Western fascination with Bollywood is a big phenomenon—but it is recent. It would be no exaggeration to say that, for decades prior, Indian cinema in the minds of Western viewers was associated primarily with Satyajit Ray. What a formidable burden to place upon a single individual—that his films stand in for the entire cinematic output of one of the most populous and diverse countries on the planet. But how did it come to be this way?
One explanation has to do with the number of Western film critics who reserved for Ray’s work a descriptor that has few equals in critical judgment: “universal.” Robin Wood, for example, thought that it was “remarkable how seldom in Ray’s films the spectator is pulled up by any specific obstacle arising from cultural differences . . . [They] usually deal with human fundamentals that undercut all cultural distinctions.” To Pauline Kael, Apur Sansar felt “as if it were the world’s first love story.” For Michael Sragow, “Ray’s achievement rested on moviemaking artistry that was as universal as music.”
This is high praise for an artist—and we should rightly celebrate those creative figures, rare indeed, who strike such a chord of universalism in their audiences. Still, I find myself wondering what may be downplayed or lost when this received wisdom takes hold.
Let’s start with the bigger picture of Indian cinema. It is true that Ray was something new and original, even within Indian cinema, but his originality emerged as a response to the cinematic landscape of the time. When The Apu Trilogy appeared in the 1950s, India was the world’s largest producer of films, made almost exclusively by the mainstream commercial industry. Cinema had come early to India, not long after the first films of the Lumières in France, and a strong studio system was in place well before Ray’s debut, Pather Panchali (1955). Commercial films were made in large numbers both in Hindi and in several regional languages, but it was Hindi-language cinema, with Mumbai as its center of production, that proved to be most influential in determining the characteristics of the “typical” Indian movie of the time.
As the scholar Neepa Majumdar has noted, by the time Ray came along, a certain ruling Mumbai film “formula” was in place. This recipe produced, in large numbers, films that were “all-inclusive entertainments,” driven by stars and containing “something for everyone in the audience: songs, dances, fights, romance, stunts, and comedy packaged into a melodramatic narrative form.” This template not only reigned in Mumbai but also spread to the other regional-language film sectors, such as Bengali-language commercial cinema. And while the template was enormously fertile, giving rise to a large body of rich and inventive popular art, Ray was seeking to do something else: create a cinema that turned away from the extravagant style and genre moves of popular cinema and toward a finely textured rendering of lived life. Seven years before Pather Panchali, he staked out his position in an essay titled “What Is Wrong with Indian Films?”
Pather Panchali was produced outside of this industrial context, one of India’s earliest “independent” films, and indeed did something new in terms of subject matter and style as well, depicting rural life with a detailed, delicate realism. It, and the rest of The Apu Trilogy, went on to international acclaim; in this regard, the films were unprecedented in Indian cinema. But the trilogy also achieved great critical and commercial success in Bengal, resonating deeply with the public because of the subtlety and authenticity—the fresh familiarity—of its depictions. It is this particularity that we risk overlooking by thinking of the films simply as universal.
I can think of at least two reasons why many Western critics over the years have underemphasized Ray’s cultural specificity. The first has to do with the way his films played into Western perceptions of India. Chandak Sengoopta has argued that Ray’s early films, and The Apu Trilogy in particular, were warmly received in the West primarily because they unconsciously affirmed Western notions of India that strongly associated the country with poverty. Once Ray began to make films about middle-class and rich people—as he would with The Hero (1966), Company Limited (1971), and The Middleman (1976)—the work suddenly seemed less universal.
The second reason that Western critics have soft-pedaled the culturally specific in Ray has to do with Ray himself—and his intriguingly contradictory and ambivalent statements and writings about his own cinematic work. Hailing from a renowned Bengali literary family, Ray was a writer of repute, well-known for his short stories, novellas, and poems, as well as his essays on the arts. Late in his life, in a letter to Chidananda Das Gupta, with whom he’d founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, Ray claimed: “I don’t think Indian art traditions have anything at all to do with my development as a filmmaker . . . If I have succeeded as a filmmaker, it is due to my familiarity with Western artistic, literary, and musical traditions.” The profound effect upon Ray of witnessing Jean Renoir shoot The River in India; the impact of seeing Bicycle Thieves for the first time (“I knew immediately that I would make [my first film] in the same way, using natural locations and unknown actors”); and his lifelong love of Western classical music: these are well-known details of his biography.
But Ray also frequently acknowledged the plethora of non-Western—often uniquely Bengali—factors that helped form his artistic sensibility, and there were broad historical influences at play as well. The interaction between Europe and Bengal in the nineteenth century was deep and significant, giving rise to what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance. Ray’s family belonged to a small, minority Hindu group called the Brahmos, who were part of this renaissance. Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson describes how a blend of Christianity, Western literature and ideas, and Hindu social progressivism—such as a rejection of both the caste system and idolatry—came to be important for the Brahmos.
