He was an immensely talented filmmaker, writing all his own screenplays, designing the sets and costumes, and handling the camera post-Charulata. He composed much of the music and designed the artwork for the film. He designed at least two fonts - the typefaces Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre. He received numerous honors, not least the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
His first film "Pather Panchali" was based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee. It is set in a small Bengal village in the 1920s. A Brahmin priest, Harihar, lives with his family and aged cousin in dire poverty. The birth of his son, Apu, seems to uplift the family out of their daily toil. Apu and his sister Durga grow close, play numerous childlike games in the dusty streets of the village and discover the small and secret wonders of life - from a train to a marriage ceremony. Their aunt, Indir, is an independent-spirited woman, who perhaps creates a sense of adventure and hope in Apu. She tells the children numerous stories, is mocked and cast out temporarily by her sister-in-law, and enfin, dies quietly and alone in a mango grove, accompanied only by the strains of Ravi Shankar's sitar. Things start to unravel now, and Durga is accused of a theft. Once cleared, the rains come, causing much joy in the village. Durga's dance in the rain leaves her ill and at death's door. Her father is away on one of his many trips in search of work. He returns to find a grieving household. His realization of his loss destroys him and he collapses in grief. The film ends with the family leaving the village in a cart, bound for Varanasi, spiritual center of Hinduism.
The subsequent films in the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (Apu's World) take up the story of Apu after the death of his father, and his subsequent migration to the big city of Calcutta. Later films of Ray were well-received and a cakewalk compared to the difficulties in making this, his first film. Almost everyone in the film was a novice to film-making, from Ray himself to Chunibala, the wizened aunt, an 80-year old retired theatre actress who was rediscovered by Ray lying in the alcove of a Calcutta brothel. Even the cinematographer of the film, 21-year-old Subrata Mitra, was a still photographer.
Satyajit Ray met Mitra on the sets of Jean Renoir's The River, filmed on location in India in 1951, and Renoir's first color film. The River describes a different culture, the English colonial culture - one originally alien to the land, yet one that took root in the fertile soil of Bengal, roots that have not been destroyed even today in modern Calcutta, with it's Royal Calcutta Golf Club and much more.
Renoir's economy of expression can be seen as a direct influence on Ray's early work, devoid of the later sentimentalism. The River is set in the 1940s, a time of much ebb and flow - the waning empire, the tensions post-war, the social upheaval engendered by centuries of suppressed national and communal identity. Harriet looks back on her adolescent life in a house by the banks of the Ganges, India's immense, mythical river, with it's ceaseless rhythm. She is one of the romantic contenders for a young American captain who is visiting his cousin after losing a leg in the war. The other contenders, Valerie and the confused Melanie are friends, yet their childhood friendship is transformed by the arrival of the outsider into their cloistered world. Each of them is an outsider in some way. Melanie was born in India and educated in a British boarding school. Her stoicism constrants with the exuberant Valerie and the awkward Melanie. The representation of the women might seem dated and stereotypical, but Renoir's technique and cinematographic talent cannot be denied, and his ability to capture the essence of the social conundrum of a temps perdu
Pather Panchali and The River are related in many ways. Satyajit Ray, then working in an advertising agency, served as a guide to Renoir on his visit to India to scout locations for the River. When Ray went to England in 1950, and steeped himself in the great films and filmmakers, he told Renoir the story of Pather Panchali, and was much encouraged to make the film. He re-used the art director of The River, Bansi Chandragupta, in his film. (An interview with Satyajit Ray on the making of his films, and Renoir, is at the BFI)
Q: What other filmmakers do you admire?
SR: Truffaut, Kurosawa – I admire many Japanese directors. They are great filmmakers, which means all aspects of filmmaking. Kurosawa has great humanism, style and verve. His style is very different, and has something of the West in him. I also like Western directors. These days I find I like films more than I like directors. These days, directors do not come up to your expectations all the time. I like Masculine et Feminine, but there is a lot of Goddard that I don't enjoy.
The two films have been reunited once again at Cannes this year. Both have been restored by the Academy Film Archive. The Ray film was restored under the auspices of the Satyajit Ray Restoration Project, which has restored 15 of Ray's 29 feature films thus far. The Renoir was restored by the Academy and the British Film Institute.
The films were shown to resounding applause at the Salle Bunuel in the Palais Du Festivals in Cannes, on May 12 and May 15.
The restoration itself is a remarkable tale - David Shepard and Dilip Basu visited Calcutta in 1992 to survey the condition of the films. They were horrified to find multiple tears in the reels, with 3 of the 12 having deteriorated from the 'vinegar syndrome'. Another negative was in London. Plans to use this one to restore the film were foiled when the lab in London burned down. The restorers at the Academy were forced to work from good quality positive print and an interpositive made for the National Film Archive in India. The restored print is now preserved in sub-zero temperatures in the climate-controlled vault of the Academy.
The River was restored from the original Technicolor negative at the BFI, and the restored masterpiece will premiere in the United States on May 26 in Los Angeles. It is available in the Criterion collection already