Re-visiting Satyajit Ray

One of the Ray photos on the excellent website of the Satyajit Ray Society (see below) – a must visit resource.

Like many others of my generation, my first taste of Indian Cinema came via Satyajit Ray. I can’t remember when I first saw his films, but certainly by the early 1970s I had seen most of the early work and I saw the later 1970s films as they were released. But by 1981, when I first visited India, I had begun to be interested in the more overtly ‘political’ films of the New Wave/parallel cinema and in classic Hindi Cinema. I turned away from the humanist art cinema of Europe and its Indian equivalent. In the last ten years I’ve come to realise just how much I misunderstood Ray and how his films produced their meanings. My recent trip to Kolkata has prompted me to reconsider Ray in the context of Bengali Cinema.

Ray’s story is fairly well-known, so I won’t rehearse it in detail here. Suffice to say, Satyajit Ray (1921-92) was one of the first genuine auteurs – a multi-talented man capable of writing music, designing title cards (and even his own typeface), writing, directing, producing, photographing and editing films – a total of 40 features, shorts and documentaries. He professed an admiration of Hollywood but was initially influenced by the realism of Jean Renoir and the Italian neo-realists. Mostly Ray worked in Bengali language cinema. During the 1960s he explored various forms of modernism in developing his filmmaking approach. He thought of himself as making ‘political’ statements in some of his films, but his connection to the New Wave/parallel cinema trends in Indian Cinema is open to a wide range of interpretation. What is clear though is that in the fierce intellectual climate of Bengali film culture, Ray was an undoubted major figure and for cineastes worldwide he was one of the ‘masters of cinema’ and acknowledged as such by peers like Kurosawa Akira.

Here are a few of the accessible overviews of Ray as a filmmaker:

Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata

Senses of Cinema

Manas at UCLA

Satyajit Ray Film and Study Centre

Culturazzi (3 part overview by Shubhajit Lahiri)


This will be a long-term project and will also extend to consideration of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I hope to discuss several of the films and to collate links to other scholars. Perhaps others can join in?

4 responses to “Re-visiting Satyajit Ray

  1. I am currently writing a book on Indian cinema and having finished the chapter on Bimal Roy, I could not help but comment on how an interesting social and political ideological subtext seemed to lurk in many of the popular Indian films of the fifties era. Ghatak’s politicised status means that Ray’s work is somewhat undervalued in terms of its ideological content – the most recent issue of Cineaste has a brilliant essay titled ‘Satyajit Ray: Liberalism and Its Vicissitudes’ by Chandak Sengoopta (unfortunately no link on the website) which excavates Ray’s work in terms of a profoundly misunderstood liberal, political agenda. Personally, ‘Distant Thunder’ and its documentation of the Bengal Famine of 1943 is one of his most overtly politically engaged films. Also Bimal Roy is another Bengali film maker who seems to been overshadowed by Ray and Ghatak especially in the pivotal role he played in laying the foundations for the emergence of an art cinema.

    • Hi Omar

      I’ve only just updated myself on your blog so apologies for not noticing that you’ve started on Ritwik Ghatak. Looks like good stuff so I’ll link to it.

      The book sounds great — which publisher are you doing it for?

      I haven’t got that issue of Cineaste yet, but I’ll look out for it. Re Distant Thunder – as I remember, this was the one Ray film that did attract attention as being ‘political’ at the time of its release in the UK.

      And yes, of course, Bimal Roy should be included with the other three Bengali directors.

  2. Thanks Roy. It’s for Auteur publications, titled ‘Studying Indian Cinema’. A book for the general reader and mainly aimed at schools and colleges. I am currently researching Ghatak and have been steadily working my way through his films, some of which are simply impossible to find. I have managed to get my hands on a copy of ‘Cinema and I’ which is a book of Ghatak’s writings on cinema; it is fascinating. Much of the academic books on Ghatak are also currently out of print. I see in your report on the Kolkata film festival that you mentioned somekind of retrospective on Bimal Roy took place – did you get a chance to see any of the films? I also see that you are starting a new course at the Cornerhouse on Indian cinema but I was eager to come along like last time (cinema of two cultures was brilliant) but unfortunately I am teaching at that time – a real downer!

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