had a falling out with Amitabha a few years previous, and the story of their relationship unfolds for the viewer in heartrending fashion. Reunited now, Amitabha begs Karuna to come away with him, not understanding how she can be in love with the older Bimal. But Karuna is coy, deflecting her true feelings, and not giving Amitabha the satisfaction of knowing what is going on in her head. The film is only about an hour, but it is a wonderful little piece with truly amazing performances from actors who would go on to be considered some of India’s greatest of all time. I think it is safe to say, after watching these movies, Satyajit Ray has become one of my favorites, and I look forward to seeing more of his stuff in the future. ★★★★