Who? This month marked the start of a two-part season at the BFI devoted to the films of Indian director Satyajit Ray, a man widely heralded as one of world cinema's greatest auteurs.
What? Ray was born in Calcutta in 1921 to a Bengali family of artistic and literary prominence. He was educated in Bengali and English and had a deep appreciation for both Eastern and Western culture, something that explains the universal appeal of his work. Ray began his career as a commercial artist in advertising but, after a stint assisting Jean Renoir on his 1951 film The River, found himself inextricably drawn to the world of independent cinema. He began shooting his first film Pather Panchali in 1952 and never looked back, going on to make 36 films in total, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. Shortly before his death in 1992, he was awarded an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
"What truly defines and characterises each of Ray's films is the striking combination of compassion, humanity and humour unique to their director"
Why? Ray was exceptional in his versatility as a director, both in terms of subject matter and approach. His body of work spans an impressive array of moods and genres – from epic tragedies to dark comedies and ghost stories (Monihara) to children's fantasies (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) – without ever feeling gimmicky or over-stretched. But it was in his practice that Ray demonstrated most remarkably his vast range of abilities, single-handedly writing and adapting scripts, painstakingly designing sets and costumes, wielding cameras and editing frames individually. On top of that, he composed many of the film scores and designed the posters and credits for each production. He is even said to have acted out each of the roles to his respective actors to help them achieve the subtleties of his vision. Production aside, however, what truly defines and characterises each of Ray's films is the striking combination of compassion, humanity and humour unique to their director. Akira Kurosawa perfectly summarises this as "the quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race," and it is this that accounts for the timeless poignancy of Ray's work.
On the subject of why the BFI have chosen now in particular to revive and celebrate Ray's output, Andrew Robinson explains, "At a time when the razzamatazz of Bollywood too often dominates Indian culture, it will be a treat to experience – in prints faithfully restored by the Academy Film Archive – an alternative, subtler and richer cinematic vision of India and the human condition: the universe of Satyajit Ray."
The BFI's celebration of Satyajit Ray runs until October 5. Click here to view the full list of screenings and book tickets.