[21 August 2011]
Pushing boundaries seems to be the thread that ties the directors of our seventh day together. From Japanese innovators to Italian iconclasts and Polish provocateurs, the directors that fall between Kenji Mizoguchi and the man who was perhaps India’s greatest visual storyteller, Satyajit Ray, all push the form in incredible, surprising ways.
Three Key Films: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Underrated: Street of Shame (1956). More accurately translated as Red Light District, Mizoguchi’s final film couples Kazuo Miyagawa’s deep-focus photography with the interwoven stories of five women working at a Tokyo brothel. Documenting the push and pull of rivalry and solidarity as the characters cope with oppression, Street of Shame is a fitting conclusion to Mizoguchi’s career. Its vision of female camaraderie is troubled by its acknowledgement of bitter truths.
Unforgettable: Sansho the Bailiff‘s Anju drowning herself in a lake while her mother’s plaintive songs echoes in the background. As she descends into the misty waters, Anju is both releasing herself from salvery and hiding her brother’s whereabouts; her suicide constitutes the most tender, indelible act of self-sacrifice in Mizoguchi’s filmography.
The Legend: Through a career marred by disease, personal tragedy, natural disasters, and war, Kenji Mizoguchi not only persevered, but also entered the pantheon of international cinema with a string of refined masterpieces. His greatest films are visually lush melodramas laden with tragic irony, and they cement his position as one of the masters of the tracking shot—Mizoguchi’s greatest tool, alongside his meticulous mise-en-scène, for exploring his characters’ emotional depths. Influenced by William Wyler and Josef von Sternberg, his films offer fluid, lyric imagery while earnestly relating human hardships.
Mizoguchi first gained renown in the 1930s for sensitively chronicling the lives of working-class women in films like Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). These films were at once topical and unsparing in their representations of contemporary Japanese sexual politics, frequently catching the ire of censors. This phase of his career culminated in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, a sprawling melodrama set against the world of kabuki theater. In order to continue making films and avoid being drafted during World War II, Mizoguchi accepted jingoistic projects like the bank-breaking epic The 47 Ronin (1941).
After the war, Mizoguchi fell into a personal and creative decline, broken only by the chance to finally make his passion project The Life of Oharu (1952). Its critical success revived his reputation, and he reached his artistic apex with his next two films, both of which won Silver Lions at the Venice Film Festival. Ugetsu Monogatari (or “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”) juxtaposes the lives of two couples in wartorn medieval Japan; Sansho the Bailiff follows a pair of noble siblings who slave for the title character after their father is disgraced.
Both films showcase Mizoguchi’s ability to subtly illuminate the past among dense, painterly landscapes, as well as the contributions of his long-time collabotors: cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, and actress Kinuyo Tanaka. Mizoguchi made four more films, including two color spectacles, before his early death from leukemia. Although often overshadowed in the popular consciousness by Ozu and Kurosawa, he was a unique voice in Japanese filmmaking, detailing women’s struggles with rare beauty and political awareness. Andreas Stoehr
Three Key Films: Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Underrated: While it may not seem like a documentary would fit very snuggly into Murnau’s filmography, Tabu (1931) actually is very much in line with the themes of Murnau’s more famous films. Many of these films feature a personal struggle to maintain oneself (The Last Laugh) or a relationship (Faust, Sunrise) in the face of social oppression or cosmic influence. Tabu works in exactly the same way; its central couple tries to remain together while out-running a Tribal elder who is attempting to track them down for breaking a religious taboo. Though certainly very different visually than Murnau’s other films (how can you make an Expressionist film about the South Pacific islands?) it is thematically linked to his previous work.
Unforgettable: Nosferatu climbs the staircase and enters Ellen’s room in Nosferatu. In what are now some of the most famous frames in film history, Count Orlok ascends a flight of stairs and enters the frightened Ellen’s room. Murnau chooses not to show us the face of Max Schreck. Rather, we see only his silhouette as he creeps up the stairs. After entering her room, the shadows of his hands flow over her body and grab her heart. It’s one of the most chilling sequences in all of cinema.
The Legend: In a twist of fate, F.W. Murnau would be never get to see his final film, Tabu, premiere to the public. After completing the film, a car accident tragically took his life. The story becomes somewhat ironic when compared to his films, as Murnau’s most popular and influential films are almost all about man’s struggle, and ultimate success, against the cosmos.
Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (the chosen name Murnau coming from a German town) was one of the giants of the silent era. Though only making films for a little over a decade, Murnau’s films are some of the silent era’s greatest achievements. Murnau’s films are visually stunning, using subjective camera and movement unrivaled by most of his contemporaries. Though not as drastically stylized as the works from Soviet montage or other German Expressionists, it could be argued that Murnau’s films would have a far more lasting and practical influence on future filmmakers.
Working in the German Expressionist and Kammerspiel movements, Murnau created films of high emotion and psychology. He started making movies in 1919, after serving as a fighter pilot in World War I. After a series of generally forgotten films, he would make one of his most famous films: Nosferatu. Though it would get him in legal trouble (it was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), the film was highly influential as one of the first major horror films.
In film, particularly silent film, Murnau found the perfect expression of his artistic sensibilities, a melding of the visual image and storytelling. There are very few moments in his work where the story and filmic image are not reliant on each other. Perhaps this should go without saying, though it should not be taken for granted in cinema’s early days, or even in today’s mainstream cinema.
Though less seen than Nosferatu, The Last Laugh may be Murnau’s crowning achievement. A chilling psychological tale into the decent of madness, the film also serves as a critique of Hollywood filmmaking, where our protagonist always has the last laugh and succeeds against his bad fortunes. Murnau would make the move to Hollywood and direct Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The film would go on to become one of the first two Best Picture winners at the Oscars (there were two different Best Picture awards at 1929’s ceremony).
After Sunrise, Murnau would make only a handful of films, including a few sound films which were poorly received. On a trip to the South Pacific, he would make his last movie: Tabu, an ethnographic documentary film with Robert Flaherty. Sunrise and Tabu are interesting tandem pieces: they both feature couples struggling against a greater force than themselves to remain together. One wonders how much success Murnau could have had in the sound era, since Murnau’s films are more reliant on image than many of his contemporaries. Tabu was originally intended as partly a sound film, but was restored to completely silent before his death. It’s possible that is exactly how Murnau would have had it. Joshua Jezioro
Three Key Films: Liebelei (1932), Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Lola Montes (1954)
Underrated: La signora di tutti (1934). One of Ophüls’ earliest and most overlooked titles, La signora di tutti is Ophüls’ lone Italian contribution and noteworthy for an ahead-of-its-time flashback structure and virtuoso camerawork. Those who would say there was only ever a time in cinematography pre-Citizen Kane and then post-Citizen Kane would do well to see the narrative powers possessed here by Ophüls and Ubaldo Arata’s camera, powers which predate Welles’ masterpiece by seven years. Here, all of the hallmarks of Ophüls’ oeuvre are on display—the elegant and fluid camera movement, emphasis on point of view and the gaze within the narrative, and the tragic trajectory of a female protagonist—together elevating the film to a place of innovation and above what could have been a very maudlin, hysterical melodrama.
Unforgettable: In a partnership between movement of presentation and movement of narrative, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica gracefully swirl across time and space with Ophüls’ camera tracking their dance across as many weeks in the narrative as there are dissolves of the frame. Love is a dance, and Ophüls captures the pair’s intimate isolation from the rest of the ballroom, and by that measure the rest of Parisian society, revealing in the montage the deepening of their affection through pattern and familiarity in the mise-en-scene, camera movement, and expositional dialog. From The Earrings of Madame de… (1953). A similar ballroom sequence, though shorter and more jarringly raucous with different intentions, can also be found in La Plaisir’s (1952) first segment “The Masque”.
The Legend: It is all too prescient that the auteur behind such masterpieces of the women’s film as Letter from an Unknown Woman and Lola Montes would first begin his career by assuming the name of a Danish actress preferred by a friend, and then later receive misspelled directing credit within the American studio system as Max Opuls, just one letter shy of association with a piece of jewelry. Born Maximilian Oppenheimer in Germany in 1902, Oppenheimer sought a career as an actor at the age of 17, exchanging his surname for Ophüls in the interest of dissociating himself from the honor of his middle-class Jewish family. But finding only indiscriminate success on the stage, Ophüls tried his hand at directing theatre at 21 years of age, fruitfully finding steady work around Germany avoiding the indignation of his family.
