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Essential Satyajit Ray: Selected by David Stratton

One of the world’s most revered filmmakers, Satyajit Ray revolutionised India’s cinema, beginning with his 1955 debut Pather Panchali. He was foremost a bold and visionary director and writer, but his genius was broad ranging, as evidenced by the wonderful scores he composed for many of his films.

Ray’s films were acclaimed worldwide in their day but are even more relevant now. Their influence on directors including Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson is huge. Ray’s languidly paced, observational approach puzzled some critics at first, but slow cinema is a more widely embraced style now with director Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff; First Cow) among Ray’s avowed fans. Ray’s dialogue has a freshness and an acerbic zing that also feels very modern. He was far ahead of his time in depicting strong, complex women.

Ray found a unique balance between naturalism and formalism, between simplicity and complexity. There is an almost documentary approach to the detail of daily life, from cleaning to mealtime. His characters feel like ordinary people with real problems. But the cinematography is frequently stunning, especially in the films shot by Subrata Mitra: deep-focus landscapes with trains or animals in the distance; shadowy expressionist closeups, dreamlike images of insects and spiders. There are often layers of literary and religious allusion and political subtext concerning Indian independence or class struggle.

Ray’s films are almost all set in what is now West Bengal. They are beautifully, proudly specific to Bengali culture and society, and often adapted from Bengali literature. At the same time, they are universal, exploring themes of family, work, personal growth and love that anyone can relate to. As David Stratton says, “Ray is one of the great humanist filmmakers.”

Introduction and film notes compiled by Jim Poe. 

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