The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray
Featuring a raft of rarities and restorations, this massive retrospective devoted to the great Bengali filmmaker shines a new light on one of the most important and influential bodies of work in international cinema.
"Not to have seen the films of Ray would mean existing in a world without the sun or the moon." — Akira Kurosawa
"One of the greatest post-war filmmakers.... There is no one to replace the maker of the Apu Trilogy, The Music Room, Charulata, and Days and Nights in the Forest — masterpieces of world cinema that transcended national boundaries and reached hearts and minds everywhere." — Derek Malcolm
"To discover or to revisit the world of Satyajit Ray is one of the supreme pleasures of the cinema. The ... years since his death give us the perspective to see more clearly that he was by any reckoning — not just for the cinema — one of the world's great artists." — Andrew Robinson
"Satyajit Ray's films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness in me than the work of any other director." — Pauline Kael
The cinematic event of the summer, this massive retrospective of one of the most important and influential bodies of work in international cinema includes a raft of restorations and rarities.
When Satyajit Ray died in 1992, the humanism that defined his work was largely outmoded, replaced by postmodernist irony and cinephilic knowingness. In the intervening decades, the rage for all things Bollywood has also helped to eclipse the Bengali art-cinema tradition established by such Indian masters as Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen. Intensifying that sense of loss was the widely lamented fact that at the time of his death, Ray's legacy was greatly inaccessible to us: many critics noted that Ray tributes were impossible because of the scarcity of good prints, a dire situation discovered when the producers of the Oscar telecast were gathering clips for Ray's honourary award. Long available mostly in wretched dupe copies or not at all, one of the most important bodies of work in cinema was in peril. Deteriorating negatives and laboratory fires complicated the already arduous worldwide search for printing materials, proving film restorer David Shephard's contention at the time: "It would be hard to think of another world-class film artist whose oeuvre hangs by such a thin thread."
In 1992, the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles heroically embarked upon the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project, a comprehensive program to restore all of the director's work. Collaborating closely with the Satyajit Ray Society, a group of Ray's former producers, the National Archives of India, the Merchant and Ivory Foundation, Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation and the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Academy restorations of Ray's essential films (complemented by restorations from the RDB Corporation of Calcutta) ensure a sublime experience during this rare retrospective.
Though he often rued the fact that only about a dozen of his films were ever widely shown in North America, Ray was never an ignored or underestimated master. From very early on his work was praised and prized both at home and abroad, and when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992, it was merely the culmination of more than three decades of international acclaim. Indeed, he was accorded that most ironic form of recognition: the backlash of certain critics and directors in his homeland who found his shadow too long, his vaunted reputation in the West unwarranted. Chidananda Das Gupta wondered in 1980: "The depth and extent of the Western response to Ray often mystifies Indians; he is great, but is he that great?" The formidable actress turned parliamentarian Nargis Dutt frequently charged Ray with "distorting India's image abroad" by emphasizing its past and its poverty, ignoring the fact that Ray made many films about modern cosmopolitans in Calcutta. (Conversely, and ironically, Western critics often punished Ray when he deviated from tales of rural poverty, which actually account for very little of his oeuvre.) And like Akira Kurosawa, who held a similar august position in Japanese cinema, Ray was accused of being too "Western" in outlook and affinity.
In Ray's case, the problem is not one of valuation — he remains an unassailable great — but of analysis. Criticism of his work has been extensive and sympathetic, but it has also too long relied on a set of platitudes: Ray's humanism and universality, derived from Jean Renoir and Italian neorealism; his influence from the legendary Nobel Prize winner Rabindanath Tagore in his literary inclinations and polymathic abilities in music, painting, illustration, cinematography, design and calligraphy; the subtlety and sensitivity of his perceptions (what Michael Sragow calls his "luminous observation"); the Chekhovian refinement and ambiguity of his scenarios; the contemplative serenity and simplicity of his style; and the interplay between the domestic and the political (or, as the title of a late film had it, the home and the world). Late in his career, Ray expressed impatience with these adulatory formulas: "I am fully aware now, thanks to my Western critics, of the Western traits in my films. They have so often been brought to my notice that I can actually name them: irony, understatement, humour, open endings... It is not as if I find myself saying: 'Ah, now for a bit of British understatement.' They are used intuitively to best serve the needs of the subject."
This is not to say that these aspects do not in fact determine and distinguish Ray's cinema, merely that they have too long obscured other considerations, among them asperity, modernism, satire, moralism, politics, nativism (his films were almost all made for a Bengali audience), and Ray's place in Indian as well as international cinema. (For an excellent discussion of the latter, see Chandak Sengoopta's article "Art Without Frontiers? Satyajit Ray and the Constraints of Universality," available online.) To cite but one example, The Music Room has been frequently characterized as slow, rapt, and hypnotic, but though those terms are certainly appropriate, they look past the film's eroticism, its peculiar narrative structure, its Gothic ending, and the pronounced artifice of the back-projected horse ride, as counterfeit as the controversial one in Hitchcock's Marnie. (This artifice reappears in The Expedition, when Narsingh imagines himself as a Rajput warrior on horseback.) The skepticism, political sting and bitter, even bleak satire of the Calcutta Trilogy (comprising The Adversary, Company Limited and The Middleman), and Ray's ventures into Brechtianism and genre filmmaking (the ghost story in Three Daughters, the detective thriller in The Golden Fortress and The Elephant God) all tend to be repressed in the monist reading of Ray as a subtle miniaturist and humanist.
Certainly, Ray's aversion to "political cinema" and the narrative strategies of cinematic modernism (his sympathy for the French New Wave extended to Truffaut but not Godard), suggest that he can safely be considered a traditionalist. But as with Roberto Rossellini (another obvious and acknowledged influence on Ray), it may perhaps be more profitable to examine Ray as one of cinema's great modernists, the better to question the received wisdom about his work. Is his style truly so transparent and intuitive? Is his world view as ambiguous and complex as it has been made out to be, or is it imbued with a rather stern moralism? In his feminist emphasis on traduced, persecuted, and fallen women, can he be situated as a confrère of Mizoguchi, whom he greatly admired? And what is his importance in Indian cinema, where he appears to have played the roles of both revolutionary and reactionary? It is a measure of Ray's consummate art that it continues to demand such analysis.
— James Quandt
Presented in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
About the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project
The Academy Film Archive's Satyajit Ray Preservation Project is an ongoing effort to preserve and restore Ray's entire filmography. It began in 1992, after the producers of the Oscar telecast, who were gathering clips for the presentation of Ray's Honorary Award, discovered that there were very few prints or video masters of Ray's films in the United States, and that they were incomplete and in poor condition. The Academy decided to create a catalogue of the surviving elements of all Ray's films to assess whether any were in danger of being lost. The final report was chilling, and prompted resolute action.
For its preservation efforts, the Academy has collaborated closely with the Satyajit Ray Society; a group of producers who worked with Ray; the National Archives of India; the Merchant and Ivory Foundation; the Film Foundation; and the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This teamwork has ensured that every element that still exists can be accessed to make the best restorations possible. To date, the Academy Film Archive has preserved eighteen of Ray's feature films and one short subject.