The great Bengali director Satyajit Ray died and also got a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992, at which time the Academy couldn’t even scrounge up a proper tribute reel on account of lacking broadcast-quality prints. Restorations of his films have been ongoing since then, and lucky you, now’s your chance to catch Ray’s masterly Apu Trilogy on the big screen.
Yes, even before The Simpsons, the whole world knew the name Apu. That began with an unprecedented portrait of rural Indian boyhood in Ray’s 1955 debut, Pather Panchali. As is clear from our first proper introduction to the character, when he peeks with one eye out from a blanket and then rises into an embracing close-up, this Apu is enduringly sensitive, observant and intelligent. For the family into which he’s born, poverty is a bane, but education is a priority. Eventually, he aspires to be a writer—but fate seems capricious, and life itself seems precarious. In Aparajito (1956), he reaches adolescence and goes away to school; in Apur Sansar (1959), he becomes a father. Any summary is reductive; what makes the films work is the sense they give of accumulating life experience.
The Calcutta-born son of a culturally prominent family, Ray first worked in advertising and designing the covers of books. His key creative influences included the neorealist Vittorio De Sica, whose Bicycle Thieves was a formative inspiration; the humanist Jean Renoir, whom Ray befriended when Renoir shot The River in India; and the discursive maximalist Charles Dickens, whose novels Ray studied in college and thereafter admired. So there you have Italy, France and England, all acting on an artist who would later be scrutinized for his Indianness, and you have a modern movie storyteller who took his lessons from a pioneer of cinéma vérité, the heir to an impressionist painter and the world’s most famous writer of big books.
A rare cosmopolitan radiance was the result—Bollywood, it’s not—and a critical reputation sometimes stretched uncomfortably between Eastern and Western attitudes; one drawback of international eminence is being the living proof that you can’t please everybody. Posthumously, the somewhat persistent question of whether Ray was “Indian enough” seems increasingly silly, as if being so receptive to the rest of the world, and having a universally intelligible voice, would somehow disqualify him.
In his prime, Ray offered an oasis of sorts, a comparative quietude among the formal, political and metaphysical provocations put out by other arthouse titans of his time. Here was something fixed lower in the human hierarchy of needs, something gracefully grounded. “For a popular medium,” Ray once wrote, “the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment.” The Apu films bear this thesis out. They’ve aged well because they were made with complete conviction, and it’s hard to understate the value they place on human dignity. Don’t miss the chance to check them out.