May 5, 2021

Sun, Moon, and Cinema: Celebrating Satyajit Ray at 100

By Stuart Mitchner

I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught.

—Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), on American films

Sunday, May 2, marked the 100th birthday of the Indian film director Satyajit Ray, who was presented with an honorary Oscar at the 1992 Academy Awards “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”

Videotaped as he lay in a Calcutta hospital three weeks before his death, the golden statuette clutched in one hand, Ray’s acceptance speech was direct, open, and down to earth, in contrast to the lofty rhetoric of the citation: “When I was a small, small school boy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. Became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply, was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn’t get a reply. Then of course, I got interested in the cinema as an art form, and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn’t reply either. Well, there you are. I have learned everything I’ve learned about the craft of cinema from the making of American films. I’ve been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught.”

The Only Truth 

Last week the New York Times brought images from India’s pandemic nightmare to the breakfast table, vistas of funeral pyres burning in New Delhi and headlines like “Death Is the Only Truth” over Aman Sethi’s April 30 account of the mass cremations in Ghazipur. At the same time, my wife and I were watching the life and death truths at the heart of Ray’s Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu/Apur Sansa (1959), films of which Ray’s fellow director Akira Kurosawa has said, “Not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

A Touch of India

My own variation on Kurosawa’s sun/moon paradigm would be “Not to have seen India,” more specifically not to have spent half a year there in my mid-twenties. Ray’s death bed remarks about his love of American movies remind me of the curious effect the Indian mystique had on my response to An Affair to Remember, the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr romance I’d gone out of my way to avoid in the States. When I saw it at the Regal in New Delhi, however, that laughably improbable love story became so improbably delightful to me and my equally cynical friend that we actually tried to sneak in to see it again, only to be summarily ejected.

I’d like to think the Bengali schoolboy who wrote a fan letter to Deanna Durbin would be okay with me discussing Leo McCarey’s big bright 1957 CinemaScope romance in the same paragraph with The World of Apu. The Hollywood storyline has Grant and Kerr meeting on a cruise ship, falling in love and planning a rendezvous on the top of the Empire State Building, a meeting that Kerr misses when she’s struck by a cab as she crosses 34th Street. A no less improbable turn of events in Ray’s masterpiece has Soumitra Chatterji’s Apu saving the day by nobly stepping in to marry Sharmila Tagore’s Aparna when the groom goes mad, because according to the arranged wedding commandments, if Aparna isn’t married within the allotted time, she becomes officially and forever unmarriageable. What happens after the couple begins married life in Apu’s small, untidy Calcutta flat is a moving example of what Kurosawa had in mind when he put Ray’s cinema up there with the sun and the moon. An Affair to Remember goes  over the top and into La La Land when the lovers finally find each other after a series of sublimely ridiculous coincidences; when he asks her about the accident, how could it happen, her answer warranted a spot on AFI’s list of the top 100 movie quotes: “Oh, it was nobody’s fault but my own. I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to heaven. You were there.”

Joy and Sorrow

In Robin Wood’s monograph on The Apu Trilogy (Praeger 1971), he quotes novelist T.F. Powys: “In every good book a light shines that compels the reader to be joyful” — a light that Wood sees shining “with uncommon strength and consistency” in Ray’s films, “even as they evoke in us the profoundest sense of sorrow,” at the same time compelling us “to be joyful.” For Wood, the essence of Ray’s humanism is that while watching Pather Panchali or The World of Apu, “one feels in the presence of an exceptionally kind, generous, warm and sympathetic human being. If Apu is an ‘everyman’ figure, it is in the sense that he embodies what is finest in universal human potentiality: he is ourselves.”

Song of the Little Road

When I saw Pather Panchali a few days ago after a hiatus of at least 30 years, Ravi Shankar’s score was a revelation. I’d forgotten how much his music had to do with my first response, at 19. Slow to adjust to the laid back pace of the film, squirming in my seat, mind wandering, put off by the presence of Auntie, a toothless old hag shoving food into her mouth with both hands — François Truffaut walked out of a showing at Cannes 1956 saying “I don’t want to watch a movie of peasants eating with their hands” — I was carried along by Shankar’s music. The sinuous fusing of sitar, shenai, flute, and tabla sustained and enriched the mood and kept my mind from wandering. Imagine being virtually new to this rich, strange music, discovering and yet discovered by the sounds weaving melodiously round the corners and contours the camera was tracing, so fluent, so stirringly in harmony with light and motion, that you finally seem to feel it coming for you, lifting you up, making you aware of something larger than yourself, and more powerful, and yet somehow more wondrously, intimately close to the core of your own experience, the child in you — which happens when brother and sister, Apu and Durga, are playing, and you’re suddenly awake to their world, running along beside them, drawn into the childhood euphoria of poetry and
mystery, fun and mischief, as they quarrel and make up after she forgives him for raiding her cache of treasures to fashion a tinfoil headband for himself, Apu’s first incarnation as Krishna, the role he plays in the eyes of Aparna’s mother when he saves the wedding day.

And I had absolutely no interest in India at that age. I was in thrall to the postwar Vienna of The Third Man and Fellini’s Italy. I wasn’t even aware that Pather Panchali in English was Song of the Little Road. My destiny was being spelled out for me and I didn’t have a clue.

And when the music stopped! After being led along by the pied piper pipings of Ravi Shankar’s score, suddenly the children are out in a field, no sound but the air moving through a world of grass higher than they are (Woods refers to “the pliant beauty” of the “white, sensuous grasses”) and now there’s a strange sound, an eerie humming. Durga hears it first, she’s a head taller than her brother, turning this way and that, she spots a pylon humming with electricity. She approaches it, puts her ear to it, this alien object suggesting another world, the big city, Apu’s destiny, Calcutta. Now they’re both looking warily around them, as if sensing the stirring of something dangerous. Then they hear a sound they both know, but only as a sound, now they can see the train chugging along the horizon under puffs of black smoke, and they’re running toward it, hoping for a closer look at this new thing under the sun.

Apu is running toward his future, his fate. But Ray doesn’t give us the moment we’re expecting, a close-up of Apu or of both children watching the train, seeing it, experiencing it. Suddenly the train is everything, a mass of black noise, we’re on the other side of the tracks, and for a few seconds it’s as if the children have been consumed by the thunder of its passing. Wood thinks this is the director’s way of making us bring to the moment “our own adult experience of ‘progress’ and technology and cities; the train obliterates the landscape and shatters serenity; Apu becomes a tiny, frail figure dwarfed to insignificance.”

Coming back to the West from India, you may find yourself struggling for ways to express the magnitude of the experience, the impact of those moments when, for better or worse, India lowers the boom and leaves you feeling “dwarfed to insignificance.” Being in India, imagining India, even at a time as dark as the present, you can trust Kurosawa’s words about sun and moon and cinema, which are quoted at the top of the Criterion Channel’s May presentation, “Satyajit Ray at 100,” featuring 17 of Ray’s best films.