With the arrival of talkies, Ophüls turned to the film industry in 1930, first joining Ufa as a dialog director before rising to film direction with Dann schon lieber Lebertran (1931). The following year, Ophüls directed the tragic romance of two young lovers doomed by one’s past indiscretion in Liebelei, which attracted notice in Germany and established stylistic and thematic traits for which Ophüls would be retrospectively recognized, the most prominent motif being his identification with the plight of the female protagonist. Typically facilitated by misfortune or dissatisfaction with love, the women of Ophüls’ films rarely prevail, instead succumbing to emotional burdens and the consequences of male actions. In his later works, particularly La signora di tutti, The Earrings of Madame de…, and Letter From an Unknown Woman, Ophüls’ passive, sympathetic portrayals of female disgrace and misery seldom acknowledge the female as an actor in her own downfall, creating identification with that character by reserving judgment. This sense of sacrifice and undue hardship borne by the female protagonist—usually with a name beginning with the letter “L”—effectually produces an aura of innocence and goodness around the female, providing a tragic counterpoint to melodrama.
As women’s films, however, and predicated upon a sophisticated and feminized visual style making abundant use of lavish and opulent mise-en-scene and flowing, graceful camerawork and editing, Ophüls’ works remained relatively unheralded on the world cinema stage during his lifetime, perhaps regrettably due to their classification as women’s films. It was not until Ophüls’ final film Lola Montes that his contemporaries paid closer attention, particularly Andrew Sarris who proclaimed it “the greatest film ever made” despite the film’s status as a commercial and critical failure at the time, and Francois Truffaut, who designated Ophüls as an auteur in his early writings on auteur theory. Lola Montes was a visual assault upon French eyes of the mid-‘50s, a swirling non-linear spectacle of dolly and tracking shots without which Moulin Rouge may never have been possible. An elegant auteur and inspiration for the French New Wave, Max Ophüls died at the age of 54 from a heart complication in 1957 which some dramatically attribute to the failure of Lola Montes. As a filmmaker, his eminence can only be realized through his influence. The Oppenheimer family should be proud. Michelle Welch
Three Key Films: Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Death by Hanging (1968), In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Underrated: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Unforgettable: Is it possible to consider the entirety of In the Realm of the Senses one unforgettable moment? How helpful would it be to divide the individual instances of pornographic beauty; how could one weigh the shocking force of one over the other? In the Realm of the Senses marks the entry of pornography into the art cinema, which subsequently inspired some of the best films from artists as diverse as Catherine Breillat and David Cronenberg. The film is based on a true event that transpired during the 1930s, in which a prostitute and a wealthy man secluded themselves in a private inn and copulated until they were literally spent.
The key to the film is in its distancing from the graphic sex obsession through the beauty of its mise-en-scene; the un-simulated sex scenes seem even more natural surrounded by ornate lanterns and floral screens. The accumulation of all the bawdy beauty finds thunderous release in the climactic scene of the film, which I won?t spoil for you here if you haven’t seen it, but is truly climactic in all senses of the word. The real challenge when watching the film is keeping oneself from blushing, which makes the film an excellent choice for movie night with some unsuspecting friends!
The Legend: Nagisa Oshima is to Japan as Fassbinder was to Germany and Godard to France. Born in 1933 and still alive today (although he seems to be retired after his last film Taboo, 1999) Oshima has made 27 feature films, dozens of television documentaries (including the BFI commissioned One Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema, 1994), and has published several volumes of film criticism and theory.
Ever the provocateur, Oshima once remarked that he hated what most people would call Japanese cinema, rebelling against the naïve humanism of past Japanese masters and the political agenda of so-called new wavers. Cruel Story of Youth serves as an excellent introduction to his style and politics, insofar that the style serves to highlight the absurdities and booby traps of Japan’s societal politics. The bulk of his work is composed of flashy, almost anarchist rebellion films that morph into detailed studies of dark obsessions in the later films.
From the murderous farce of Death by Hanging, to the Genet/Bresson inspired Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), all the way to the little-seen bestiality comedy Max Mon Amour (1986) Oshima’s films walk the fine line between the absurd and the sublime recalling the likes of David Lynch or Pier Paolo Pasolini. But far from the reclusive, bitter artist type, Oshima is widely beloved in his home country. Jonathan Rosenbaum recently described Oshima as an Oprah-like television personality in Japan, for unbeknownst to many in the West, Oshima has had his own television talk show for decades in which he dispenses his opinions and advice on topics as broad as current political events and relationship advice for troubled couples.
