Winning Streak: Satyajit Ray 1958-1964
Posted by martinteller on August 21, 2012
I was invited by The Movie Waffler to participate in this Blogathon, highlighting a particular director’s “winning streak” of great movies. My first thought was Ming-liang Tsai’s entire career, but that would have felt like excessive fanboyism, and besides, he’s very much an acquired taste. As is Bela Tarr, whose work from Damnation onwards is all stellar in my opinion, but a hard sell for non-believers. Bergman’s career is spotted with misfires, leaving only a series of “streaks” that are numerous but very brief. So I turn to my other favorite director, Satyajit Ray.
I could have started from the very beginning, but the lightweight Parash Pathar breaks that streak. So we start with…
Jalsaghar (The Music Room) 1958 – Based on a novel by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, the story of an aging feudal Bengali landlord sometime in the 1930′s. Obsessed with one-upping his neighbor and trapped in a time that has passed, he throws a series of lavish parties that he is increasingly unable to afford. His commitment to these parties and his infatuation with music drives a wedge between him and his family. It’s an incredible study of the damaging effects of pride, a look at feudalism during colonial rule, and the folly of pursuing social status. Chhabi Biswas is superb in the lead role, a man slowly crumbling away. And Subrata Mitra’s cinematography is some of his best work. The music is of course a major highlight of this film, with a score by Vilayat Khan and dazzling performances by Begum Akhtar, Roshan Kumari, Ustad Bismallah Khan, Waheed Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. Sadly, as I write this, this remains the only Satyajit Ray film to get a decent DVD (and Blu-Ray) release here in the States.
Apu Sansar (The World of Apu) 1959 – The conclusion to Ray’s “Apu trilogy” and possibly the best film of the three, or at least very close to Pather Panchali. Although one feels that perhaps Apu has been through quite enough, the hardships are presented with compassion and insight. The scenes of Apu and Aparna in his tiny apartment are particularly striking. Ray establishes intimacy between them in a series of small details… without a single kiss or embrace. It’s an intensely powerful and heartfelt work, both soul-crushing and life-affirming, a tear-jerker that earns its tears instead going for easy sentimentality. Again, Ravi Shankar provides a wonderful score. The first Ray film to star Soumitra Chatterjee, who would go on to do 14 more with the director.
Devi (The Goddess) 1960 – My #76 film of all time. Ray would tackle religious fanaticism again in the comic Mahapurush but this is a far more complex and insightful study of it. It is not an all-out assault on Hinduism, but instead highlights a conflict between modern Hindus and traditional, more superstitious Hindus. The film is quite dark, not only in tone but in lighting. The household seems crowded with shadows, veils, curtains and window bars, suggesting unenlightenment, oppression and entrapment. There isn’t a sour performance in the bunch, but special praise should be heaped on Sharmila Tagore, still a teenager at the time but delivering a subtle and multi-faceted characterization.
Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) 1961 – I’m cheating a little bit here. This is a group of three 1-hour episodes, based on Rabindranath Tagore stories. It was released internationally as “Two Daughters” with the weakest of three episodes excised, and that is the version I consider to be “great”. With the ghost story “Monihara” included, the whole is merely “very good”. But “The Postmaster” is a sublime piece of work, containing complex emotional beats that are conveyed with very little dialogue. Economical filmmaking that works as both a heartbreaking drama and an incisive socio-political allegory. And “Samapti” is a lightly comic, charming romance with a touch of social commentary and a satisfying resolution. One of Ray’s most charming stories.
Kanchenjungha 1962 – At the foot of Mount Kanchenjungha in the Himalayas is a popular resort spot known as Darjeeling. Monisha is a young woman vacationing with her wealthy family, including her domineering father who is trying to persuade her to marry a “respectable” engineer he has chosen. When Monisha meets a less well-to-do young student named Ashoke, her feelings begin to unravel. The film also focuses on crises involving Monisha’s mother and her sister. The story plays out in real-time, mostly as a series of walking-and-talking conversations. The multi-threaded narrative is very unusual for Ray. Although it doesn’t have the emotional “punch” of Ray’s other films, it doesn’t need it. The structure makes it interesting, and it’s supported by subtle performances , a very good script, and more of Ray’s terrific scoring. I like how it explores three relationships in different stages of crisis.
Abhijan (The Expedition) 1962 – Probably the low point of this streak, but still a very good film. The setting is northwest Bengal, roughly 1930. A taxi driver (who, as in Ritwik Ghatak’s 1958 Ajantrik, is oddly smitten with his vehicle) named Narasingh has his permit taken away for reckless driving, and holes up in a small town. He gets involved in opium smuggling, and a love triangle with a schoolteacher and a prostitute. Narasingh struggles with issues of good and evil, corruption and redemption. The film touches on a lot of interesting themes, and in his home territory of Bengal, this was Ray’s biggest box office success.
Mahanagar (The Big City) 1963 – My #2 film of all time. In this movie, Ray touches on so many facets of humanity… pride, shame, integrity, jealousy, family, the value of work. He takes a very simple domestic problem and makes it absolutely fascinating, relevant, touching and warm. The one criticism that I would level against it is that Arati is perhaps too saintly: efficient, generous, sympathetic, loyal, gracious, friendly, determined, and accommodating. It’s nonetheless a lovely, simple, understated work. Roger Ebert calls it “One of the most rewarding screen experiences of our time.” This is the first Ray film to star Madhabi Mukherjee, and she would do only two more, but she’s utterly transcendent in all of them.
Charulata (The Lonely Wife) 1964 – My #10 film of all time. It’s a film loaded with detail and symbolism. The sets are meticulously researched in their period detail. In the opening scene, Charu prowls from window to window, gazing curiously at the banalities of the outside world through opera glasses. Her husband walks past without noticing her. In this scene free of dialogue, we immediately understand her place and her isolation. It is, in my opinion, an elegant, perfectly executed melodrama. The camerawork is extraordinary, with some very graceful tracking shots. The performances are, across the board, brilliant, especially the three principals. Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee are at their absolute finest here.
So what broke this amazing streak, culminating with what I consider two of the greatest films ever made? Another anthology film, Kapurush o Mahapurush. Two stories, the first of which is quite lovely, but the second a rather poorly executed farce about a cult charlatan. Oh well. There are very few duds in Ray’s career, in my humble opinion, and plenty of highlights to explore outside the reaches of this particular “streak.”