Fundamental to the shaping of Ray’s sensibility was the two-and-a-half-year period he spent at Rabindranath Tagore’s university, Santiniketan. Tagore was a Bengali polymath—a poet, composer, novelist, painter, and playwright—who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913. Santiniketan was intended by Tagore as an alternative to the British model of education in India; its pastoral setting and the broad aim of its educational program to connect India with the rest of the world were visionary. Having been born and raised in Kolkata, Ray thrived on urban life and was reluctant to leave the city. But once at Santiniketan, he was initiated into an entire world of Indian art and culture. Later, he would remark: “Santiniketan taught me two things: to look at paintings and to look at nature.”
During his time at the university, Ray set out, along with two friends, on a tour of the country’s historic sites, such as Ajanta, Ellora, and Khajuraho, to see the great works of Indian classical art. Robinson believes that the expedition led to a consolidation of Ray’s understanding of the separate and distinctive qualities of Eastern and Western art. What art from China, Japan, and India had in common, Ray felt, was “a sort of symbolism and a looking for the essence rather than the surface” of things—aspects that also, interestingly, appeared in his favorite Western painters, Cezanne and Giorgione. He would write, “There’s something very mysterious and poetic in Giorgione which appeals to an Indian.”
The invocation of the “poetic” is a crucial one for Ray. When he adapted Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s novels into the films of The Apu Trilogy, Ray’s special additions were what he referred to as poetic elements—and these were the details that audiences often remembered vividly afterward: the moment in Pather Panchali when Apu throws the necklace stolen by Durga into the pond and we watch as the weeds on the surface close in and the water slowly returns to the way it was, the secret of an impecunious but high-caste family preserved forever; Harihar’s death in Aparajito (1956), when dozens of pigeons burst into flight, as if his soul were abruptly leaving his body and ascending to the heavens; Apu’s suicide attempt on the railroad tracks in Apur Sansar (1959), when we are alarmed by the squeal of a pig accidentally perishing on the tracks—and we realize that, purely by chance, one living being has “saved” the life of another.
On the one hand, these wordless moments carry a special, affective charge due to the lyricism of “total cinema”: a potent and expressive combination of shot composition, human (and/or nonhuman) figures, setting, sound design, and movement—in other words, the “universal” language of mise-en-scène. But simultaneously, such moments also work in a culturally specific register; the “symbolic” quality that Ray associated with Eastern art can be fully apprehended and understood only through a familiarity with the culture from which the artwork springs—in this case, that of Hindu Bengal.
The “universal” appeal of The Apu Trilogy made for its quick recognition in the West as an important work of “art cinema”—but such a category did not yet exist in India. Majumdar points out that, even after the trilogy’s Western renown, Ray saw himself not as an “art filmmaker” but instead as a “serious commercial filmmaker.” It was not until the 1970s that India’s art cinema—also known as “parallel cinema”—came to be called such. This strand of films owed a great deal to Ray, but it is important to note that he was not its sole inspiration. In Bengali cinema alone, two other figures were key influences, making their first films around the same time as Ray: Ritwik Ghatak, whose sensibility was deeply influenced by Brecht and Eisenstein, and whose stylistically bold and emotionally intense melodramas are haunted by the trauma of the Partition of Bengal; and Mrinal Sen, whose openly political and socially critical films of the early 1970s are early, signal achievements of parallel cinema.
This takes us back to Tagore, the Bengali figure who was perhaps the primary influence on Ray’s sensibility. As Das Gupta points out, not only did the actor Soumitra Chatterjee (who played several important roles for Ray, beginning with the adult Apu) resemble the young Tagore but the trilogy itself represents a move away from novelist Banerjee’s view of the world—a “slightly dewy-eyed vision of ‘Golden Bengal’”—to one closer to Tagore’s. This latter view is social-reformist and modernist—even if (as Das Gupta believes) it is not one of revolutionary political engagement. Tagore’s influence upon Ray, however, extended beyond the sociopolitical. Tagore’s songs and paintings made a formative impact, and Ray adapted several of the older artist’s stories into films, including Charulata (1964) and The Home and the World (1984).
In critical discussions of art cinema, Ray is often (and too conveniently) opposed to Ghatak. Despite their differences in personality and attitude—and the tenor of their work—they nevertheless share the profound marks of Tagore’s influence. Ghatak once wrote movingly, “I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all my feelings before my birth.” And in 1961, when Ray made his first documentary feature, its subject, treated with full admiration, was Tagore.
In the end, Ray and Tagore were united by a powerful bond: they were both masters of multiple forms. While Tagore’s prodigious gifts ranged across several of the arts, Ray orchestrated a fusion of art forms—and of the universal and the close to home—in that modern medium of synthesis par excellence: cinema. And there’s no more miraculous evidence of this synthesis in Ray’s work than The Apu Trilogy.