The most popular (or infamous) of Oshima’s works are available on DVD or home video in the US thanks to the Criterion Collection. Titles to check out other than those listed here would be his 1978 winner for best direction at Cannes Empire of Passion, a ghost story set in 19th century Japan; or his last film about homosexual samurai Taboo. If you?re familiar with the films of Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or Naruse and want to see a different side of Japan, Oshima has to be on your radar. Corey Briscoe Gates
Three Key Films: A Tale of Floating Weeds (1934), Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)
Underrated: An Autumn Afternoon (1962) Although not intended to be the director’s final work—notes exist for a follow-up work titled Radishes and Carrots, this film has sadly come to represent the close of the director’s career, due to his death the following year. As it stands today, this is the work of a director revisiting the themes and actors who served him so well throughout his past 40 years of filmmaking. From the heavyset waitress (Toyo Takahashi) who worked in so many restaurants in so many Ozu films, to Chishu Ryu’s father who wants to marry off his daughter, the film acts as a virtual catalog of Ozu. And, because of this quality, it acts as a perfect capstone to a beautiful career.
Unforgettable: Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and her father (Chishu Ryu) have just enjoyed a beautiful day at a spa. As the day draws to a close, and they are about to fall asleep, Noriko decides to tell him that she finds his upcoming marriage to be “distasteful.” But he has fallen asleep. An enigmatic look, possibly indicating either despair or indifference, fills her face as she stares at a vase on the other side of the room. We share her gaze, taking in the aesthetic effect of the vase in it’s setting. The soundtrack is silent. And all is peace and turbulence.
The Legend: One of the pioneers of the shomin-geki—the “modern family drama”—Yasujiro Ozu is today known for his perfectly-conceived settings and characters, which today must be seen to transcend anything resembling the film industry that spawned them. Although usually described as the most “Japanese” of all directors, it would probably be better to call him one of the most Humanist. After all, the understanding that drove the clearly Japanese aspects of his aesthetic can’t really be claimed to have ties to Japanese culture and history. Rather, they seemed to spring more from an understanding of his characters and the world that spawned them.
The result of this is that today, every frame of his films feels like a lived-in entity. Set and costume design combine to form manifestations of the characters inhabiting them. Beautifully-written scripts—almost always composed with drinking buddy Kogo Noda—pay perfect attention to character, saving outbursts of emotion for moments when they truly count. The result of this is that, the shomin-geki genre now being somewhat a thing of the past, the film’s have the effect of slow burns, the emotional effects produced by them not always being recognized until afterward. However, they always exist. The melancholy of Late Spring is simultaneously overwhelming and gentle. The outright despair resulting from the events of Tokyo Story is almost unexplainable. And yet, the films never feel like portentous, unpleasant affairs. They instead act as catologues of humanity, which combined once again may in fact be seen as one the most Humanist bodies of filmic work to be produced in the 20th century. Mark Schiffer
Three Key Films: The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), The Canterbury Tales (1972), Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Underrated: A film that has puzzled critics and scholars since its debut, Teorema (1968) is a complex tale in which Terence Stamp plays a god-like figure who sleeps his way through an Italian bourgeoisie family, only to later disappear without any warning. It’s been said that Pasolini used this film (and an eponymous novel he wrote) to exorcise his homosexuality but judging from the straightforward way in which he addressed sex, this seems an all too facile, almost conservative view.
Perhaps Pasolini, who was a Communist, was instead exploring the way in which spirituality affects capitalist points of view and the ease with which society can be corrupted. If such is the case, this film has influenced auteurs like Luca Guadagnino, whose I Am Love (2009) is basically a reworking of the concept explored in Teorema.
Unforgettable: Pasolini was a master at depicting sex in cinema. Curiously most of his films lack the elements to make them erotic. He deals with sex and its endless possibilities as simple aspects of the world he inhabited. With that said, in Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, often listed as one of the most shocking movies ever made, he takes this to the extreme and during the last sequence offers images that remain seared in the mind of the viewer. In a few minutes, using sexual torture as his device, he recreates the horrors of fascism and WWII with such rawness that no big budget war movie has ever come close to achieving.
The Legend: There was a time when filmmakers were multitalented artists and intellectuals. Film to them, was just another medium through which they could convey their ideas and deliver their messages.Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of these: a poet since age seven, a philosopher during his university years and a visionary director throughout most of his adult life, he was also a fervently political man who usually became synonymous with controversy.If he wasn’t being condemned by the Vatican for his portrayals of homosexuality, he was being persecuted by right wing groups who deemed him a threat to Italian peace, it’s even been argued that he was assassinated by one of such groups. In fact one of the biggest mysteries about his life is how did he find the time to do all he did?
