The World According to Satyajit Ray

Still from Pather Panchali.

In India they’re celebrating the one-hundreth anniversary of the birth of the brilliant Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, who directed 36 films and who is famous in the world of cinema for the trilogy known as The World of Apu. The three films can all be streamed at modest prices and are well worth seeing. They provide a picture of life in India not that long ago. They also furnish a sense of Ray as an artistic director who used the camera to probe the human heart. Call him the Indian Orson Welles. The music by sitar master, Ravi Shankar, adds greatly to the power and the beauty of the trilogy.

Yes, it’s the one-hundrerth anniversary of Ray’s birth, but the Indians are not celebrating the occasion very enthusiastically. The director, who was born in 1921 and who died in 1992 at the age of 70, belongs in large part to an India that Indians want to believe no longer exists. Call it a world of poverty where men, women and children go barefoot, live in what might be described as “hovels,” and subsist on a meager diet of rice. They eat with their hands, not knives, forks and spoons.

I spent two weeks in and around New Delhi a couple of years ago, breathed the terribly polluted air, spent hours stuck in traffic and saw mile after mile of Indians living in cardboard shacks along the sides of roads. I also visited modern Hindu and Moslem universities, met students who spoke English with a British accent and called me “sir” at every possible opportunity, a legacy I assumed of the British Empire and its insistence on hierarchy.

It’s a complicated place. One woman I met attended Christian schools, teaches at a Muslim university and considers herself a Hindu. “It’s a culture,” she told me. She’s also a neo-Marxist. Her complexity is a reflection of the kinds of complexities that Ray explores in his films.

During my visit, in and around New Delhi, I encountered signs of Hindu nationalism and saw nearly everywhere I traveled the picture of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, and yet another global “strong man.” Modi seems to have botched the pandemic which has led to the deaths of nearly half-a-million people in the subcontinent.

May 2021 was the worst month for cases and deaths due to COVID-19 in India, which is usually described as “the world’s biggest democracy.” If so, it seems to be rapidly in danger of erasure.

Death is no stranger in the three films that make up The World of Apu, that trace the life and times of one impoverished Indian family, the Rays, and in particular the journey of a young man named Apu. His wife dies in childbirth. The main character also mourns the death of both his mother and his father. Pather Panchali (1955), the first in the series, is bleak. So is the second, Aparajito (1956), and the third, Apu Sansar (1959).

Not surprisingly, the Indian government pressured Ray to provide a happy ending for Pather Panchali. That he would not do, though the second and third films in the trilogy are less bleak than the first. There’s a happy ending of sorts in the last in the series. After years of separation, Apu is reunited with his young son who longs for his father

There is almost nothing overtly political in the trilogy. By my count, the word “caste” is only mentioned once. There’s no talk of Nehru or “partition,” no references to Gandhi, and nothing specific about colonialism, neo-colonialism or post-colonialism. In the World of Apu, India is no longer a visible part of the British Empire, but the lives of the Indians have not improved much with independence, a phenomenon that Franz Fanon observed all over the Third World and commented on in The Wretched of the Earth.

By western standards, the lives of the Ray family are certainly wretched, though father, mother and son also find rare beauty in everyday life and experience moments of joy. In that sense, poverty is not a disaster for them. Camus shared that perspective. “Poverty, first of all, was never a misfortune for me,” he wrote. “It was radiant with sunlight.. I owe it to my family, first of all, who lacked everything and who envied practically nothing.

Satyajit’s own family was relatively well off. The future director went to college, worked in advertising and as a book designer and in 1947 co-founded the Calcutta Film Society. Independence from England brought an uptick in cultural freedom. Ray met the French director, Jean Renoir, who had come to India in the late 1940s to shoot his film, The River.

Renoir encouraged Ray to make movies. In London for six months in 1950 he apparently watched 99 films, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), often described as a masterpiece of neo-realism. There are no bicycle thieves in Pather Panchali, but there are very lovable thieves who steal fruit from a neighboring orchard they were forced to sell. Ray’s sympathies are with the thieves, though the wealthy owners of the orchard turn out to be compassionate.

The director isn’t preachy or moralistic, but he clearly wants people to get along, and for the well-off to help those without rupees and material goods.

If critics have had a complaint about Ray’s films it’s usually that they’re slow moving. By Hollywood and Bollywood standards that’s true. Still, they build in intensity. All three films have climactic scenes which are well worth the wait. They focus largely on village life, though Ray expanded his canvas to include Benares and the Ganges. After the death of his wife in childbirth, Apu goes on a pilgrimage that takes him across India and from the sacred to the secular, and underdevelopment to the industrial age.

Trains play a vital role in the trilogy, linking people and places and helping to make India, Indian. That’s also what Ray’s films did for several generations. Apu’s world is far removed from contemporary London, New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City, but his journey has a universal ring. Viewers usually can’t help but empathize with him and share his grief and his joys.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.