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Sathyajit Ray

A Conspicuous Absence

admin   July 5, 2021

Satyajit Ray’s work was showcased in Cannes Film Festival on several occasions. It is a tad disappointing, therefore, to find him missing from Cannes Classics in his centenary year. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful had one of Ray’s masterworks been in the mix this year as well?

By Saibal Chatterjee

Satyajit Ray had a long and symbiotic relationship with Cannes. It began with his very first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), which won the Best Human Document award at the festival’s ninth edition in 1956. The Indian maestro’s work was showcased in Cannes on several occasions thereafter. It is a tad disappointing, therefore, to find him missing from Cannes Classics in his centenary year.

After Pather Panchali, three of Ray’s films were in the Cannes Competition – Parash Pathar (1958), Devi (1962) and Ghare Baire (1984). A late-career work, Ganashatru (1989), played in the Special Screenings section. In 2013, one of his most consummate films, Charulata, was screened in Cannes Classics. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful had one of Ray’s masterworks been in the mix this year as well?

Widely credited with putting Indian cinema on the world map, Pather Panchali has been screened in Cannes on as many as four occasions. Besides the world premiere in 1956, when it heralded Ray’s arrival on the global stage, it was in Special Screenings in 1992 (as a homage to the filmmaker who had passed away weeks earlier), Directors’ Fortnight in 1995 (to mark the film’s 40th anniversary), and Cannes Classics in 2005 (on the occasion of the film’s 50th anniversary). It might have been in the fitness of things to find a slot for a Ray film in the Classics 2021 selection.
The Cannes Film Festival is the only one of Europe’s ‘big three’ where the top prize eluded Ray. In Venice, the second part of the Apu trilogy, Aparajito (The Unvanquished), won the Golden Lion in 1958. In 1973, Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), which was, like the Apu trilogy, adapted from a Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay novel, fetched him the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

It may be argued, and not unjustifiably, that Indian cinema has moved on since Satyajit Ray’s passing in 1992. It is also true that nearly 30 years on, the departed maestro continues to be a bright lodestar for contemporary subcontinental filmmakers seeking to make renewed global inroads. Ray perfected the art of making culturally rooted films that were, at the same time, universally relevant. That is an ability that can never go out of vogue.

No filmmaker in this country has reached the heights that Ray consistently did at the peak of his prowess – all the more reason to celebrate what he achieved in terms of paving the way for his successors.

In his centenary year and beyond, Ray remains a constant presence in our midst, reminding us of the intrinsic capacity of the medium to capture the essence of life that might be specific to one part of world and yet communicate with people across the globe. He was an auteur in the truest sense of the word, the kind of filmmaker that the Cannes Film Festival has feted over the decades.

Ray’s oeuvre is important not only as films but also as historical/social chronicles. “Seldom has a film director’s work chronicled the process of social change in a country over as long a span of time as Satyajit Ray’s,” film critic Chidananda Dasgupta wrote in his book The Cinema of Satyajit Ray. “The subjects of his films range over the shifting social scene in India for over one hundred and fifty years (at the time of the book’s publication).”

Dasgupta wrote: “Devi (The Goddess, 1960) is placed in the 1830s. Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977) in the 1850s. Charulata (1964) is laid in 1879, Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) at the turn of the century, the Apu trilogy in the early years of the 20th century. Sadgati (The Deliverance, 1981) was written by Premchand in the 1930s about an unspecified, as it were timeless, period. Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973) deals with the British-made wartime famine of 1943; besides, he of course made a host of contemporary films.”

Ray’s contemporary films – Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Mahanagar (The BigCity, 1963), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975), among others – present a vivid portrait of a society and a culture in flux. No filmmaker has ever caught the nuances of this process and its impact on human beings as felicitously as he did. The simplicity of his films was often deceptive. Nothing that Ray made was ever chance-directed.

Ray's Films

Ray at Cannes

Beginning with the ninth edition of the Cannes Film Festival (1956), where his debut film PatherPanchali won the Prix du Document Humain, the Indian maestro travelled to the Croisette on several occasions in subsequent years. He had three more titles in the Cannes Competition – Parash Pathar (1958), Devi (1962) and GhareBaire (1984) – besides Ganashatru (1989) in the Special Screenings section. In 2013, one of his greatest films, Charulata, was screened in Cannes Classics.

Pather Panchali is as much a part of Indian cinema folklore as it is of the Cannes Film Festival’s own history. In 1956, it won the Best Human Document Award, narrowly losing the Palme d’Or race to the French documentary Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World), directed by Louis Malle and famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It was a year of heavy-hitters in the Cannes Competition, with the likes of Ingmar Bergman (Smiles of a Summer Night, which also won a Special Award), Akira Kurosawa (I Live in Fear) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much) going head to head. It was also the year when Henri-Georges Clouzot, known for his seminal French thrillers, landed a Special Jury Award for his Picasso documentary, Le Mystere Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso).The jury was headed by French actor-director-producer Maurice Lehmann.