His film work in particular is completely puzzling: he directed 12 films in the space of 14 years (without counting his nonfiction work). Some of these films can be considered epic in scope (even if all of them have a quasi-documentary feel) and all are inarguably profound sociological, political and sexual explorations of our world. He began his film career subverting neorrealism in Mamma Roma and with none other than Anna Magnani. He then delivered The Gospel According to Matthew one of the most sensitive films about Jesus ever made in which Christianity is both questioned and praised for its tendency to deify human figures. Pasolini was a self proclaimed atheist who declared he was “an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief” and most of his movies deal with spirituality, but under his terms. He had a contradictory nature, which seemed determined to challenge any position that differed from his’. When his work was praised, he found ways to prove critics had made a mistake and in one of his most head scratching actions, he supported policemen during a notorious uprising initiated by university students. It’s no wonder that the reclusive diva Maria Callas, gave her only film performance in Pasolini’s Medea (1969), a film in which subverting all expectations she never sings!
Pasolini was the kind of director who could easily deal with comedies and coprophagia, his versatility was only subjected to whatever fascinated him at the time. As far as filmographies go, his’ is one of the richest and most diverse. Perhaps he wouldn’t have liked this, but his movies often make you believe in the divinity found in art. Jose Solís Mayén
Three Key Films: In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Underrated: Bigger Than Life (1956). With a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a medical treatment that drives family man Ed Avery (James Mason) psychotic, Bigger Than Life is one of Ray’s most sensational and incisive films. It recasts the American patriarch as a raving, obsessive megalomaniac and the American home as a death trap; as it approaches its grueling climax, Ray’s style goes from baroque to grotesque, and Mason’s meltdown must be seen to be believed.
Unforgettable: The drunken Jim Stark (James Dean), the title character of Rebel Without a Cause, interrupting his parents’ incessant arguments with a howl of “You’re tearing me apart!” Dean, wearing a ruffled dress shirt, is emblematic of Ray’s fed-up anti-heroes, spiritually and visually trapped inside his parents’ suffocating bourgeois milieu.
The Legend: In 1958, Godard infamously wrote that “the cinema is Nicholas Ray”, and although that appraisal was colored by naïve exuberance, it nonetheless bespeaks the passion that Ray’s films can inflame. A rebel who bristled at studio oversight, Ray’s career was peppered with excesses and missteps, but he compensated with sheer innovation. While making films that could be stylistically extreme to the point of hysteria, he directed some of the most savage critiques of 1950s society to escape from Hollywood.
Ray’s professional life began with a short-lived apprenticeship to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, after which he spent most of the 1930s and ‘40s involved in progressive theater and music. An invitation from Elia Kazan brought him out to Hollywood, where he directed the lovers-on-the-run noir They Live by Night, his first film, in 1948. Ray spent the first portion of his film career at RKO, imbuing potentially routine genre pictures like the noir classic In a Lonely Place with yearning and emotional urgency. Upon leaving the studio in 1953, he bounced around in search of creative independence, and the resulting films count among his greatest and most idiosyncratic.
At Republic Pictures, for example, he made the operatic, female-driven western Johnny Guitar, which attacks the Hollywood Blacklist and features some of Ray’s most expressionistic uses of color. A brief partnership with Warner Brothers a year later yielded Rebel Without a Cause, which proved to be his best-remembered film. It perfectly captures the raw, romantic spirit of star James Dean, who died before its release, while depicting American suburbia as rotten with moral compromise. At their best, Ray’s films were acutely sympathetic to outsiders, warning against the dangers of conformity and the intellectually toxic environment of Cold War America.
Between his politics, addictions, and personal problems, Ray soon became persona non grata in Hollywood, and his mainstream film career was over by the mid-‘60s. However, he found his second calling as a mentor to filmmakers like Wim Wenders, with whom he made the intimate documentary Lightning Over Water (1980), and Jim Jarmusch, then a student at NYU. Traces of his artistic legacy can also be found in Scorsese’s dynamic action and Almodóvar’s garish melodrama. Nicholas Ray may have often stood alone in life while opposing broken systems, but with his social conscience and his commitment to film as art, he left an influence greater than most of his contemporaries. Andreas Stoehr
Three Key Films: The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) & The World of Apu(1959), The Music Room (1959), Charulata (1964)
Underrated: Nayak: The Hero(1966). This film has been largely ignored in the Ray canon, though it has an amazing, layered performance from the Bengali matinee idol of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Uttam Kumar. Kumar bravely excoriates his own on and off-screen persona, as Arindam Mukherjee, a successful movie star who has compromised his artistic principles over the years for money and fame. The film presents us with the question of whether this man can satisfy both his greed and narcissim while still holding on to the noble qualities that made him want to become an artist in the first place. There were many films made in Europe and America about the complicated nature of celebrity, from La Dolce Vita to The Bad and the Beautiful, but this is Satyajit Ray’s take on celebrity culture in India in the ‘60s. There’s a pivotal series of scenes in the movie that focuses on the Arindam Mukherjee’s early career as a stage actor trying to hone in his craft in Indian classical theatre. During one performance, a casual, cruel slight from an older, veteran actor, an off-hand remark about Arindam’s lack of talent, changes something in the young man. A few years later, when Arindam’s career is soaring in the movies, the veteran actor is now washed-up and out-of-work and he comes to call on Arindam to ask for a job, some bit-part in a movie to pay off some bills. Arindam turns him away. This episode haunts him again and again throughout his life, and Ray seems to say that the ambition and ego that drive an actor towards success are also what ruins him as a person.
