At the 1956 Cannes film festival, 35-year-old Satyajit Ray‘s debut film, the masterpiece Pather Panchali, won a Special Jury prize for Best Human Document and caused a sensation with its spare, lyrical portrayal of rural Indian life. In the 36 years that followed, until his death in 1992, the writer-director made more than 30 movies, many of them as brilliant as his first. They were, like the work of Ford, Rossellini or Kurosawa, emotionally sophisticated movies, both nationally specific and universal in their scope. Still, Ray’s place in the cinematic pantheon has often been overlooked. He was, and is, relatively ignored in his own country, where the glossy big business of Bollywood dominates, where Hindi — not Ray‘s native Bengali — is the language of popular culture and where the powers-that-be tended to frown upon his socially progressive ideas. It can be argued that, for an artist to become an international treasure, he must be acknowledged at some point as a national one; it’s easy to see how, without that push from his homeland, Ray‘s films have languished, literally rotting away in storage in the hot, humid Indian climate. Now entering its second week at LACMA, “Out of India: The Films of Satyajit Ray” is a progress report of sorts on a formidable project undertaken by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ film-preservation wing (in conjunction with various other organizations) to restore Ray‘s entire oeuvre. The series is made up largely of the results thus far, and what these rescued treasures reveal is a true auteur whose extraordinary moviemaking skill is matched frame for frame by his profound humanism.
Ray was no neophyte when he stepped into the international arena. From childhood, he had maintained a passion for movies, keeping a detailed diary of titles seen, devouring books and magazines, founding local film societies and writing passionate treatises on the cinema at home and abroad. Born to a Calcutta family distinguished in the arts and sciences, he earned a degree in economics before attending Santiniketan, the university founded by Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, where his studies in Chinese cal-ligraphy taught him the value of, as he once wrote, “minimal brush strokes applied with maximum discipline.” (A skilled musician, he also scored many of his films.) But while Ray may have been a dedicated intellectual and an exacting artisan, his most prepossessing gift was his ability to distill the essence of human experience. The potent, raw emotions that charge his movies are made all the more affecting when set within his measured rhythms and meticulous visual compositions.
Of this phenomenon, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), which screens this weekend, provides a vivid example. The final film in Ray’s famed “Apu Trilogy” — on a bill with the second, Aparajito, while the first, Pather Panchali, screened last week — it is also, arguably, the filmmaker‘s most sentimental movie. It stars the fantastic, fantastically handsome Ray stock player Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu, now grown up and living as a poor, aspiring writer in Calcutta. A happy aesthete, he pawns his books for rent, recites poetry at night by the train tracks and sleeps on a pallet with his writings piled ’round. When Apu travels to the country for the wedding of his friend‘s sister, however, fate twists him into the position of groom, and he returns to the city with a beautiful young bride (the exquisite Sharmila Tagore, great-granddaughter of the poet — then only 14, she would also be a Ray favorite before becoming one of India’s biggest stars). The writer-director renders their growing love with the sort of extreme delicacy that can come only from steady self-assurance. Where once Apu had woken oblivious to the ink stains blooming on his chemise, he now lingers to marvel at a hairpin he finds by his pillow — in Ray‘s hands, the simple action becomes the visual equivalent of a love-struck sigh. And when the marrieds settle into one of the film’s few extreme close-ups, their two incredible faces blending into a single breathtaking frame, time and the world, for a moment, stop for us as well — just as they do when we‘re newly in love.
“Out of India: The Films of Satyajit Ray” screens through April 20 at LACMA. For this week’s schedule, see Film and Video Events in Calendar.