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Why the Best American Filmmakers Owe a Debt to Satyajit Ray

Why the Best American Filmmakers Owe a Debt to Satyajit Ray

Today, more people may know about Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese than Satyajit Ray, but it’s possible that neither American director would have their careers if it weren’t for this under-appreciated Bengali filmmaker.

Indian director Ray’s films revolutionized Bengali narratives, highlighting a unique and oddly contemporary form of storytelling that’s more relevant today than ever.

He was the first Bengali (or Indian) to receive the Academy Honorary Award, which he did in 1992, and his influence was evident in the social fabric of Bengal. Along with introducing social realism to Indian cinema, he also characterized the framework of a society post-partition, a culture redefining itself after imperialism. He embraced the tenets of the tradition of Indian theatre, and focused on the canon of coming-of-age stories.

Comparable to Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning Bengali writer, Ray’s genius was also far-reaching. He was a true polymath — writing, directing, designing (storyboards, art, costumes—you name it), composing (he composed the scores for all his movies after “Three Daughters” and/or collaborated with Ravi Shankar), designing the calligraphy for the opening credits, and handling the cinematography. He was also a self taught painter, and a contemporary in Bengali literature.

So, Ray — possibly the first classical Indian director, and a true stylist — deserves the showcase he received this month at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox, in a retrospective that concluded over the weekend.

Here are a few reasons why you should get acquainted with Ray’s filmography.

An Underappreciated Master

Ray began his career by writing a lot of essays for the Calcutta Film Society journals, where he wrote, influenced by the essays of Rudolf Ernheim (the most famous theoretician at Hollywood during the late silent era) and “The River” by Jean Renoir, which also had an immense impact on his stylistic vision as a filmmaker.

However, for a director that was described as “undoubtedly a giant in the film world” by Henri Cartier Bresson and one of “the four greats” by Martin Scorsese (the other greats include Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini), Ray is still a relatively unknown director. Ironically, Kurosawa once wrote to Ray’s biographer, Andrew Robinson, declaring that “not to have seen [Ray’s] films is like living without seeing the sun or the moon.”

Ray’s lack of exposure is largely due to the limited distribution of his films. Perhaps, because of a lack of access, he was not able to have the large-scale success of other contemporary masters such as Kurosawa and Bergman. Another reason might be that his films are defined by a neo-realist aesthetic. There is an austerity that exists in Ray’s films: They don’t necessarily require the same rigorous exegesis required of many of the vaunted European filmmakers, from Fellini to Resnais. But that degree of accessibility is also why Ray’s work has influenced so many popular filmmakers in the west.

Modern Influences

Wes Anderson dedicated his fifth feature, “The Darjeeling Limited,” to Ray. “Charu’s Theme,” from the film “Charulata,” serves as a beautiful leitmotif that bounds the tragi-comedy of the Whitman brothers together in Anderson’s film. “It’s some of the most unique music that we’ve ever used,” Anderson told Rolling Stone. “I had to personally introduce myself to the Satyajit Ray Family and Foundation and convince them that it was worthwhile to digitize all of his master tapes. I wound up sitting in Calcutta for five days waiting for them to hand them over. But that was one of the great experiences of my life.”

The final scene of “Darjeeling” involves Jack, Peter and Francis running after the train “Bengal Lancer.” The allusions to Ray are clear — the men are almost like Durga and Apu from Pather Panchali running across the village meadows as a train whistles in the distance.

Film critic Michael Sragow summizes that Ray’s Apu trilogy has influenced many coming of age stories. According to Sragow, the strangest and most deafening pop-culture phenomena Ray has supposedly influenced is the Indian convenience-store owner Apu voiced by Hank Azaria on “The Simpsons.”

After seeing Ray’s “Days and Nights,” Pauline Kael wrote: “Ray’s films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness in me than the work of any other director…No artist has ever done more than Satyajit Ray to make us re-evaluate the commonplace.”

Genius Begat Genius

Supposedly William Wyler and Elia Kazan described “Devi” as poetry on celluloid; Ray was also said to have highly impressed Stanley Kubrick. But it was Scorsese who supposedly pushed for Ray’s Academy Award in 1992, and over the years has attempted to restore many of Ray’s films. In fact, Scorsese was one of the few to speak publicly about how Ray influenced Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”

Ray’s “Alien” was a film based on his short story entitled “Bankubabur Bandhu” (“Banku Babu’s Friend”), which he wrote in 1962 for the Bengali magazine Sandesh. Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando were cast as leads, and Columbia Pictures were chosen as producers in the U.S.-India co-production.

Due to certain script complications, and Brando eventually dropping out, Ray became disillusioned with the project. He never returned to the script, but agreed that Spielberg’s “E.T” “would not have been possible without my script of ‘The Alien’ being available throughout America in mimeographed copies,” claiming the young auteur had plagiarized his script. The parallels between the two stories are stark and evident, and although Spielberg denounced accusations of plagiarism, it is without a doubt that — much like the majority of Hollywood — his work was heavily influenced, shaped and inspired by the uncompromising creativity of Ray’s vision.


François Truffaut is reported to have said about Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.”

Of course, there are many more recent films focusing on the underprivileged classes — everything from “Sin Nombre” to “City of God” reflect Ray’s ability to illustrate the poverty without glamorizing the underlying plight. And, much like Ray’s work, those films have been assailed by some critics. Darius Cooper, author of “The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity,” states that while many critics celebrated the Apu trilogy “as a eulogy of third-world culture, others criticized it for what they took to be its romanticization of such a culture.”

All of Ray’s films use lyricism to convey a depth of humanism. The philosophical and allegorical narrative structure — an ongoing homage to Bengali folklore — captures a very unique time in a burgeoning and bustling society. The gentle quality of his filmmaking is never forced. Every shot magically captures the village and nature of Bengal. The natural surroundings are almost like second characters: the wind in the trees, the hilltops, the long grass, a close shot of a spider crawling out of the bowl, the wind shaking the unstable bristles of a makeshift hut, the taste somehow perfectly captured of a storm and oncoming rain.

There is never any prominent sense of cruelty in Ray’s films. They are both genuinely heartfelt and great works of art, qualities all too rare in contemporary cinema, but readily found among modern filmmakers working to keep his tradition of art alive.

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