Unforgettable: Durga’s dance in the monsoon rains in Pather Panchali. Apu and his older sister Durga spend their days outdoors in the village jungles of West Bengal, and when the monsoon rains come, its a time of such abundance and relief, that rather than running home for shelter, Durga spins around and dances in the pouring rain, her sari and hair drenched across her skin. Set to the rapturous music of Ravi Shankar’s sitar, and peerlessly filmed by Subrata Mitra (only a few cinematographers like Gunnar Fischer or Guy Green could shoot a film in black-and-white in this extraordinary way), the scene is one of the most unforgettable moments, not only in Indian cinema, but in world cinema. Ray sets out to capture a fleeting moment of childhood recklessness and sensuality. It’s become a scene that brings nature to life in front of the camera, and says something about how this character temporarily forgets the reality of her family’s poverty to experience the beauty of the world around her.
The Legend: Satyajit Ray was one of the first filmmakers to chronicle the life of India’s rural poor. Inspired by the Italian Neo-Realists, his three films about young Apu Ray and his family, Pather Panchali(1955), Aparajito(1956), and The World of Apu(1959), have become iconic in Indian cinema. They were the first elegantly made, intimately staged and directed independent art films from India. They dealt with the growing up of a young boy, who overcame poverty to win a scholarship and go to university, but they also dealt with life in a newly-independent India, free from colonial rule and coming to terms with its modern identity. The question of what it meant to be an Indian in the mid-20th century was something that Ray grappled with in his films. Mahanagar (1964) shows us a young woman from a conservative bourgeois family in Calcutta, whose dire financial situation compels her to work as a salesperson in a large department store, much to the dismay of the family, who are prurient and sanctimonious in regards to a woman parading herself in front of other men, but are too impractical to realize their own situation. This is of course the first step to this young woman’s empowerment and the developing of her own identity outside her home—something many young women in India faced during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Ray was brilliant at skewering the pretensions of the hypocritical, Indian middle-classes. Along with Mahanagar, Kanchenjunga (1966), a story about an affluent family on summer holiday in Simla, shows us the ways in which women are pulled back from certain goals and possibilities by being compelled to marry before they turn 25. Devi (1960) is the story of a young woman whose father-in-law believes her to be a reincarnation of the goddess Kali, and who literally places her in the center of the household shrine for the entire village to come and worship her, which eventually leads to her mental breakdown. For India to be a part of the 20th century, it had to reconcile its complicated older traditions with the new. It had to cast aside prejudices and superstitions, something which it was unwilling to do, something which it is still relatively unwilling to do.
Ray also had a great gift with actors, and some of the best Indian actors have blossomed in cinema thanks to his guidance: Soumitra Chaterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, and Jaya Bachan. He was a great writer as well, and the original screenplays he wrote for Nayak (1966) and Kanchenjunga, as well as the numerous adapted screenplays he did over the years contain some of the most brilliant dialogue in Indian films. From the mid-‘60s and onwards, Ray’s name became synonymous with Indian cinema, and he had become the guru for all filmmakers coming to India. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, when they started work on their first film in India in, The Householder (1963), looked to Ray for guidance. The film has tone of some of Ray’s work, like Aparijito, and you can begin to see where Ray’s influence would across in the work of other directors. Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited (2007) is so enamored of Ray’s cinema, that its entire soundtrack consists of borrowed snippets of sitar music from each of Ray’s films.
Ray’s films are meant to be watched and enjoyed in the way you would read a very good short story. They’re focused, distilled, and full of detail and revelation in places you don’t sense the first time around. They are great Indian films, of course, but they’re great films period. They transcend nationality, race, and culture, and are moving stories of people coming to terms with who they are and with their personal relationships. Farisa Khalid