The director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) made neo-realist dramas in a minority language in a part of India that had long garnered next to no attention from the international filmmaking community. Yet the world premiere of “Pather Panchali,” his first feature, was held not in nearby Calcutta, nor even in Bombay, but at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ray skipped any period of Bengali regional obscurity, with “Pather Panchali” not only screening at MoMA but winning a Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and almost instantly securing his spot in the pantheon of international cinema greats, beloved by such other directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Elia Kazan, Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir. While that critical regard has never lagged, his commercial accessibility in the U.S. has, with most of his films available only in mediocre transfers or not at all. But that is changing. The Criterion Collection has launched an effort to restore about 18 of Ray’s films—three of which, “Charulata,” “The Big City” and “The Coward” (the last appearing as an extra with the second), it released this summer in new, pristine prints.
The results are stellar. Criterion, in these early releases, is benefiting from much restoration work already undertaken by the RDB Organization in Calcutta and somewhat simpler licensing issues than those that have entangled other Ray films. After additional polishing of the three movies’ visuals and sound, the trio received entirely new subtitles, overcoming once cartoonishly bad standards of translation.
“Charulata” (1964), as Ray biographer Andrew Robinson has commented, is “a film on which Ray lavished more time and care than perhaps any of his other films.” Based on a Rabindranath Tagore novella, it tells the story of a housewife’s awakening to possibility in 1870s Calcutta. After a single-shot sequence featuring hands engaged in elaborate embroidery, the artist, Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), peers out at the street through binoculars; but the film’s penetrating gaze almost immediately turns inward, concerned not with the potential disquiet of the world but with that of a once-sedate home.
Charulata’s husband, Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), runs a newspaper; she is mainly bored. The husband, perceiving her loneliness, asks his cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to entertain her. Writing proves to be their outlet, awakening not only creativity but a sense of prospects previously unimagined—and posing a threat to Charulata’s conventional marriage.
Ray’s delicate reshaping of the source material into cinematic terms employs both local details and universal film imagery. Charulata softly sings while thumbing a novel, turning the name of its author into a musical motif. Ray incorporates original songs by Tagore into the film; he also cited the influence of Mozart operas on the work. As Mr. Robinson noted: “Only Ray—no one else in the world—could sincerely claim to have been indebted to both Tagore and Mozart, in the making of Charulata!”
For a director with a marked tendency toward literary adaptation, Ray never questioned the primacy of imagery. He said, in Mr. Robinson’s biography, “I have a feeling that the really crucial moments in a film should be wordless.” Here the camera moves with Charulata as she’s on a garden swing, her first limber moment in the film, when she catches a glimpse of Amal more arresting than any before. The film closes on a series of freeze-frames inspired by “The 400 Blows,” a stylistic effort to grapple with the impossibility of a firm conclusion to the tale of a world turned askew.
“The Big City” (1963), Ray’s first contemporary film, addresses a similar theme of women’s emancipation, here within the far-different context of modern-day Calcutta. Fallen on hard times, housewife Arati (also Ms. Mukherjee) becomes a door-to-door seller of knitting machines, scandalizing her in-laws and soon drawing the suspicion and envy of her husband. They aren’t reactionary caricatures, just decent people distressed by a lack of money and a rapidly changing world.
Talismans of the modern world loom large. The opening credits follow a trolley’s sparking wire. A tube of lipstick stands as both an avatar of modernity and a threat to trust. Arati, marveling at her first pay, fans out her rupees to admire in a mirror. The film, while not quite so ethereal as “Charulata,” is also gripping.
There’s also “The Coward” (1965), the tale of a screenwriter searching for rural color who finds a girl he once spurned now married, and resumes his advances. It’s a moving meditation on the collision between the cosmopolitan and the local, past and present, duty and desire.
The Criterion Collection hopes to release the Apu trilogy next—”Pather Panchali,” “Aparajito” and “Apur Sansar”—although much depends on the pace of the restoration. Films from a variety of points in Ray’s career are to follow. It’s a welcome offering from not only one of the great lights of world cinema, but one of the most versatile. Ray worked not only with a range of subjects but in a bewildering number of capacities—writing the screenplays for all of his films, scoring most, casting all with great care, and frequently designing their credit sequences and publicity materials. The pure auteur is a myth, but Ray comes closer than almost anyone else.
He wrote, in “Our Films, Their Films,” about the immediate demands of cinema upon the viewer: “Everything in the cinema, every kind of film—comic, tragic, light, serious, conventional, experimental—unreels at the constant speed of twenty-four frames per second. One cannot shut the film and think. One cannot go back to the passage, savour that imagery or turn of phrase, ponder over that allusion and trace it to its source.”
Thanks to the Criterion Collection and the march of technology, now you can do exactly that.
Mr. Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared October 9, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Three Satyajit Ray Films Shine Anew.
Source: The Wall Street Journal